Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing (1920-1995) is a popular Chinese writer who was born in Taiwan and fled to Hong Kong and then the United States after the 1949 Revolution. A number of her stories have been made into films by Chinese directors: “Red Rose, White Rose” by Stanley Kwan, “Love in a Fallen City” by Ann Hui and “Lust, Caution” by Ang Lee. Her celebrated early stories and novellas were written in the 1940s and evoke China from that period. Chang is known best as a chronicler of the lives of women in 1940s Shanghai. She reached the pinnacle of her career and became famous at an early age, detested literary fame and notoriety, became near cult-like figures, stalked and hounded by fans and admirers. and became a recluse. Chang died in 1995 alone in a Westwood, Los Angeles apartment.

The distinguished scholar C. T. Hsia devoted forty-two pages to Eileen Chang in his “A History of Modern Chinese Fiction 1917-1957 (1961) and called her "the best and most important writer in Chinese today." Anna Sun wrote in the Kenyon Review: “Eileen Chang is arguably the greatest short story writer of twentieth-century China. Her exquisite language and deep literary sensibility is sui generis in contemporary literature; both C. T. Hsia and David Der-wei Wang, two leading scholars of modern Chinese literature, consider her to be one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Chang’s prose is so unique and complex that she has been compared to Henry James, another writer of iridescent intensity. Yet no matter how good the translator might be, since much of Chang’s power resides in her subtle and masterly use of the Chinese language, it is very difficult to convey it through translation. Chang produced her finest work when she was still in her 20s in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. She tried to follow the approved new language after the revolution in 1949, occasionally attending meetings organized by the Party to reeducate "bourgeois writers," but realized that her writing was never going to be accepted by the new regime; it was still too complex and with too much depth. She left Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1953, never to return. [Source: The Diseased Language of Mo Yan by Anna Sun, Kenyon Review, Fall 2012]

Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times: “Chang is revered as China's first truly modern writer. Her sensibility could be described as the acute social and emotional observation of Cao Xueqin (author of Dream of the Red Chamber) filtered through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf. She secured her fame with a series of jewel-like short stories of manners, morals and folly including The Golden Cangue and Love in a Fallen City. In 1957, the pre-eminent Chinese literary critic in the West, Columbia University's C T Hsia, anointed her as the most gifted Chinese writer to emerge in the 1940s. [Source:Peter Lee Asia Times, April 29, 2009]

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu

Impact of Eileen Chang

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Louisa Chiang and Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: Following her Western-style schooling, she began publishing brilliant short novels — “Love in a Fallen City” and “The Golden Cangue”, among others — that are reminiscent of Austen in their preoccupation with romantic and family relationships portrayed against a backdrop of upper-class dysfunction in a semicolonial world. Chang quickly found a large following. She remained in China for three years after the Communist victory in 1949, and in The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth produced two of the most penetrating accounts of those years. Her works were banned in China until the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, as readers thirsted for an alternative to the mediocre entertainment fiction of the post-Tiananmen era on the one hand and the jaw-breaking modernism of the avant-garde on the other, an “Eileen Chang fever” took hold.[Source: Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018]

Gregory McCormic wrote in the Quarterly Conversation, “Eileen Chang’s shadow continues to loom large in the Chinese world... An unfinished book, “ A Little Reunion “ — an autobiographical novel that Chang toyed with destroying in the 1970s — was finally published in 2009 after years of rumors and sold out even before the first run of 300,000 copies was released in the mainland and was a the No.1 bestseller for weeks in Hong Kong and Taiwan. “Even some cursory searching of the Internet finds literally hundreds of websites dedicated to Chang’s stories and essays, her life, and her legacy. Without a doubt, Chang’s name and reputation is firmly established in the Chinese-speaking world.” [Source: Gregory McCormic, Quarterly Conversation, June 7, 2010, Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Raised in Idaho, he now lives in Montreal.

“Though she is read widely from Beijing to Singapore, Chang should be read in the West... What Chang offers is what all good literature offers: engaging stories, interesting characters, beautiful central controlling metaphors, and evocative imagery. These works of Chang remain largely unknown in the West, despite two well-regarded novels written in English and a burgeoning Eileen Chang system in academia... and even a 2007 screen adaptation of her novella, “ Lust, Caution “, by famed Taiwanese director Ang Lee.”[Source: Gregory McCormic, Quarterly Conversation, June 7, 2010]

Eileen Chang’s Life

Eileen Chang was born in Shanghai in 1920 into a rich, elitist family and long associated with that city, with her most famous works set it in, but but lived the vast majority of her life in the United States. Louisa Chiang and Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books:“Born in 1920 into an elite but declining family of scholar-officials, Chang grew up with only intermittent parenting by a mother who was often traveling abroad and an aloof father who spent considerable time with opium and courtesans.” Dhe received a Western-style schooling in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, [Source: Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018]

Chang married early to Hu Lancheng, a small-time Nationalist politician in the Japanese puppet government of the late “30s and early “40s. Hu was a literary figure of some note in 1940s China. He threw in his lot with Wang Ching-wei, the one-time revolutionary, patriot and Kuomintang (KMT) big-wheel who broke with Chiang Kai-shek and was installed by the Japanese as the head of a puppet regime in Wuhan and was installed in the regime's Ministry of Propaganda. [Source: Peter Lee Asia Times, April 29, 2009]

Though the marriage was brief and ultimately unhappy for Chang, she was tainted for good once Mao’s forces conquered China and took over the country. She was further tainted by her upper class background, and by 1952 it was clear that her writing career would be over if she stayed in the mainland. [Source: Gregory McCormic, Quarterly Conversation, June 7, 2010]

Chang fled to Hong Kong and was contracted to write for the U.S. Information Service. This was both a ripe and a fraught time to work for the U.S. government, cranking out propaganda to counter the propaganda accompanying the Communist takeover of the mainland.Once Chang started writing propaganda for the U.S. government, the Communists in the mainland took her refusal to take sides prior to 1949 as a way to mask her sympathies for the pro-U.S. Nationalists. Chang, though, would have likely replied that she took no side and wrote for the U.S. government simply in order to survive. After she left for the U.S. a few years later, she would never return to her beloved hometown.

Eileen Chang's Marriage to Hu Lancheng

Describing Hu Lancheng and his relationship with Chang, Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times: “During the period of Japanese occupation, Hu spent a good part of his time pursuing literary and ultimately physical companionship in Shanghai with Eileen Chang. They married in 1943. Once Hu had bagged his literary trophy, he went to Wuhan to run Da Chu Bao -and engage in a dalliance with a 17-year old nurse, Zhou Dexun.” [Source:Peter Lee, Asia Times, April 29, 2009]

“Intelligent and charismatic, Hu was always aboil with ideas and ambitions. He styled himself another Liu Bang - the brilliant, bootstrapping rebel who overthrew the established order in the state of Chu 2,000 years before and established the Han Dynasty. He actively pursued the patronage of the Japanese officers who ran the regime more or less behind the scenes, obtaining their backing for a Whampoa-style military academy in Wuhan that would churn out cadres loyal to Hu.”


“In 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, Hu tried to jawbone the commanders of the Chinese forces holding onto Wuhan into establishing it as an independent power center - instead of promptly handing it over to Chiang Kai-shek - and using the local military stockpiles provided by his Japanese friends to conduct a multi-year guerilla war in central China's mountains. However, his proposals fell on deaf ears and within two weeks the demoralized and war-weary commanders in Wuhan capitulated to the Chunking government. Hu, his transgressions upgraded from feckless collaborator to genuine traitor against Chiang Kai-shek's KMT, went on the run, eventually bringing his criminal baggage and philandering habits to Wenzhou for a brief and disastrous reunion with Eileen Chang that has achieved legendary status.”

“Chang had learned of Hu's whereabouts from a mutual friend and surprised him in his sanctuary. The visit was 20 days of pure misery. Hu, preoccupied with rationalizing and coping with the utter collapse of his ambitions and the threat of execution hanging over his head, clearly regarded Chang as a closed chapter in his life. During his fugitive wanderings through central China, Hu had taken up with an accommodating 40-year-old widow Fan Xiumei, whose education had gone no further than the local sericulture school. Hu apparently did not miss the intellectual stimulation; more importantly, Fan provided him with the added security of making it possible to travel as a couple, and also assiduously tended to his needs.”

“Chang tried to make the best of it during awkward meetings in her hotel, and offered to paint Fan's portrait. But when it came time to sketch Fan's mouth, she was unable to proceed, telling Hu she could not continue because [Fan's] mouth looked more and more like yours. Chang wasn't even second in line in Hu's catalog of girlfriends. Hu proclaimed his continued infatuation with the young and delectable Zhou Dexun, who was by this time incarcerated in Wuhan. When Chang tried to force Hu to choose between her and the absent nurse -whom it was clear that Hu would never see again - Hu refused. Rejected, miserable and tearful, Chang returned to Shanghai, aware that her marriage, such as it was, was over.”

“After the Wenzhou sojourn, Hu escaped to Japan where he scratched out a living courtesy of his erstwhile Japanese patrons. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he pursued a career as a writer and lecturer in Japanese exile and infuriated Chang by publishing his memoir, This World, These Times, which placed Chang in an overlapping continuum of eight girlfriends and provided a detailed and self-aggrandizing account of the excruciating sojourn in Wenzhou. Chang divorced Hu in 1947 and later remarried. However, the matter of Hu agitated her and continued to inform her work.”

Eileen Chang’s Works

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Chang was enormously popular and famous for a brief period in the 1940s. Her fiction focuses on the lives of women and their domestic concerns in Japan-occupied Shanghai.Chang's best known novellas are "Love in a Fallen City" (Qingcheng zhi lian, 1943) and "Red Rose, White Rose" (Hong meigui yu bai meigui, 1944).

Gregory McCormic wrote: “Chang wrote two novels for the U.S. information service, one of which, “ The Rice Sprout Song “, is a subtle and powerful tale of hunger in early 20th-century rural China. Though ostensibly anti-Communist, the book, in typical Chang fashion, avoids towing a purely propagandist line, and her portrayals of Communist cadres are complex and nuanced. Time called it the most authentic novel so far of life under the Chinese Communists. Published just 25 years after Pearl S. Buck’s “ The Good Earth “, “The Rice-Sprout Song “does what Buck, a mediocre writer at best, failed to do with her one-dimensional characters.” [Source: Gregory McCormic, Quarterly Conversation, June 7, 2010]

“ Love in a Fallen City “ is a sampling of several of Chang’s 1940s pieces published in Shanghai at the height of her success and fame. In “ Sealed Off “ , a man and woman sharea seductive, entangled moment on a bus in Japanese-controlled Shanghai. In an ironic aside, the narrator tells us that the main character “was a good daughter, a good student. All the people in her family were good people. They took baths everyday; they read the newspaper every day. When they turned on the radio, they never listened to local folk opera, comic opera, that sort of thing, just symphonies by Beethoven or Wagner; they didn’t understand what they were listening to, but they listened anyway. In this world, there are more good people than real people . . . [she] wasn’t very happy.” Here, Chang is mocking the pretensions of upper class Chinese at a time when orphans and beggars died in the streets. This story shows her approach to class as complex, subtle, ironic, and unsparing.

Lust, Caution

Lust, Caution, probably offers a more politically developed sense than she ever allowed in any of her other works. Mainly written in the 1950s, it was, in typical Chang fashion, revised and rewritten over the next 25 years, finally being published in 1979. The novella chronicles the story of a group of young resistance fighters plotting an elaborate scheme to assassinate a leading member of the collaborationist government in Shanghai.

The plotters rely on an idealistic young actress/student, Wang Chiachih, to serve as a sexual lure to trick the target, Mr Yee, into fatally disregarding his normal security precautions. The conspiracy goes pfft as the discombobulated Wang responds to a genuine but superficial display of affection by the middle-aged, toad-like apparatchik she has endured two years of effort, danger and degradation to murder, and impulsively warns him to flee the approaching assassins. [Source: Peter Lee Asia Times, April 29, 2009]

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Yee escapes and immediately issues the order to round up Wang and her accomplices. The conspirators are interrogated and executed within a few hours; and Eileen Chang provides the merciless coda: “He was not optimistic about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy - without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively - as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead she was his ghost.

If Chang had avoided political ideologies in favor of small narratives of daily lives of the static and placid, Lust, Caution seems — at least on the surface — a pointed response to those who criticized her for a lack of serious political engagement. But Chang’s sensitivities are, as usual, not with the story of political intrigue or murder. She is far more interested in the central metaphor: the processes by which lust, power, danger, and death are all intertwined. [Source: Gregory McCormic, Quarterly Conversation, June 7, 2010]

In Ang Lee’s 2007 film version of Lust, Caution, a brief scene from Chang’s book of essays Written on Water and use it in a crucial moment in the novella: “On my way to market, I happened to run into a military blockade and was detained in an area just yards from home. So near, and yet it might as well have been the ends of the earth, as far as I was concerned. In a sunny spot,a servant woman tried to force her way past the lines, struggling as she shouted: It’s getting late! I have to get back and make dinner! everyone in the crowd broke into laughter. A Cantonese rice peddler sitting on the curb told her son: They’ll let you go if you need to see a doctor but not to cook dinner. . . . But for some unknown reason, her voice was somehow unsettling, as if there were something more to what she had said than might seem on the face of it. And yet there wasn’t really.

The film did virtually no business in the United States, where its NC-17 rating excluded it from the main movie chains; however, it became a cause celebre throughout Asia, where passionate debate over its sexual explicitness, respect for the film and its source material, and the awareness of unfinished business in Chinese attitudes toward the anti-Japanese war combined to create intense interest in the film. [Source: Peter Lee Asia Times, April 29, 2009]

Themes in Eileen Chang’s Work

Kam Louie wrote:"In today's world where cultures collide and interact in so many different ways and places, Eileen Chang presents a fascinating study. In a review of the book “Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres”, Rui Kunze writes: “Given the ongoing discussion of Chinese modernity, transnationalism, Sinophone studies., Eileen Chang's works, among the finest and subtlest in modern Chinese literature, are of great relevance and import. [Source: Rui Kunze, Post-Doctoral Fellow, International Consortium for Research in the Humanities, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, MCLC Resource Center Publication, January 2013]

“A comparison of the English and Chinese versions of Chang's essays in the 1940s indicates that Chang was careful in negotiating between different language communities and intricate political divides. David Der-wei Wang examines Chang's “The Fall of the Pagoda” and “The Book of Change” in terms of her aesthetic of revision and bilingualism. Reading these texts in relation to each other, as well as in relation to Chang's other English/Chinese texts and her translation and research activities, Wang observes that these two texts have given rise to a poetics highlighting involution and derivation, and defying mimetic realism and the aesthetics of originality. Chang's writing and rewriting of her family story and her past replicate and elaborate on themselves. By doing so, her texts displace and replace the origin and the reality. Her writing thus turns out to be a lifelong process of self-exploration, and these texts reflect her changing attitude towards her early experience and her different tactics of storytelling over time.

“Esther M. K. Cheung also examines Chang's essays. Cheung argues that Chang's writings on the everyday, on topics such as fashion, for example, deal with more than just female sensibility. One also finds here a "mnemonic art," which, like Western modernist literature, intends to preserve what seems threatened to vanish and be forgotten in a society undergoing transition to modernity. Employing Walter Benjamin's notion of "profane illumination," Cheung's examination concludes that Chang's engagement with the mundane and the material manifests her "mnemonic art" of reconfiguring the everyday into an illuminatory "historical now."

“Gina Marchetti and Hsiu-Chuang Deppman each look into the relationship between Chang's novella "Lust, Caution" and Ang Lee's film adaptation. Emphasizing Chang's identity as a movie critic, Marchetti examines the multiple levels of cinematic intertextuality in the works of both auteurs. These include the "patriotic prostitute" theme in Chinese and Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, the sexual pathology of fascism in European films, and the consumption of material goods such as clothing and jewelry in films. Marchetti sees Lee's film as both going beyond and remaining connected to its literary source.

Book: “Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres” edited by Kam Louie ( Hong Kong University Press, 2012]

Eileen Chang, Chinese Politics and the Japanese Occupation of China

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Chang was highly criticized for her refusal to take any political stand in her writing. At a time when all intellectuals were forced to take sides, some critics took Chang to task for writing about issues that were petty and passive; they also dinged her for betraying Nationalist sympathies in her refusal to throw her lot in with either side in China’s political debates, debates that ultimately cost millions of lives. [Source: Gregory McCormic, Quarterly Conversation, June 7, 2010]

Initially, Chang reacted to this criticism by asserting that these critics missed the point of her work, and of writing generally. In her piece Writing of One’s Own which was collected in Chang’s fascinating anthology Written on Water, she writes: “People who like to write literature usually concentrate on the uplifting and dynamic aspects of life and neglect those that are placid and static, though the latter is the ground of the former. That is, they concentrate for the most part on struggle and neglect the harmonious aspects of life. In reality, people only engage in struggle in order to attain harmony.”

It is very clear to me why Chang’s writing still holds such relevance today: in avoiding overt male politics in her career, she innovated by exploring the minutiae of daily life, examining how the powerless — most often intelligent, working class women — are affected by the decisions of the powerful. This makes her books easier to relate to; moreover, the marginal role that politics plays in the lives of Chang’s characters reflects the role that politics play in most of our lives. These facts give Chang’s tales a charming universality.” It’s ironic that Chang’s political neglect and her overtly politically laden marriage caused her exile from her beloved hometown (though she continued to set her stories and novels there for the rest of her life); yet, it is precisely the lack of a political ideology that makes Chang’s work so readable and interesting today.

Rui Kunze wrote: Eileen Chang “rose to her literary fame in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Her relation with the puppet government has been the focus of a perennial controversy. On the one hand, her (in)famous marriage to Hu Lancheng, a cultural official serving the puppet government, and her participation in the public cultural activities at the time are used as evidence of her collaboration with the invaders. On the other hand, she has been upheld as an almost mythological literary genius who transcended all political strictures. [Source: Rui Kunze, Post-Doctoral Fellow, International Consortium for Research in the Humanities, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, MCLC Resource Center Publication, January 2013]

“Nicole Huang delves into Chang's essays to piece together her wartime activities, in particular her cultural connection with Japan. Huang concludes that Chang, as a professional writer who must sell her writings, skillfully travelled and negotiated between different cultures in wartime Shanghai. Versed in Chinese culture and an avid consumer of Japanese culture, including textiles, poetry, painting, performance art, and film, Chang contributed to and participated in a pan-Asian culture through her writings.

Eileen Chang’s Posthumous Autobiographical Novels

Kyle Shernuk wrote: Eileen Chang’s “three posthumous autobiographical novels demonstrate how Chang cannibalizes her own work and life’s story to create diverging, bilingual accounts of her life for audiences on both sides of the Pacific. Chang’s Chinese-language memoir, “Little Reunions”, was completed in 1976 as a response to her ex-husband Hu Lancheng’s portrayal of her in his memoir, “Life and Times” due to its scandalous content, however, “Little Reunions” was not published until 2009, more than a decade after her passing. Before “Little Reunions”, Chang had written “The Fall of the Pagoda” and “The Book of Change”, two English language novels that were seen as fictionalized accounts of her life, both of which she completed in 1963 but were not published until 2010. Chang’s representations of herself, interestingly, differ based on the time and language of composition: [Source: Kyle Shernuk, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Council on East Asian Studies, Yale University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, June 2021; Book: “A Rethinking the Modern Chinese Canon: Refractions Across the Transpacific” by Clara Iwasaki (Cambria Press, 2020)]

“Chang’s friends Stephen and Mae Fong Soong “cautioned Chang not only against revealing so many personal details (such as her willingness to have a relationship with a collaborator or aborting a fetus conceived out of wedlock) but also to avoid so directly criticizing her very influential ex-husband. Concerned about protecting Chang’s reputation in Taiwan and not offending the literary establishment, they advised her to return to the manuscript with an eye to artistry and not catharsis.

Based on the results, Chang clearly did not take this advice to heart. In the Anglophone novels, the mother figure, Dew, is portrayed as “a disruptive element, a parent-as-parasite who attempts to move freely between modern singlehood and Confucian motherhood but ends up breaking the system of filiality forever through her desire to have it both ways”. In the Sinophone Little Reunions, Chang takes an “introspective turn, placing the disruption of the systems of filial and sexual affective debt squarely on the narrator”. On the one hand, such themes and personal revelations would have been scandalous in Taiwan at the time of their writing; on the other hand, there was no market for the English-language novels because they did not resonate with American (literary) values. It was only after her passing that they found audiences on both sides of the Pacific, in turn generating new refractory images of Chang for the new millennium.

Little Reunions

Louisa Chiang and Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Finished in 1976 but not published until 2009, fourteen years after her death,” “Little Reunions” is Chang’s most autobiographical work, so some of its allure has been as a trove of clues to the author’s life. More than that, though, the novel recalls a vanished China of the 1930s and 1940s that was both rooted in Chinese culture and open to the West; its scenes offer an antidote to the mood of indignant rivalry and, at least in the imagination, an alternative to the Xi Jinping version of what it means to be a modern Chinese. In Chang’s assured cosmopolitanism, Westerners are neither models nor victimizers but three-dimensional human beings who go through pains and triumphs just as Chinese people do. Writing in California during years when her home country was writhing in torrid “class struggle,” Chang depicts everyday human experience in prose that is elegant, erudite, and trenchant. [Source: Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018]

“Little Reunions follows Julie Sheng — the fictionalized Eileen Chang — through a thick web of relationships in war-torn upper-class China and eventually into a passionate romance and doomed marriage with a Japanese collaborator who is distracted by his several other sexual liaisons. The English translation appends a “Character List” of 124 entries, and it is needed. Julie’s integrity and moral insight give the novel some unity, but it is a kaleidoscope.

“Chang approaches her characters, whether Western or Chinese, ready to empathize. Colonists have their problems, too. By showing their vexations (without condoning their faults) Chang asserts a moral power that rejects victimhood. She seems aware that scolding the conqueror is only another way of acknowledging his privileged position. Her empathy serves to vindicate the nation and culture from which she has emerged.

“For example, Chudi (Judy), who is Julie’s surrogate mother, has a secret affair in wartime Shanghai with a Nazi school principal, Herr Schütte. He pays for her braces, a marvel of Western technology that improves Judy’s looks more than anyone thought possible. In return, after Germany loses the war, Judy helps Schütte to buy his fare home by selling his greatcoat. Such barter between lovers trumps — at least temporarily — the caste system within which they live. Part of Herr Schütte wishes to be free from that system, but entrenched racism warps his world in ways that are too fundamental for him to notice. When his German wife gives birth to a son in Shanghai, the couple nickname the boy “the Chinaman.” For Chang, the detail of the nickname is a tool for showing the tensions that exist in his mind: a mocking parental love, racial exultation, and creeping cheater’s guilt, among others. She shows Herr Schütte’s human yearnings and their perversions just as she does for her Chinese characters.

Book: “Little Reunions” by Eileen Chang, translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz, New York Review Books, 2018]

Success of Little Reunions and Republican Fever

“Little Reunions” sold 700,000 copies in China in its first six months of publication. Louisa Chiang and Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Chang’s equitable worldview, made possible by her bicultural background, does much to explain why Little Reunions sold so well when it appeared in 2009. Many middle-class Chinese readers, wealthier and better-informed than their predecessors but feeling morally adrift, hoped for a vision of enlightened forgiveness and dignified equality with the West. Such a prospect was a bracing alternative to the draining tantrums about national humiliation and payback that suffused the Internet and continued to appear in state-approved books like Unhappy China, another best seller in 2009. [Source: Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018]

“The 2009 “fever” over Little Reunions was part of a longer-term trend that has been called “Republican fever”— “Republican” refers to the years 1912–1949, when the Kuomintang ( KMT ) ruled most of China, and sometimes refers also to Taiwan and Hong Kong after 1949. Before Little Reunions, there had been fevers over the classic stories of Eileen Chang; over Qiong Yao, a Taiwanese writer of romances; Jin Yong, the master of historical martial-arts fiction from Hong Kong; and Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese crooner of love songs. For young people, these artists seemed to be lifting a curtain on another way to be Chinese; for older people, they recalled a bygone time whose cultural resources, after the Maoist blight, might once again prove useful.

“Most Chinese fans of Republican nostalgia, though — notably including Eileen Chang fans — have better-grounded views. They can see the difference between Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo and are admirers of Taiwanese democracy. The author of Little Reunions does not tell her readers what to think, but a left-leaning sympathy with the underclass can be inferred from her art. Masters and servants in her pages live in everyday proximity, and exploitative relationships, although not labeled as such, are obvious. Maids are taken as concubines. Nannies substitute as parents. Septuagenarian servants, having outlived their utility, are abandoned to the destitute countryside from which they originally were drawn. The servant-to-serf continuum shows no real difference from life in Cao Xueqin’s great novel Dream of the Red Chamber, of two hundred years earlier. No careful reader of Little Reunions in 2009 could have used it to look back on Republican life as idyllic or to see the class issue as a mere Marxist obsession.

“What Little Reunions does do, along with similar works in the Republican fever, is to invite a counterfactual question: Could China have taken a different path in the twentieth century? What if Japan had not invaded and the Republican effort at modernization had not been aborted? How wealthy and strong might the country have become, how happy its citizens, how attractive its soft power? Beneath these questions about modernization has lurked another about China’s cultural identity: How much Chineseness was lost when the Republic collapsed on the mainland? In the 1950s Mao began to model China after the Soviet Union. Later he split with the Soviets, but the country has suffered cultural confusion and moral malaise ever since. The Republican era, whatever its flaws, seemed the last in which an authentic China could be found.

Image Sources: Amazon, Pearl Buck website, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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