I first read Eileen Chang's work in the late 1980s, in an anthology of 20th-century Chinese stories. Its editor, the fiercely anti-Communist critic CT Hsia, in 1961 had called her "the best and most important writer in Chinese today" and compared her to Katherine Mansfield and Eudora Welty. The novella selected, "The Golden Cangue", records, in brocaded and exquisitely venomous prose, the entire life of a woman from marriage to death. Its style owes more to traditional Chinese narrative techniques than to Western influence.
I noticed then that Chang's work resembled, in many ways, the films of a new generation of Mainland directors including Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. She was also one of a handful of bilingual Chinese writers. Whereas others had written within the precincts of British modernism and then returned to Mao's China, Chang not only chose exile in America but produced two novels in English, Rice Sprout Song and Naked Earth, commissioned by the United States Information Service in the 1950s as anti-Communist propaganda.
Chang seemed to have a double identity: the Zhang Ailing of the 1940s, who wrote finely-honed stories in flawless Chinese about Shanghai and Hong Kong in a vein amusingly described as "boudoir realism" while her contemporaries wrote about war and resistance; and the expatriate Eileen Chang, who wrote rather bitter novels about revolutionary China for a foreign readership.
It was the early, precocious Chang critics recommended; always popular with Taiwanese readers, she was now rediscovered, in a more liberal era, by her ex-compatriots. Little of her work was available to foreign readers until two English novels were reprinted in 1998. In 2000 Traces of Love, a selection of her most subtle stories, was released in Hong Kong.
Chang's work has been popular with film-makers, and Ang Lee's version of "Lust, Caution" has finally brought her the Western recognition her many admirers feel she deserves, with these two collections of her most representative stories as Penguin Modern Classics in its wake. Love in A Fallen City is the more powerful and disturbing, with its beautiful translations by Karen Kingsbury framing Chang's own rendition of "The Golden Cangue".
Foremost among Chang's skills is her ability to capture an entire little world in about 50 pages, as the title story and "Aloeswood Incense" excellently illustrate. In the former, a young divorcee risks her reputation to ensnare a potential husband, and nearly does lose it; then the war intervenes to bring her respectability. The protagonist of "Aloeswood" is not so lucky: to bring her feckless Eurasian lover a dowry, she moonlights as a tart in her pimping aunt's establishment.
Both splice pastiche of an embellished Chinese literary style with spare but naturalistic narration and lyrical descriptions of Hong Kong landscapes; both are reminiscent of the early Jean Rhys, as their female protagonists seem to see their lives solely in sexual, male-centred terms.
The stories with male perspectives are even bleaker. In "Red Rose, White Rose" the anti-hero has two affairs and then marries a conventional woman whom he nearly destroys along with himself. In "Jasmine Tea", a student attacks a young colleague merely because of an affair their parents may have had.
Chang has been praised for her understanding of the Chinese female condition, but any attempt to read her fictions as explorations of women's desires in their social contexts would be only partly successful. Her characters, unlike those created by her contemporaries on the left, are gratuitously cruel and without insight. The matriarch in "The Golden Cangue" drives both her children to opium addiction, and ruins her daughter's last chance of catching her husband.
Even in her early twenties, Chang displayed a jaundiced, misanthropic view of her world, only partly determined by her circumstances. The stories in Lust, Caution are quieter performances, less lush in texture, but slightly more compassionate. The title story is so oblique that it requires several readings, which deprives its account of the betrayal of a young spy employed to trap a right-wing bigwig of emotional impact. Chang's powerful, cruel tales are usually without a vestige of tenderness or redemptive faith, but the existential hell in which they unfold is luxuriously furnished and full of sensuous temptations.
Aamer Hussein's 'Insomnia' is published by Telegram
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