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[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.

[657] A Universal History of Iniquity – Jorge Luis Borges

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” Morell leading uprisings of Negroes that dreamed of hanging him . . . Morell hanged by armies of Negroes that he had dreamed of leading . . . it pains me to admit that the history of the Mississippi did not seize upon those rich opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (and poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his tomb. ” (From The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell)

Borges’s debut collection of short stories in 1935 is a re-creating of stories about international criminals from the Orient, the Islamic world, the Wild West, both historical and fictional. Although Borges mentioned these stories were just meant for light entertainment, and for me provide access to his early dabbling, they combine high seriousness and a wicked sense of fun. There are numerous signs of what is to expect of his later works: mirrors, elusive identities, hoaxes, duels, manipulations, decoys, serendipity, and most significantly and prominently, irony.

He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He seemed that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily have convinced. (From The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro)

Handled with fecundity and class, perfidious individuals from history and legend stride through the pages. Lazarus Morell is an amoral entrepreneur who charges salves to help them escape their masters only to resell them at a profit. Tom Castro convinces a rich woman that he’s her long-lost son despite the fact that he bears no resemblance to him. A widowed lady commands a sizable pirate fleet and fights against the Chinese imperial navy twice. Monk Eastman roams the street of New York and wreaks havoc. Bill the Kid kills for amusement in New Mexico only to be rewarded with whores and free whiskey. The Ronin plot to avenge their lord’s death by killing the teacher of imperial etiquette who insulted him, even though they know that they will be put to death. A heretic of Islam teaches that mirrors and sex are evil because they multiply humanity. A theologician teaches salvation is by faith and not by works of love and charity. A king forces his way into a forbidden tower where a ghastly inscription awaits him. A man who journeys to Persia to find fortune after a dream convinces him to leave home finds a serendipitous outcome. A priest who learns black magic from a wizard is given an even greater lesson on gratitude, and the lack of. An ink blot turns into a mirror that shows violence.

The narrative voice is smooth and delightful. Granted the collection is no more than a regurgitation of some of the world’s most dreadful villains and their stories, Borges writes with elegance and an economy of words. The merit lies in the skill with which he tells the stories. He won’t tell you someone is betrayed, murdered or dumped into the river. This collection is a great preamble to what is to be deemed masterpiece.

64 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[515] The Lottery and Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

” The she realized that at the wash-basin she was in the way of the women in a hurry so she dried her face quickly. It was when she stopped a little aside to let someone else get to the basin and stood up and glanced into the mirror that she realized with a slight stinging shock that she had no idea which face was hers. ” —The Tooth

The most terrifying The Lottery, which tells the story of a farmer village ritual lottery truning into a murder, is one for which Shirley Jackson is famed. It is on this account, along with the bone-chilling Haunting of Hill House that I pick up and peruse this collection of stories. But these stories are far from horror, not even riddled with paranormal suggestion. A couploe of them might be spooky, like the mysterious girl who serves a drunken man a cup of tea in The Intoxicated and the absent groom who would never come answer the door in The Daemon Lover.

Every window she saw on her way uptown seemed to be broken; perhaps every street corner was peppered with small change. The people were moving faster than ever before . . . the people seemed hurled on in a frantic action that made every hour forty-five minutes long, everyday nine hours, every year fourteen days. —Pillar of Salt

The horror portrayed in The Lottery and Other Stories is not one of hair-splitting nature, but of a more subtle helplessness. Ordinary lives dislodged from the normal routine, either edging closer to aberration or going off on an escapade. Pillar of Salt captures the slow nervous breakdown of a woman who visits New York City with her husband for two weeks. The hustle-and-bustle closes in on her, makes her feels claustrophobic, and finally plunges her into paranoia and dementia. In The Tooth, a young woman comes to New York City to see the dentist for her troubled molar. Her codeiene-numbered consciousness takes over her and becomes her reality.

Then we put this real sharp spiky collar around her neck. And then we take her where there are chickens, and we show her the chickens, and we turn her loose. And make her chase the chickens. And then, when she gets right up close to the chickens, we puuuuuuull on the rope—and—the spikes cut her head off. —The Renegade

Despite a few forgettable ones, the stories in this collection, unusual, unique, and morbid, demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range, from the hilarious to the truly horrible. There’re the mean spirit and blood thirstiness of children, as in The Witch and The Renegade, for they are not sensible of death. There’s the humor about the namelessness of a Macy’s employee who is no more than just a number. There’s the helplessness of a young woman who cannot bring herself to confront a widowed kleptomaniac. There’s the heavy subject of racism as the town turns its back on a woman who hires a black man to tend her garden. Not much horror as I have expected, but this collection of stories, populated by oddballs and ordinary people, is worth a read.

402 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Truman Capote Stories

Over the weekend in Russian River, in addition to A Clockwork Orange, I finished the volume of short stories to which Breakfast at Tiffany belongs.

The House of Flowers concerns a girl named Ottilie, a prostitute from Port-au-Prince. A simple story with a moral about staying with the person you love and not being swayed by friends or family who might feel they know best. A sweet short story, but not amazing (especially published in the same volume as Breakfast at Tiffany) and I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it. A Diamond Guitar is set in a prison in a rural area near Mobile, Alabama where convicts perform road work and farm turpentine from nearby pine forests. It’s a story of friendship within a prison in the wilderness. The two convicts form a fast bond that is simultaneously intimate and platonic. One betrays the other during their attempted escape. I like this story for the originality and it has a light Shawshank feel. I have never heard of A Christmas Memory until I secured this volume. The largely autobiographical story, which takes place in the 1930s, describes a period in the lives of the seven-year-old narrator and an elderly woman who is his distant cousin and best friend. The evocative narrative focuses on country life, friendship, and the joy of giving during the Christmas season, and it also gently yet poignantly touches on loneliness and loss. This is the saddest and most tragic story, but I come to love it the best.

I was in love with Truman Capote and his writing, and I was shaken to the core. I’d never been exposed to writing this naked before.

[450] Flappers and Philosophers – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In this classic collection of short stories, Fitzgerald gives us a display of humanity at its frothiest, gaudiest, and most poignant. Although his critical reputation primarily rests upon his novels—especially The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, those novels were always interwoven with the short stories he was writing simultaneously. “Winter Dreams” is most noticeably parallel to Gatsby. Like so many Fitzgerald heroes, Dexter Green in the story makes the mistake of linking his expectations and aspirations to be rich, beautiful and fickle woman who “simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physicial loveliness” and who was “entertained only by the gratification of her desires.” In the end her betrayal kills his capacity for hope and more sadly “the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion.”

Following a similar arc but more scathing is “Cut-glass Bowl”, in which the heroine heroine, Evylyn Piper, is gifted (by an old flame) the titled present that is “as hard as (she is) and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” Although married with two children, she still toys with one of her male playthings. Her marriage is empty; she’s morally bankrupt. Her infidelity ruins her husband. Her prized glass bowl cuts her daughter’s finger, which later is amputated. Her son perishes in the war. The story attends the decay and fall of a former beauty’s happiness and life.

Although Fitzgerald’s stories often share the root in ambition, hope, (youthful) illusion and romance, but almost unfailingly these ideals and aspirations are curbed by a sharp sense of irony. “The Ice Palace” us such symbolic tale of a Southern belle, Sally carol, chilled by life in the frozen North. The coldness is not merely climactical as it is social, for the women whom she encounters in the North are just despicable. It ends with the breaking of her engagement, and hightailing back to Georgia, where she belongs.

The one story I resonate with the most is “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”, a dark tragicomedy about the bankruptcy of the American dream, its destructiveness and delusions. The allegorically named Washington family are the richest and most powerful in the world; their children invite poorer friends from school to visit who are then murdered to protect the secret of the Washington’s wealth. How amazingly relevant this story is if you look at the fraudulent discretion and greed behind Wall Street and corporate America in the present.

So wickedly funny, and thus warrants many re-reads, is “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: Bernice has a reputation of not being cut in on. Consider her enviable position in society, she has no clue why she doesn’t get any attention. Some pointers on etiquette from her cousin, who “had very few of the qualities which Bernice considered appropriately feminine” make her a huge star at the balls. That the young man who had had a hot for her cousin shifted his attention to her instead has provoked a malicious jealousy in Marjorie, who traps her into bobbing her hair (which is quote unquote ugly as sin). The outrageous trap by which Marjorie had made her a fool leads to this incredible revenge that is both funny and judicial.

As the stories have shown in this collection, they form the backbone of Fitzgerald’s longer works, amplifying the novels and playing out variations of characteristic motifs. Permeated in these tales is a sense of loss and regret. The stories read like a series of elegiac farewells to lost youth and lost opportunities.

352 pp. Penguin UK. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading Flappers and Philosophers

In Hong Kong, my friend gifted me a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Flappers and Philosophers with a beautiful, ornate cover by C. B-Smith. This hardbound contains more than the eight short stories published under the titled Flappers and Philosophers. Also included are selections from The Jazz Age, All the Sad Young Men, and Taps at Reveille.

Although Fitzgerald’s critical reputation primarily rests upon his novels—in particular The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night—those novels were always interwoven with the short stories he was writing simultaneously. To me, after a few hours with the intriguing Flippers and Philosophers, his intriguing stories amplify the novels, playing out variations on characteristic motifs. The opening story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair is brilliant and funny. It deals with a favorite theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s: the desire for popularity in the shallow, appearance-obsessed social climate of the famous Roaring Twenties.

Bernice is a young lady who is educated and from a family of influential position—but she fails to attract attention from young men. After an exasperated Marjorie confronts her with her social ineptness, Bernice meekly agrees to take any advice Marjorie has to give her—that is, to talk flirtatiously. Bernice tries it out and decides on her favorite: “Do you think I should bob [cut short] my hair?” At this time, short hair was seen as a sign of loose morals—no “nice” girl would do it. Soon, the newly confident Bernice is surrounded by fascinated boys. Marjorie realizes that her advice has worked too well. The boy who once adored her, Warren MacIntyre, is now paying attention only to Bernice. Angry and jealous, Marjorie hatches a plan: to challenge Bernice cutting her hair short. Of course it turns out to be a disaster. What happens when a cat fight doesn’t take place between the two cousins? Bitter revenge.

Then Bernice winced as Marjorie tossed her own hair over her shoulders and began to twist it slowly into two long blond braids until in her cream-colored negligée she looked like a delicate painting of some Saxon princess. Fascinated, Bernice watched the braids grow. Heavy and luxurious they were, moving under the supple fingers like restive snakes–and to Bernice remained this relic and the curling-iron and a to-morrow full of eyes. She could see G. Reece Stoddard, who liked her, assuming his Harvard manner and telling his dinner partner that Bernice shouldn’t have been allowed to go to the movies so much; she could see Draycott Deyo exchanging glances with his mother and then being conscientiously charitable to her. But then perhaps by to-morrow Mrs. Deyo would have heard the news; would send round an icy little note requesting that she fail to appear–and behind her back they would all laugh and know that Marjorie had made a fool of her; that her chance at beauty had been sacrificed to the jealous whim of a selfish girl. She sat down suddenly before the mirror, biting the inside of her cheek. (Part VI)

Bernice Bobs Her Hair is reminiscent of a modern high school comedy. Bernice is a socially awkward intellectual and a definite party pooper, so thinks her cousin Majorie. Majorie hatches a plan to take plain Bernice and make her into a socially attractive girl who becomes the center of attention. Majorie comes to represent the revolutionary free thinking, modern girl who pushes her ideas of popularity onto Bernice. As we might expect, Bernice soon becomes the talk of the boys, with Majorie a bit taken back and somewhat envious. When Majorie chides Bernice as a “bluffer” about actually going through with her plan to get her hair bobbed, it plants the seeds to a fantastic finish.

[417] All That Work and Still No Boys – Kathryn Ma

Ma’s short story collection probes the immigrant experience of Chinese Americans, in particular the conflicting aspirations and values that create friction between aging immigrant parents and their American-born (Americanized) children.

The title story, so right-on-the-dot, addresses the inveterate feudalistic values and favoritism of a male child that have defined Chinese culture. A chronically ill woman refuses to take her only son’s kidney, although he is the best medical match among the children—only to protect her only male heir from any complication, at the expense of insulting her four daughters. Girls don’t matter; her youngest son does.

Ma nods but doesn’t answer, another deft deception, the yes that’s really a no. Ma has no intention of letting him give her a kidney. She’s already made that perfectly clear to Barbara. She’s got four daughters but only one Lawrence. (1-2)

Second Child follows an American family on a “heritage journey” back to China with their adopted daughter. Ma tells the story from the perspective of the tour guide, a young Chinese woman with whom the white sibling of the adopted girl strikes up a friendship. The 12-year-old boy pulls stunts in order to spoil the trip to the orphanage. He wants to protect his sister from fear and turmoil. Although a different subject altogether, the story echoes the title story on favoritism on the male child, since most orphans up for adoption are girls

I don’t know why Sam is so worried. He’s not like this at home. He’s very good to his sister. In fact, I think he feels guilty that we’re his parents and Kate was adopted. (35)

The two old ladies in The Scottish Play remind me many a conversation I overheard at bakeries in Chinatown. The women live vicariously through their children and grandchildren, in reverent reminiscence of their late husbands. At the senior center, over lunch, they can’t help throwing verbal knives at one another when opportunity comes, however innocent they try to sound. But this outward camaraderie collapses at a Shakespeare play. What polite restraint they have maintained is quickly forgotten. Old feud has quickly resurfaced. In this story in particular, Ma’s wit is sharp and she is more than deft with the sharp repartee that the two old women lob back and forth to one another.

“But you are so lucky.” Mrs. Liang interrupts my dreaming, “that you have a daughter who is willing to take you in. My daughter-in-law said that I could have their spare bedroom, but I said no. I’d have to give up so much of my independence.”

“Oh,” I say innocently, “Mrs. Liang, did you finally learn to drive?” (43)

In For Sale By Owner, a family is getting out of the sketchy neighborhood in Philadelphia to move to Los Angeles only to reap the most ironic outcome. With some of the most delicate terms Ma probes the long-term impact of a quasi-incestuous relationship on a young woman, who can get over over what happened in Dougie. While the main focus may be the immigrant community, what Ma focuses on is the universal desire for happiness. In The Long Way Home, Joanna questions her younger sister about a tragic event–in which she set the house on fire–when they were young and the effect it has had on both their lives

This collection captures what it means to belong to a family, a community, and a country other than home. Sometimes it can be shocking to see the cultural divide within a family. Maybe the older, immigrant generation wants to hold fast to what they can relish in memory in order to pass these values down to the new generation. Some of the people in this collection are more Chinese than their counterparts back home. While some stereotypes live on because they are based, however tenuously, on truth, Ma has a keen eye on how these people strike a balance between duty, contradictory values, loss, and duty. It’s become a habit to re-read the stories to soak up on the sharp barbed dialogue. Ma is so right on.

147 pp. Soft cover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[341] Transparency: Stories – Frances Hwang

The collection of ten stories, all constructed around immigrants and their American-born children, are unflinching and compulsively readable. It’s even reminiscent of Eileen Chang, but the writing is less decorated and simpler. While the topics often echo the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, it is about individual struggle to honor personal history. The heroines are always struggling souls, social exile, alienated and introverted. In The Old Gentlemen, a woman becomes alienated from her father when he finds late-age romance. Despite his disillusion about love, the daughter is upset because her father’s finding love reminds her the hole in her life:

She had avoided him all this time, not wanting to know about his marriage because she had not wanted to know of his happiness. From The Old Gentleman [19]

Though distrustful of their overly Americanized niece, a family seeks her help to talk their daughter out of a religious cult, whose love bombing has won her over from the over-protecting parents. She has hidden from from parents, who only see the worst in her, by hiding from them her tender spots:

She wasn’t truly worried about Helen, who struck her as the sanest member of that household. It was only a shame that Helen, burdened by such a neurotic family, should try to slip free by submitting to another form of control. From A Visit to the Suns [61]

Defying taboos and superstitions, a woman accepted gift of a clock for her birthday. You don’t ever give a Chinese a clock, all right? Song zhong means “giving a clock,” but also means “going to a funeral.” Is it fate or sheer lack of luck that she comes down with cancer? To downplay her illness she hosts a Fourth of July party that celebrates her life:

In all the pictures we took of that day, my aunt is the focal point. Her presence quietly overwhelms the others. She gazes at the camera with clear, shining eyes as if she is staring into her future. From Giving a Clock [87]

In Blue Hour, the story of two recent graduates navigating love and friendship, Hwang illustrates the grief and surreal quality of watching as friends grow up, mature, get married, and sometimes leave each other behind, unintentionally.

They ate sushi in a darkly lit restaurant composed of black surfaces where Japanese anime was projected on the wall. It was hallucinatory, Iris thought, watching the radioactive glare of characters as they jumped twenty feet into the air, their mouths opening in perfect circles, though no sound came out. She felt the incongruity of two worlds — the lurid, colorful vision flashing on the walls, and the dark shining surface of the present moment, of reality, as she watched Laura’s nimble fingers fold and refold a napkin until it was the shape of a crane perched along the glossy table. From Blue Hour [93-4]

What really hits home is one’s struggle to find permanence amid the flux of modern life, in the same way it is paradoxical that we are not necessarily more connected through the power of internet and media.

In Sonata for the Left Hand, a young man, fixated on her ex-boyfriend, relinquishes her ego, merges with the void, and has no more desires for anything or anyone. Utterly skeptical of relationships.

A delightful naïveté shone on their faces, for how were they to know what was coming and who they were going to love? It was a story of two lives coming together and I thought the slide show made a convincing case for the hand of fate. From Sonata for the Left Hand [131]

A stuck-up writer who works on a story in a seaside artist colony withdraws from the world. Tired of meaningfulness in life, she develops an immunity that is rooted in the deprivation of feeling. It seems her writer’s block is more pathological than cerebral:

I had worked over my sentences for so long that they had acquired a fateful sound. Now everything was sealed under a layer of varnish. If I changed anything, the rest would begin to crack. From Intruders [180]

Transparency traverses many identities, exposing the characters’ failures, fear, frailty, and loss, but without cruel heavy-handedness. They become alive as Hwang reveals them in natural arcs. Beneath her simple, beguiling prose beats a heart of mayhem.

219 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[281] Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang

” She stood still a long way off and just bent her head. Shih-fang bowed slightly, turned and left. Ch’ang-an felt as though she were viewing this sunlit courtyard from some distance away, looking down from a tall building. The scene was clear, she herself was involved but powerless to intervene. The court, the tree, two people trailing bleak shadows, wordless—not much of a memory, but still to be put in a crystal bottle and held in both hands to be looked at some day, her first and last love. ” The Golden Cangue

Reading Eileen Chang is to read into the heart of the women of her time: repressed, oppressed, helpless, and surrendered to fate. Although she might be considered a member of the luckier bunch—grew up in a moderately well-to-do household, went to school and eventually university in Hong Kong, between the brocaded lines of grandiosity, Chang can’t help dropping autobiographical hints into her stories. Odds and ends edited out of her family life. After the death of her mother, her father, an opium addict, took in a mistress whom Chang despised, calling her not even worth the bite of a dog. What a venomous tongue for a well-educated young woman. In the 1940s Chang rose to literary prominence, after the war forced her to drop out of college. When Hong Kong fell in December 1941, Chang had no choice but to return to her native Shanghai, where she began writing. Between 1943 and 1944, she wrote some of her most acclaimed works, including Love in the Fallen City (title story of this volume) and The Golden Cangue. Her literary maturity was said to be beyond her age, mostly because the young Chang had taken a jaundiced and misanthropic view of her world.

After three months of this life, she was addicted. If she wanted to leave Madame Liang’s house, she would have to find a rich man to marry. A husband who was both rich and charming? It was unlikely. Plumping for a man with money—that had been Madame Liang’s approach. Aloeswood Incense

In Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, a young girl lives under the roof of her rich aunt, a third concubine to a wealthy tycoon who left her a tremendous fortune that is more than suffice for three lives. Weilong is torn between money and love. She brings her Eurasian lover a dowry, as she moonlights as a tart in her pimping aunt’s establishment.

Liusu tried to imagine what it would be like to see her Fourth Sister-in-law for the first time. Then she burst out: ‘That would still be better. When you see them for the first time, then no matter how awful, no matter how dirty they are, they—or it—is still outside you. But if you live in it for a long time, how can you tell how much of it is them, and how much of it is you?’ Love in a Fallen City

In Love in a Fallen City, the once divorced Bai Liusu is ostracized by her family for being a “bad-luck comet.” What was worse than being a divorced woman? Even at the flowering age of 28, she was no more than a parasite in the house. Her life was over. Chance had her to meet Fan Liuyuan, who loved her and desired her but had no intention to marry. The couple taunt each other with false estrangement in order to fall in love.

Ch’i-ch’iao pressed the mirror down with both hands. The green bamboo curtain and a green and gold landscape scroll reflected in the mirror went on swinging back and forth in the wind—one could get dizzy watching it for long. When she looked again the green bamboo curtain had faded, the green and gold landscape was replaced by a photograph pf her deceased husband, and the woman in the mirror was also ten years older. The Golden Cangue

The Golden Cangue is the most atmospheric of all the tales in this volume. Told with upstairs-downstairs shifts in perspective, it revolves around a wife, resentful of her disabled husband and reviled by his family, who seeks reassurance in opium. The worst is yet to come as the addiction accidentally becomes inter-generational.

Suffice to say that Eileen Chang’s stories rarely conclude in happy endings. Women in her times simply couldn’t afford to have happy endings in their lives. Raw, and exquisitely modulated, she burdens her characters with shattered dreams and stifled possibilities, leads them to push aside the heavy curtains of family and convention, and then shows them a yawning emptiness.

321. NYRB Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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?