The fallen angel of Chinese literature

Lust, Caution is the title both of a short story collection by Eileen Chang, and of the first story in that collection. It is also, of course, a recent film by Ang Lee (one I haven’t seen as yet, my views on Ang Lee’s work are mixed though I understand this one is pretty good). Eileen Chang was a 20th Century Shanghainese author, who lived in Shanghai until the 1950s and then moved to the US to avoid increasing problems with the Maoist regime.

The collection includes five stories (of between 20 and 40 pages apiece), each set during the Japanese occupation of China, and each an examination of love, sorrow, disappointment, compromise and the tension between tradition and the new. These are, other than the title story, small tales of ordinary people and the quiet concerns of their lives. It is also a collection which mostly puts the perspectives of female characters to the fore, in a period in which women’s choices were often circumscribed by tradition and relatively inflexible gender roles.

Oddly, each story has a different translator, though there is one overall editor happily it did not feel that style was varying too wildly one to the next. That editor, and translator of the title story, is Julia Lovell who I note also translated I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen which I hope to read at some point.

Other than in Lust, Caution itself, these stories use the occupation, war and the dramatic events of early 20th Century China as backdrop, a cause of increasing food shortages or rising cloth prices. Characters are impacted by great events, but they do not as a rule participate in them, they simply carry on and are concerned with work and weddings and making do.

Which makes it all sound pretty dull, and indeed Chang was heavily criticised at times for writing works which were essentially quotidian in scope and for ignoring the wider dramas of wartime China. This is, in my view, a quite misguided criticism, as what Chang does do which I think is far more interesting is show how people continue to live in interesting times and how the personal details of our lives ultimately are of more meaning to us than the grand events which may occur around us.

Of the stories, one deals with a young student who has been infiltrated into the bed of an occupation government official in order to betray him to his assassins, one the conversations of women sitting in a massage clinic’s waiting room, one preparations for a wedding between a young woman of good birth and a groom from a nouveau riche family, another an evening in a domestic servant’s life and her difficult relations with her young son, the final the strained relationship between a younger (though still middle aged) woman and her older and richer husband. Other than the first then, these are characters which Chang’s original readers would instantly have recognised from their own lives, people of a type that her readers might well themselves know or be related to.

As Chang is not a plot driven author (even Lust, Caution is more about the student spy protagonist’s internal debate about whether to betray her lover to his assassins or not), her work stands or falls on her prose and the skill of her characterisation, and it is here that she shines. Chang is a master of brief but telling description, of packing a wealth of information about a person into a sentence or two. In the opening story, Jiazhi is a pretty young student radical who has become involved with a group of fellow students intent on resisting the Japanese occupation. She is chosen to become the lover of an official in the collaborationist government, but when she successfully makes contact with him and goes back to celebrate with her fellow conspirators they realise a key problem in their plan:

“Instead, a quiet gradually fell over the assembled company. There was whispering in a couple of corners, and secretive, tittering laughter; laughter she had heard before. They had been talking it over behind her back for some time, she realised.

‘Apparently, Liang Runsheng is the only one who has any experience,’ Lai Xiujin, the only other girl in the group, told her.

Liang Runsheng.

Of course, he was the only one who had ever been inside a brothel.”

And so we see how young they are, how inexperienced, how amateurish. They have planned a honey trap, but they are all virgins save one and his experience is born simply of a trip or two to a brothel.

Jiazhi is a romantic, she finds herself part of the world of the government elite, with their flashing diamond rings, heavy gold chains fashionable due to their great expense in wartime, among mature women who endlessly play mahjong with clacking tiles and biting gossip. She finds herself attracted to Mr Yi, the official she seduces, and she is caught between her desire to fulfil her mission, her loyalty to her group, and the emotion she finds herself feeling for the vastly more experienced Mr Yi.

Like much Chinese fiction, Lust, Caution is not a happy tale. Jiazhi for all her status as a spy and seducer is an innocent, caught in a world much more sophisticated than her own. The observation of her moods is cool and precise, the description of the languorous air in a downmarket jewellers to which she lures Mr Yi to planned ambush is beautifully drawn as is the light it sheds on the relationship between adulterer and lover, the rules of seduction and the gifts it is appropriate for Mr Yi to give and when it is appropriate to give them. This is a world in which assignations are known and accepted, in which a lover will be bought jewellery while the affair is in bloom and given an apartment by way of parting gift, a world in which lust and caution may each play a part but in which love is not expected to.

My personal favourite story of the collection was not, however, Lust, Caution itself. I preferred the second and third tales, In the Waiting Room and Great Felicity. In the Waiting Room simply records the passing conversation of women awaiting their appointments in a massage clinic, one seeking to jump the queue, another complaining of her many problems in life, ordinary women having an ordinary conversation of a sort that could happen in almost any queue in almost any place or time.

Again, descriptions are brief but beautifully telling, the daughter of the couple who run the clinic wears every day the same dress of red and black checked imitation wool:

“so big it was baggy on her, and a pair of homemade, grey cloth shoes. She had a lot of siblings, so she wouldn’t get any pretty clothes until she had a likely match – but since she didn’t have anything pretty to wear, she couldn’t get a match. She was trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to spend her blooming years in wistful longing: no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.”

That last line there, “no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.” is I think marvellous, pitiless yet sympathetic, capturing the quiet despair of a live absent meaningful choices or opportunities, a life determined by society and tradition within certain tightly bound constraints.

Similarly, Chang’s description of the masseur and his wife is skilful, as this little vignette shows:
“Pang Songling came out and washed his hands at the washstand near the door. He was wearing a jacket and pants made of soft silk, dull blue in colour. He propped one foot on his daughter’s chair, picked up the soup plate, took his cigarette from his mouth, handed it to his wife, and started to eat. Mrs Pang smoked the cigarette and then, when he had finished eating, returned it to him. Neither one said a word.”

We see the relationship between the couple, long established and passionless, we note Pang Songling’s clothes as opposed to those of his unfortunate daughter, whose chair he uses to rest his foot on. In that one paragraph we have nested relationships, a whole story of a family caught in one moment.

Chang is tremendous at portraying frustration, petty injustice, the chafing of a life which is not happy but in which the disappointments are too small for it to be tragic. In Great Felicity, the mother of the groom (Mrs Lou) is a woman of humble origins whose lack of social graces constantly undermines her and whose family all in different ways mock and belittle her. Chang shows how her characters betray themselves, how the narratives they tell themselves may not quite reflect the realities they inhabit. At one point Mrs Lou wants to answer her husband back for an unfair accusation:

“Suddenly it all welled up within her and she wanted to answer back: ‘if we have been treating you badly here at home, then don’t come back! I’m sure you have another woman outside. That’s why you keep finding fault with things at home – this won’t do, that won’t do.’ Then she remembered that she was going to be a mother-in-law soon and swallowed her words. She put her shoulders back and clattered to the bathroom where she gargled noisily, swishing the water around in her mouth, then spitting it out with a vengeance. Whenever Mrs Lou was angry and wanted to cry, she always channelled her impulse into bluff and hearty action – letting it all out.”

The evident irony being of course that Mrs Lou has not acted at all and has let nothing out, she has simply swallowed her anger and disappointment as one feels she must have many times before. Later in the same scene:

“She gazed at herself, at her pale, stolid, spreading cheeks – she couldn’t even articulate to herself her own misery. The eyebrows were drawn together, always frowning, but her expression said only, ‘Oh bother! Bother!’ and said nothing of her misery.”

Chang’s stories do not have a sole narrative perspective, we see overlapping lives which impact each other but which fail to really communicate. The young couple are modern and manipulate their parents into buying them better wedding gifts by using their own traditional views against them, the husband pursues his social advancement, Mrs Lou muddles along laughing at jokes she doesn’t understand. Again, Chang is pitiless yet sympathetic, exposing Mrs Lou’s foibles and failings, but showing compassion for her at the same time.

Chang has a talent for capturing uncomfortable conversations, unspoken family resentments, incomprehension between generations, the different pulls of modernity (much of it in the form of Western influences) and tradition (concubinage for example), the constant tension between materialism and sentiment. In a sense, as an author she is a miniaturist, capturing the everyday in small scenes or brief descriptions, working on a tiny canvass but with telling detail.

At times, particularly in Lust, Caution itself, I did struggle to differentiate some characters (which may have been intentional in that case) as different women of similar classes came to merge together somewhat. A curious failing given how accomplished the characterisation was generally. However, overall I found this a rewarding and interesting read, and more importantly for my own tastes I found it true at a level that much fiction struggles to achieve in its depiction of ordinary people facing ordinary challenges. Penguin have also published a collection entitled Love in a Fallen City (a tremendously Changian title in my view) which I intend to pick up and a full novel is promised. Having read Lust, Caution, I have every intention of reading as much of Chang’s work as Penguin cares to translate and publish.

http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/showbook.php?id=0141034386 (though note the cover on the copy I have is taken from Ang Lee’s film, bit of a shame really as I prefer the black and white shot on the cover I link to here).

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10 Comments

Filed under Chang, Eileen, Chinese, Lovell. Julia (translator), Short stories

10 responses to “The fallen angel of Chinese literature

  1. Olman Feelyus

    “so big it was baggy on her, and a pair of homemade, grey cloth shoes. She had a lot of siblings, so she wouldn’t get any pretty clothes until she had a likely match – but since she didn’t have anything pretty to wear, she couldn’t get a match. She was trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to spend her blooming years in wistful longing: no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.”

    Ouch! Great but painful quote.

    Sounds very good. I will seek this at the library and read one or two stories, then I will probably purchase it as an xmas gift for my mother. Great recommendation.

  2. Max Cairnduff

    Hi there,

    Oddly your comment wasn’t showing up, not sure why.

    The writing is very sharp at times, that’s what makes these stories worthwhile I think. When your subject matter is as small as the subjects of most of these tales are you need that sharpness of observation.

    Let me know what you, and your mother, think. I’d be interested to hear.

  3. Kudos on moving to WordPress. Hope the trasition was pain-free.

  4. Yup, the import function just did its thing. It took me a few minutes to figure out how it all worked, but not that many and I did so without recourse to Help features so it’s pretty user friendly.

    Some nice features too, such as the drop down menu for categories which I quite like.

  5. KevinfromCanada

    Max: I like the switch to WordPress. Kevin

  6. I really enjoyed Lust, Caution the movie. In fact, it is one of my favorite recent films. Now, I think I will have to go check out the story on which it was based. The story collection sounds very interesting. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  7. It’s a good collection.

    As I mentioned over at your blog Kerry, I just picked up Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City today, so there’ll be more Chang in a bit.

  8. Now I have to decide, go with this collection or with Love in a Fallen City. Actually, as you’ve covered these, I am thinking about another of hers, The Rice Sprout Song. I will probably get the short story collection too.

  9. I have Love in a Fallen City, but haven’t read it yet. I hadn’t heard of The Rice Sprout Song, where did you hear about that? I must check it out.

  10. Pingback: To get rich is glorious « Pechorin’s Journal

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