Eileen Chang is the queen of Chinese lit. The sad reality behind that statement is that while many readers may be able to name a modern Chinese author, it is most likely that that author will be male. Here are some examples: Mo Yan, Ma Jian, Su Tong, Yu Hua.
Eileen Chang was born in 1920 in Shanghai but left for the United States in 1955. She lived there for 40 years, and died aged 74 in Los Angeles, sadly she had become a recluse and was found by her landlord several days after her death. Chang’s works, which she had written in Asia in the 1940s, remained popular in Hong Kong and China. But her English-language novels (she wrote two semi-autobiographical ones, The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change) were not successful and remained unpublished until 2010, 15 years after her death.
I’m guessing that she became more known in the English-language world when the movie Lust, Caution, directed by Ang Lee, starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Tang Wei, based on Chang’s novella, emerged in 2007. It was critically acclaimed, won many awards, and was also controversial, partly because of the many sex scenes that had to be cut out before it was shown in China. (In Singapore, also a very conservative country, a cut version was released with an 18 rating. But eventually a R21 rating was allowed for an uncut version). That was definitely when I first learnt of Eileen Chang. I remember all that controversy about the film and I kind of remember watching the movie, but not really what it was all about. Something sensual and dramatic and full of those gorgeous vintage cheongsams.
And of course Tong Leung Chiu Wai, one of Hong Kong’s most successful actors.
I had noticed recently that the Singapore library’s Overdrive catalogue had some Eileen Chang e-books available. That made me realize it had been a long time since Lust, Caution, both in terms of the movie, and when I had read the novella. I downloaded the book and just fell into it.
Half a Lifelong Romance was initially serialized in a Shanghai newspaper in 1948, under the title Eighteen Springs. It was published as a book in 1950. But it was only translated into English in 2014.
Half a Lifelong Romance tells of the love story of Gu Manzhen and Xu Shijun, who first meet as colleagues at a factory in Shanghai. They fall in love but because of class differences, their relationship is not an easy one. Shijun is the only son of a well-to-do family, whereas Manzhen’s sister supported her family working as a taxi dancer and escort, but eventually marries a rich client of hers. Manzhen and Shijun face some economic and class struggles but their relationship is a good one, and there is talk of marriage, but their families try to pressure them into arranged marriages, and then one awful, disastrous really, incident tears them apart. (I can’t say more than that).
Chang has written such an unforgettable story. It is dramatic, perhaps a bit melodramatic at times, and despite the twists and turns, Chang keeps her focus steady. It definitely kept me up, wanting to find out what happened to Manzhen and Shijun. Was their love meant to be? Or would all the impediments – family, class, money, that horrible thing that happened – would that break them?
Chang writes very cinematically. Her description of Manzhen’s sister, for instance, is furnished with such details, even a sweat stain that makes a difference:
Her apple-green silk cheongsam was fairly new, but there was a darkened area at the waistline, a sweat stain left by a dance partner’s hand. It was a bit unnerving, that hand-shaped mark jumping out of the cloth. Her hair was rumpled, still undone, but she’d put on that stage make-up of hers: blocks of bright red and solid black, with blue eyeshadow. It looked pretty from a distance – up close it was rather scary. Squeezing past her on the narrow stairway, Manzhen felt her senses flooding, dread creeping over her. She could scarcely believe this was her own sister.
There is such beauty and genius in her writing. I realize I am saying this about a work in translation, so kudos also to her translator Karen S Kingsbury who did such a wonderful job! I listed Chang’s Lust, Caution, in my crazy-long list of 100+ books by Asian authors but this book really should be up there too. It has the right kind of crazy, some beautiful writing (and also beautiful translated writing), a flair for the dramatic (which sometimes one needs in a book), full of social mores and conservative thinking (and also characters who break all of those conventions), an eye for costume changes, and a vintage soundtrack (ok that may just have been me, I kept thinking of Teresa Teng’s Ye Lai Xiang 夜来香）
I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge