Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2013

Love in a Fallen City, by Eileen Chang, translated by Karen S Kingsbury and Eileen Chang


Love in a Fallen CityEileen Chang (1920-1995) was a Chinese writer whose life was profoundly affected by the upheavals of the 20th century.  I have just read one of her most famous works, a novella entitled Love in a Fallen City.

Born in Shanghai into the instability of the nationalist Sun Yat-sen Republic, Chang’s early life was a microcosm of the conflict between conservatives and modernists.   Humiliations on the international stage led intellectuals in China to champion reforms in thinking, while reactionary forces were nostalgic for the old certainties of Confucianism.  For Chang, this dichotomy meant a traumatic childhood.

Her conservative father, of aristocratic lineage, was an opium addict with a propensity for domestic violence, while her mother, an independent woman open to Western ideas, abandoned the family for Europe for part of Chang’s childhood when he took a concubine.  But she eventually returned, and when the father was hospitalised after a morphine overdose, the mother’s European aspirations influenced a more liberal education for her daughter, broadening it to include art, music and English.  However on the father’s release the destructive cycle of domestic conflict resumed, and after the inevitable divorce, Chang had to divide her time between her father’s opium den and her mother’s modern apartment.

When she was eighteen, Chang fled her father’s cruelty.    By 1939 she was studying Literature at the University of Hong Kong and hoping to go London, but the Japanese invaded in 1941.  She had to return to her mother’s apartment in occupied Shanghai,

Remarkably, Chang’s literary career flourished under the Japanese.  Shanghai was a city bustling with new ideas, but the literary coterie either abandoned the city or chose to lie low under the Occupation.  Chang, however, stepped into the limelight and began publishing stories and essays, becoming very popular and staying out of trouble with the authorities by masking her work as ‘unserious’.  Her first fiction collection, ‘Romances’ was published in 1944 and her essays ‘Written on Water’, in 1945.

Love in a Fallen City is not a romance novel as it is commonly understood.  It is a tale of love and longing, but the tone is dark and melancholy, even though Sixth Sister Liusu gets her man…

The Bai family are conservatives who don’t answer the door after dark because that’s against the rules of the ‘old etiquette’.

Fourth Master sat still and listened, but since Third Master, Third Mistress, and Fourth Mistress were shouting all at once as they came up the stairs, he couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Sitting in the room behind the balcony were Sixth Young Lady, Seventh Young Lady, and Eighth Young Lady, along with the Third and Fourth Masters’ children, all growing increasingly anxious.  (p. 111)

But it turns out that it’s old Mrs Xu with news about Liusu’s ex-husband.  He’s caught pneumonia and died, which the family immediately sees as an opportunity to get rid of her.  The rules of etiquette don’t seem to apply to family members: the gloves are off in the battle to humiliate Liusu for the failure of her marriage.  Now that they have spent the money she brought back after her divorce, they resent what she costs them:

Sure, in the past, it was no problem.  One more person, two more chopsticks, that’s all.  But these days? (p. 113)

The extended family gang up on her, wanting her to return as a ‘widow’ to her ex-husband’s family so that she will be off their hands.  But Liusu has more modern ideas, and she laughs off the suggestion that she should go into mourning for him.

Her opportunities are so limited, however, that she realises that the only way to escape the tyranny of her family is to acquire a husband, and when wily Mrs Xu introduces her to Fan Liuyuan, she is attracted to him even though she suspects that he is a career playboy.  Their courtship is rather Austenesque, punctuated by pride, prejudice, jealousy and wilful misunderstandings, together with separations which look to be fatal for their happiness.

The tone is brittle and there’s very little in the way of tender moments.  What’s more noticeable is the sense of women’s entrapment.  Liusu’s scepticism about Fan’s motives is in counterpoint with her own: she wants escape as much as she wants love.   But I found the early part of the story more interesting than the courtship: I was intrigued by the family dynamics, by the arguments about the order in which the daughters should be married off, and by the rigid rules about activities such as dancing.

But what I’d really like is a novel  by this author.  Love in a Fallen City at only 60 pages long is short, for a novella, and I wanted more development than the form allows.  Chang did write a couple of novels so I might see if I can track them down.  But they come from her later period when she had lived in the US for some time …

Chang’s life in the literary elite could not hope to survive the Communist revolution, and she moved to Hong Kong in 1952, and then to the United States in 1955.   Her work was banned in China and although she had loyal readers amongst overseas Chinese, and there was a revival of interest in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1970s, she was never able to establish herself as a writer in the US.  She died a recluse in 1995.

There’s a review of the rest of the stories in this collection at The Literary Omnivore.

Author: Eileen Chang
Title: Love in a Fallen City
Translated by Karen S Kingsbury and Eileen Chang
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Books, 2007
ISBN: 9780141189369
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: Love in a Fallen City: And Other Stories


Responses

  1. Eileen Chang is known for her unsentimental view on love and marriage. As far as I know, you can see that in all her early work like the novella/short story ‘Red Rose, White Rose’ which I reviewed on my blog a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, only few of her short stories/novellas have been translated into English and even of those I know only the one just mentioned. Speakers of Chinese seem to love this author very much. My young friend in Hong Kong uses to rave about her fiction!

    • Hi Edith, thanks for dropping by.
      I agree, she has an unsentimental view of the world altogether. The other thing I’ve realised (as this story has percolated in my brain overnight) is just how alone her character is: she has this huge interfering family but she has no friend, no confidante, and no mentor. Mrs Xu is the nearest thing she has to a wise old family friend, but even she betrays her because when she and her husband take off for safety leaving Liusu to fend for herself.
      Considering the author’s own life, it is interesting that she married twice but ended her life as a recluse, and so I find myself wondering if this early bitterness about human relationships (probably stemming from her parents’ destructive relationship) became self-fulfilling for her.

      • Hello Lisa! I agree with you that there is much bitterness in her work. In ‘Red Rose, White Rose’ the protagonists are very lonely, too, although most of them (except the wife) have many people to help them. Eileen Chang must have suffered a lot.

        • That’s the impression I have. I’ve never known anyone who was a real recluse, but I suspect that to choose that form of withdrawal from the world you’d have to have a distrustful view of the world, and an anxiety about whether people will accept you as you are. By the sound of things, her childhood must have been awful.

          • Oh, I don’t think that being a recluse necessarily is the result of bad experiences and anxiety.

            I’d love to lead a reclusive life myself, but am forced to go on in this noisy and overwhelming world because I have to earn my living. Whenever I can, I retire at home and can enjoy it for weeks on end. I don’t suffer from anxiety disorders, phobias or an unhappy childhood. I’m just highly sensitive and overwhelmed by all the input from the world. Unfortunately, my career as a writer is still in an embyonic stage and the odds to write a bestselling novel right away to support me financially aren’t good…

  2. Wonderful review, Lisa. I haven’t read an Eileen Chang story yet, but now after reading your review, I want to try this one. The author’s story is quite fascinating. It must have been quite tough for her while growing up and while working as a writer during the Japanese occupation. But it must have also given her a lot of ideas for her books.

    Have you read Han Suyin’s ‘A Many Splendored Thing’? It is also set during the same time.

    • No, not yet, Vishy. I really have read very little Chinese literature, and what I have read has mostly been either by dissidents or expat Chinese. I have something by Mo Yan which I plan to read soon …

      • That is nice! Which one of Mo Yan’s books are you planning to read? ‘Red Sorghum’? Happy reading!

        Han Suyin’s book was nice. I loved her prose very much – so beautiful.

        Am catching up with your wonderful book reviews – Sunday afternoon is ANZ LitLovers’ blog reading and commenting time :)

        • Yes, Red Sorghum, that’s it.
          Another book I must read is The Three Musketeers – I was reminded of this by your review!

          • That is a classic. Hope you enjoy reading it.

            ‘The Three Musketeers’ is wonderful. I re-read it for book club a couple of weeks back and fell in love with it all over again. Hope you enjoy reading it.

            I got Balzac’s ‘Cousin Bette’ yesterday at a book sale :) Was remembering you at that time. Have you read that? How is your Balzac reading project going?

            • *sigh* I’ve slacked off on Balzac (too many other projects) and need to catch up because I am so nearly finished now. I’m aiming to read one per day (unless they’re too long, like Cousin Bette is) during the school holidays and I should be finished by the end of the year.

              • Nice to know that, Lisa. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts. I am planning to read ‘Lost Illusions’ and ‘Cousin Bette’ and maybe some short stories by him later this year. I am really looking forward to reading ‘Lost Illusions’. I want to read it and then come back and read your two-part review of it.

  3. Dear Lisa, I am a fan of Eileen Chang from Mainland China. I am so glad that you are also impressed by Eileen’s work. Lots of critics, especially those who are now in their fifties or even older ridiculed Eileen’s novels as mentioning only tedious everyday tasks but showing no ‘time spirit’. Yet I will say literature is not about political ideaology or philosophical thinking, at least, not only about them. I adore Eileen and her work for she shows the delicated emotional bonds between people, which has few linkages with the so called ‘time spirit’ yet it can survivie the tear-and-wear of time as poeple from all historical periods hope he or she can be loved and can find another one to love. Eileen’s tone is a little gloomy to you, I suppose. However, I think a reader can find both sullennes and brightness in her work. For instance, Fan Liuyuan, the Casanova depicted in , did not decide to marry Liusu at first because what he needed is just a romantic game.Yet he also knew that at the very beginning, Liusu did not love him. She stayed with him only because she hope he can marry her so that she did not need to bear the blame and tease from her family. Liuyuan’s aim was to find a woman so that he could continue his romantic game while Liusu’s aim was to get rid of her own family. Neither of them viewed love as the ultimate goal. However, as they spent more time with each other, both began to ask the other ‘Do you love me’ even they were both sure that their own motivation wais not purely love. The war in Hong Kong served as a catalyst in their decison to get married yet this did not mean they all became saint and love each others just because ‘I love you’. This is what Eileen tried to express: most marriages result from a variety of factors, love is only one of them. Sounds a little discouraging, yet we may also understand it in another way, that is, in most marriages, one’s husband/wife at least have some real love in his or her spouse.

    Sometimes I cannot tell the differences between Eileen’s work and Eileen as they are both so elegant and sophisticated while at the same time releasing a sense of melancholy like a violet giving off a faint yet pleasant smell. I can sense such kind of genteel manners as well as sadness but I do not know
    where they are from. In addition, I want to tell the truth that Eileen has now become one of the most popular writers in mainland China, even though the education department refuses to add her work in textbooks. I wish someone
    could tell her that her art work has illuminated this glooming world, even today. And lastly but not the least, may she find serenity and tranquility in another world.
    P.S. if you want to read more about Eileen’s work, here is the list:
    The Golden Cangue
    Lust,Caution
    The Rouge of the North
    Written on Water
    Jasmine Tea
    Traces of Love and Other Stories

    I strongly recommend you to read by Eileen. Eileen was fluent in both English and Chinese, and she wrote originally in English. This story is largely based on the real story of her own life, depicting and reflecting on the relationship between her mother and her. Sometimes I think this book is a little like Franz Kafka’s letter to his father.

    • Hello Lucy, how lovely to meet you like this!
      I have not heard this expression ‘time-spirit’ before, and am intrigued by it. I assume it is a Chinese concept? Can you please explain what it means, and why these critics thought it was important to include it in a work of fiction?
      Lisa

      • I think ‘time spirit’ is known to us in English as zeitgeist – I mean German.

        • Ah, that makes sense.
          Don’t you love the way English steals words from all over the place and makes it her own!

  4. I strongly recommend you to read The Book of Change by Eileen Chang.


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