This is the first work of fiction by a female author I’ve read this year (apart from E.L. James, but I don’t want to admit that). So I read Eileen Chang’s collection of short stories, one that is praised internationally because of the sharp, observant and loving stories that combine exquisitely both traditional Chinese and modern Western styles.
Chang’s stories are dynamic and panoramic. Her characters are moving, interesting, alive and multi-dimensional, often passionate and unpredictable. They are believable and understandable even though they come from a different culture and time than most of us. The stories’s settings are exotic and unique, often in Shanghai and Hongkong around the years of transitioning to more Westernized cities. The endings are often bittersweet. The language soft and calm. The clever descriptions short, selective and beautiful. Chang’s command of fiction is masterful; her keen observation of the changing society is transformed flawlessly into stories of China’s volatile time periods, with people struggling to make decisions, to love and live in a shattering environments.
There are many things I love about Chang’s stories: the setting, the characters and the writing.
The China that Chang describes in her stories is beautiful as I would imagine from Chinese ink paintings: “already, beyond the wall a roar of wild azaleas was blooming across the hill, the fiery red stomping through brittle grass, blazing down the mountainside.” The flowers, the tea, incense, mountains create a romantic dreamy backdrop for Chang’s stories. But there are also Western theaters, dance halls, beaches, trams, crowded cities. Chang’s world is fiercely aristocratic and considerably wealthy, with traditional values still strictly in place with the Confucianist familial hierarchy, but at the same time, people still fall in love, to marry, to have affairs, to divorce, to go against families for one’s happiness. However, Chang’s setting is not messy, chaotic, broken, but rather liquid, changing, unsettling, creating the perfect background for Chang’s memorable characters.
They are often fierce and passionate. They learn to love with a naive mind or broken hearts, or both. These characters define their own kind of ‘love’: the “red rose” love, the “white rose” love (Red Rose, White Rose), the “Wei-long-innocent-adolescent-sweet” kind of love (Aloeswood Incense), the “love in a fallen city” kind of love. And then there is also hate, the twisted, suppressed, confused hate of a young man struggling to face his emotions and lie up to his parents’ expectations (Jasmine Tea). These characters glow with passion and motivation; they are individuals finding their own path, making their own families and culture while the world around them changes. What I love most about them is their eager to fight for their own life: Weilong setting out on her own to create the life she always wanted, Liusu and Liuyuan rising from the debris of the bombed Hong Kong to create a marriage for themselves. These new and modern men and women of the changing China constantly come to terms with their feelings and decisions and respond to changing circumstances with logic and determinism.
Chang uses her beautiful language to bring the setting, characters and stories to life. For me, language-wise, “Sealed-off” is the most successful story in the collection. Chang uses sound, colors, motions masterfully to describe an encounter between people on a crowded train. The invisible human connection and the internal psychological feedback mechanisms are highlighted cleverly and realistically. Chang’s writing echoes the nostalgia of classical literature and adopts modern techniques into one unique and genius style of her own.
“But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall that she could be vindicated? […] Liusu didn’t feel there was anything subtle about her place in history. […] Those legendary beauties wo felled cities and kingdoms were probably all like that. Legend exists everywhere, but they don’t necessarily have such happy endings. When the huqin wails on a night of ten thousand lamps, the bow slides back and forth, drawing forth a tale too desolate for words-oh! why go into it?” (Love in a Fallen City)