The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 3

In Her Own Eyes

by Yiyun Li

A friend once told me a story about teaching a writing class at a senior citizens' center. He had three students, he said, all women who had lived through World War II and were writing about that period. The first was a Holocaust survivor. The second, also Jewish, spent her girlhood in Switzerland and wrote about her idyllic early life with no reference to or acknowledgement of the Holocaust, which infuriated the first woman. Further complicating the matter, the third woman was writing a fantasy piece in which, miraculously, Hitler had died of illness at a young age, and therefore the war never happened. History was a baffling factor in that class, as it is in the world outside.
     As I reread Chinese writers of the first half of the twentieth century, I confront similar complexities: What if the Communist Revolution had never occurred? Shen Congwen would have continued to produce masterpieces, rather than suffering a breakdown due to the crushing political pressure of the time, as he did in reality, and giving up fiction altogether. His is the most tragic loss for Chinese literature of the past century, at least in my very biased view as a great admirer of his work, and perhaps in the opinions of the editors of The Guardian, who included him a few years ago among a list of ten translated writers who should be read more widely. Lu Xun, on the other hand, would not have been codified as a literary god. He was a fine storyteller, but ideology was a magnifying glass that swelled his artistic merit beyond reason.
     Like Shen Congwen, Eileen Chang was a writer censored by the Maoist government; however, her trajectory as an artist was far less influenced by their shared historical context. (I am very aware that this perspective will be frowned upon by many of her followers, and indeed Chang has more loyal followers than perhaps any other Chinese author.)

Eileen Chang was born in 1920 to an aristocratic family, an opium-addicted father and a mother who left for England when her husband took a concubine. In 1939 Chang was offered a scholarship to study at the University of London but was unable to accept because of World War II. She moved to Hong Kong for university; but in 1941 the Japanese occupation forced her to return to Shanghai, where she pursued a writing career.
     The collections of stories and essays she published between 1943 and 1944, which include some of her best work—for example, the novellas The Golden Cangue and Love in a Fallen City—established the young author as an exceptionally mature and insightful observer of life. There was a sharpness, almost a ruthlessness in her portraits of men and women in love and betrayal. Her intertwining of petty desires with the deepest pains of human existence brought a bleakness to her work that resonated long after the reading, as if she'd stripped away all falsehoods that could provide even momentary comforts for a reader.
     For a writer to achieve such mastery at any stage of a career is an undeniable success, and in a matter of months Chang rose from anonymity to a status of celebrity that she clearly relished. In an introduction to The Legends, an essay collection, she wrote: "One ought to become famous as early as possible. If fame comes late, the joy of success won't be complete . . . Even if one is patient, time won't wait for you."
     That hunger for fame and insecurity about the passing of time seem incompatible with the imperturbable onlooker one detects in her writing. Chang's fiction worked best when she watched her characters with a detached interest, a cold-heartedness even, and a keen sense for the details often neglected: the steam rising from boiled pumpkins in a roadside stand, the faint tune whistled by a nightshift worker in the early morning light, or a few young boys in a crowd riding bicycles with their hands off the handlebars. As her own fame grew, she turned that lens increasingly on herself. In one essay she excitedly described the young people working overtime to print her books; in another she detailed her bargaining for cakes and fabrics.
     In 1943 Chang met and fell in love with Hu Lancheng, a high-profile official in the Shanghai government collaborating with the Japanese. They married the following year, but Hu soon developed a romantic relationship with a seventeen-year-old girl. With the Japanese surrender in 1945, he went into hiding; and when Chang finally found him, he was engaged in yet another infidelity. Disillusioned, she divorced him. By 1952 it had become obvious that the new Communist China was not a suitable place for her, and she returned to Hong Kong; in 1955 she emigrated to the United States, where she lived until her death in 1995.
     Chang continued to write screenplays for the Hong Kong film industry and to publish some fiction in Chinese. The United States Information Service commissioned her to write two novels in English, as anticommunist propaganda, but little of this later work retained the brilliancy of what preceded it. One could easily attribute this apparent decline to her exile; and yet while Chang's writing possessed an acute sense of history, she was an apolitical person. Her principal interest was in human beings, irrespective of their ideologies. Even in exile she could watch her characters.

Reading Eileen Chang's work, I wonder if her career began to fade not in the Communist era but in 1945. Once in possession of fame, she never averted her gaze from herself. That, in my mind, did more harm to her work than history or politics. She started designing her own clothes so that wherever she went people would stop and behold her as a most exotic figure; she was living as a character in her stories. When an artist's own image cosumes her art, when the importance of being seen replaces that of seeing, both the artist and her work decline.
     Near the end of her life Chang was invited to Taiwan to accept a major literary award. In her stead, she sent a number of old photographs of herself, along with a recent one in which, wearing a wig and looking very young, she posed with a newspaper showing the date—July 8, 1994—above the report of the death of Kim Il Sung. I imagine her intention was to preserve herself in the public's memory.
     "Lust, Caution" is one of the few exceptionally good stories of her later work. Chang finished a draft in 1950 and spent the next twenty-eight years revising it before seeing it in print. The story was said to be modeled on a female nationalist spy in Shanghai in the 1940s who was executed after a failed assassination attempt. When Ang Lee's film adaptation of the story was released last year, the sister of the executed spy held a press conference in Los Angeles and claimed that the film distorted the woman's heroic image. Lee responded that Chang's story was not about the young female spy but about herself. Her beloved husband Hu Lancheng was, of course, a man in a position similar to Mr. Yee's. If Chang had again become a character in her own story, I understand why "Lust, Caution" took decades to finish: it was written with her own flesh and blood.

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