Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    Born in 1920: The Writer Who Chronicled a Grand Era’s ‘Small Histories’

    The literary tradition Eileen Chang represented was essentially broken off on the Chinese mainland for 40 years. By the time she was rediscovered in the 1980s, that legacy couldn’t be recovered, but it could be rewritten.

    This article is the second in a series on the lives and legacies of three women born a century ago, and how they intersected with and reflected some of the major trends of the past 100 years of Chinese history. Read the first article here.

    When Dai Jinhua first came across Eileen Chang’s work in 1987, the not-yet-famous feminist cultural critic’s initial reaction was surprise. “Without a single line of introduction, I read ‘Love in a Fallen City,’ and I fell head over heels for it. I realized that this whole time there was this remarkable author out there who had done such great work.”

    By that point, Chang’s name and work had been largely forgotten on the Chinese mainland for almost 40 years. So when Dai searched several libraries for more information about her, she found nothing. “Great female literature was of course completely eclipsed by male literature, but then I thought: I’m going to rewrite that history,” she later joked. Although Dai can’t take all the credit, by the end of the decade, Eileen Chang was once again a household name in the Chinese mainland.

    How and why a writer known for her subtle, surprising sketches and her deep insight into the complexities of human nature, especially the female psyche, disappeared, only to return four decades later is in part the story of the dramatic social changes that have taken place in China since 1949. A descendant of a decaying imperial aristocracy, Chang has become a complex symbol of Shanghai’s golden age in reform-era China — even if she and her work were never entirely at home in either.

    Eileen Chang was born in Shanghai in 1920, a time of massive upheaval. The year before her birth, the May Fourth Movement rippled across the country, ushering in new intellectual currents, new values like democracy and science, and new rights for women. Those who took part hoped to fundamentally overturn China’s old, feudal ways and save the nation from colonial partition by driving it forward. And women both wanted and were encouraged to take part in this work.

    Chang was influenced by these intellectual trends, but she was no simple product of May Fourth. She came from a well-known family that could trace its lineage back to Zhang Peilun, a Qing dynasty official known for his upright behavior, and Li Hongzhang, a pro-modernization politician during the late Qing. Her father introduced her to Chinese classics like “Dream of the Red Chamber,” while her mother, a proponent of freeing women from the home, was keen to give her daughter a Western-style education.

    Just as the May Fourth generation had witnessed the collapse of imperial China, Chang’s childhood was shaped by the fall of her family, and she spent a tortured youth amid her parents’ collapsing marriage. Her father became addicted to opium and began to keep mistresses; her mother eventually left home and went abroad. Chang would grow up with her father and, later, a stepmother. After one heated argument in which Chang’s father beat her and then locked her in her room for several months, Chang ran away, staying with other family members until she was old enough to leave for university.

    Although her plans to enter the University of London were derailed by the outbreak of World War II, Chang was able to enroll at the University of Hong Kong. Again, life intervened, and she never finished her studies. In 1941, the Japanese occupied the British colony. The following year, Chang returned to Shanghai. It was this city — also occupied by the Japanese at the time — and its vibrant cabarets, cinemas, and cafés that would form the backdrop to Chang’s best-known work.

    Not long after arriving back in Shanghai, Chang’s stories earned her a reputation as a talented writer. If her novels were mostly about men and women, they differed from both the male gaze-heavy romances popular among the urban middle class and the parables of new women escaping and fighting against feudal oppression. Instead of idealistic yearnings for freedom or love, what the women in Chang’s novels desire is more nebulous, and they weren’t always victims, either.

    In one example, “The Golden Cangue,” a woman is sold by her brother to a disabled young lord in need of a wife. After becoming a mother herself, she does not break the cycle or impart modern values to her family. Instead, she becomes an accomplice of the patriarchy, replicating the oppression she once experienced by controlling her son and daughter’s lives, addicting the former to opium and meddling in the latter’s love life.

    Although Chang may be best known for her incisive descriptions of relationships and the human psyche, one of her most enduring tics — in both her writing and her personal life — was her fascination with material objects. She had a natural grasp of symbolism, and she wrote in great detail about the color and physicality of the world around her. But these gorgeous objects often carried a whiff of decadent lifelessness, such as when she compares a married woman to “a bird embroidered on a screen … her feathers darkened, moldy, and insect-eaten,” or life itself to “a gorgeous robe, crawling with lice.”

    Although she was among the most popular authors in occupied Shanghai, her work earned her the scorn of writers more preoccupied with the immediate task of national salvation. With China on the verge of collapse, many writers saw it as their mission to take up the pen as a weapon and do their part to save their country. The era itself, the fires of war and the struggle for survival, became their protagonist, the people its manifestation. It was time to rally around the collective, not indulge in individual pursuits.

    But for Chang, who, unlike many of these intellectuals, spent the war in occupied territory rather than retreating into the interior, the times and the war were only ever a background. She wrote about the world and its chaos; she didn’t feel the need to write about war or become a hero. Compared with the eagerness of that generation of intellectuals — torn between the pursuit of individual enlightenment and their duty to join the collective and save the country — her writing seems calm, pessimistic, disinterested. When she wrote about the people, it wasn’t to lionize them, but to explore their selfishness and their real feelings, their scheming and their reflections on life.

    In response to the famous translator Fu Lei’s criticism of her limited outlook, Chang wrote: “My novels … are full of characters who are not deep, who are not heroes, but who bear the greatest burdens of the age.” She wrote about the war, but through the eyes of caretakers who rejoiced when a terminal patient stopped moaning and finally died; students in Hong Kong who spent the occupation shopping for food, cooking, and flirting because they had nothing else to do; and people who rushed into marriage for lack of a job or simple entertainment and solace.

    Later, during Chang’s mainland revival in the 1980s, Dai Jinhua and another researcher, Meng Yue, argued that the situation in occupied China paradoxically led to more mature, self-aware writing by women, including Chang. With many intellectuals having taken refuge in Communist- or Nationalist-controlled areas and the politics of national salvation oppressed under the occupation regime, concern for women or the individual no longer needed to be linked to a bigger agenda. Jolted free of the male-dominated national salvation discourse and its all-consuming urgency, they were instead able to focus on telling human stories of individuals in and beyond an unpredictable era.

    The war eventually ended, but it left questions in its wake. For some Chinese intellectuals, their confusion regarding the place of the individual in their new society found answers in the collective power of nation and people. After the founding of the People’s Republic, this manifested in calls to serve the country and the collective will. In Cultural Revolution operas, individuals became archetypes, models for the people to study. Some left-wing female writers, struggling against the patriarchy, sought to empower women by answering the call of the collective, though they later found that doing so merely resulted in subordination to another kind of power. Chang’s works, which were regarded as full of petit bourgeois sentiment, disappeared. Their pages, full of scheming, selfish, covetous, and very human characters, were potentially harmful to the collective myth of a people united in the struggle for the country, the revolution, and the future.

    It wasn’t until the 1980s and the end of the collectivist period that such subjects reemerged on the Chinese mainland — and Chang, whose protagonists needed not be exemplary or bright, was rediscovered and reinterpreted. Soon, researchers were arguing for her as an alternative to the masculine focus on national history: A “small history” grounded in daily life and closer to the humanity of ordinary people.

    At the same time, Chang’s legacy on the mainland benefitted from a rising middle class hungry for tales of urban elegance and romance. A “fever” for all things Republican-era China saw a wave of nostalgia for the post-Qing, pre-PRC era, and especially the cosmopolitanism of 1930s and 1940s Shanghai. Chang’s eye for detail: her characters’ chic clothing, aristocratic backgrounds, and decadent social gatherings all helped shape and reinforce this mythos. This contributed greatly to her renewed popularity among the public, even if her newfound commercial appeal often misled readers into thinking of her as a romance novelist. Her works were adapted into hit films and television series, while her “famous sayings” about men and women were somewhat ironically reframed as sage advice about love and relationships.

    Dai’s use of the word “rewrite” in discussing her intentions for Chang’s legacy was apropos. Chang’s works have been highly acclaimed by many writers in the mainland since her rediscovery, but unlike in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where authors had been engaging with Chang pretty much continuously, her literary legacy was largely broken off on the Chinese mainland. Although critics have suggested a few possible successors, most notably the chronicler of Shanghai life Wang Anyi or even the male writer Su Tong, the truth is that those looking for direct signs of Chang’s influence in their work may come away disappointed. By the time she was rediscovered in the late 1980s, her work, and particularly her fascination with the decadence and charm of Jazz Age Shanghai, no longer resonated in the same way. It felt like something distant, a legend, a lost word to writers on the mainland: appealing, worth revisiting, but ultimately irretrievable.

    “Man lives in an age, but this age is disappearing like a shadow, and man feels himself abandoned,” Chang once wrote of life in World War II. “In order to confirm one’s existence and to grasp something real and fundamental, one cannot help but turn to ancient memories, memories of all the times in which man has lived.” Chang always seemed somewhat detached for her time. But that didn’t mean she had no worldview. No matter the crisis, no matter how all-consuming it may seem to those caught up in it, underneath it all, humanity is still, constantly, humanity — and life goes on.

    Translator: Matt Turner; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Wang Zhenhao and Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)