EILEEN CHANG, THE PEOPLE'S WRITER

EILEEN CHANG

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Chang 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 stores 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.

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]

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]

Anna Sun wrote in the Kenyon Review: “Eileen Chang(1920-1995) 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]

Books by Eileen Chang: “ Love in a Fallen City “ , translated by Karen S. Kingsbury (NYRB Classics); “ Lust, Caution “ translated by Julia Lowell (Anchor Books); “ The Rice-Sprout Song “ (University of California Press); “ Written on Water “, translated by Andrew Jones (Weatherhead Press).

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.

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.

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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.”

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“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 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

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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]

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]

Eileen Chang and Chinese Politics

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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.

Elizabeth Comber (Han Suyin)

Chinese-British writer and physician Elizabeth Comber, whose pen name was Han Suyin, wrote Comber, is the author through whom many English- and French-speaking readers got their earliest images and understanding of China. The Chinese-American writer Frank Chin credits her with being one of the few who "(wrote) knowledgeably and authentically of Chinese fairy tales, heroic tradition and history" in his essay Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake. She died at the age of 95 in November 2012 at her home in Lausanne, Switzerland. [Source: China Daily, November 5, 2012]

Comber wrote both fiction and nonfiction works, including biographies of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, Her semi-autobiographic novel, A Many Splendored Thing, was made into a Hollywood hit in the 1950s, winning three Oscars. Shuttling between China and the Western world, Comber had a colorful life, which was also deeply rooted in her unstoppable pursuit of telling real Chinese stories to her world audience.

Comber was born Rosalie Elisabeth Kuanghu Chow in Henan province in 1917 to a Chinese father who was a railway engineer and a Belgian mother from an aristocratic family. Young Comber dreamed of being a doctor and she pursued the dream by studying medicine in Yenching University and later in Brussels and London. In Brussels she developed a strong literary interest and eagerly read the masterpieces.

Looking back on her days in Chengdu, where she worked as a midwife, she got the inspiration for her debut novel Destination Chungking (Chongqing ). With help from a US colleague, the book was published in the United Kingdom and the United States, which boosted her writer's career. "In my memory, my mother was always busy working in hospitals during the daytime, and busy writing and translating in her spare time at home," her daughter Tang Yungmei told the Guangzhou Daily.

Comber lived in different countries with her second husband, Leon F. Comber, a British officer and later publisher, and with her third husband, Vincent Ratnaswamy, an Indian colonel. Her fiction and nonfiction, written in both English and French, recreated her own experiences and the China she saw during her stays. Eventually, she settled down in Lausanne. As a British citizen, she was among the first foreign nationals to visit China after 1949. Her photos appeared on the news with leaders who she came to know well. She also funded or helped establish several Chinese literary awards to encourage young writers and translators.

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 January 2013


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