Cover Photo: Courtesy of the Ailing Zhang

Author Eileen Chang’s life was as storied—and tragic—as her novels, one of which hits the big screen this month

The awards-season gilding of Ang Lee’s sultry Lust, Caution brought Chinese cinema a new level of praise and attention on the world stage when it was released in 2007. However, the erotic spy thriller’s graphic sex scenes between lead actors Tang Wei and Tony Leung drew controversy in China, where critics argued the film sensationalised the 1979 novella by Eileen Chang that inspired Lee’s adaptation, tarnishing one of China’s best-loved authors.

Despite a troubled relationship with her home country, Chang remains one of China’s most celebrated literary figures of the 20th century, and this month marks both the 100th anniversary of her birth and 25 years since her death. Her stories of futile romance and family spats in Hong Kong and Shanghai have provided evergreen inspiration for numerous screen adaptations, including Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui’s forthcoming picture Love After Love, which premieres at the Venice Film Festival this month.

Leading Lady

The 1920s to 1940s were transformative years for modern Chinese literature, when writers in war-torn China were divided by politics, namely nationalist and communist allegiances. Chang specialised in subverting fable and national-hero propaganda fiction and delving with vivid realism into the lives of her characters, such as miserable daughters and desperate mistresses in gritty settings like brothels, casinos and bleak manor houses.

In her lifetime, she wrote more than 60 novels, novellas, short stories, essays and screenplays. “All I really write about are some of the trivial things that happen between men and women. There is no war and no revolution in my works,” she wrote in Written on Water, a 1945 essay collection. She was described as “the most brilliant, most important writer in China today” in Hsia Chih-tsing’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction in 1961.

“Chang was a passionate rebel... While there had been a lot of romance writers out there, she stood out with her original and controversial views on human nature,” says Cheung Che-kwok, the first producer in Hong Kong to adapt Chang’s 1950 story Eighteen Springs into a popular television series on RTV, in the Seventies. “She revealed progressive ideas shocking and unmentioned in Hong Kong society in the mid-20th century, such as factory girl Gu Manzhen being raped by her brothel manager brother-in-law in Eighteen Springs. That touched the hearts of a lot of people.”

Product Of Her Time

Far from wallflowers, Chang’s female characters embodied daring traits and tragic fates, such as Lust, Caution’s schoolgirl-turned-spy Wong Chia-chi, who seduces Yee, a powerful political figure in 1940s Shanghai, but ends up falling in love, with fatal consequences.

The real experiences that shaped Chang’s stories were not short of drama. Chang’s life is a source of fascination for Hedy Chan, the scriptwriter who collaborated with Cheung on the television adaptation. “Chang as a writer and her writing are a whole package of mystery... Only she could deliver her stories because they were found only in her time. Her life is mirrored in her oeuvre.”

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The great-granddaughter of Li Hongzhang, an influential Qing Dynasty court official, Chang was born in Shanghai in 1920 and received a western-style education at St Mary’s Hall school, where she would write stories for the school’s annual magazine. However, she struggled to establish herself apart from her aristocratic background and found herself the subject of gossip by her peers.

Home life was turbulent, too: her parents divorced when she was ten due to her father’s opium addiction and use of prostitutes. Aged 18, after a fight with her stepmother, Chang contracted dysentery, and rather than seek treatment for her, her father locked her in a room in their manor house for months on end. Chang would end up running away to live with her mother, but the experience propelled her to write the cathartic piece “What A Life! What A Girl’s Life!” published in Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury, themes from which would later resurface in her stories Eighteen Springs, The Book of Change and Little Reunions.

In 1939, she left home to study English literature at the University of Hong Kong, paving the way for her career as a professional writer. Here, she debuted Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, the short story Hui has adapted into Love After Love, which reflects the repression of women in the 1930s and 1940s through the downfall of a young woman who runs away from a traditional Shanghainese family to Hong Kong, but ends up in prostitution to make a living and is forced into a loveless marriage.

Across The Miles

Her twenties proved the most prolific era of Chang’s career and her experiences of living in Hong Kong and her memories of Shanghai inspired Love in A Fallen City, The Golden Cangue, Red Rose White Rose, Withering Flower and The Book of Change, stories that depict broken families marred by opium addiction, female victims railing against feudal societies, family quarrels, parental neglect and affairs between married men and young girls or newly-weds. As the Second World War raged, her 1944 essay From the Ashes explored the inner turmoil of individuals, set against the backdrop of wartime Hong Kong. “The emptiness and despair one feels when being alone in a war are unbearable. People therefore yearn for something tangible. They get married,” she wrote.

Her own romantic life was fraught with loneliness: her first husband, Hu Lan-cheng, 14 years older and also a writer, was a notorious womaniser. Chang was Hu’s fourth of five wives, and his affair with a 17-year-old nurse shortly after he married Chang led to their divorce in 1947.

In 1955, as the Cultural Revolution loomed in China, Chang was named a cultural traitor by the Communist Party and fled to the US as a refugee. There, she met her second husband, the American scriptwriter Ferdinand Reyher, in a New Hampshire artist’s colony. Chang became pregnant, but decided to have an abortion after Reyher told her he did not want to have the child. These experiences and their resulting emotional scarring instilled a cynicism in Chang and fuelled the semi-autobiographical Little Reunions, which features an abortion scene that was strikingly graphic for its time.

Even when writing about gritty or hard-hitting subjects, Chang’s writing is notable for an elegance and insight into human psychology that was unmatched among other Chinese writers of the same period, says Chan. “She thoroughly portrayed a person’s psychology in an elegant and layered manner as if she were dissecting a person in an experiment in the lab. Her language was unique. She led you into the innate world of a character with her poetic words, which was a completely new experience for general readers.”

Lost In Translation

While living in the US, Chang had tried to make a name for herself by writing in English, yet found her writing could not reach readers in the same way. “Popular Chinese authors who wrote in English back then touched on sufferings under the Communist regime,” Chan says. “However, subjects like familial strife in Chang’s Chinese works weren’t customised to the American literary market. Only Chinese readers resonated with and understood the burden upon her characters.”

Much of what Cheung describes as the “haute, elegant aura” in Chang’s native Chinese language is lost when translated into English, which is why the celebrated Hong Kong author remained unknown in the West. Her first English fiction, The Rice Sprout Song in 1955, portrayed the suffering of starving peasants under the land redistribution movement of the Communist regime. However, it wasn’t unique. “You don’t need an Eileen Chang to write a story about famine,” Chan says.

Literary Legacy

After Reyher died in 1967, Chang led a life of solitude and continued writing until she died alone in her Los Angeles flat in 1995, her body discovered only after phone calls from her building manager went unanswered for several days. She left all her possessions and manuscripts to Stephen and Mae Fong Soong, her lifelong friends in Hong Kong.

After Mae Fong Soong died in 2007, her son Roland Soong inherited Chang’s legacy and began publishing her unpublished works, as well as English translations of some of her most popular stories. The modern reprints, along with Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning movie released the same year, brought Chang’s work to a new generation of readers and instilled fresh pride in the Chinese-speaking world towards one of its most respected literary voices.

Directors like Ann Hui continue to ensure that Chang’s name and writing live on through the ages. Love After Love is the third time Hui has directed a film version of Chang’s work, following 1988’s Love in a Fallen City and 1997’s Eighteen Springs, both critically acclaimed pictures. Eddie Peng and Ma Sichun star in the adaptation, which is scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto, with cinematography by Wong Kar-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle.

That the writer’s work stands the test of time and continues to appeal to filmmakers and readers alike is due to her innate wisdom about human relationships, says Chan. “Chang’s life, personality and how she pushed writing about the inner workings of the mind to the extreme made her a legend. No one has been able to write like her since.”

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