In a famous image, the 24-year-old Eileen Chang recalled a vivid childhood memory of her mother. ‘My mother and my aunt were going overseas’, she wrote. ‘The day they were leaving, she lay face down on the bamboo bed, crying and crying, her green top and skirt glittering and glinting.’
There is much in play here: cosmopolitan modernity, embodied in the figure of the mother—ocean liner, sequined suit—who is at the same time unreachable, in the almost childlike abandon of her grief; the extended Chinese family; the servants, charged with keeping time. The visual imagery of the final sentence, with its multiple reflections—ocean, glass, sequins, sea—light-filled, fused with feeling yet sensuously uncertain, was typical of Chang’s early writing, whose lexicon could also draw upon the rich resources of classical Chinese.
How should Chang’s work be contextualized within world literature? At first glance her career appears to cut across its major categorizations, whether framed in terms of historical world-systems, linguistic ‘cultural ecologies’ or a presumptive (and problematic) global canon.footnote2 Chang’s writing demands, first of all, that gender be taken into account, as historicized cultural determinant and as marker of styles and genres. Yet Chang cannot simply be categorized as a ‘Chinese woman writer’, the terms in which she was introduced to Anglophone readers in 1961 by C. T. Hsia, the Columbia-based literary scholar, in his landmark History of Modern Chinese Fiction. Describing her as ‘the best and most important writer in Chinese today’, Hsia situated Chang alongside ‘serious modern women writers in English’, such as Katherine Mansfield or Carson McCullers.footnote3 In world-historical terms, however, Chang might better be ranked with those extraordinary artists of the catastrophe of the ancien régime, whether they welcomed its fall—Lu Xun, Babel, Musil—or not: Joseph Roth or Nabokov, for example. These were writers who could see both forward and back, with access both to the full repertoire of the cultural traditions of the past and to the new techniques and subject matters of modernity. In Chang’s case, explosive contradictions of gender and class, cultural formation and social dislocation were channeled into highly controlled forms of literary expression.
Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang Ailing was the daughter of an arranged marriage of an utterly incompatible couple, soon to be divorced. Both descended from families of high officials and landowners, her father was an heir of dwindling properties and conservative views, as well as the decadent habits of his class; her mother was glamorous and adventurous, a ‘New Woman’ who embraced Western modernity and spent most of her time travelling overseas. A precociously talented child (turning out a page of an incompleted historical romance set in the Sui-Tang period when she was seven), she was trained in classical Chinese literature by her good-for-nothing, opium-smoking father, while her cosmopolitan and emancipated mother insisted that ‘Eileen’, as she renamed her, be given an advanced, Western education—an American Episcopal boarding school in the Foreign Concession district of Shanghai; an Eng. Lit. degree at the University of Hong Kong—and introduced her to European literature, art and music. All this combined with the popular culture of a fast-modernizing 1930s Shanghai—cinemas, magazines, billboards, avant-garde bookshops and literary cafes—soon to be engulfed by Japanese military occupation, kmt revanchism and Communist revolution.
Yet Chang’s entry onto the literary stage, aged seventeen, was also deeply shaped by gender relations. Her first published work, ‘What a Life! What a Girl’s Life!’, was written in protest against her father, who had nearly killed her by locking her up for months in a bare room, and refusing medical treatment when she was stricken with dysentery, as punishment for the youthful rebellion of preferring her mother’s house. This life-or-death determination to escape from tradition-sanctioned patriarchal domination by use of her own fierce intelligence already distinguishes her career from that of a Lu Xun, a Musil or a Roth. To some extent, gender-conditioned insecurities would shape the choices she made throughout her life. Nor can Chang easily be slotted into a single linguistic culture. ‘What a Life! What a Girl’s Life!’ was written in English and first published in the American-owned Shanghai Evening Post; Chang translated it into Chinese as ‘Tiancai meng’ [‘Dreams of a Child Prodigy’] two years later. In her writing, Chang moved back and forth between deep immersion in each of the two languages, and their high and low cultures: Chinese classical literature and Victorian novels; knock-about Chinese popular opera and Hollywood films.footnote4 Cultural-linguistic categories would require immense complication to encompass this career.