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Shaman of words

The immortality of Eileen Chang

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Published: 7 Feb 2022


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This essay was originally written in Chinese. English translation by Yeo Wei Wei.

People often ask me: What’s so great about Eileen Chang? Why is she such a cult figure in Chinese literature?

2020 was Eileen Chang’s birth centenary. I watched Zuni Icosahedron’s commemorative production, Read Sing Eileen Chang, online. Some scenes left a deep impression. Felicia Yip, the actress who was cast as the writer, stood onstage with quotations from Chang’s oeuvre projected all around her—on the walls to her left and right, on the wall behind her and even on the floor. I found these images arresting because they show us how Chang and her language are entangled. Chang’s greatness and her way with words are absolutely inseparable. 

<em>Read Sing Eileen Chang</em>

When I read The Rouge of the North in secondary school, I remember being struck by the female protagonist Yindi’s description of her daughter-in-law’s lips, “… sliced up, they’ll make a huge pile on a plate.” It made me laugh so hard, whilst feeling sorry at the same time for the hapless daughter-in-law. Secretly, I was in awe of Yindi’s razor-sharp wit. Love in A Fallen City was another one of Chang’s novels that I loved when I was a teenager. In it, she writes about youth and the passing of time with acerbic wit: “Seven or eight years go by in the blink of an eye. You say you are young? Never mind, you’ll be old in two years’ time. Youth is nothing here.” 

Last year saw the release of Love After Love, Ann Hui’s film adaptation of Chang’s debut publication, Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier.This is a text I was familiar with long before the film came out. I must have first read it when I was in secondary school, and it spoke to me in so many ways, but I recall in particular that I was jolted by a passage where the female protagonist Ge Weilong noticed the male protagonist George Qiao’s gaze:

Under that pair of green eyes, she felt her arms grow warm like milk on the stove, milk poured from a green flask, and she couldn’t stop herself from being poured out, emptied entirely.

I was stunned. How does Chang do it? How does she evoke the richness and complexity of a character’s inner world in the space of a few sentences? In the foreword to her anthology, Chang says that writing is about “understanding what is going on beneath the surface of things, it is about looking deep inside, at our inner selves.” Her observations of human nature are never clouded by sentimentality—this, I think, is critical to her success.

The publication of Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier(1943) made her famous. She was prolific and many works were published in swift succession:Love in A Fallen City, Red Rose and White Rose, The Golden Cangue, and others. What’s curious is that she wrote her best works in a span of two, three years, at the height of her fame. Her stories deal with the conventional and the mundane—people falling in love, getting married, having children or having problems at home, dying. Too many literary works “draw attention to the spectacular and the extraordinary”; she prefers to write about the pedestrian and the nondescript lives of ordinary people, because “there’s where eternity is found.” (from Writing of One’s Own). Reading Chang is to be spirited into her presence, a living, breathing omniscience. She is a shaman who keeps her audience rapt and spellbound, it doesn’t matter what the genre is or what she’s writing about.

Below: A trailer of the 2021 adaptation of The First Brazier.

Love

Many of her contemporaries are no longer being read, while Chang continues to attract new generations of readers who are excited when they read her for the first time—they fall in love with her words, they become obsessed with her, reading up on her life, devouring her works. And all this wouldn’t happen if not for the magic of her language, her style. There are critics who speak of the bleak pessimism, the aloofness of her prose, but I disagree. For me, she is someone who is able to represent people and their relationships transparently, because she recognises that life isn’t transparent, that things can’t be put simply in black and white. The idea that some critics have of her as a romance novelist is undercut by her fiction where love, romance and how people stay together or break up are myths that she debunks time and again. As she put it in Liuqing, in a statement that has become an axiom: ‘‘In this life, there aren’t relationships without holes.’’

Chang’s shortest essay, Love, is less than 300 words, but its affect is far-reaching. When she was writing this piece, she and her first husband Hu Lancheng were newlyweds and he told her a story about a woman who kept being passed on from one buyer to the next. In her old age, this woman in his story looked back to the time of her youth and recalled a chance encounter with a young man who said only one thing to her. The thing he said to her, she says she has never forgotten. In her essay, Chang refers to this story:

From a hundred thousand people over a hundred thousand years, you may meet someone at a time that is neither too early nor too late. And if such a thing should happen, there isn’t anything to say at such a time except to softly ask: “Oh, are you here too?”

For Chang, a moment of true connection is vital, but it is also nothing more than a moment. After it passes, it is gone, there is no trace of it left. Perhaps this is what all feelings are like, no matter how monumental that moment may seem to be at that point in time. Including falling in love, meeting one’s soulmate.

In Red Rose and White Rose there are also classic sentences like the following: “Perhaps every man has two women in his life. He marries Red Rose; over time, the red turns into a smudge of mosquito blood on the wall; he marries White Rose, the white becomes a rice grain stuck onto his shirt, while the red is a bright mole on his heart.” To spend a lifetime seeking one’s true love may blind one to what true love is. And a life like that may end up being one of missed opportunities.

A still from the film <em>Red Rose, White Rose</em> (1994), adapted from Eileen Chang's novella

Women

Chang’s feminism isn’t preachy or strident. Because it expresses her conviction in what women are capable of and because it speaks up, albeit faintly, for those who have been wronged, her brand of feminism is all the more compelling. Eavesdropping on conversations between women on the tram, noticing how they go on and on about husbands and sons, never about themselves, Chang laments in Traveling with Women: “How these women on the tram depress me. I feel for them, these women… women who spend their lives talking about men, thinking about men, complaining about men, day in, day out, never changing, never ending.”

Perhaps she was influenced from young by her mother who was a divorcee and fiercely independent. From a young age, Chang believed that women should live for themselves. In Red Rose and White Rose the male protagonist and Red Rose, his ex, meet each other by chance on the tram. The man says something to belittle Red Rose: “You’ve met a man.” Red Rose doesn’t get mad, instead she replies after thinking for a while: “Yes. When you’re young and attractive, you dress well, you’ll meet men no matter what it is that you do. But later in life, apart from men, there’s always something else... there’s bound to be something else...”

The Metropolis

Unlike her contemporaries, Chang’s writing feels fresh, just like her characters and settings. They seem utterly relevant and relatable, as if they’re not from past eras but the present time. I suspect this has to do with her metropolitan sensibility.

She was a city person in every possible way. “I couldn’t sleep without hearing the trams.” (Apartment Anecdote). She loved to walk around the city, shopping, having afternoon tea in a café, listening in on other people’s chitchat on the tram. She was inspired by everything she saw—the people, the streets.

She was obsessed with fashion, design, the visual arts. She drew illustrations and wrote film reviews. She had a unique fashion sense, often pairing traditional jackets from the Qing dynasty with modern cheongsams. She was photographed with the singer and actress Shirley Yamaguchi in a twin-set she’d made out of her grandmother’s old quilt. Chang’s boldness made her stand out not only in her time; there is a daring in her that reminds me of Lady Gaga.

She is like her beloved Shanghai in this respect—with a foundation steeped in the literary classics like Dream of the Red Chamber and Flowers of Shanghai, and constantly re-inventing herself through the influence of cinema, fashion, psychology—modern influences, in short.  She was the archetypal Shanghainese; cosmopolitan and open, her writing embodies Shanghai, integrating the east and the west, the classical and the contemporary.

The “Shanghai” of Eileen Chang isn’t a place; it is an emblem of how the old and the new are endlessly making new connections. It is a sanctuary, not in the physical sense but metaphorically. “Shanghai” is where a person can be safe, and they can search for themselves and they can go into hiding; they can observe and allow themselves to be observed without feeling threatened. In Apartment Anecdote she writes:

“An apartment in the city is the best hideaway from the world. People who are sick of the city may hanker after the village life, the open space, growing vegetables, beekeeping, the pleasures of the simple life. But what they don’t know is that there is no peace to be had in the countryside where the smallest thing you do becomes fodder for gossip. If you live in a penthouse apartment, you are absolutely free to live as you wish. Even if you change in front of the windows, no one will know!” 

Escape Artist

Chang was a recluse for most of her life. Yet in her early publications in magazines, the essays that have been anthologised in Written On Water, she writes openly about her private life and her family. In an essay written in English, What A Life! What a Girl’s Life! she writes about how her father kept her locked up at home for a year after she rebelled against her stepmother when she was 18 and how she almost died during that time. In 1944, one of the things she did after becoming famous in Shanghai was to translate the essay into Mandarin and publish it as Murmure. The performative self is an aspect of her writing and personality that offers another key to her allure today. Because of social media, private worlds have become accessible. Chang’s writing deals with her dysfunctional family, and the scars of her childhood and youth, over and over again. This performance of her private life in the public domain of writing is a big reason for her cult status today.

The centenary of her birth in 2020, the passing of over 80 years since her death—these are milestones of time, but Chang is timeless. She is immortal, like the works she created, the words she’s left behind—evocative, mesmerising words for all time. 

Watch the screening of Zuni Icosahedron's Read Sing Eileen Chang at Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts on 20 Feb.

Contributed by:

Lim Fong Wei

Lim Fong Wei is a bilingual senior journalist at Lianhe Zaobao. A film graduate from Boston University, he is also a screenwriter (3688), fiction writer, translator and independent researcher. His short story The Woman on a Trishaw at Dead Man Alley has won Singapore’s Golden Point Award (2017). His recent essays on Eileen Chang’s mother Yvonne Whang, and friend Fatima Mohideen, have received wide interest in the Chinese reading world.


Acknowledgement by:

Yeo Wei Wei (translator)

Dr Yeo Wei Wei’s love of Chinese culture was seeded during her secondary school days at Dunman High School. Her most memorable translation project to date was translating interviews and song lyrics for the xinyao documentary, The Songs We Sang. This year she will be publishing a collection of short stories adapted from Soon Ailing’s short stories. She is also known as an author and educator.


A roaring new year

Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts

Join us as we mark the 20th year of Huayi with blockbuster productions and exciting programmes that celebrate Chinese arts and culture!

11 Feb – 6 Mar 2022

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