I am a Beijinger through and through, yet my ancestral home is in southern China. The Chinese government usually defines a citizen’s roots through their patrilineal line, of which my national identification would list Shanghai. I have only visited Shanghai twice in my life, the first time to its airport to emigrate out of China, and the second time two decades later. Of course, I would recognize nothing of Shanghai; I had never seen it without the mediation of someone or something from a previous time. From my travels, I usually like to purchase a memento, often a book, to remember a place by and, to much consternation of my family, I picked up Penguin Classics’ Lust, Caution and Other Stories by Eileen Chang, translated by Julia Lovell, Karen S. Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Simon Patton, and Eva Hung. The first dissatisfaction was strictly economical, why buy an English book from a large Western publisher accessible anywhere outside of China and pay the markup on top of the exchange rate?
The second dissatisfaction was, of all people, why Eileen Chang? Like many of my peers, I learned about my heritage and culture through adaptations of interpretations and romanticizations. Many would know the title story from Ang Lee’s feature film of the same name. It’s by no means an easy story to tell, the failed plot to assassinate a co-conspirator of a puppet regime because hormones overpowered reason, especially since it takes inspiration from two women who did live through that time. Pingru Zheng gathered intelligence against the Japanese, and was tasked to seduce a collaborator whose escape from the assassination plot led to her execution at the age of 22. Eileen Chang (known by her Chinese name of Ailing Zhang, born Ying Zhang) was married to Lancheng Hu, a propagandist for the puppet regime, whose political and moral betrayals were known to her. The couple would both leave China, she from ideological exile, he from prosecution of treason.
Before reading her stories, I had heard much criticism of Eileen Chang and her work. She was too bourgeois and flippant to what was happening at the time. Her detachment to the daily struggle of internally displaced citizens was exacerbated by what critic Lei Fu noted as “flirtation” evident in her narration. The more misogynistic of criticisms euphemized her as a “particular type of Chinese woman,” a feminist of convenience and a sympathizer of opportunity. At the same time, the resurgence of interest in her work in the 1970s from literary circles in the United States, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, produced praise that also felt excessive (Nobel Prize-worthy? Justifying a nostalgia of foreign occupation?).
The only way I myself can reconcile these disparities is that, if nothing else, this is a woman who can write with acute cognizance of other women. Especially from the other stories in this collection, “In the Waiting Room” and “Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Autumn”, we see the evocative nature of aspirations, responsibilities, and judgments of women by other women. The outside world is subdued in Eileen’s writing, and, as others have aptly observed, provides a nebulous atmosphere for suggestion rather than didactic direction. The reader has to navigate their own way, jumping from psyche to psyche. While Eileen’s works tend to romanticize the situation, she does not shy away from an almost disdainful perspicacity in detailing the lives of her female characters. I can understand why their weakness and frivolousness run afoul with concerns of the exploitation of women physically during the War and ideologically for control of China. This was after all at a time where the expectation of art was to magnify the external combustion and pageantry of brutality. Yet, Eileen chose to invert the scope to that internal universe of female identity and struggle.
As readers, we tend to compare, accommodate, or assimilate into the various stock characters conditioned to us from an early age through family models and social prescriptions. In the four generations that ran parallel to the life, work, and legacy of Eileen Chang, the women of my family have exemplified the tumultuous change of the last century. My great-grandmother was a woman with bound feet. My grandmothers wore the uniform against enemy lines. My mother was one of the three women in her engineering class. We each contributed to, benefitted from, and adapted to the ebbs and flows of this perpetual revolution, both ideological and sexual, in different ways, but none of us could look at an image of those women with swept curls, rouged countenances, in an elaborately embroidered qipao and feel sororal familiarity. In a way, I think— I hope — Eileen knew that. Her realism is not in the fleeting appearances of a bygone era, but rather in the cognitive hostilities that transcend.