Eileen Chang’s Poetics of the Social:
Review of Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang
Translated by Karen Kingsbury

Reviewed by Haiyan Lee
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2007)

Eileen Chang.Love in a Fallen City. Tr. Karen Kingsbury.   New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59017-178-3 (paper) $14.95.

Eileen Chang.Love in a Fallen City. Tr. Karen Kingsbury.
New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59017-178-3 (paper) $14.95.

The New York Review of Books Classics series is designed to reintroduce to today’s readers beloved works of literature and criticism that have unfortunately gone out of print and perhaps out of mind as well. The fact that a good number of the authors represented in the series are more or less obscure to the contemporary readership and yet share the same pride of place with such literary giants as Dante, Stendhal, and James is an indication of NYRB’s effort to redefine the canon. This is certainly a welcome endeavor for the countless fans of Eileen Chang (1920-1995), the only Chinese author included in the series.

It is a familiar story how Eileen Chang shot to literary fame almost overnight in the early 1940s and then allowed that brilliant career to fizzle in reclusive exile, minimally partaking of the cult that stubbornly grew around her early claim-to-fame fiction and her sparse later output. Much has been said about Chang already: her meteoric career, her literary genius, her linguistic gift, her troubled family and love life, her affection for her native Shanghai, her sojourns in Hong Kong, and her enigmatic need for privacy. And yet much about her remains a mystery. Even if we leave aside her stunning success as a fledgling twenty-something author whose first collection of fiction was sold out within days in its initial print, we still don’t have a satisfactory explanation as to why readers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas communities continued to devour her slim opus throughout the second half of the twentieth century and why, more than thirty years after her works had disappeared from mainland China, readers there exultantly rediscovered them while ever newer editions of her work continuously roll off the printing presses. A book review is admittedly not the proper place to search for the answers to these puzzles, but perhaps it is a good idea to revisit Chang with question marks in mind, so that we don’t merely swoon before the magic of her art.

Love in a Fallen City contains four novellas and two short stories; of the six texts, five appeared in Chang’s first collection, Romances (Chuanqi, 1944). There is also an informative introduction by the translator, Karen S. Kingsbury, one of the first American scholars to study and translate Chang’s fiction. This anthology represents her long and determined effort to bring Chang out of the wilderness of foreign literature classes on university campuses and to introduce her most acclaimed works to a wider English-speaking readership. But Chang is not a total stranger to the American literary scene. One of the very few modern writers who were equally at home in Chinese and English, she was not only a fine translator, but also wrote three English language novels in the early years of her exile.[1] For complicated and not well-understood reasons, these forays did not launch her onto a successful career in her adopted country. To acknowledge Chang’s bilingualism, Kingsbury includes in this anthology Chang’s own translation of “The Golden Cangue,” arguably the darkest and most claustrophobic of her stories, and invites the reader to ponder its different “timbre.”[2]

Translating Chang the consummate prose stylist is a formidable task, to say the least. Chang’s prose is both idiomatic and idiosyncratic, combining elements from divergent sources, most notably the traditional vernacular fiction of the Ming and Qing dynasties and the nineteenth and early twentieth century European literature that nurtured her precocious literary imagination. Chang excels in capturing the sights, sounds, textures, colors, and flavors of urban life, particularly domestic life, and regaling her readers with a bewildering panoply of baroque names for ornaments, fabrics, plants, and bric-a-brac, many of which have become remote and quaint to us. But the most gratifying moments of Chang’s prose belong to the many deliciously refreshing and always piquant metaphors and similes that enliven the descriptive passages between saucy and spirited dialogue. It is fair to say that no character or object appears in her fiction as is , without a double life, without being subverted by a mischievously fabulous mind–not even a maid who has less than half a page of fictional life. When Weilong, the protagonist of “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier,” shows up at her wealthy aunt’s mansion with her Cantonese housemaid Amah Chen and the dogs begin to bark, the reader is treated to the following description:

Amah Chen was frightened. She was wearing a brand-new tunic of light blue cotton that was stiff with starch. When she got flustered she twisted around inside her clothes, so that the cloth rustled noisily. She wore her hair in a braid . . . , but the braid was tied murderously tight [zha de shaqi tengteng], like a nine-segment steel whip in a martial arts novel. (25)

The May Fourth generation of fiction writers have given us countless portraitures of peasant or lower class characters, but none leaps out from the page like Amah Chen, with perhaps the exception of Lu Xun’s compass-shaped Beancurd Beauty in “My Hometown.” The passage in English is rendered with characteristic fluidity and flair, conveying vividly the sense of bemused embarrassment that the gauche amah provokes in Weilong.

When it comes to limning her lead characters, Chang simply dazzles. Consider this description of Ch’i-ch’iao of “The Golden Cangue” in the midst of trying to seduce her brother-in-law: “She stared straight ahead, the small, solid gold pendants of her earrings like two brass nails nailing her to the door, a butterfly specimen in a glass box, bright-colored and desolate” (186). What more poignant image could one conjure up to encapsulate Ch’i-ch’iao’s virtual imprisonment in the traditional extended household into which she is taken to be the wife-cum-nursemaid of an invalid son? If the astringent, sharp-angled, and grasping Ch’i-ch’iao sits menacingly at one end of Chang’s lantern show of desiring women, then the bland, soft-lined, and hesitant Cuiyuan in “Sealed Off,” whose beauty is “undefined” (moleng liangke de) and whose body is compared to “squeezed-out toothpaste” (243), sits demurely on the other. But Cuiyuan too is fully alive to the promise of a chance encounter: when a stranger sits down next to her in the trolley showing every intention of flirting with her, “her face [is] rigid as can be . . . and yet, somewhere, a trembling hint of a tiny smile . . . is on the verge of breaking out” (243). Chang is most effective in capturing the comical, deflationary, or ridiculous situations that petty urbanites often find themselves in. Zongzhen in “Sealed Off” (Cuiyuan’s trolley beau), for example, is a self-respecting bank clerk riding the trolley home from work (and getting stuck on it during the blockade):

When he saw the smoked fish [another passenger is carrying with gingerly care],[3] he remembered the steamed spinach buns that his wife had asked him to buy at a noodle stand near the bank. Women are always like that! Buns that are bought in the hardest-to-find, most twisty-wisty of tiny alleys have to be the cheapest and the best. She didn’t consider how it made him look–a man smartly dressed in dapper suit and tie, with tortoiseshell glasses and a leather briefcase, and then, tucked under his arm, these steaming hot buns wrapped in newspaper–how ridiculous! (239)

In rendering Chang’s full-bodied and many-flavored prose, Kingsbury deliberately errs on the side of “over-translation” (xvi)–without, thankfully, being too plodding or exoticizing. Given the daunting challenges, occasional errors seem inevitable (and by no means detract from the overall achievement of the anthology). For example, on the first day Zhenbao, the protagonist of “Red Rose, White Rose,” meets and dines with his landlord and landlady, he is so smitten by the latter’s insouciant charms that he has to walk away to avoid saying or doing anything foolish: “Zhenbao became intoxicated with her. Fearing impropriety, he mumbled something inconsequential and also stepped out onto the balcony.” Kingsbury translates this passage as follows: “To Zhenbao, she seemed drunk. Fearing the kind of faux pas that so often follows drink, he mumbled something inconsequential and strolled onto the balcony” (269). The metaphoric nature of Zhenbao’s “drunkenness” is made clearer in the next line: “The breeze felt cool on his skin. He became even more worried that his face had been rather flushed just now. He fretted to himself.” (Kingsbury’s translation: “The breeze was cool on his skin: most likely his face had been pretty red a moment before. Now he was even more troubled” [269][4]; in my view, the choice of “red” for “hongtou zhanglian de” does not fully register Zhenbao’s state of sensual intoxication.)

Lingering over Chang’s rhetorical mastery, however, only scratches at the surface of the puzzle of the Chang Craze. Not only does Chang seem to transcend geographical boundaries, she is also unrivaled in her ability to appeal to both lay readers and sophisticated critics. Literary scholars have explained her growing critical salience in terms of her marginalization–i.e., her long exclusion from the literary canon shaped by May-Fourth/Chinese Communist Party orthodoxies. Given the current penchant to lionize the marginal, Chang’s love of irony and her preoccupation with trifling subjects are automatically read as subversive of the dominant ideology or the master narrative of revolution and liberation. But readers are drawn to her not for what she avoids writing about, but for what she does give them, with all its seductive abundance.

In the limited space of this review, I would like tentatively to advance the thesis that Chang’s fiction articulates a “poetics of the social” that underlies both her marginalization and her enduring attraction. By “the social,” I mean the experiential and interpersonal dimensions of human existence. A poetics of the social is a literary rendering of the dynamics of social interactions and symbolic engagements. Chang’s poetics of the social presents a world in which women, both beautiful and not so beautiful, manage, manipulate, or maim social relationships through things (houses, gardens, dresses, accessories, and objets d’art) and their universal common denominator: money. It is also a world of codes, etiquette, rituals, conventions, manners, tastes, distinctions, moods, dreams, fantasies, games, histrionics, contretemps, petty skirmishes, minor triumphs, transgressions, retrenchments, and reconciliations. Of course this is also the world of the Grandview Garden in the Dream of the Red Chamber, which Chang adored. But the social in Chang’s fictional world is in a much greater state of flux whereby the old elite are making the painful transition to the regime of bourgeois respectability under conditions of the commodity economy, colonial (Hong Kong) or semi-colonial (Shanghai) domination, and even war and occupation.

It is in this state of flux that women begin to see possibilities of freedom and experience the predicaments of moral agency. Chang finds poetry not in instances of “extreme pathology or extreme enlightenment” (jiduan de bingtai yu jiduan de juewu), [5] but in ordinary weaknesses, small cruelties, and chance delights that make up life’s messiness. Most of her female characters make less than courageous choices and then stoically cope with the fallout of these choices. Think of Ch’i-ch’iao, sister of an oil shop owner, who casts aside the amorous attention of the neighborhood young men to marry into a large elite family in order to lay claim to the status and privileges of a “lady.” Think also of Weilong’s aunt, Madame Liang, who willingly becomes an aged business tycoon’s fourth concubine, and then Weilong herself, a young student who voluntarily attaches herself to Madame Liang and eventually prostitutes herself to an elderly merchant in order to stay afloat in a world of money and pleasure.

It is notoriously difficult to discern lines of oppression and victimization in Chang’s fictional world. Invidious hierarchies of class, gender, and race are omnipresent, and yet they intersect in such a way as to diffuse any possibility of righteous indignation, unalloyed compassion, or solidarity-making. Women who are shrewd enough to exploit these intersections manage to carve out a precarious space for themselves, albeit often at the expense of other women: their servants, their rivals, their daughters (sometimes sons as well). There are no out and out winners here–even those who come out on top are profoundly compromised. There are many bruised hearts and lost souls. And yet this is also a world of surfaces, superficialities, and masks. One’s ability to carry oneself in the presence of others and to engage in discursive battles with clever, sharp repartees (sometimes in wordless battles of the eyebrows [meimao guansi]) can make or break one’s social fortune. This is the theatrum mundi in which what is required is the artful presentation of the self. There are no raw selves crying out against the dead weight of tradition or striving to represent their true emotions in spontaneous, unmediated forms, as in May Fourth romanticism. There are also no wooden victims or deluded pariahs who invite pity because they are unable to perceive the limits of their pathetic existence–the peasant or small town characters in May Fourth realist fiction are ready examples. There are also no ceaseless strivings to transcend the quotidian and to reach for the utopian sublime, as in revolutionary romanticism that gives us the “revolution plus romance” genre.

The social in Chang centers on the secular enchantment of commodities and socialities. The characters are little invested in depth psychology–there are few confessional or therapeutic moments–or transcendental philosophy; they are strangers to the transport of religious devotion or the exhilaration of collective action. And yet they are inveterate dreamers, forever fantasizing about being touched by the grace of good fortune, about finding greater happiness in the tender regard of another human being (otherwise known as romantic bliss). Despite repeated disappointments and frustrations, they cling to the hope of experiencing (or at least brushing against) the beautiful, the lyrical, and the enchanted in the here and now and with the very props–ephemeral things and feckless men–that dash their dreams. Weilong in “Aloeswood Incense,” for instance, falls in love with a Eurasian playboy named George who wants to marry himself off to an heiress so as to break free from his despotic father. To hold onto the sweet sensations that George arouses in her, she cashes in on the infatuation of one of her aunt’s paramours and takes George in as a live-in husband (knowing that he would carry on with the aunt). She is painfully aware of how much her quest for romantic love is vitiated by greed and lust, yet she cherishes the simple pleasures (kuaile) of everyday living, such as when she and George, as wife and husband, mingle with festival crowds in Wan Chai while browsing the bazaar:

Pushed back and forth by the crowd, she had a strange sensation. The sky overhead was a dark purple-blue, and the sea at the end of the winter sky was purple-blue too, but here in the bay was a place like this, a place teeming with people and lanterns and dazzling goods–blue ceramic, double-handled flowerpots, rolls and rolls of scallion-green velvet brushed with gold, cellophane bags of Balinese Shrimp Crisps, amber-colored durian cakes from the tropics, Buddha-bead bracelets with their big red tassels, light yellow sachets, little crosses made of dark silver, collie hats–and stretching out beyond these lights and people and market goods, the clear desolation of sea and sky; endless emptiness, endless terror. Her future was like that–it didn’t bear thinking about; if she did think it was only endless terror. She had no lasting arrangement for her life. Her fearful, cringing heart could find a makeshift sort of rest only in little odds and ends, like these spread out before her. (73-74)

The sundry goods in the bazaar and an unfaithful husband are all she has to fend off the emptiness enveloping her world. For the moment, she is reconciled to the transient thrills of the “odds and ends” and the companionship of a man who also protects her from immediate dangers (such as fire-cracker throwing street urchins and drunken English sailors). She finds her happiness in these things even knowing that they might someday slip away from her and she would have to face the terror alone.

Radical writers of the 1930s and 1940s, however, are of a different mind. The heroes and heroines of Ding Ling’s fiction, for example, resolutely reject the lure of commodities and romantic love as well as the endless terror that looms on the horizons of the bourgeois commercial civilization. They are convinced that beyond this tawdry world there is a world from which existential terror is permanently banished. This world will be born of the baptism of revolutionary politics in the service of the proletarian social question–the question of food, clothes, and shelter for the oppressed and downtrodden. The bourgeois social is then denounced as superstructural and delusional. Women who find their agency within its terms are said to be in thrall to false consciousness. When the peasants are starving, how can anyone find pleasure in shopping or flirting? There are no rights more legitimate than the right of the hungry. No joy can compare with the joy of making history anew to resolve the social question for the multitudes. As one merges with humanity itself, one could face anything; one could bid goodbye to dependency and vulnerability and all such existential terror.

The heroic ethic of the revolution that swept across the mainland left in its wake gaping holes of existential anxiety. The bourgeois social returns with a vengeance as people eagerly re-acquaint themselves with commodity fetishism and the romantic mythology. Mainland readers turn to Chang for wisdom, validation, consolation, and nostalgia, just as overseas readers have done so all along during the decades of economic “take-off” and bourgeoisification. Chang resonates powerfully across time and space because, in the post-revolutionary and postmodern age, how many of us are ready to take leave of the social buttressed by the commercial civilization and its material and affective comforts for the sake of an abiding cause, be it collective, spiritual, or personal? How many of us are willing to sacrifice our cherished lifegoods–our family, our network of colleagues and friends, our career and professional achievements, our associational life, our obligations and commitments–for the sake of a singular hypergood? We may snicker at Zhenbao in “Red Rose, White Rose” when he backs out of a passionate affair and chooses to honor his mother, his job, and bourgeois respectability. But in the inner recesses of our mind we seem to know that were Zhenbao and his landlady to become united by their love, they would still have to settle down to bourgeois normalcy and cope with the tedious routines and paltry troubles of everyday life, just like in his present marriage, which teeters and totters but nonetheless does not quite unravel. Chang is by no means ready to indict the social as sheer bad faith. However disappointing, it is where her characters begin and end their fictional lives. They may yearn to escape its grip or perennially regret having missed the opportunity to do so, but ultimately they are most at home navigating the seductive forces of the social that both constitute and constrain them.

Returning to Chang by way of Ding Ling et al. helps us understand why the social is considered the antithesis of the political on the mainland even though elsewhere it is the heart of politics–as in gender politics, ethnic politics, sexual politics, identity politics, etc. We learn to appreciate that politics need not be confined to the overthrow of one class by another for the sake of a reductively defined social question–as if the lower classes have nothing but bare life. The challenge for us is how to define a new politics of the social that is fully cognizant of gender and racial inequities, the quest for distinction and recognition, the problem of attachment and dependency, the economy of pleasure, the theatrics of sociability, and the promises and perils of aestheticism.

After all is said and done, it is Chang herself who gives us the most eloquent explanation of why her fiction possesses such captivating powers. In the preface to the second printing of Romances (included in the English anthology), she writes:

In the savage wilderness, the woman who comes to power is not, as most people imagine, a wild rose with big, black, burning eyes, stronger than a man, whip in hand, ready to strike at any moment. That’s just a fantasy made up by city-folk in need of new stimulation. In the wilderness that is coming, among the shards and rubble, only the painted-lady type from “Hop-Hop” opera, this kind of woman, can carry on with simple ease. Her home is everywhere, in any era, any society. (3-4)

If Ding Ling is the militant, whip-wielding new woman blazing the revolutionary trail, Eileen Chang is the painted-lady chanteuse who serenades those falling by the wayside. If we no longer have to contend with polygamy, female domesticity, and colonial conceit as Chang’s coquettes and dandies have to, if the social has become ever more cavernous and evocative of “savage wilderness,” we still have to negotiate the poetics and politics of the social, and we still need poetry in our prosaic existence. Amid the shards and rubble of modern life, the painted lady still sings to us.

Haiyan Lee
University of Colorado, Boulder


[1] Chang translated the late Qing courtesan novel Haishanghua liezhuan by Han Bangqing into English as The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai; Weatherhead Books on Asia reissued the translation (redacted by Eva Hung) in 2005. In the same year, Weatherhead Books also published the English translation of Chang’s collection of essays, Written on Water (Liuyan; translated by Andrew F. Jones with an introduction by Nicole Huang). The University of California Press republished The Rice-Sprout Song and The Rouge of the North (with introductions by David Wang) in 1998 (the third novel, not reissued, is Naked Earth).

[2] I would have preferred a new translation, if only for consistency’s sake (Chang uses the Wade-Giles romanization for Chinese names whereas Kingsbury uses the now common Pinyin system). Chang’s English, while flowing and graceful, does not always do justice to her now earthy, now measured, and now highly wrought Chinese. For example, she tells us in Chinese that Ch’i-ch’iao has a big mouth (or loose tongue; zui zheyang chang), but in English Ch’i-ch’iao becomes “outspoken” (186). To give another example, she renders the familiar Chinese expression for heartache, sadness, or pity, “xinsuan,” as “acid pain” (189), which is far from capturing the mixed feelings that take hold of Ch’i-ch’iao when she sees her brother bend over gracelessly to ascertain if the humble and awkward gift he has brought to his snooty affinal relations (who pretend not to notice his arrival) has been spoiled in transportation.

[3] The word “gingery” in the following sentence is likely a typo: “He held the greasy paper parcel with gingery care, several inches out from his trousers” (238).

[4] For the Chinese original, click here. The “also” refers to the fact that Zhenbao’s old-fashioned brother has already sought refuge on the balcony out of discomfort at witnessing the couple’s uninhibited ways of interacting with each other. Qingcheng zhi lian (Beijing: Beijing shiyue wenyi, 2006), 52.

[5] “Guanyu ‘Qingcheng zhi lian’ de laoshi hua” (Some honest words about “Love in a fallen city”), in Qingcheng zhi lian (Beijing: Beijing shiyue wenyi, 2006), 463.