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A remarkable woman in remarkable times: Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions

By Josie Mitchell.

Review of Eileen Chang's Little Reunions

Eileen Chang, Little Reunions, translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz (New York Review Books, 2018)

There is a striking picture of Eileen Chang taken not long before her death in 1995. She balances a rolled up newspaper gently against her neck, and stares playfully at the camera. There’s a story behind the enigmatic image: one year before she passed away, Chang was awarded a Taiwanese literary prize recognising a lifetime of work. She came to attention in China and Taiwan in the 1940s. She was in her early twenties and had begun publishing the bitter love stories and witty, erudite essays for which she’s now famous. In the later decades of her life, this fame evolved into a cult appreciation, which years lived as a recluse in Los Angeles only served to intensify. It was this reclusiveness that meant, rather than accepting the prize in person, Chang sent the Taiwanese awarding body a number of photographs of herself, some as a teenager, but also the image I have mentioned, in which Chang appears softer, more melancholy. An obituary in the New York Times explains that Chang, “looked so improbably young” in this picture, “that she took the precaution of posing with a newspaper showing the date”. This anecdote speaks to me of an isolated woman, who took life very seriously, while retaining an exquisite sense of humour.

How did Chang, born in Shanghai in 1920 to an aristocratic family in decay and a country in turmoil, come to end her life as a Los Angeles recluse? She was, as is clear from the story of the photo, an eccentric. But her life is also striking for the number of times that her ambitions and hopes were thwarted by history.

At the time of her death, Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions was a 600-page manuscript in the care of her literary executor and friend Stephen Soong. Though Chang had started work on the novel back in 1956, it was a story that she would grapple with for decades, and one that ultimately felt too personal to publish. In fact, a couple of years before she passed away – her mind perhaps on her legacy – Chang mentioned in a letter to Soong that she was considering destroying the text. The conversation went no further, though it reveals a deep ambivalence towards this work becoming public. The ethics of posthumous publication are often murky – who knows if she just forgot to have it destroyed; perhaps she decided she could stomach its publication only after her death. We can’t know. But one can understand the appeal to her publishers and fans alike of a previously unknown, complete and highly personal novel by a cherished author.

Having fled to America in the 1950s in the wake of the Chinese Communist Revolution, Chang had intended to chronicle the story of her youth and early adulthood in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of WWII, and to critique her love affair with Japanese collaborator Hu Langcheng. She began writing the book in English under several different titles, but a decade later was still struggling to complete the story. She decided, in the 1970s, that it would be better to write it in Chinese. This process of rewriting, twenty years after she began, finally gave birth to the Little Reunions manuscript, which since her death has been published in her native China, where it sold out before the first run of 300,000 copies was even released. It is now available in English translation with New York Review Books Classics.

In 1941, around the time that Little Reunions begins, Chang was meant to be studying literature in England. A promising student, she had been offered a full scholarship to the University of London, but the outbreak of World War II in Europe prevented her from accepting. Instead, she went to study in Hong Kong, “the only alternative”. It is here, during her final term at the University of Hong Kong that Little Reunions opens for Chang’s avatar, Julie.

Eileen Chang

The story kicks off with brio. Breakfast in the school canteen has “the sombre mood of troops waiting in the dawn before battle… everything charged with anticipation”. Ever the humourist, Chang plays up the atmosphere of dread the morning before final exams. Julie sits anxiously among her peers, who competitively gauge each other’s preparation. It’s not long, however, before breakfast is interrupted by the whine of planes overhead and two thunderous explosions. In a moment of almost absurd melodrama, the students’ desire to escape the upcoming exam is fulfilled by the outbreak of the Battle of Hong Kong. Through the window, Julie watches a speeding car explode on the horizon; the Japanese are bombing the city.

Thus begins the conflict which ends Julie’s university study one semester before she takes her degree, just as it did the author’s. An interplay between amusing social interaction and what Julie terms “the big events on the world stage” informs Chang’s work. While Julie’s friend Bebe whines that that the butter dish is empty, others wonder gravely about the nature of war. “It’s suffering and starving,” explains a girl unfortunate enough to know. Chang has an agility and lightness of footing that allows her to move quickly between the squabbling students to disease, starvation and death. The result is striking and unsentimental.

Julie is as pragmatic in narrating her own experiences as she is with those of others. As war reaches the streets of Hong Kong, Julie moves overnight from a cosy university hall to sleeping under balled-up paper and going hungry in the ruins of Hong Kong buildings. “Almost blown up and there was no one she could tell,” she muses, with a “sense of desolation”. In another episode, hearing that a bath somewhere in the city has hot water, she arrives and waits her turn for so long that she has to relieve herself in a corner of the room. Chang runs breezily through these experiences with a striking lack of self-pity or sensationalism.

“What happens in one’s own life is much more important,” Julie is told by her friend Bebe, “the same way closer things appear bigger in drawings.” Chang writes with this in mind, moving from close-ups to tracking shots, flashbacks and montages with agility. It is not so much that Chang dismisses historical events in favour of dissecting social interactions and nostalgic memories, nor is it that she gives emphasis to the pain of others over herself. She simply has an idiosyncratic habit of laying great import wherever she deems it to be. It is a blurring of time and place that could be frustrating, if it weren’t fascinating and quietly defiant.

Chang has plenty of madeleine moments, which spin the narrative back into her childhood. Family-tree gossip litters the book. At times, these asides make the story feel scattered, loose – one can feel the decades of remembrance that went into telling this story for Chang. Nevertheless, things coalesce and get going again once the Chinese admit defeat, the bombs stop dropping, and Julie is able to return to a Shanghai now under control of the invading forces. Chang captures the outward-looking cultural hybridity of Hong Kong and Shanghai – cities with an appreciation for international culture and home to foreign companies, pre-dating the later isolationism of the Communist Party. Julie’s references show the influence of this cultural education: she describes her mother as “a black-haired Marlene Dietrich” and knows enough gossipy detail about the British class system to describe Cambridge University as “well-stocked with homosexuals and left-wingers”.

In real life, by her early twenties, Chang had also returned to Shanghai. Despite a number of frustrating setbacks, Chang had established herself as one of the most prominent writers in the city with a series of delightful stories and essays on art, literature, urban life and war that she later released in two successful collections. “Get your fame early in the game! Get it late and the pleasure’s lost its punch,” wrote Chang in the preface of the second edition of her story collection, Romances. She was 23 at the time, and was later criticised for the light, playful essays and stories that she wrote during this period of occupation, as many authors refused to write altogether in protest. Chang’s domestic portraits of social indiscretion or sexual jealousy were seen to be trivial and therefore disrespectful. But in focusing on the domestic sphere, by offering detailed accounts of small family disagreements, Chang’s writing is a fantastic record of a remarkable period of flux in Chinese history.

These contradictions are evident in the attitudes of Julie’s parents – “products of a transitional era”. On the one hand, Julie’s divorced mother, Rachel, maintains a chain of suitors and lovers; on the other, she views it as taboo to use “bump into” for “encountered” or to refer to someone as “heartbroken”, with their implication of the loss of maidenhood. In another recollection, Julie and her mother go to the beach in Hong Kong, and her mother dons a stylish white bathing suit. We learn that, according to an aesthetic tradition reaching back to the Song dynasty in the tenth century, Rachel’s feet were bound as she grew up. Between the childhoods of the mother and daughter, this norm has been challenged and changed so that Julie looks at her mother’s “now unbound” feet, her “sticklike legs” and oversized shoes stuffed with padding as something archaic and slightly grotesque.

And so, bit by bit, with memories of Hong Kong beaches, and conversations in corridors with aunts and uncles, the book progresses, and Julie goes through life in a rather bemused manner, disconnected somewhat from the world around her. That is until, around halfway through the book, she meets Shao Chih-Yung. A married man who begins courting her. Julie’s assurance with the world, the slight edge of cynicism that comes with her sharp intellect, begins to falter. He promises to divorce his wife. They are seen together around the city. She’s warned by people keen to protect her interests that he has a reputation. The romantic, and later political, fallout from this relationship plays out over the rest of the book, which involves long periods of separation, followed by unexpected reconnections.

Chang’s reputation as one of China’s great modern writers has not translated into a wide appreciation in the English-speaking world, despite many of her Chinese-language novels and short stories being translated into English. Love in a Fallen City, translated by Karen Kingsbury in 2006, is a selection of stories taken from Romances. Meanwhile, in 2007, Ang Lee directed a film adaptation of her novella Lust/Caution. Nevertheless, her fame and appreciation remains centred in China and Taiwan.

One wonders why this fascinating chronicler of family tensions in a transitional China has failed to reach Western audience. With its social complexity, it is true that Chang’s work can be distancing for those unaccustomed to Chinese culture. One of the more challenging aspects of this story, for English-language readers, is the way Chang captures the naming system used in Chinese households and extended families to recognise delicate social hierarchies linked to lineage, age and generation. Sometimes, Julie refers to her mother as her Second Aunt, and to her father’s sister as her Third Aunt. Elsewhere she refers to these women by their English names, as Rachel and Judy. With 124 characters, some with two or three different names, Little Reunions can become quite confusing, which is perhaps why the translators, Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz, have included an eight-page character list at the back of the book. Like much of Chang’s writing these aspects are both challenging (for example, Nineteenth Mistress and Third Aunt are actually the same person), but also allows one to appreciate moments of delicious delicacy as one character can slight another by referring to them by a name that minimises their import or value in the family. There are moments, similarly enlightening, when characters struggle to find the appropriate term for one another. Julie has been instructed by her elders to refer to her mother and father as Second Aunt and Second Uncle. It is an honour. It puts her younger brother in a difficult and confusing situation. How should he refer to his parents? Like courtiers, members of the various households battle for money and favour, servants fall in and out of favour with their mistresses, mistresses get usurped by concubines, uncles and brothers lose fortunes. These battles are often relayed in arch little stories and gossip that trickles down through the family tree.

Eileen Chang is an excellent storyteller, and her books offer a sharp and incisive take on a remarkable period in Chinese history, albeit from a very privileged position. Her focus on the small details of living brings this transitional period to life, without romanticising or mythologising her experiences. Still, this book can read like an unfinished manuscript: overly dense at times, occasionally rambling, with the entire mood of the book varying between sections, as if the author had entirely different attitudes and ambitions for the overall work. Perhaps this is the case. One can understand why Chang was reluctant for this unwieldy work to reach her readers, and perhaps dilute the body of work she leaves to the world. Still, for all these faults, it remains a fascinating document of a remarkable time told by a remarkable woman.


Josie Mitchell

Josie Mitchell is an editor at Granta magazine. She has written for Review31, Prospect and the LA Review of Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018.