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[790] Little Reunion 小團圓 – Eileen Chang


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]

Reading Eileen Chang’s Posthumous Novel


First written in 1957 but never published, Little Reunion is Eileen Chang’s (author of Lust, Caution; Eighteen Springs; Rouge of the North) last novel. It took her almost twenty years to complete but she never made the necessary revisions after a friend, Song Yilong, who is actually the beneficiary of her inheritance, cautioned her about the sensitive autobiographical details disguised in fictional prose.

In this autobiographical novel, Eileen Chang describes the book’s protagonist, Jiuli Sheng—Chang’s literary alter ego—as someone who is not sentimental. She is an unconventional woman in her times, falling in love with a man who is allegedly a spy working for the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War. It was sensitive material indeed as Song reminded her that the public could have used the book as documentary evidence against her.

In real life, Chang falls for a cynical and talented womanizer, Hu Lancheng, collaborator of the puppet government installed by the Japanese. They married in 1943, but as soon as he returned to Wuhan, he started to be unfaithful. After the Japanese defeat, he was hiding, but Eileen Chang found him in Wenzhou, supported and protected by a young widow. This humiliation did not save her marriage and they divorced in 1947. On the run in Japan, he published memoirs in which Eileen Chang, then a famous writer, played a hopeless role among his eight mistresses.

Little Reunion is a book about her childhood and her relationship with Hu Lancheng. In 1976, her friend Stephen Soong, Director of the Translation Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, advised her not to publish the text specially as Hu had been granted in 1974 a visa to Taiwan where lived three years. Their correspondences reveal Eileen Chang’s desire to destroy the manuscripts. She contemplated making the necessary revision but never got around doing it until she died in Los Angeles in 1995. 

[738-6] Novella: “Love in a Fallen City” – Eileen Chang


This is the last post on the Eileen Chang series. Foreign readers are probably most familiar with Love in a Fallen City (傾城之戀), which has achieved popularity almost instantly after its first release. Over the decades the story has been adopted and made into theater plays, movies, and television series. It’s more accessible to English readers since it is one of the first of Chang’s works to be translated.

Hong Kong’s defeat had brought Liusu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall so that she could be vindicated? Countless thousands of people dead, countless thousands of people suffering, after that an earth­shaking revolution … Liusu didn’t feel there was anything sub­tle about her place in history. She stood up, smiling, and kicked the pan of mosquito-repellant incense under the table.

At age 28, Bai Liusu has already been divorced her abusive husband for almost 8 years. Having moved back home and lived off her brothers, she is shocked to find they have resented her all along. In the wee hour of the night comes the obituary news of this ex-husband, whose family expects Liusu to be on bereavement. Her family has blamed her and this disgraceful divorce for the decline of their wealth. So it’s against this backdrop of shifting conflict between traditional family structures and customs and the modern world that Chang posits Liusu, who has to carve out a precarious space for herself, albeit often at the expense of others. In this case, it’s her sister Baoluo. Liusu becomes acquainted and eventually falls in love with the man the matchmaker selects for her sister.

Fan Liuyuan and Bai Liusu are from different worlds. He studied abroad in England and she was raised in family still rooted in customs from imperial times. Despite their mutual affection for each other, they have to jump hoops imposed by class and gender difference. He is phobic of marriage and she is urgent to break free of her family. From Shanghai to Hong Kong their relationship seems to drag insouciantly. The story is fraught with sexual tension, moral ambiguity, and pangs of conscience. Love in a Fallen City illuminates on a woman’s struggle: to find a man, fall in love, get him to marry her, thus ensuring a comfortable future and no loss of social status. Liusu’s victory is a monumental one: not only does she overcome personal qualms, she also honestly coonects with another person—through a war in a besieged city.

[738-5] Novella: “The Golden Cangue” – Eileen Chang


It tells the story of a woman from a middle-class merchant family—daughter of a sesame oil seller—who is married to a wealthy, traditional family, but to a cripple. Stylistically, The Golden Cangue (金鎖記) is based on the 18th century Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber. It examines the life of a woman who is forced by her family into a loveless marriage. Her invalid husband dies young, leaving her a meager share of family legacy. But her in-law family looks down on her. Through her effort to maintain her status and her prickly personality, she alienates the in-law family. She grows mad after years of suffering, but eventually obtains wealth and independence after the death of her mother-in-law and husband. This suffering doesn’t end, she manages to terrorize and manipulate everyone near her. The years of suffering has made her so cold and biter that she ruins the chances of her children for a better and happier life.

While the story depicts family activities, love relationships, and marriages that occupy the mundane life, it reveals the eternal mysteries in human nature that lie beneath the surface of life, the mysteries of human desires for power and money. Chi-chao’s repressed desires over the years have been liberated and gone berserk. She gives rein to her desires and indulges herself in doing whatever she wants. The golden cangue, symbolizing power and money, harbors the ugliest and dirtiest aspects of the world, but it holds people under its spell and makes them debase themselves willingly.

The Golden Cangue along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[738-4] Short Stories: “Waiting” and “Steamed Osmanthus” – Eileen Chang


The entirety of Waiting takes place at a massage clinic, which becomes a microcosm of the society. Citizens of various walks and stations in life, as well as social status converge in the little white-walled waiting room. Snippets of conversations make up the narrative. Servants, amahs, mistresses and ladies—all in the face of uncertain future brought forth by the ongoing war—wait for life to become more bearable. But life, like time, is slipping away with cruel indifference.

Steamed Osmanthus: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Auntumn is another vignette. Also set during the war, in Shanghai’s international demilitarized zone, Ah Xiao is the house servant (amah) of an expatriate named Mr. Garter, who entertains his multiple female partners with the same menu: a piece of beef first used to make soup and then fried for main course. It’s an tacit agreement that the women never spend the night. Ah Xiao is a dark, brooding character whose miserable life is punctuated by scolds aimed at her small soon, Baishun, the sporadic appearances by domiciled husband, and chats with neighboring amahs, with whom she complains about her employer. But inwardly she feels grateful working for a foreigner living alone, and he treats her with courtesy that is rare among Chinese masters. The most she has to put up with is the frequent washing of linen and bed sheets. Her soft side manifests itself occasionally, however, as when she donates part of her own flour ration for the purpose of making pancakes for Mr. Gartner and his Chinese of the night. She also plays the conspirator in warding off a Chinese woman who aspires to be the lady of the house.

Waiting and Steamed Osmanthus along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[738-3] Novella: “Red Rose, White Rose” – Eileen Chang


Chang’s novella is, among other things, a subtle examination of how gender dynamics shape relationships.It’s the story of Zhenbao, a young man recently returned to Shanghai after studying in England. He falls into a passionate affair with his classmate’s beautiful wife, Jiaohui, whom he calls Red Rose, a Singaporean woman who carries herself very casually, free from the decorum society expects of women in China. But ever fear of his mother’s wrath, he ultimately forsakes her for an unhappy marriage to the dull, inept, but socially acceptable Yanli, the White Rose.

There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress. Isn’t that just how the average man describes a chaste widow’s devotion to her husband’s memory – as spotless, and passionate too?

Maybe every man had two such women – at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is ‘moonlight in front of my bed’. Marry a white rose and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.

In this darkly ironically, but sexually charged novella, Chang posits that every man faces the same choice at least once in his life. The story derives its moral compass and narrative drive from displaying actions against their consequences, the whole concept of “love” being an unattainable entity for Zhenbao who distances himself from true affection in order to remain the unrelenting master of his principle of creating “a right world.” This principle seems to exempts him from visiting a prostitute every three weeks.

No one is a winner in this novella; and as usual Chang casts a very jaundiced, almost disdained eye on marriage. Zhenbao’s loveless marriage to Yanli is only on paper. He doesn’t care for her and he secretly despises her. He gloats at her social blunder and delights in her transgressions. But he is no better than her, for man like him is the inveterate dreamer who forever fantasizes and finds greater happiness in the tender regard of another human being. Despite repeated disappointments and frustrations, he clings to the hope of experiencing beauty, even if it’s ephemeral.

Red Rose, White Rose along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[738-2] Short Story: “Great Felicity” – Eileen Chang


Like Traces of Love, this is a story, set in modern China after Boxer Rebellion but before Communist takeover, in which Chang casts a jaundiced eye on the relations between men and women. The happiness prior to marriage is placed in sharp contrast to the dullness and resentment, even disappointment, after marriage. To Chang, marriage is overrated. It’s particularly scathing portrait of the shallowness of the characters, who are more concerned with appearance than with living.

Yuqing is the bride-to-be, born of an eminent family in decline. She seems to know how to play the social system, but being in a family in decline, she is urgent to find a husband. Da Lu, with a degree from overseas university, is the perfect match. She spends the entire allowance from her parents for wedding preparation on herself. In the opening scene her future sister-in-laws are heard bouncing off nasty, derogatory comments about Yuqing, who probably lies about her age and looks heavy-boned. But the sister-in-laws are as fastidious as the bride, thinking they ought to be the focus of the wedding. The bride is no more than the end credits of a movie, whereas they are the much-anticipated upcoming feature. The sisters despise her as the social climber, undeserving of their brother.

The future mother-in-law, Mrs. Lou, is stuck in an unhappy marriage and she is miserable. Her marriage to Mr. Lou, a scholar who recently turned noveaux rich, is always deemed unequal in the social circle. Her family would gang up on her and remind her of her shortcomings. There is a telling line when Mrs Lou observes that without the servants in the house, her husband would have no need to treat her with any consideration as there would be no one to put a display on for:

It wasn’t as if she didn’t realize that if the people who cared about her were all to die, leaving her and her husband to rattle around in the empty house alone, her husband would not bother about her at all. Why be a responsible husband when there’s no one to see?

In the presence of servants and friends she often puts on a show to disguise this unhappiness. But her tragedy is that she cannot even come to terms of her sadness, for she tries to ward off this sadness by dismissing it as nuisance. Chang, relentlessly, nails her:

With thirty years of failure under her belt, she becomes fearless.

Chang really captures that essence of failure, of a disappointed life. Even the bride is not spared. With all the money she spent on herself and tried to make herself pretty, she is no more than “a corpse still not awaken from the grave on resurrection day.”

Great Felicity along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[738-1] Short Story: “Traces of Love” – Eileen Chang


I am naturally phobic of short stories. They are short, spanning at most a score of pages, limiting plot development. But lately, reading Eileen Chang’s collection changes my opinion somewhat. Short stories can capture a moment in time that reveals a welter of emotions. It could be a single scene—the setting, the weather, and what is said and left unsaid—that nails the moral.

One of her least known short stories has some of the most powerful metaphors I’ve read. Traces of Love or Lingering Emotions (留情) is about a woman who, widowed at age 23, married a man 25 years of her senior when she was 34. He is about to take leave of her to visit his ex-wife, who has been ill. Over the years she had experienced the difficulties of relationship. She has married him out of convenience, for his status and money. She knows he does love her and care for her, but inevitably she can be caught up in moments of jealousy and distress. She takes a rather insouciant attitude in his finance knowing, as predicted by a soothsayer, that his first wife will be dead within a year. This second marriage is not about love for her, but rather stability for her life.

The opening paragraph depicts a sizzling fire in a cauldron of charcoals. But when you finish the story, you’ll realize this fire is really Dunfeng herself. Chang has nailed her right off the bat.

他們家十一月里就生了火。小小的一個火盆,雪白的灰里窩著紅炭。炭起初是樹木,后來死了,現在,身子里通過紅隱隱的火,又活過來,然而,活著,就快成灰了。它第一個生命是青綠色的,第二個是暗紅的。火盆有炭气,丟了一只紅棗到里面,紅棗燃燒起來,發出腊八粥的甜香。炭的輕微的爆炸,淅瀝淅瀝,如同冰屑。 In November, a fire was already kindled in their home. Red charcoal nestled under snow-white ashes in a brazier. The charcoal began as a dead tree that is revived by a dim fire consuming its body, but as soon as it comes to life, it quickly becomes ashes again. In its first life, it was a tender green color; then a dark red in the next. The brazier had a charcoal air to it. Evoked from it a fragrance of a nut porridge as a date is tossed. As the date burns, the charcoal cackles like pelting of hail.

So much details are wedged into this brief visit to her cousin’s home, where Dunfeng has to be careful about exposing her feelings. It’s about saving face and about maintaining the composure. Money is tight for many families since it was in the midst of the Second World War. Water, sugar, an rice are being rationed. Women have to skimp on their rouge and recycle the material from old cotton-padded jackets for new clothes. Dunfeng, though dismayed, fares much better than most and she feels bliss. Chang delivers a rich tapestry of a woman who strives to flourish in her second marriage. At the end she comes to terms of life: that she should cherish little moment of joy and be content. Traces of Love along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[736] Half A Lifetime Romance – Eileen Chang


” Time does fly for the middle-aged: a decade whips by in the blink of an eye, a flick of the fingertips. When you’re still young, even three or four years, maybe five, can seem an entire lifetime. That’s all they’d had, from meeting to parting—just a few years together. But in that brief span, they’d had a full measure: all the joy and the sorrow that comes with (as the Chinese saying goes) birth, old age, illness, death. ” (Ch.1, p.1)

Half A Lifetime Romance is Eileen Chang’s most beloved novel and yet the last to be available in English. Set in the 1930s Shanghai, the tale revolves around an unlucky duo whose life circumstances along with malign scheming on the part of their families prevent them from being together. But the brief span of relationship renders a full measure of life.

The novel does begin with a sense of hopefulness despite all the ominous endeavors to come. Gu Manzhen, a charming, modest young woman, is determined, after her father’s early death, to support her large family through respectable, if poorly paid, clerical work. At work she meets Shen Shijin, a young engineer at the textile mill who finds her fortitude both graceful and inspiring. He is as withdrawn as she is task-driven. Like many a young man in his times, Shijin is the product of a conservative, emotionally complicated household poised on an antiquated moral system of which the casualty are women. He tends to be diffident and unsure of himself.

Manzhen could be quite strange sometimes. She could be extremely and uncomfortably self-conscious, but then again, entirely un-self-conscious—and yet she was by no means a simple-minded person, someone who had no social awareness; nor was she the bashful type. (Ch.3, p.46)

Indeed Manzhen navigates within the claustrophobic boundaries of her home and familial obligation. She has take extra tutoring work after her regular job to make ends meet—all because she wants to relieve the burden of her sister, Gu Manlu, who has been working as a taxi-dancer and escort. She is conscious of her sister’s line of work, but even more piteous of her being deprived of any prospect of marriage. This family dynamics exerts a tight grip on the plot. Manlu’s work has become the root cause of Manzhen’s argument with Shijin, setting the faultline for the impending disaster.

Kicked into motion is a series of insidious scheming, manipulations, and misunderstandings that sets Manzhen and Shijin apart. Highly unusual in any literature, mothers become wreckers of this relationship, being partially complicit in the malign forces that work their way against the couple. Chang masters in plumbing such personal and inter-family psychology by indirectly recounting her own family dramas. She was raised by a single parent and locked horns with her step-mother. The result is a seamlessly layered story of love, betrayal, opportunism, family oppression, and above all, bad timing.

Throughout the novel, Chang fleshes out her characters by setting up parallel yet differing events in order to reveal shades of difference in their personalities. There are meetings of family members, visits made to the Gus and to the Shens, outings of Gu and Shen’s friends—all contribute to a sense of ephemeral and yet the best of times. They have lived the best of times together despite the brevity.

Through the character of Manzhen, a girl “who knew herself and her world, and yet she could be utterly naive” (Ch.5, p.91), Chang exposes the human vices: selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, double moral standard, deceit and debauchery. That the most vulnerable and modest character shall be subjected to such harrowing experience is bent to provoke empathy. She serves as a vehicle through which reader can trace the vicissitudes that take one from naivete, through trauma, and beyond.

As for the writing, Chang’s has the cinematic touch that really sets the atmosphere. In sharp contrast to the high-strung, tendentious tonality of wartime Chinese literature, her style is wrought with sarcastic rhetoric, witty imagery, and opulent symbolism. There’s an ornateness in her language that doesn’t bog down the pace of her story-telling but serves to bring alive the forms of life. These forms, which find manifestation in signs, whether in fashion or language, are both splendid and desolate. Paradox is an important element in this book and in her works overall. That all said, the English translation is brilliant, but inevitably tames and contains the Chinese texts, trading greater decorum for mess edge and pungency.

377 pp. Penguin Modern Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[367] The Rouge of the North 怨女 – Eileen Chang

Yindi sat plucking veins off her fan. So the man she married would never see what she looked like. Part of her died at this. All the blind men she knew told fortunes. Some had horrible-looking eyes. What kind did he have? ” [2:21]

I’m not sure if I consider Chang a feminist, who breathes a strange but raw honesty into gender politics, but for all her concern about an age in transformation and a city—Shanghai, in decline, she makes woman and her status in the Chinese family the central issue of The Rouge of the North. It’s the story of Yindi, at first a saucy and resourceful girl, who is determined against all odds to seek her own marriage. Her parents already dead, she lives with her brother’s family, which makes a living selling sesame oil. She falls in love with with Young Liu, an apprentice of the herbal medicine store next door, but she is wary of the inevitable life of poverty ahead if she is to tie the knot with him.

Because we’re here in front of Buddha. Since we’re not meant to meet in this life let’s tie a knot for the next incarnation. [7:81]

Thus when approached by the match-making go-between on behalf of the rich and powerful Yaos, Yindi agrees to the marriage proposal even though her brother doesn’t count on her as a source of wealth. Little does Yindi know that her future husband is a blind, bedridden, puny invalid, one of the living dead that even his family is conditioned to snub. Most dreadful of all the household is on the heels of its glory: stifling and decadent, despite the Old Mistress’ exacting dictates on manners and rituals.

They’d say you lower yourself to argue with servants, and make a scene in front of Old Mistress because of some servants’ gossip. You play right into their hands. These people are always the worst. [6:67]

Beneath the evocation of the flavor of everyday life, the story traces irretrievable consequences of her nuptial decision: her humiliating position among the in-laws, her sexual frustration with her husband, her increasingly haughty manner borne of self-defense, her fruitless affair with her prodigal brother-in-law, the Third Master, and her widowhood.

Yindi no doubt is the victim of the patriarchal ideology, but the innocent suffering doesn’t warrant sanctification. The scene in which she wanders into the courtyard of a Buddhist temple where names of women are cast in iron for moral stature is a crucial point of the novel. Followed by the sudden appearance of the Third Master, Yindi is tempted to transgress the conventional boundary of feminine virtue. She chooses defiance but the cowardly Third Master stops after he has aroused her. Frustrated and shamed, she she attempts to take her life but, ironically, she outlives almost everyone.

There were just too many things between them that no amount of words could clear away. Still she fought him, her resistance having found a focus. With the bitterness piled up over the years she would rather give in to any other man than him. [11:129]

Titled Yuan-nu (Embittered Woman) in Chinese, Chang inquires the psychology of women, who are so deprived by their (feudal) time and environment as to wither away in chronic distress and stoic complaisance. Throughout her life Yindi tries to defy this order and seek outlets for her deep-seated frustration: by marrying a wealthy husband, by rendezvous with her brother-in-law, by fighting for inheritance, and by attempting suicide. But each turns out to be empty promise replacing the previous one. Her life sadly amounts to nothing but a bitter spiral, closed in upon itself. Chang, in her embellished and repugnant prose, shines light on lives of women in the troubled era and how the only way to cope is stoicism. Yindi knows hers is essentially a tragic age, and she refuses to live tragically, but in the end she only reaps desolation.

185 pp. Softcover. In English available from University of California Press. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]