ZHANG AILING, A.K.A., EILEEN CHANG (1921—1995) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

ZHANG AILING, A.K.A., EILEEN CHANG (1921—1995). Fiction writer. Better known in the West as Eileen Chang, Zhang Ailing is widely considered the most talented woman writer in 20th-century China and celebrated for her relentless dissection of the tragic ironies of human experience. By birth, she should have had a pampered life, with a grandfather who was a high-ranking official in the late Qing government and a grandmother who was a daughter of Li Hongzhang, an influential Qing official. However, wealth and family prestige did not guarantee happiness, but a lonely childhood might have contributed to the making of an author. Her first published work is about her experience of being beaten and locked up by her father. Zhang, a reclusive figure who died all alone in her Los Angeles apartment at the age of 74, was interested in exploring the interior landscape of the individual and the decaying traditional way of life, no doubt inspired by her aristocratic background. In many ways, she epitomizes, both in her own life and in her works, the glamorous city of Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, a metropolis where East and West, old and new, converged.

Zhang graduated from a Christian high school in Shanghai in 1937, the same year the Japanese invaded the city. Her plan to study in England had to change because of the war in Europe. Instead, she entered the University of Hong Kong. During her third year at the university, Japan invaded the city. She returned to Shanghai and married Hu Lancheng, a writer and journalist later accused of collaborating with the Japanese. The couple eventually separated and Hu went to Japan while Zhang remained in China. With the excuse of resuming her studies in Hong Kong, she got permission to leave China in 1952. Three years later, she immigrated to the United States. There she married for the second time, to an American playwright. After he died, she lived alone until her death in 1995.

Zhang arrived at the height of her writing career in the mid-1940s. In 1943 alone, she finished eight stories, including “Qing cheng zhi lian” (Love in a Fallen City), the first important work that brought her fame, and “Jin suo” (The Golden Cangue), generally considered the best of her work. “Qing cheng zhi lian” centers around the heroine’s life first as the mistress of a wealthy businessman, then as his wife, and finally as a divorced woman who is rejected by her own kin, who regard her divorce as a disgrace to the family. Zhang is skilled at presenting the complexity of the inner minds of women, and nowhere is that skill more evident than in the portrayal of Cao Qiqiao, the protagonist of “Jin suo.” Cao’s transformation from a lovely and innocent girl to a cold-blooded, neurotic widow is delivered with powerful psychological insights.

Unlike most of her contemporaries, Zhang was not preoccupied with the “big” theme of China’s national salvation. Her lenses were always focused on the trivialities of life, the subtle feelings between men and women, and intricate manipulations within families. From these personal and familial perspectives, the author reveals the dilemma of being a woman in a society gingerly inching toward modernity. Her fascination with life’s small details sprang from an appreciation of popular art and classical novels, especially Hong lou meng (A Dream of Red Mansions). Her works display a remarkable degree of psychological realism and narrative sophistication, and her use of imagery and symbolism as well as irony gives credence to her writing, making her one of the best writers in modern Chinese literature. In an essay entitled “Writing about Myself,” she expresses her admiration for Western modernism: “Modern literature seems to be different from what we had in the past because it no longer stresses a thesis, but just tells a story from which the reader gets as much as he can or as much as the story can offer.” Her stories and novels are examples of this new aesthetic concept.

In the 1940s, Zhang wrote many short pieces of prose, later collected in Liuyan (Gossips). While not all her stories and novels are autobiographical, her essays are all about her unhappy childhood, her parents’ divorce, her dreams, what she learned in her early years, and her reflections on what she saw and heard. This collection affords us glimpses of the real Zhang, who loved the modern metropolis of Shanghai and its bustling urban life and played the part of a witty observer commenting on fashion, movies, dance, music, painting, and literature. Her essays show that she was intimately linked to the outside world, the variegated social sphere of Shanghai and Hong Kong in the chaotic 1940s. Some of Zhang’s later works, written after she left China in 1952, carry political subtexts. The Rice-Sprout Song, a visceral portrayal of the famine directly caused by the land reform movement in rural China during the early 1950s, and Naked Earth, which critiques the destructive power of the Communist Party over human relationships, were commissioned by the United States Information Agency and published in Hong Kong in the mid-1950s. She wrote both novels in English and Chinese. During her stay in the United States from 1955, Zhang also tried to rewrite some of her early stories in English, including The Rouge of the North, an expanded rewrite of her much celebrated early novella—The Golden Cangue. In the 1970s, she wrote Xiao tuanyuan (A Small Reunion) but requested that the manuscript be destroyed in the event of her death. Against her dying wish, the novel was published in 2009 and has quickly gained recognition as among the best of her work. It is widely believed to be a fictionalized account of the author’s own life growing up in a declining aristocratic family, her passionate but disillusioned love affair with Hu Lancheng, and her pervasive feeling of depression and darkness. Like Zhang’s other works, the novel is also a perceptive study of human nature with all its contradictions and self-deceptions, tenacity and frailty, and all the good and bad that life brings to the individual. In Zhang’s long career, she also ventured into filmscript writing for the Hong Kong movie industry as well as scholarly work on Hong lou meng, a translation into English and modern Chinese of Haishang hua lie zhuan (Biographies of the Shanghai Courtesans), a 19th-century novel originally written in the Suzhou vernacular.

Zhang’s influence on Chinese literature is enormous. Among her many progenies are Shi Shuqing, Zhu Tianwen, Zhu Tianxin, Wang Anyi, and Zhong Xiaoyang, all believed to have inheritated her legacy. A recent movie by the renowned diretor Ang Lee, Lust, Caution, which is based on Zhang’s semiautobiographical story about romance, politics, and betrayal during the Sino-Japanese War, thrusted Zhang into the limelight of Western popular culture, a notoriety from which the reclusive author would have probably recoiled.