First written in 1957 but not published for fear of censorship, Little Reunion is an autobiographical novel depicting Chang’s short university life in Hong Kong on the eves of Sino-Japanese War and her secret liaison to Hu Lancheng, who collaborated with the Japanese in the 1940s. She was warned by a friend who became the executor of her will after she died in Los Angeles in 1995 to revise, if not to re-write the parts of the book that would give her away and identify her. The thinly veiled Little Reunion is explicitly a roman à clef that takes the source material of Chang’s disastrous marriage to Hu Lancheng, who was an up-and-comer in Wang Ching-wei’s puppet government.
Like Chang’s other works, Little Reunion portrays love, and its many convolutions and iterations, in a bleak time. Sex is almost like a means of survival. This is a leitmotif that runs through her oeuvre. In many of her stories, like the very traditional Eighteen Springs (in which a young woman is raped by her brother-in-law in a scheme undertaken by her own infertile sister), the protagonist, after being contracted to a loveless marriage or relationship, reconciles with her and uses sex to ensure her own existence.
Chang takes a dark view in love, one that is dictated by the lack of love in her childhood. Her parents were divorced. Her mother became a world traveler. Her father an idle and opium addict who remarried. Chang, stubborn and hot-tempered, had fallout with her scheming step-mother. She resists and loathes the feudal norm that allows polygamy. She is distrustful of marriage but yearning for love. Her stand-in is Jiuli Sheng in Little Reunion, who does not believe in everlasting love; even in feelings, she believes there must exist some accounting or retribution; in any case, passion always runs out. In the end of the book, Jiuli scraps Zhixiong not because of his infidelities, not even because his role being a spy for the Japanese, but because the relationship was a dead-end.
The first half of the book is a tedious description of her messy, privileged childhood. Her household was a hotbed of sexual repression and competition among the different wives. The ironic title, which is mocking inversion of the Chinese phrase “big reunion”, the joyful celebration when a scholar’s triumph at the imperial examinations (Qing dynasty) guarantees power and prestige of his household and allows the many wives and concubines to take a break from the habitual back-stabbing and quarrel to enjoy their shared success. No, Jiuli doesn’t want such “big reunion” but rather a little, intimate one.
Jiuli is unconventional, but the choices she makes also renders her unsympathetic, as she refuses the fate destined for the women of her times. She chooses to write and expresses her disapproval of her time. She is also this unsentimental woman who copes with the reality of her philandering, unapologetically no-good husband with indifference.
Since the book is only a manuscript that Chang never finished editing, it is loosely written. It reads like some poetic effort to revisit significant fragments of her being. The narrative, interspersed with flashbacks, is strongly indicative of this attempt. It’s nonetheless unique of Chang’s rich and acrimonious lyricism.
328 pp. Crown Publishing. Trade paper, in Chinese. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]