Eileen 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
Source: Kingston Library