Online Edition: Fall 2005

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Written on Water

Eileen Chang
translated by Andrew F. Jones

Columbia University Press ($27.50)

by Lucas Klein

By now, Chinese Communist Correctness has long since receded, changing Eileen Chang’s writing from being a guilty pleasure to simply a pleasure. The trend began in the West, as Chinese literature scholars in American universities during the ’60s promoted her vision and style as supreme in 20th century Chinese literature. Readers in Hong Kong and Taiwan then discovered, or re-discovered, an individual talent, opening the mainland floodgates by the end of the ’80s. And yet, while the resurgence of her popularity can be traced to the American academy, her essays have, until now, been inaccessible to English readers.

Chang’s deft and sympathetic translator, Andrew Jones, an accomplished academic who has also translated the fiction of Yu Hua, has given Chang an English that suggests her own fluency and comfort in the language. Indeed, some of her essays were originally written in English, then expanded in Chinese, from which Jones translated—or “triangulated”—for this volume.

The context of Chang’s writing in English suggests the nature of her danger for a Communist reading public: her essays describe her upper-class background, and are forthright about fleeing war-ravished China in favor of English-style university education in Hong Kong, but Jones’s footnotes reveal an even more sinister truth. Much of her English journalism was printed in a pro-Axis periodical published in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Chinese writers, especially those still read and studied today, matched their opposition to Japanese imperialism with an increasingly vehement leftism. Chang’s resilience against social pressure from the rest of the Chinese intellectual community displays an impressive strength, and despite writing from an occupied zone for collaborationist magazines, she would have called herself a-political. Daily life, human interactions, and even fashion concerned her too much, it seems, to have been bothered by politics.

Daily life, human interactions, and fashion are—particularly for 1940s China—considered female topics, and if Eileen Chang has any political dreams, they are for a space in which women’s problems can be accepted and considered. “A Chronicle of Changing Clothes,” in which she presents the preceding several hundred years of Chinese history as a tale of its fashions, even allows for an intersection of politics and panache: “In times of political turmoil and social unrest—the Renaissance in Europe, for instance—there will always be a preference for tight-fitting clothes, light and supple, allowing for quickness of movement . . . During the days when the revolution in China was brewing, Chinese clothes were nearly bursting at the seams.” She even portrays fashion as a response to oppression: “In a time of political chaos, people were powerless to improve the external conditions governing their lives. But they could influence the environment immediately surrounding them, that is, their clothes.”

Advocating for a women’s view of history, though, does quite not make Eileen Chang a feminist. Her essay “Speaking of Women” spends pages cataloguing sexist statements in an English pamphlet called Cats (along the lines of “Time is money, which is why the more time women spend in front of their mirrors, the more money they must spend in a boutique,” or “Two women can never make friends as quickly as two men, because there are more secrets between them”), but she follows it with no piquant rebuttal. Rather, her response is measured, mild, even meek. While she begins with a fine attack against generalizations—“The price of such so-called wisdom is a cheapening of the truth, for how could it be possible to sum up all women in a single phrase?”—she later depicts women in particularly unflattering terms: “In a democratic system … the problem is that most women are even less able to govern themselves capably than men.” While her topic is ostensibly egalitarian, her tone is aloof, whether writing about women in government or moralizing that, “when poor folks associate with the rich, they usually get soaked.”

The Chinese word for essay includes the character for “scattered,” and the general style of Chinese prose allows for much more meandering than the English version of the genre. Not surprisingly, some of Chang’s best moments are when she strays from the assigned topic, talking about Japanese children in an essay “On Dance,” or Chinese attitudes to the law while ostensibly writing about “Peking Opera Through Foreign Eyes.” The entire essay “Seeing with the Streets” is a grand digression, demonstrating the refined vision of an exacting author as she free associates through an urban neighborhood.

But despite the roaming elegance of her longer pieces, the freshest pieces are the most clipped, those mini-essays where Chang gives herself no room to meander. One, “On Carrots,” plops into a meta-non-fiction; recording a quick dialogue about carrots, Chang elaborates only with:

I secretly jotted down this little speech, without changing even a single word and then couldn’t help laughing to myself, because all I needed to do was add a title—“On Carrots”—and a stylish little essay appeared on the page before me. . . And its wonder lies in brevity: by the time you start reading, it’s already over, which only makes you ponder its meaning all the more.

When she died in 1995, Chang—whose Chinese name Zhang Ailing is a transliteration of her English name—had been living in the United States for forty years. She had stopped writing years earlier, and her reputation had fluctuated, but she had remained a highpoint of Shanghai culture at the lowpoint of the city. This new translation of her essays, providing in English what was composed under its influence, fulfills her charge by allowing us into that zone between two poles.

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