C. T. Hsia (essay date 1971)
"Eileen Chang," in A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, Yale University Press, 1971, pp. 389-431.
[In the following excerpt, Hsia provides a laudatory overview of Chang's short fiction—especially The Golden Cangue, "Jasmine Tea," "Blockade," and "Love in a Fallen City"—in which he discusses both the Chinese and Western elements in her works.]
[To] the discerning student of modern Chinese literature, Eileen Chang is not only the best and most important writer in Chinese today; her short stories alone invite valid comparisons with, and in some respects claim superiority over, the work of serious modern women writers in English: Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers. . . .
Eileen Chang deals with a society in transition, where the only constants are the egoism in every bosom and the complementary flicker of love and compassion. Her imagery, therefore, not only embraces a wider range of elegance and sordidness but has to suggest the persistence of the past in the present, the continuity of Chinese modes of behavior in apparently changing material circumstances. In that respect her imagery has a strong historical awareness.
Eileen Chang's world is also rich in nature imagery. Its metropolitan character does not preclude the sun and moon, the wind and rain, and that extensive part of vegetation still easily within the reach of a city-dweller's eye. Red azaleas in the arms of a bus passenger; a creeping plant, placed in a pot on the sky terrace of an apartment building, trying vainly to climb upward; summer breeze fluttering like a flock of white pigeons inside the silk blouse and trousers of a rejected lover—touches like these not only enrich the narrative but also define the scene or character under description. Because of her habitual importation of nature, whether as setting or metaphor, into her world of manners, Eileen Chang is also the foremost symbolist among Chinese writers of fiction. And her predominant symbol is the moon, which looks down upon the world of love with cold detachment, hazy sympathy, or benign irony. It is possible to write a monograph to illustrate the uses of the moon symbol in her fiction.
Along with her shrewd use of imagery and symbolism, Miss Chang evinces a powerful grasp of the complexities and subtleties to be observed in social intercourse. Just as she is absolutely uninfluenced by the leftist modes of Chinese fiction, she is little tempted to follow the dazzling fashions of present-day Western fiction—to pursue, for example, stream of consciousness to the neglect of weightier moral concerns. She knows with the instinctive sagacity of a born storyteller that the truth of the human heart is best told within the framework of manners, which condition the expression of emotions in the first place. Understandably, therefore, while she is deeply indebted to Freud and Western novelists for the psychological sophistication and metaphorical enrichment of her stories, she is even more of a dedicated student of traditional Chinese fiction. There is simply no other school that could enable her to make the best fictive use of her personal observations of Chinese society. Along with several stylistic devices—such as prefixing reported speeches with the simple verb tao—Eileen Chang gains from her study of Chinese fiction principally a mastery of dialogue and a corroboration of her insight into peculiarly Chinese behavior. The characters in Romances are solidly and in some instances frighteningly Chinese; they are therefore solidly and frighteningly real. While she is primarily concerned with the world of her contemporaries, her study of Chinese fiction has led her to stress the strong persistence of traditional sensibility even in an apparently uprooted and cosmopolitan set. Sensibility evolves slowly; old manners die hard even during a period of unprecedented technological and economic change. Each character in Romances is sharply defined against his social and economic background, against his parents, and by extension against a culture in decadence.
Examples are necessary to support our description of Eileen Chang as a short-story writer. In many of the Romances the basic situation is a courtship, flirtation, or affair, but what is involved is more than the expected comedy or pathos of the love game: it is the condition of a soul unpropped by its usual stays of vanity and desire. Miss Chang professes not to abide by the classical formula of tragedy because it is her belief that the sheer weight of habit and animalism precludes the possibility of any prolonged flights of sublimity or passion. For her as for most story-writers since Chekhov, tragic revelation comes only at the moment when the protagonist, temporarily outside the shell of his ego, surveys the desolation of his triumph or failure. Even in her satirical tales tragic knowledge is always implicit in the temporary disarray of the hero's composure or sudden disappointment of his expectations. But a few of her longer and more ambitious stories fall nothing short of the full tragic commitment, and one of these we shall now examine in some detail in order to appreciate her art at its highest level of intensity.
The Golden Cangue, a long story of over 28,000 words, is in my opinion the greatest novelette in the history of Chinese literature. It is a new type of Chinese fiction bearing happy witness to its author's skillful appropriation of the elements of both the native and the Western tradition. In method and style it is clearly indebted to the great Chinese domestic novels, while for its psychological and moral sophistication it apparently owes more to Western fiction. But the whole work is undeniably the creation of a highly distinctive and individual talent.
The Golden Cangue traces the life of a woman from her frustrated and unhappy youth to her malevolent and mad age. When the story opens, the saucy and shrewd Ch'i-ch'iao, whose family owns a cooking-oils store, has been married for five years to the paralytic second son of a wealthy official family. The marriage was possible because no daughter from a family of equal wealth and position would consent to a match with a puny invalid and because Ch'i-ch'iao's elder brother was avaricious enough to sacrifice his sister's happiness. Ch'i-ch'iao accepts her intolerable situation with courage, parrying with occasional material assistance her brother's greed and defying petulantly but with self-possession the snobbery of her husband's family. Her one consolation is that, in the event of her husband's death, she will become a rich and independent woman. But still normal and healthy despite the opium habit she has acquired while nursing her husband, she craves love. The sight of her two weakling children only reminds her of the travesty of sexual attention her husband pays her on rare occasions. In her frustration she fancies herself to be in love with the third son of the family.
This third son, Chiang Chi-tsê, has been married only a month. A good-looking wastrel, he regularly visits brothels and flirts with maidservants. But he draws a firm line in regard to Ch'i-ch'iao's attentions. He rightly reasons that it will be very imprudent to form a liaison with a sister-in-law under the same roof; besides, with her bad temper, he would have a most difficult time extricating himself from this affair once he got tired of her. When Ch'i-ch'iao supplicates for his love and feels his legs with her hands, he only squeezes her foot once and tells her to desist.
Ten years later, with the death of her husband and mother-in-law, Ch'i-ch'iao is finally in a position to enjoy the reward of her patience. (The author introduces at this juncture a powerful scene of a family quarrel over the division of property.) Chi-tsê, who has squandered most of his fortune even before he has inherited it, now pays Ch'i-ch'iao a visit and protests undying love to her.
Ch'i-ch'iao bowed her head, basking in glory, in the soft music of his voice and the delicate pleasure of this occasion . . . All these years she had been playing blindman's buff with him and could not near his person; who could have expected today! To be sure, half her life had gone—the flower-years of her youth. Life was always like that, devious and unreasonable. Why had she to marry into the Chiang family in the first place? For money? No, it was so that she could meet Chi-tsê and fulfill her preordained love for him. She lifted her head slightly and saw Chi-tsê standing close to her, his hands clasping her fan and his cheek nestling against it. He had also grown ten years older, but after all he was the same person. Is he deceiving her now? Can it be possible that he is only thinking of her money—the money for which she has sold her life? This very thought made her suddenly very angry. Even if she has misconstrued his intentions, can the suffering he has undergone for her make up for the suffering she has undergone for him? It has not been very easy for her heart to die; now he is again tempting her. She hates him. He is still looking at her. His eyes—in spite of the ten years, he is still the same person! Even if he is deceiving her now, would it not be better to postpone this discovery till some later time? Yes, even if she knows he is deceiving her, can't she accept his love for real, since he is such a good actor?
Her weakness, however, is only momentary. The golden cangue in which she had locked herself during all these years of waiting and scheming has incapacitated her for love, real or spurious. (A cangue is a large board frame used to confine the neck and hands of criminals in the old days in China.) With a business-like air Ch'i-ch'iao proceeds to discuss money matters with Chi-tsê and detects him in a lie. Angry beyond herself, she flings her fan in the direction of his head but upsets instead the glass of sour plum drink on the table, which splashes all over his silk gown. She shows him the door.
Chi-tsê had gone. The maidservants and amahs also hurriedly left the room after being scolded by Ch'i-ch'iao. Drop by drop, the sour plum drink trickles down the table, keeping time like a water clock at night—one drip, another drip—the first hour, the second hour—one year, a hundred years. So long, this one moment of solitude. Ch'i-ch'iao stood there, her hands cupping her head. In another second she had turned around and was hurrying upstairs. Lifting her skirt, she half climbed and half stumbled her way up, continually bumping against the dingy wall of green plaster. Her Buddha-blue blouse was smudged with large patches of dust. She wanted to look at him once more from her window upstairs. After all she had loved him once and that love had given her no end of pain. This consideration alone should entitle him to some affectionate regard. How many times, to repress herself, she had to steady her body until all her muscles, bones, and the roots of her teeth ached with sharp pain. Today it was all her fault. She acted as if she hadn't known all along that he was no good! If she wants him, then she has to pretend to be stupid and tolerate his badness. Why has she had to unmask him? But isn't life always like that? When one comes down to the heart of a matter, how can one tell what is true and what is false?
She approached the window and pulled open the foreign-style dark-green curtains fringed with velvet pompons. Chi-tsê was walking in the lane toward the street, his gown folded against his arm. Like a flock of white pigeons, the wind on that sunny day fluttered inside his pongee blouse and trousers. It penetrated everywhere, flapping its wings.
Many a story-writer would feel justified in ending the tale at this point: the study of a woman torn between her passion for money and her love for an unworthy man has constituted an interesting theme for much good fiction. The first half of The Golden Cangue, moreover, is unlike anything by any other modern Chinese writer: one scarcely encounters elsewhere the vivid recall of upper-class family life of an earlier period (about the time of the downfall of the Ch'ing dynasty), the effortless rendition of dialogue, and the powerful fusion of feeling with imagery that is apparent in the passage just quoted. Yet for Eileen Chang the romantic episode is only the beginning; in the second half of her story she unfolds the lonely madness of Ch'i-ch'iao's later life in all its terror.
Ch'i-ch'iao's two children grow up under the dominance of her malevolent will. A completely docile weakling, the son Ch'ang-pai has little schooling and early indulges in the vices of his class. Ch'i-ch'iao gives him a wife when he begins to frequent brothels. Then, with the insane jealousy of a frustrated woman unable to abide normal sexual life around her, she induces her son by taunts to leave his wife's bed and to serve her opium. Reclining on the opium couch in the small hours of the night, mother and son joke about the scorned woman. To further humiliate her, Ch'i-ch'iao buys her son a concubine. Years later both wife and concubine break down under the insufferable strain and commit suicide.
But it is in her delineation of the subtle clashes between Ch'i-ch'iao and her daughter Ch'ang-an that Eileen Chang gives the most astonishing evidence of her dramatic power. At her own insistence Ch'ang-an once attended school, but she soon quit because she could no longer endure the shame her mother continually brought upon her in the eyes of her teachers and schoolmates. A sensitive girl, "she felt that her sacrifice was a beautiful and desolate gesture." While her mother is alive, this gesture remains her only self-defense.
Ch'i-ch'iao is obliged by custom to choose a husband for her daughter, but she approaches the task with the greatest reluctance. The better families are not interested because of her own notoriety and Ch'ang-an's plain features, while the poorer familes can always be dismissed for their supposed mercenary interest. The real trouble, of course, lies in Ch'i-ch'iao's unwillingness to relinquish her hold on her daughter. As the years go by, Ch'ang-an becomes a confirmed opium-smoker with a temper as peevish as her mother's.
When she is approaching thirty, a girl cousin takes pity on Ch'ang-an and introduces her to T'ung Shih-fang, a German-returned student in his late thirties. After his eight lonely years abroad and some unhappy love experiences in his early youth, this man has developed a nostalgic longing for the demure type of Chinese girl and finds Ch'ang-an quite to his liking. After several quiet and furtive dates they become formally engaged. To be worthy of her fiancé, Ch'ang-an even summons enough will power to stop smoking opium.
But Ch'i-ch'iao keeps postponing the wedding and scolding her daughter for her shameless impatience. Rather than stand the taunts further, Ch'ang-an finally decides to break off her engagement to Shih-fang. "It would be safe if he could never see her mother, but sooner or later, he had to face Ch'i-ch'iao. Marriage is a lifelong affair; it is possible to remain a thief for a thousand years, but impossible to guard against a thief for a thousand years—how could she know what her mother would not do? Sooner or later there would be trouble; sooner or later there would be an end. This was the most beautiful episode in her life; rather than let other people spoil it in the end, she would terminate it herself."
After she has called off her engagement, Ch'ang-an still goes out with Shih-fang. To their own surprise, they begin to experience real love in each other's company. But this fragile love, of course, cannot hope to circumvent Ch'i-ch'iao's evil genius. The reader is now introduced to the climactic scene in the story, a scene of sheer dramatic surprise in which, quite appropriately, Ch'i-ch'iao is fully visualized for the first time as a prematurely old woman of evil cunning:
The rumor, however, was heard by Ch'i-ch'iao. Behind Ch'ang-an's back, she asked Ch'ang-pai to invite T'ung Shih-fang over for an informal dinner. Shih-fang thought that the Chiang family was perhaps trying to warn him against his persisting in a delicate relationship with its young mistress. But while he was talking with Ch'ang-pai over two cups of wine about the weather, the world situation, and other sundry matters in that somber and spacious dining hall, he noticed that nothing was mentioned of Ch'ang-an. Then the cold plates were cleared away and Ch'ang-pai suddenly leaned his...
(The entire section is 6883 words.)