Chinese novelist Eileen Chang 张爱玲 died on 8 September 1995 in Los Angeles. Can we celebrate someone’s death? I decided we can because she is among the few modern Chinese writers I read nowadays. She sits next to Lu Xun on my literary altar, only more forgotten.
Hollywood director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution 色、戒is based on her short story published in 1979 in Taiwan (see photo). Two themes characterise Chang’s work: pre-Communist “East meets West”daily life and her cosmopolitism. In Lust, Caution, Lee showed his love for both.
Chang’s writing seems the natural outcome of her upbringing. Her father was the picture of decadent late-imperial aristocracy, and her mother was very much the kind of Westernized “New Woman” that embraced cultural reform. She was educated and independent, leaving her family behind for several years to travel Europe and to ski in the Swiss Alps. When Chang’s parents divorced when she was ten, she grew up in a contradictory world of pre-Communist Shanghai, split between her mother’s modern apartment and the opium-filled den of her father’s traditional aristocratic house. China’s cultural transition is evident and extensive in her razor-sharp observations.
Most of her literary works were written during the middle decades of the twentieth century, a period of intense political upheaval. The Qing dynasty was overtaken by a revolutionary republican democracy in 1911, nine years before the writer was born. However, this democracy collapsed into warlordism within five years, and the 1920s through 1940s were marked by increasingly violent power struggles to control and reshape China. These struggles culminated in the bloody Sino-Japanese War and the civil war between right-wing Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party. While many prominent writers responded to these conflicts by turning radically left-wing and writing about ideals such as Nation, Revolution, Progress, Chang focused more on the mundane interactions and relationships between men and women. Lust, Caution is all the more extraordinary in that it is one of her few works where the politics drive the story. It seems to be Chang’s response to her critics who claimed that her treatment of war was too trivial.
Below I have selected five quotes from her books to share with my readers:
- If a woman can’t win love and admiration from men, she won’t be respected by women either.
- When you laugh, you laugh together with the entire world. When you cry, you cry alone.
- Photography is like the hard shell of life. As time passes, you eat the inside and only you know how it really tastes. The empty shell is what’s left behind to show people.
- I love money because I never have known what harm it can bring. Nobody has taught me about its evil, I have only learned how good money is.
- Humanity is the most interesting book there is and you never finish reading.