Eileen Chang:
Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres

Edited by Kam Louie

Reviewed by Rui Kunze
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2013)

Book cover for Eileen Chang

Kam Louie, ed.
Eileen Chang:
Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012. Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2011. 298 pp.
Hardback: ISBN 978-988-8083-79-4;
Paperback: ISBN 978-988-8083-72-5

It has been more than four decades since C. T. Hsia devoted forty-two pages to Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), “the best and most important writer in Chinese today,” in his A History of Modern Chinese Fiction 1917-1957 (1961, 389-431). The furor caused by Ang Lee’s cinematic interpretation of Chang’s 1978 short story “Lust, Caution” (Se jie) in 2007 and the posthumous publication of Chang’s (autobiographical) novels Little Reunion (Xiao tuanyuan, 2009), The Book of Change (2010), and The Fall of the Pagoda (2010) in Taiwan, mainland China, and Hong Kong attest to Chang’s enduring importance in modern Chinese literature. Research on Eileen Chang in the English-speaking world, however, is surprisingly meager in light of Hsia’s high estimation of her work and in comparison with the enduring enthusiasm of readers and critics throughout Greater China. In the past decade, English language research has explored new and interesting aspects of Chang’s work, including its representations of diasporic identity, colonial encounters, female subjectivity, and her writings that straddle the print-screen divide. Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres, edited by Kam Louie, is the first English language volume of critical essays devoted entirely to the author and her works.

This collection consists of eleven chapters, preceded by an Editor’s introduction to Eileen Chang’s life, her works and their reception. An afterword by Leo Ou-fan Lee introduces questions that may productively lead to further research. The word “romance” (chuanqi) in the title of the volume does not just evoke Chang’s short story collection Chuanqi (1944), but also suggests Chang’s extraordinary ability to write across languages, cultures, and genres, an issue which each of the contributors addresses. The chapters are arranged in such a way “so that Chang’s major works are discussed approximately in the chronological order in which they were released” (2). Due to the tendency of self-translation and self-reference in Chang’s later work, however, almost all the critical essays in the volume hark back, in some form, to her life and writing in the early 1940s.

The first two chapters concern themselves with the problem of in-betweenness in two of Chang’s best known novellas “Love in a Fallen City” (Qingcheng zhi lian, 1943) and “Red Rose, White Rose” (Hong meigui yu bai meigui, 1944). Kam Louie revisits the returnee men in the stories: Fan Liuyuan in the former and Tong Zhenbao in the latter. He explores the problem of masculinity in the stories by situating the issue in the larger historical context that saw modernity simply as Western. Liuyuan, an overseas Chinese, seeks and marries “a traditional Chinese woman” in the fallen city Hong Kong. On the other hand, Zhenbao, a Chinese man with a European education, gradually lapses into moral degeneration and hypocrisy while he is back in China, a process that unfolds as he engages in sexual relations with multiple women. Louie argues that the stories, with their in-between characters and spaces, and a problematic masculinity failing to fulfill the traditional Chinese wen-wu ideal, unsettle a series of dichotomies underlying the validity of “Westernization”: the dichotomy of China and the West, the cultured and the primitive, the rational and the passionate, and even the dichotomy of man and woman. Interestingly, Chang’s stories also confirm in an indirect way the dark sides of the society that “revolutionary literature” attempted to convey.

Jessica Tsui-Yan Li examines the poetics and politics of the stage adaptation of Eileen Chang’s “Love in a Fallen City” by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (HKRT) in the twenty-first century for Chinese-speaking audience in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and North America. Li sees HKRT’s adaptation as “a cultural recreation” (34). By simultaneously perpetuating and transforming Chang’s original text, the production generates an in-between space where the boundaries demarcating Chang’s story and HKRT’s adaptation, femininity and masculinity, the colonized and the colonizer, are blurred.

The editor’s discussion of Eileen Chang’s life tells us that she 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.

In the third chapter, 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.

Holding that the mediated literary subjectivity in Eileen Chang’s essays has less aesthetic distance than that of her fictional works, 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.”

The essays of Shuang Shen and Xiaojue Wang deal with issues of diasporic identity in the Cold War and its effect on Chang’s writing practices. Shuang Shen considers the figure of betrayal as a violent and traumatic way of understanding the self through a non-assimilative Other(s) and Chang’s bilingual writing practice as an “impersonation,” that is, as an identity performance. 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. In further developing the topic, Shen explores the figure of betrayal in the newly discovered story “Spyring,” an English version of “Lust, Caution” which was written in the early 1950s, and the constant displacement of the traveller in Chang’s travel account “A Return to the Frontier” (1963) for which she also penned a Chinese version. Shen argues that these texts reveal the inherent contradiction within the diasporic subjectivity of the author and her anxiety about belonging. Both are informed and intensified by the geopolitical conditions of the Cold War period.

Centering her contribution on Chang’s engagement with the classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng), Xiaojue Wang examines Chang’s thwarted screenwriting experience, which took place at the intersections of the history of Hong Kong filmmaking and PRC Cold War cultural-diplomatic tactics in the 1950s and 1960s. Her analysis of Chang’s literary approach to studying the classic novel shows that Chang’s reading of the eighty-chapter edition is an incomplete work without closure and a deviation from the literary styles founded in her early writings. At the end of the chapter, Wang argues that Chang’s practice of rewriting across languages, genres, and media defies the Orientalist expectation and ideological domination of the US during the Cold War period.

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.

Deppman’s analysis first draws parallels between the two auteurs in terms of their transcultural life and intellectual experiences, their work experiences bridging the areas of literature and film, their populist approaches to art, and their shared interest in exploring dubious moral boundaries. Both auteurs’ works, Deppman concludes, combined literary and cinematic techniques and both ambitiously push generic and moral boundaries.

The recent publication of Eileen Chang’s three (autobiographical) novels in Chinese and English raises literary issues of the self and rewriting within Chang’s works. These issues also pose the question of how to reevaluate the literary achievements of her later years, a period that has been largely ignored in the study of Eileen Chang. The last three chapters of the volume treat Chang’s works posthumously published in 2009 and 2010.

Laikwan Pang approaches Little Reunion as an autobiographical novel. Instead of attempting to build up a correspondence between her fiction and reality, Pang considers this book as Chang’s poetic effort to revisit significant fragments of her being. It presents the relationship between the author Chang and the protagonist Julie as mediated by many kinds of otherness. This mediation plays a role in the self-probing of Chang/Julie through her intersubjective contacts with others as well as through her constant introspection.

Similarly, Tze-lan Sang sees Little Reunion as a meaning-making and identity-exploring text. By contextualizing it in the genealogy of modern Chinese women writers’ autobiographical fiction/fictionalized autobiography, Sang suggests that the book attempts to confront dominant patriarchal cultural and political discourses. Sang finds that, although somewhat plagued by the censorship and self-censorship imposed by these discourses, Little Reunion manages to subvert at least three of their bases: the myth of motherhood, the May Fourth discourse of liberal individualism, and the monolithic nationalism defined by the Kuomintang.

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.

Leo Ou-fan Lee’s “Afterword” asks what comes next? Affirming the quality and range of the papers in this volume, Lee proposes several questions focusing on the reevaluation of Eileen Chang and the issue of bilingualism in her works. For the former, Lee raises questions about possible explanations for the lasting “Eileen Chang fever” in the Chinese-speaking world and about a better understanding of her literary and intellectual output after she emigrated to the US. For the latter, Lee points to the issues concerning Chang’s identity problem and her bilingual writing, as well as the need for more research into Chang’s works, which substantially differentiate her from other modern women writers.

Kam Louie writes in the introduction: “In today’s world where cultures collide and interact in so many different ways and places, Eileen Chang presents a fascinating study” (3). This statement alone arguably justifies the relevance of contemporary research on Chang. Indeed, this edited volume makes a welcome and solid addition to the Eileen Chang scholarship, particularly to the English-language scholarship. Given the ongoing discussion of Chinese modernity, transnationalism, Sinophone studies, etc., Eileen Chang’s works, among the finest and subtlest in modern Chinese literature, are of great relevance and import. The articles in this volume will be of interest to all scholars of modern, and contemporary, Chinese culture; they could also easily serve as reading materials for graduate courses in Chinese literature. My only complaint is that the novel The Rice-Sprout Song (1955), a novel about “land reform” (tugai) in the early People’s Republic of China that Eileen Chang originally wrote in English, is somewhat brushed away as “a propaganda work” (9). In my view, this artistically sophisticated novel and the history of its reception invite examination from many perspectives,[ 1 ] not the least the boundary-crossing of languages and cultures.

Rui Kunze
Post-Doctoral Fellow, International Consortium for Research in the Humanities, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg


[ 1 ] For example, David Der-wei Wang, “Three Hungry Women,” The Monster That Is History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 117-147; Brian J. DeMare’s historical examination of the narratives of Chinese intellectuals about land reform in the early PRC time also includes a reading of the novel, see DeMare, “Casting (off) Their Stinking Airs: Chinese Intellectuals and Land Reform, 1946-52.” The China Journal 67 (Jan. 2012): 110-29.