Eileen Chang and Lust, Caution

David Wang highlights the unique place that "Lust, Caution" author Eileen Chang holds in contemporary Chinese culture.

Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was arguably the most important woman writer in modern China. Nevertheless Chang achieved this prominent position in a roundabout way, since she spent most of her life trying to escape from the literary canon as well as the center of public life. With a series of short stories and essays, Chang rose to fame in early 40s Shanghai, then occupied by the Japanese. Talent, however, was not the only reason for her popularity. She was equally known for other roles she played, such as the last female descendent of an aristocratic family, as a celebrity known for her shyness, as an eccentric paragon of daring new or archaic fashions, and as the wife of Hu Lancheng (1905-1981), a flamboyant intellectual-collaborator of the puppet regime.

At a time when nothing seemed to last, Chang surely was a winner in the brief moment of publicity she was allowed. As she wryly puts it, "seize the moment and become famous early; even if you make it later in life, it wouldn't be as exhilarating." Her writings range from accounts of decaying families to analyses of Chinese psychology, and from vignettes of life in Shanghai to exposés of social manners, demonstrating an extremely sophisticated mind at work. Partially due to her unhappy childhood in an old-fashioned family, Chang is at her best in gothic tales of moral aberration set against the background of a stale society. Her total lack of confidence in human attachment led to another series of sketches and stories about romantic expenditure and romantic expediency. Whatever the subject, the notion of legitimacy, in ethical, romantic, and political terms, is always at stake. Her best known works are Jinsuoji (The Golden Cangue, 1943) and Qingcheng zhilian (Love in a Fallen City, 1943) – both available in English translation.

Chang's career came to a sudden end when the Communists took China. She fled to Hong Kong, a lonely divorcee, in 1952; she came to the United States three years later. In 1956, Chang remarried Ferdinand Reyher, a Hollywood movie scriptwriter who died in 1967. Except for one trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong in the early 60s, Chang spent the rest of her life in the States, moving around in Southern California, mostly from one motel room or apartment to another.

Until the 1980s Eileen Chang's name could hardly be found in any People's Republic of China's version of literary history. Her noncommittal attitude during the wartime, her short-lived marriage with the collaborator Hu Lancheng (who nevertheless first recognized her talent), and her writing style – characterized by an ironic observation of human vanities and follies and a most subtle portrait of female psychology – was a far cry from that of mainstream patriotic literature. By contrast, since the 60s she has been fervently embraced by overseas Chinese readers – primarily in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South East Asia, but also by fans living in North America and Europe. Chang became a phenomenon across all Chinese communities in the 90s.

If one asks why Chang's works now appear more compelling than ever, the answer may be that as early as half a century ago, she was already practicing a premature fin-de-siècle poetics. She wrote: "Our age plunges forward and is already well on its way to collapse, while a bigger catastrophe looms. The day will come when our culture, whether interpreted as vanity or as sublimation, will all be in the past. If 'desolate' is so common a word in my vocabulary, it is because [desolation] has always haunted my thoughts." As if living to attest this "aesthetics of desolation," she gradually retreated from the public scene in the 60s and became more and more silent and reclusive in her last few decades.

Chang was never a productive writer, and she wrote only a handful of works in the last thirty years of her career, including "Lust, Caution". The story's first draft was written as early the 1950s, but it was not published till 1977. Allegedly based on a true story of the woman spy Zheng Pingru (1918-1940), "Lust, Caution" nevertheless drew controversy thanks to a biographical subtext: it seems to project Chang's own wartime experience as a collaborator's lover. Chang would have scorned any such guesswork, though, as she knew only too well the illusory theatrics of life.

In "Lust, Caution", a college girl falls in love with the theater, such that she acts out in reality her stage role in the treacherous spy ring of wartime Shanghai, at the cost of her own life. However, in her fatal role-playing, our heroine seems to find her "true" self. The traits of Chang's early fiction – her inquiries into human frailties, stylized portraits of Chinese mannerisms, and celebrations of historical contingencies – are all discernible here, accentuated by a poignant reflection on the politics and erotics of love, betrayal and death. The formula of the spy story best fits Chang's purpose. Above all, what other formula, with its presumptions of endless cheating, espionage, and betrayal, could explain, and explain away, all the intricacies of human destiny? This is, of course, a double-edged tactic, for in seemingly laying bare the fact of this betrayal, Chang sets in motion an endless guesswork of intention and its representation.

One of the major motifs of "Lust, Caution" is cinema, a medium that fascinates the characters as much as their author. Eileen Chang was not only a fervent moviegoer but also a reviewer and scriptwriter during her Shanghai days, and she continued to write scripts for studios in Hong Kong till the 60s. In the 40s, Chang was commissioned by the Wenhua movie studio to write scripts for such films as Long Live Wives, a wonderful comedy of manners satirizing the hypocrisy of middle class marriage in post-War Shanghai and Everlasting Love, a sentimental romance which seems to suggest Chang's own thwarted pursuit of love. She wrote a few more scripts for the Dianmao Studio, Hong Kong, in the vein of either comedy or melodrama, during the early 60s.

While her scripts deal mostly with the melodrama of ordinary life, Chang may have seen in the form of movies something closest to her view on life: both glamorous and ghostly, both enchanting and desolate. More than half a dozen of Chang's stories have been made into movies since the 80s; few however managed to capture Chang's "aesthetics of desolation", let alone the haunting symbolism of cinema inherent in it. Ang Lee's latest adaptation, therefore, is something anxiously anticipated by "Chang fans" worldwide.

With the unwanted assistance of these fans, an aura of mystery has hovered about Chang, during and after her life, in a way not unlike that surrounding her contemporary, Greta Garbo. Unsolicited fandom notwithstanding, Eileen Chang proved in the end to be an austere artist guarding her desolation. One fall day in 1995, as her fame and popularity escalated to an unprecedented high point, she was found dead, old, exiled, and alone, having lived in self-imposed seclusion, in a barren apartment on the borders of Hollywood. Her will disclosed a wish to have her body "cremated instantly, the ashes scattered in any desolate spot."

David Der-wei Wang is the Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. His specialties are Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literature, Late Qing fiction and drama, and Comparative Literary Theory. His books include Fictional Realism in 20th Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen (1992), Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Mondernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911 (1997), The Monster That Is History: Violence, History, and Fictional Writing in 20th Century China (2004). He is the Chinese translator of Michel Foucault's The Archeology of Knowledge (1993), and has also edited or co-edited more than ten other books in English or Chinese. He is the editor of Chinese Literature from Taiwan: A Translation Series and the Weatherhead Translation Series on Asia: Literature, (Columbia UP).