Ends of Betrayal: Diaspora and Historical
Representation in the Late Works of Zhang Ailing

By Shuang Shen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 24, no. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 112-148

The late works of Zhang Ailing written in the United States–her English essay “A Return to the Frontier” (1963) and the Chinese language novel Little Reunion (2009), in particular–can be viewed as responding to a general charge of betrayal, beyond any specific instance or act. Betrayal as act, scene, trope, or theme permeates these late works, forcing us to formulate a general theorization of betrayal, rather than one that is narrowly focused on Zhang’s depiction of treason during the Sino-Japanese War in “Lust, Caution.” Conjoining the theorizations of betrayal by scholars in Asian American, feminist, and Sinophone studies, this article argues that the representation of betrayal in Zhang’s late works deserves more careful attention and a more complex response than either moral denigration or righteous indignation. Key to understanding betrayal is to differentiate it from an unconditional endorsement of transgression qua transgression, but consider it as a site of historical self-writing by the Chinese diasporic subject.

Focusing on Zhang’s last novel Little Reunion, this article approaches betrayal as an act whose socio-political significance is not configured around the issues of citizenship or Asian American community formation, as in the case of some Anglophone Asian American works. Rather the target of betrayal in Sinophone Asian American works has to be understood as about war and modernity in Chinese and American contexts told from the perspective of a diasporic survivor. The “diasporic betrayal” of Zhang is closely related to the mediation of textual circulation, multi-lingual practice, and the reception of transnational readers. Although this novel depicts seemingly trivial incidents in the domestic sphere, Zhang’s emphasis on the deep embeddedness of individuals’ lives in history allows us to read this novel as a response to collective history. Through recounting the bitter mutual betrayals of the mother and the daughter, the daughter and her lover, this novel presents an affective history that defies the historicist logic and structure.