Chinese Shadows

Love in a Fallen City

by Eileen Chang,translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang
New York Review Books, 321 pp., $14.95 (paper)

In 1920 a young Chinese poet named Guo Moruo published a poem called “The Sky Dog,” which begins:

Ya, I am a sky dog!
I have swallowed the moon,
I have swallowed the sun.
I have swallowed all the planets,
I have swallowed the entire universe.
I am I!

After swallowing the universe the dog keeps going for twenty-one more lines, until, at the end, “The I of I is about to explode!” In fact, the writer moved on to a career of fame as poet, translator, literary organizer, archaeologist, and government bureaucrat. He also gradually acquired a reputation among Chinese intellectuals as one of the century’s greatest political sycophants. In 1977, a year before his death, he published a poem called “I Sing of the Third Plenum of the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party of China.” Aimed at “smashing the Gang of Four,” the poem is a work of crude propaganda.

Guo Moruo was extreme in several ways, but his career describes a general pattern in twentieth-century Chinese letters. In the early decades of the century there was a sense of challenge, adventure, and openness in the Chinese literary world. Break with the past! Explore Western literature! Investigate society! Plunge into the future! Build a better China! Few writers in those days saw any reason to set limits on their imaginations or submit to constraints on their writing. But in the 1930s, Japanese attacks on China began to bring a change of mood. The threat of invasion seemed to warrant a concentration on resistance, and this in turn was taken to require coordination of national efforts in order to defeat the enemy. Writers began to accept, indeed to embrace, limits on what they published.

The Communist movement had an important part in shaping what was called “National Resistance Literature,” but few Chinese writers in the 1930s foresaw how powerful the effects of communism eventually would be. In his “Talks on Literature and Art” in 1942, Mao Zedong called for

keeping to Party spirit and Party policy. Are there any of our literary and art workers who are still mistaken or not clear in their understanding of this problem? I think there are.

After the revolution in 1949, Mao’s orders to follow the Party began to apply throughout mainland China. Writers fell under what Chu Anping, a liberal newspaper editor (who was purged in the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and died, apparently by suicide, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966), aptly called “the world of the Party.” In this world, the leaders and the administrators gave the writers subjects to deal with; they let them know if they got things wrong, and punished them if they kept getting them wrong. Much has been written about the problems caused by this system.

Not nearly enough, though, has been written about the deeper influences that the “world of the Party” had on Chinese writing. Much more than the choice of subject was involved. Heroes and villains became stereotyped and modes of storytelling became rigid. Choices of words, metaphor, and literary tone had to draw on an approved repertory. Even syntax showed distinctive features. “Mao literary form” (the term is from the eminent critic Li Tuo) had extensive and long-lasting effects on the conceptual world of Chinese literature. It pulled both writer and reader into an outlook in which official “correctness” reigned in everything from grammar to politics. Writers who internalized the Party view—soon the majority—were rewarded with political security and material comfort.

The resultant “domestication” of thought, as the exiled Chinese thinker Hu Ping has called it,1 is hard to analyze, especially for those who have undergone domestication. Here Chinese writers could learn from their Eastern European counterparts. When Miklós Haraszti describes Hungarian writers in the 1950s as living inside a “velvet prison,”2 he refers not only to the system of material rewards that lured them but also to the velvet layer of official language that isolated their writing from actual life. Czesław Miłosz, in The Captive Mind, goes deeper in showing how a person “grows into” linguistic role-playing until “he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates” and “proper reflexes at the proper moment become truly automatic.”3

An important question arose, therefore, after Mao died and the Gang of Four was “smashed,” when writers were suddenly told to “be free.” How easy is it to climb out of a mental enclosure? And how easy, before one even begins the climb, is it to become conscious of all the large and small ways in which the enclosure has shaped one’s perception of the world? In the years since Mao, Chinese literary topics and styles have become much more varied than before, and yet the heavy influence of the “world of the Party” endures. Many topics still cannot be addressed honestly, and a number of pretenses must be maintained—one of which, in Václav Havel’s memorable phrase, is to “pretend to pretend nothing.”4 We now have Chinese modernism, and even postmodernism, but too often these seem ostentatious, a kind of nervous diversion from the matters that are still central in Chinese life.

Eileen Chang, six of whose best stories are collected in Love in a Fallen City, spent most of her youth in pre-revolutionary Shanghai and Hong Kong; she published her most important work in the 1940s, and lived the second half of her life in California. In 1961 Professor C.T. Hsia of Columbia University, in his now-classic History of Modern Chinese Fiction, called her “the best and most important writer in Chinese today.” Partly on Hsia’s recommendation, a revival of interest in her work sprang up in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1970s. At first critics took notice, then a new popular readership grew. In the 1980s, when her works could finally enter mainland China, she quickly became almost a cult figure.

The extraordinary spread of “Eileen Chang fever” had something to do with her remarkable literary talent. But it also had to do with her utter separation from any of the effects of the world of the Party. Never inside the Maoist enclosure, she never had to climb out of it. Her prose is rich and poignant. Most important it is honest; she talks directly to her reader, with no one looking over her shoulder. For young mainlanders, her stories relieved a deep thirst—they had, some of them told me, no idea that modern fiction could be like this.

Chang’s style struck mainland readers as new because it recalled a tradition that the revolution had cut off. While most Chinese writers were resisting Japan and then adjusting to the world of the Party, Chang was drawing inspiration from classics of premodern fiction like The Golden Lotus (whose authorship is in doubt) and Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber. She also felt an affinity with contemporaries like Zhang Henshui, who continued to write, pungently and fluently, in China’s traditional vernacular style.

Chang writes about only a small part of China’s society—the semi-Westernized elite of Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930s and 1940s.5 Her preferred settings are large, well-to-do households in which tense personal relations lead to crises. She writes of love, money, status, saving face, jealousy, longing, calculation, manipulation, psychological compulsion, and, almost always, frustration and ruin. The jockeying for position among the members of a household—which can be smart, subtle, and tenacious—builds to a point where “you sat in a room clipping a fingernail—someone was watching you from the window.”

Chang’s interest in matchmaking within a relatively small social world brings to mind the novels of Jane Austen, and she also shares with Austen a talent for deft dialogue that builds tension. But Chang is more dour than Austen. She has no heroines, no one like Elizabeth Bennet whom we can trust and side with. Her stories have some villains, but most of her characters are in the middle, all too human and morally mediocre. Yet somehow we care about all of them, feel engrossed in their problems, and want desperately to know what happens to them even though we sense that the end is going to be awful. Chang’s empathy extends to people of every station: women and men, young and old, servants and masters.

She has strong and sensuous powers of description, especially of landscape and weather:

It was a humid spring evening, and the Hong Kong hills are famous for their fog. The white mansion of the Liang family was melting viscously into the white mist, leaving only the greenish gleam of the lamplight shining through square after square of the green windowpanes, like ice cubes in mint schnapps. When the fog thickened, the ice cubes dissolved, and the lights went out.

Chang delights in colors, but things are never just red or green. They are “amber yellow, smoky blue, peach red, bamboo green.” Two lovers lean against a concrete retaining wall on the south side of Hong Kong island. “The wall was cool and rough, the color of death.” Occasionally Chang stands back from the story she is telling and offers a general observation on life. A woman wins a man’s affection away from her younger sister; the sister hates her for this, but also has to admire her. Chang observes: “No matter how amazing a woman is, she won’t be respected by her own sex unless she’s loved by a member of the opposite one.” It is not easy to capture the art and wit of Eileen Chang in English; but Karen Kingsbury’s translation is wonderfully clear and subtle at the same time.

One of Chang’s most powerful and celebrated novellas, however, “The Story of the Golden Cangue,” is presented in Chang’s own translation. Here a decayed aristocratic family has bowed to necessity and married their sickly youngest son to Ch’i-ch’iao, the daughter of a shopkeeper. Subjected to relentless humiliation by her relatives and sexually neglected by her feeble husband, Ch’i-ch’iao is drawn to her attractive but dissipated brother-in-law. Prudently, he keeps his distance until her husband dies and there is some money to be had; only then does he declare that he has always loved Ch’i-ch’iao. Ch’i-ch’iao sees through the deception and rejects him, but her life is poisoned. Chang’s account of how she turns on her own children in the long years after, destroying their lives with terrifying deliberation, is harrowing. Ch’i-ch’iao is one of literature’s great monsters, all the more so because Chang ensures that we never entirely give up our sympathy for her.

Communist critics have faulted Chang for omitting the pressing national issues of the day, like war and revolution, and it is true that Chang avoids these topics unless, for example, bombs blow away part of a city and her characters have to move house. She is also criticized for concentrating on “bourgeois” life, but this charge is superficial even from a Communist point of view. Chang is far from approving of the life that she describes. Her accounts of greed, deception, and callousness are implicit pleas for the opposite: decency, honesty, and empathy. Her stories could hardly be more eloquent in suggesting that money does not buy happiness.

In recent decades “short-short” fiction of one to three pages has grown in popularity in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and the fine translations in Loud Sparrows are a good introduction to it. The pieces are varied, lively, often charming, and occasionally brilliant—and they make no strong demands on the reader.

The stories are interspersed with comments by authors of short-shorts on what they take the essence of the brief tales to be. Some mention a fusion of poetry and prose, others the casual or “friendly” character of the form. Many of the pieces rely on surprise endings, as when a woman comes home late on a snowy evening, after a movie, and agonizes over whom she should wake up in order to have the gate to her apartment compound opened. When she loses her temper and just pounds on the gate, it creaks open—it hadn’t been locked all along. Some of the pieces tell jokes and end in punch lines. Others resemble Aesop’s Fablesin using animal characters to suggest lessons about life. A few involve conceptual puzzles, as when two people visiting a mental institution, neither a patient, each takes the other to be one; only at the end do the two, and the reader, see the misunderstanding, after which the story can be reread in a new light.

Two or three of the pieces are strong enough to be seen in the tradition of the great Lu Xun (1881–1936), whose prose-poems called Wild Grass probably should count as the first modern Chinese short-shorts. In Lu Xun’s “On Expressing an Opinion” (1925), a teacher tells his students about a family to whom a son is born. The neighbors predict wealth and success for the infant, and are invited to a feast. One neighbor, though, makes the only prediction that can be made for certain: “This child will die,” and that neighbor is beaten. A student asks the teacher what one should say in such cases, if one wants to avoid both a lie and a beating. The teacher answers, “Say, ‘Just look at this child! My word…. Oh, my! Oho! Heh, heh! Heh, heh, heh….’”

A story in Loud Sparrows seems to echo this piece: a father and his small daughter are guests in a living room. When the host steps out for a moment, a vacuum bottle for some reason falls over and shatters. How can they explain what happened? “I’m sorry,” the father says, “I accidentally knocked it over.” The host forgives him, but the little girl, who had seen that her father in fact had not touched the bottle, later presses him for an explanation. “Sometimes,” the father explains, “the more you insist on telling the truth, the more it sounds like a lie, and the harder it is to get people to believe you.”

On the other hand, some of the short-shorts illustrate the continuing problem of “the world of the Party.” Wang Meng, a distinguished writer and former minister of culture, writes a short piece on shaved heads in which a wife tells her husband:

This isn’t the Cultural Revolution. During those years you shaved your head so Red Guards wouldn’t be able to grab you by the hair. Now the government is well regulated and society is stable. The people have set their sights on getting rich and living a comfortable life. What’s the point of having your head shaved?

Wang’s writing, with its light touch and facetious tone, parrots the government line while also making it clear that he is only joking in doing so. But the jocularity itself diverts attention from the troubling questions about the “well-regulated” government that, both here and elsewhere, he avoids. The reader may be expected to pass over the darker implications and pretend there is no more to say. The Taiwan and Hong Kong contributors to Loud Sparrows are more frank and scrutinizing in their observations, but a number of the mainland writers use the same devices one finds in the short pieces of Wang Meng. They satirize officials who expect bus riders to vacate seats for them, or who are so busy with red tape that they rush to a toilet but forget to defecate. But of course the troubles that Chinese people have with officials go far deeper; satire about getting seats on a bus is rather like mocking the Iraq war because traffic lights don’t work inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The cleverness of some of the short pieces only makes it all the more evident that they are diverting attention from hard and pervasive political realities, not least the fact that a short piece imagining a new kind of party could land the writer in prison. Many of the pieces remind me of the close connection in Mao’s day between authoritarianism and public displays of technical skill. The amazing feats of Chinese ping-pong players or acrobats (eighteen people on one bicycle, spinning vases on the ends of sticks as they go) told us nothing about what was in those people’s minds. It didn’t matter. They were flabbergasting, so we watched. We admired “mindless” achievement—which suited the authoritarians quite well. (There is a certain parallel today, for both participants and observers, in China’s “economic miracle,” with the proliferation of spectacular buildings in big cities.) For writers, though, diverting performances won’t do. We need the honesty and qualities of mind of an Eileen Chang.

Yan Geling grew up in China but in 1989 left for the United States where she wrote a number of novels and film scripts, some of which became especially popular in Taiwan. The Banquet Bug is an exuberant tour of the maladies of Chinese society today: corruption, fraud, public insincerity, and a growing gulf between rich and poor. These are deep problems, but Yan only has fun with them at the surface, a water-skier on polluted waters.

Many in China have noted a “values crisis” in recent decades. The bedrock of premodern Confucian values has eroded; after the disasters of Maoism hardly anyone believes in socialism; and Deng Xiaoping’s advice to the Chinese people in the 1990s to “shut up and make money” (my paraphrase) led to frantic and unscrupulous commercialism. Yet the assumption that people are supposed to behave “properly” remains deep in Chinese culture, and is embedded even in the Chinese vernacular. What, under the new dispensation, do we mean by “proper”? Scholars have written books on this topic, sarcastic jokes about it are heard in the streets, and even President Hu Jintao tries to fill the gap by setting forth “eight rules” for proper behavior. Still, when members of Falun Gong or some Christian churches openly expound their own set of values, they are brutally repressed because the Communist Party sees them as rival organizations. This constellation of related problems is the background of The Banquet Bug.

Dan Dong, the main character, is a cannery worker in Beijing who, by someone’s error, is welcomed as a guest at a large benefit banquet where people take him to be a journalist. Appreciating the food, Dan decides to devise a fake identity, get himself a fake name card, and keep on going to such banquets. His interconnected lies begin to spiral in a dizzying way. But Dan, who “forgets how many lies he has told within ten minutes,” somehow keeps landing on his feet, and this entertains the reader. All kinds of people—real estate developers, restaurateurs, artists, prostitutes, the directors of bogus charities—take him seriously, either coveting or fearing the potential of his pen. The stories about Dan are unbelievable fantasies, but they capture the popular sarcasm about corruption that pervades China today.

Yan’s prose is often too coarse to be as funny as she intends. When a stranger accosts Dan’s wife, Little Plum, and asks her if she lives nearby, “she answered that he should take a good look at himself in the mirror before he asks a woman for her address. And if he’s got no mirror, a puddle of his own pee will do.” Such mockery recalls Wang Shuo, the master of contemporary Chinese literary sarcasm, but Yan Geling is not as clever as Wang, and her mocking tone eventually wears thin. She never gets around to asking whether the cynical, corrupt scene she evokes might be the result not simply of stupid behavior by selfish people but of deeper causes in the political system and in recent history.

Yan’s avoidance of underlying questions may come, as it does with some of the authors in Loud Sparrows, from ingrained habits of growing up with authoritarianism. Even though a writer has moved overseas, such effects can linger. (One way they can linger, by the way, is in overreaction, in the need to say “let me show you how I am not constricted!”) But in The Banquet Bug I suspect that something else is involved. The novel is Yan’s first and only work written in English, and I wonder how much of it is aimed at giving Western readers what she thinks they want to hear. Perhaps she feels—not without reason—that most Western readers are just not prepared to understand the fundamental questions that China itself finds hard to face.

Ping Lu grew up in Taiwan, came to the United States in the 1970s to study and work, and then returned to Taiwan as a respected novelist and critic. Her subject in Love and Revolution is Song Qingling, one of the most famous figures in modern China.

Song was the younger sister of Song Ailing, who married Kong Xiangxi, a banker, prominent Nationalist politician, and likely the richest man in China in his day; she was also the elder sister of Song Meiling, who married Chiang Kai-shek, president of China. Qingling herself, defying her family’s wishes, married Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of the Republic of China,” when he was forty-eight years old and she was only twenty-two. She had been attracted by his heroic image and his eloquence. Later she continued to defy her family by siding with the Communists against the Nationalists. Sun died in 1925, when Qingling was thirty-two, after which she was made much of by both Westerners and Communists during fifty-six years of widowhood. Harold Isaacs, the usually skeptical American historian of modern China, knew her for most of her life, and near its end wrote:

I was smitten hard by this beautiful great lady, as who could not have been, it seemed to me then, and seems to me now. If there are no warts [in my] portrait, it is because I never saw any…and if there were any I was not seeing, I am just as glad…. For her beauty, her courage, her queenly espousal of just causes, I came to love her like a young knight pure in heart.

In 1981, two weeks before her death, Qingling was admitted to the Communist Party of China and declared an “Honorary President of the People’s Republic.”

Ping Lu, looking for the person buried under all the layers of image-making, tries to reconstruct a credible portrait of Qingling. Trained as a psychologist, she also studied statistics in graduate school, and there is something almost mathematical about the rigor of her method. She ferrets out every scrap of information she can find on Qingling, wanting not to contradict anything that is known, and then, as she puts it, lets “imagination color in the blanks left by history.” On the whole this works. When she writes that Sun Yat-sen and Song Qingling sailed from Kobe on the Hokurei Maru on November 30, 1924, we take it that she is accurate; when she moves into Qingling’s mind and says “an absurd idea suddenly came to her,” this seems a plausible conjecture. Still, when she writes that Qingling had a love affair in the 1950s with her handsome young masseur, we would like to know—but don’t—whether she has decided that old rumors such as this one are true.

In any case she succeeds in showing the ordinary and sometimes repugnant details of Qingling’s life. She has much to say about the final days of both Sun Yat-sen and Qingling, whom she sees as a lonely woman, despite her fame, and whose private thoughts she takes to have been disabused and bitter. The title Love and Revolution (a subtitle in the original Chinese) is ironic. Revolution? In Ping Lu’s account the revolutionary Sun is a man to be pitied—a much-admired symbolic figure with no real power, trying to survive among the warlords who controlled large parts of China in the 1920s; in his final weeks he lay flat on his back with liver cancer, utterly helpless. Love? Qingling remembers that on the “night of their wedding,” she found that “the moles and liver spots on his face stood out,” and that his saliva had an “unpleasant odor.” Sun’s eyes were “like those of a dead fish.” In her later years she is disgusted by her own “bloated, oversized body.” Eventually “her corpulence had immobilized her to the point that she could not bend over.” Ping Lu is aware that her findings will be upsetting; she warns us in a preface that her account “is definitely not politically correct.”

But her portrait is much more than a mere debunking. Qingling emerges as a person with whom we can sympathize. Ping Lu, who identifies herself as a feminist, very plausibly imagines Qingling’s perspective on affairs of state:

The male world where power struggles reigned was inevitably filled with the smell of blood. She, on the other had, had never hurt anyone intentionally. Her hands were free of blood.

In Ping Lu’s account, Qingling always felt a separation, a kind of transparent curtain, between herself and “the male world,” as if seeing but not feeling what went on there. She was devoted to her husband, but “why did she feel so hollow at times?” At Sun’s funeral she accepts condolences, but feels no grief.

Ping Lu may or may not be accurate about Qingling’s inner life, but she certainly writes with honesty and with penetration. In this she resembles Eileen Chang, although Chang’s stories are richer and more engrossing. Neither writer directly addresses the Sturm und Drang of twentieth-century China—war, revolution, widespread repression. Ping Lu uses such events as a backdrop, and Eileen Chang takes even greater distance from this bloody history. Yan Geling looks at some of the recent consequences of revolution, but only plays with the subject. Meanwhile many other writers still struggle, without enough success, to free themselves psychologically from “the world of the Party”; they cannot fully describe the realities of daily life with original insight or even frankness.

There is still a gaping absence in modern Chinese letters. One of the great human dramas of the world—the rise, the crash, and the aftermath of Mao’s China—remains mysterious and little comprehended. China has yet to produce its own counterparts to Yevgeny Zamyatin, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Vasily Grossman, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

  1. 1

    Hu Ping, Ren de xunhua, duobi yu fanpan (People’s Domestication, Avoidance, and Rebellion) Hong Kong: Yazhou kexue chubanshe, 1999.

  2. 2

    The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, translated by Katalin and Stephen Landesmann (Basic Books, 1987).

  3. 3

    The Captive Mind, translated by Jane Ziolonko (Knopf, 1953), p. 55.

  4. 4

    Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” in Václav Havel or Living in Truth, edited by Jan Vladislav (Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 45.

  5. 5

    In the early 1950s Eileen Chang wrote two novels about her observations of life in the early years of the People’s Republic. These were translated as The Rice Sprout Song (Scribner, 1955) and Love in Redlands (Hong Kong: Union Press, 1956).