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

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Reading Notes: Eileen Chang

Owing to her poignant, complicated domestic background, Eileen Chang’s prose reflects a jaundiced and misanthropic view of her world. Chang rose to prominence in Shanghai during the 30s and 40s when the city was under the threat of Japanese occupation. But she cared less writing about patriotic theme as some of her contemporaries had criticized her. Her writing is unofficially known as boudoir realism.

I will defer the review of her collection of short stories, Love in a Fallen City, available for the first time in English under NYRB CLassics, to a future post. What really intrigue me are the venomous Chinese idioms and expressions that, upon being translated into English, they don’t lose much of the edginess. I have complied an informal list to whet readers’ taste.

Aloeswood Incense
“The King of Hell is a gentleman, but the little devils are pests.”
“When you go under another’s roof, how can you avoid bowing?”
“True gold doesn’t fear testing by fire.”
“Crows will be black, wherever you go; men will always fall for this kind of bait.”
“Why are you staring like that? It’s as if I were a thorn stuck in your eye.”
“Dare to fume but dare not speak.”

Jasmine Tea
“You! What’s there to see in you? Three parts human, seven parts ghost—”
“A creepy sneak like you, not an ounce of manliness in you, a laughing-stock to everyone!”

Love in a Fallen City
“The law is one thing today and another tomorrow. What I’m talking about is the law of family relations, and that never changes! As long as you live you belong to his family, and after you die your ghost will belong to them too!”
“The tree may be a thousand feet tall, but the leaves fall back to the roots.”
“Then she came back here, and now her family, as everyone can see, is going bankrupt. A real bad-luck comet, that one!”
“If I’d known that you two really wanted to break it off, do you think I would have helped you get a divorce? Breaking up other peoples’ marriages means there won’t be any sons or grandsons.”

Aren’t we Chinese sharp-tongued people?