Forgotten Women: Eileen Chang


Forgotten Women is an exclusive series for Aurelia that aims to shine light on the women who have been consigned to the margins of literary history.

This week’s spotlight is on Eileen Chang, 1920-1995.

Franklin D. Roosevelt called it a “day of infamy”. December 8, 1941 is best known for the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the U.S. declaration of war on Japan. But lost in the annals of a western-centric history is that the bombing of Pearl Harbour was just a small part of a Japanese campaign of warfare that infamous morning, one that reached across the world, and afflicted far more than the United States; it was an almost perfectly-coordinated bid for control over the Pacific, in which Japan also launched surprise attacks on the Philippines, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and Hong Kong. 

Eileen Chang was just one semester short of graduating with a degree in English Literature from the University of Hong Kong when the city fell. Two years previously, Eileen had been forced to turn down a full scholarship to the University of London due to the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Little Reunions, Chang describes the attack in startling detail through the eyes of her heroine, Julie. “When the bombing began”, she wrote, “everyone said that the hotel staircase was the safest place. Julie sat on a step reading The Story of a Noble Family, a popular novel that her cousins had borrowed. She was happy”. 
                Julie, like Chan, comes from a broken home in Shanghai. Her father is an opium addict and mercurial disciplinarian, her mother an elegant socialite. They both grow up greatly affected by their parents’ brutal divorce and argue violently with their father’s mistress. After one fight with her step-mother, Julie is imprisoned by her father, and escapes – just as Chang was imprisoned for six months at 18 after contracting dysentery. The novel then follows Julie as she struggles with the implications of China’s transition from imperial rule, into modernity. She goes to study in Hong Kong, her life disrupted by the Japanese invasion; to say the story is loosely based on Chang’s own life would be an understatement. It is practically lifted from its pages. 

Eileen Chang. Undated. Source: The South China Morning Post

Julie’s nonchalant reaction to the sudden bombing of Hong Kong is not typical of the novel’s fitful heroine. Perhaps it is the shock of an event that seems too dramatic, too distant to be real, even as it is happening. Or perhaps Chang was speaking on how the terror of war too easily blends into the seams of everyday life. 
                But Chang’s own life never fit very neatly into the parameters of what everyday life should have looked like. Even by the age of three, she could already recite her favourite poetry from China’s Tang dynasty. She wrote the beginnings of her first two novels when she was seven, and eight, respectively. She completed her first full-length novel as she entered middle school; a modern retelling of her favourite book, one of China’s great classical novels, Dream of the Red Chamber. Her childhood obsession with books was insatiable. One story goes that Chang stayed up reading so long one New Year’s Eve that she missed the whole New Year Ceremony the next afternoon and cried about it for days. 

When the war came to Hong Kong, Chang moved back home to Shanghai, and lived with her aunt. She began writing stories to make ends meet. Her first novel, Love in a Fallen City, was published in 1943 and was an overnight success. Chang was just 23 years old. Two years later she met her first husband – a handsome man who was 13 years her senior, and still married to his third wife. Hu Lancheng and Eileen Chang married in secret just a few months later, but he left Chang for a younger woman, a nurse, before the war had even ended. In 1945, Hu went into hiding – he had collaborated with the Japanese and was considered a traitor. Despite this, when the news reached Chang, she travelled over 1,000 miles in the hopes of being able to salvage their marriage. He was unmoved, and they soon divorced. 

The theme of heartbreak plays out in Chang’s real life, and fictional lives almost as if on repeat, beginning with the heartbreak of her parents’ separation. Many of her short stories touch on her character’s precocious relationships with their parents. In one story, a girl falls in love with her father, who runs away with a classmate who looks just like her. But it is the heartbreak of her absent mother that Chang dwells on most fervently in her own life. “I had always loved my mother with a passion bordering on the romantic” she wrote, and in one short story the main character tells her mother, whilst speaking of her father, “He never hurt me because I never loved him.”

Chang, circa 1944. Source: USCLibraries


Another key theme in Chang’s work, much derided by her critics, is her precise and detailed focus on the so-called ‘high life’, a trait that has led many to dismiss her books as “bourgeoise”. In the 1940s, Chang made her own clothing and operated a design firm all the while still writing. It’s clear she was fascinated by style, and fashion. Chang once related that one of her earliest childhood memories was of her mother standing in front of a mirror, pinning a jadeite brooch onto a green, short-waisted jacket, and she allegedly used her first ever earnings to buy a tube of lipstick. 
                This attention to detail is certainly present in her novels, but what made Chang such an amazing writer was her ability to turn this skill onto any facet of life. In her 1943 novella, The Golden Cangue, Chang describes a city scene with impeccable singularity; “It was almost dawn. The flat waning moon got lower, lower and larger, and by the time it sank, it was like a red gold basin. The sky was a cold, bleak crab-shell blue. The houses were only a couple of stories high, pitch-dark under the sky, so one could see far. At the horizon the morning colours were layers of green, yellow, and red like a watermelon cut open—the sun was coming up.” 

This focus on the details of everyday life, even in extraordinary circumstances, also made Chang one of China’s best wartime journalists documenting the Japanese Occupation.  Her characters may have seemed frivolous to some, but they are an accurate characterisation of the world she inhabited. Remembering the reactions of her fellow students when news reached that Japan had invaded Hong Kong, Chang remembers one panicked girl in her dormitory worrying aloud; “What am I to do? I’ve nothing to wear!”

With the war raging across China in Little Reunions, Julie, like Chang, returns to Shanghai. They witness the Japanese defeat, civil war, and the birth of Communism. In 1955, Chang made the decision to leave her life behind, and migrate to the United States. She never returned to mainland China again. 

Much of Chang’s works dealt with the thorniness of love, and family life, but in Chang’s personal life, it is her platonic relationships that remain of the most impact. In the United States, Chang visited the then-director of Princeton University’s Library, Hu Shi; a famous Chinese literary pioneer who had also chosen to leave the country. Hu had read one of her novels and was greatly impressed by her talent as a modernist writer. Chang considered Hu a sort of second father-figure in her life. However, three years later, Hu moved back to Taiwan, and died of a heart attack. 

Hu’s death hit Chang hard. In 1968 she published her tribute to him, an essay titled ‘Remembering Hu Shi’. In it, she describes Hu as a warm-hearted gentleman, whose impeccable manners seemed out of place in his concrete Manhattan building, which reminded Chang uncannily of the streets of Hong Kong; creating, in her mind, an “intertwining of time and space”. Chang lamented how Shi, once a leading thinker of his generation, was now being denounced in the mainland, and worried that he was in danger of fading into obscurity. She wrote; “I repeatedly find that when foreigners misunderstand modern China, it is because they do not know the impact of the May Fourth movement…I feel that when youths from present and past generations, as well as those on the Mainland, oppose Hu Shi, they already do not know what they are opposing. I think as long as there exists what the psychologist Jung called the memory of a people, experiences like the May Fourth movement will not be forgotten. No matter how long its buried, it will continue to be the background of thinking.” 

Source: Lithub


Like Hu, Chang’s relationship with the cultural revolution was messy, and her indecision rewarded her unending criticism. She refused to explicitly address politics, so her books were dismissed as “passive” and “petty”. Even in Chang’s most overtly pointed novel, Lust, Caution, published in 1979, which tells the story of a group of young resistance fighters plotting to assassinate a leading political figure, the political story is secondary to the lives of the characters - full of sex and romance. But behind closed doors, Chang’s opinions on the failures of the Communist regime were clear, and she weaved her analysis into her novels with much of the subtlety seen in the blending of war, and everyday life in her earlier writings. She was allegedly offered positions of power by the Chinese government such as “member of the Political Consultative Conference” and “Vice Chair of the National People’s Congress’. If these offers were real, Chang evidently turned them down, and instead, her next two books were commissioned by the United States Information Service. 

The most notable, Naked Earth, is a tragic wartime romance novel, set in the early years of Mao’s China. Two lovers meet in the countryside after volunteering to assist in the new land reform program but are puzzled by the brutality and corruption behind their righteous cause. Silenced, they are separated, and reunite in Beijing, where they struggle to survive the purges sweeping through the revolutionary ranks. Chang focuses her eye on the cultural effects of these campaigns, the use and abuse of language, in which linguistics becomes a political chess game. Chang had made visits to rural China in the years immediately before and after 1949, but most of her research comes from an almost intuitive analysis of the truth hiding behind the little information available in Government propaganda. 

In 1956, Chang received a two-year writing grant, which she used to settle in New Hampshire. It was there she met her second husband, an extroverted writer 30 years her senior. Despite their differences, they seemed happy together. Shortly after their wedding, Chang made a brief return to Taiwan. There, she received news that her husband had suffered a stroke and was confined to bed. She cared for him for another ten years; the rest of his life.

Chang remained for the rest of her own life living mostly in Los Angeles, where she became gradually more reclusive with age. She came to detest her literary notoriety and was often stalked and hounded by fans that saw her as a cult-like figure after her work received a slight renaissance in the 1970s. 

Aside from two short tenures at Radcliffe College and UC Berkeley, most of Chang’s later life was dedicated to translating classical Chinese literature into English. She died in 1995, a victim of cardiovascular disease. In her obituary in The New York Times, Chang was described as a “giant of modern Chinese literature”, but by the end of her life, she had become so isolated that her body was not discovered until over a week after its death; chanced upon by a visiting landlord. In her will, Chang asked that her remains be released into the wilderness. She wished to be cremated without a funeral. In accordance with her request, Chang’s ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean; an obliging return to the force of nature whose waters ruled so much of her generation’s life.


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