Before the Revolution

Little Reunions

by Eileen Chang, translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz
New York Review Books, 332 pp., $16.95

Forever Young

a film directed by Li Fangfang

In 2012, as he ascended to the top of the Chinese Communist Party and its government, Xi Jinping began giving speeches about a “Chinese Dream”: China was to become wealthy, powerful, beautiful, and unified. Of these four goals, wealth and power were especially important because, in an official narrative that had been repeated for decades in schools and the media, China for too long had been bullied by Western powers.

Ailing Zhang (Eileen Chang) Papers, USC Libraries
Eileen Chang, Hong Kong, circa 1954

The sense of national humiliation that has seeped into popular consciousness in China has, for many, led to a deep ambivalence toward the West: Chinese admire its wealth, modernity, and freedoms, yet we are rivals, not friends. China’s great modern writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) several times observed that his fellow Chinese look either up at the West or down on it—never straight across. The usual results are caricatures that further impede the possibility of getting a clear look.

In the last ten years, there have been signs in China that a growing number of people want to move beyond the look-up-or-look-down trap, and the popularity of Eileen Chang’s novel Little Reunions is one of them. Finished in 1976 but not published until 2009, fourteen years after her death, the book sold 700,000 copies in China in its first six months of publication. It is Chang’s most autobiographical work, so some of its allure has been as a trove of clues to the author’s life. More than that, though, the novel recalls a vanished China of the 1930s and 1940s that was both rooted in Chinese culture and open to the West; its scenes offer an antidote to the mood of indignant rivalry and, at least in the imagination, an alternative to the Xi Jinping version of what it means to be a modern Chinese. In Chang’s assured cosmopolitanism, Westerners are neither models nor victimizers but three-dimensional human beings who go through pains and triumphs just as Chinese people do. Writing in California during years when her home country was writhing in torrid “class struggle,” Chang depicts everyday human experience in prose that is elegant, erudite, and trenchant.

Born in 1920 into an elite but declining family of scholar-officials, Chang grew up with only intermittent parenting by a mother who was often traveling abroad and an aloof father who spent considerable time with opium and courtesans. Following her Western-style schooling in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, she began publishing brilliant short novels—Love in a Fallen City and The Golden Cangue, among others—that are reminiscent of Austen in their preoccupation with romantic and family relationships portrayed against a backdrop of upper-class dysfunction in a semicolonial world. Chang quickly found a large following. She remained in China for three years after the Communist victory in 1949, and in The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth produced two of the…

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