Eileen Chang Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Eileen Chang 1921-

(Also transliterated as Zhang Ailing) Chinese short story writer, novelist, essayist, and translator.

Considered among the most talented and influential writers in China in the 1940s by critic C. T. Hsia, Chang's short fiction has been compared to that of Eudora Welty and Katherine Mansfield. Written in simple and direct language, her deeply moral and realistic stories focus on the tragic ironies of human experience. They are replete with metaphors, symbolism, and imagery, especially nature imagery. Because Chang has translated much of her own work, infusing colloquial English into it in the process, her English translations stand beside the Chinese stories as independent creative works. Criticism of Chang's translations, as well as that of her original Chinese works, has been laudatory, with most critics concentrating on her 1943 novella Jin suo ji (The Golden Cangue).

Biographical Information

Little is known about Eileen Chang's life. She was born into a distinguished Shanghai family on September 30, 1921, and raised in Beijing and Tianjin until 1929, when her family returned to Shanghai. Many sources have suggested that Chang suffered a great deal in her youth, much like many of the protagonists in her fiction, as a result of an abusive father. She attended the University of Hong Kong from 1939 to 1942, after which she returned to Shanghai. There she began producing most of her short fiction and essays while also working for The Times and Twentieth Century. After the war, in 1952, Chang again moved to Hong Kong where she worked for The World Today, in which much of her work appeared weekly. In Hong Kong she published two novels, Jidi zhi lian (1954; Naked Earth) and Yang-ko (1955; The Rice-Sprout Song). In 1955 Chang moved to the United States where she later wrote two novels based on her much acclaimed novella The Golden Cangue: Yüan-nu (1966; The Embittered Woman) and The Rouge of the North (1967). Since living in the United States, Chang has been associated with various universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, Miami University in Ohio, and the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Chang's novella The Golden Cangue has generated a great deal of favorable criticism. Stylistically based on the eighteenth-century Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Golden Cangue examines the life of a woman who is forced by her family into a loveless marriage. She grows mad after years of suffering, but eventually obtains wealth and independence after the death of her husband. She then manipulates and terrorizes everyone near her, especially her children. Many of the themes in this novella—particularly anguish and survival, clashes between family members, conflict between duty and self-fulfillment, and compromised love—appear throughout Chang's work. The latter theme, especially, is developed in many of Chang's stories dealing with marriage. In "Ashes of Descending Incense, First Brazier," for example, a young woman falls in love with and marries a wealthy and manipulative gallant even though her love is not reciprocated.

Chang's characters are drawn from all levels of Chinese society; they include mandarins, students, farmers, servants, and concubines. Regardless of their social station, all of her protagonists suffer from tragic experiences. In The Golden Cangue, for example, it is a wealthy young woman whose chances for love and marriage are repeatedly destroyed by her oppressive mother, while in "Indian Summer, A Hsiao's Autumnal Lament" an uneducated maid is singled out as she falls in love with her miserly, amoral master. While the majority of Chang's stories feature women, some delve into the consciousness of men. In "Ashes of Descending Incense, the Second Brazier," a college professor marries a young, beautiful, and innocent woman who considers his wedding night advances acts of perversion and consequently humiliates him in public. In "Jasmine Tea" an unhappy young man discovers his true father's identity and, in a fit of passion, rage, and jealousy, violently attacks the man's daughter.

Critical Reception

Chang's fiction is considered unique for its time because of its blending of Chinese and Western elements. The abundance of imagery and symbolism in her short fiction is reminiscent of classical Chinese literature. Yet numerous critics have detected modern Western psychology in her fiction as well. According to C. T. Hsia, "A Freudian emphasis is noticeable in several of her stories about a parent-child relationship, particularly 'Jasmine Tea' and 'The Heart Sutra'." Above all else, Chang's critics appreciate her truthful rendering of the human experience, however painful, as well as her moral integrity. As Steven Cheng summarized "Eileen Chang's stories in their delineation of the universal suffering in the human scene point out the importance of love and sympathy; hence, though she does not exalt the highest ideals of human conduct, in her praise of the little deeds of kindness and acts of grace that perhaps ultimately save and redeem us, she remains nonetheless profoundly moral."