Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang
I don’t quite remember how Love in a Fallen City came to me—I want to pin this on Eva, but I can’t be sure. But this collection of novellas sounded quite interesting, and I’ve rarely read anything set in China, let alone written by the celebrated Eileen Chang (whose name you might also see Romanticized Ai-ling Chang or Aileen Zhang), who wrote during the Second World War and the rise of the Communist Party in China. I normally don’t read novellas, but I decided, after the fantasy burnout of December ’10, it was time to pick up something completely new to me.
Love in a Fallen City is the first English collection of Chang’s works, published in China during the 1940s, where the stories are, for the most part, set. It collects four novellas—“Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier”, “Love in a Fallen City”, “The Golden Cangue”, and “Red Rose, White Rose”—as well as two short stories—“Jasmine Tea” and “Sealed Off”. Each work looks at a China (particularly Shanghai and the more vivacious Hong Kong) caught between tradition and modernity, which, as one character points out, is too often simply shorthand for Western.
As Eva points out in her review, Love in a Fallen City is unrelentingly sad and dark—in this way, it reminds me of the French film duet Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, which are equally sad and dark. Chang’s characters don’t ever come out of the struggle between tradition and modernity unscathed; in fact, they usually come out of it utterly crushed, like Ch’i-ch’iao, a woman who marries an invalid in hopes of financial security, but whose relationship with his family turns her so cold and bitter that she ruins the chances of her children for a better and happier life. While Chang’s focus is usually on women trying to find a place, security, and marriage for themselves in this state of transition, the final novella, “Red Rose, White Rose”, focuses on a man with a twisted relationship towards women. I’ve always wondered how a man could treat a woman poorly if he was raised by a mother, but Chang reveals it neatly in a passage when Zhenbao, a thoroughly modern Chinese man, dreams of an army of mothers approving of him; there’s no sincere relationship to disconnect from. The same thing occurs in “Jasmine Tea”, when a student hungers for approval from a family that could have been his. Chang’s universe is cold and dark—but also starkly glamorous, which can often be its saving grace from total darkness.
Chang’s stories are set along a continuum of roughly 1920, when Chang was born, to the 1940s, when Chang published the works included in this collection—“Sealed Off” is, although cagey about its setting, clearly set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Chang’s characters are, for the most past, upper-class or aspiring to be upper-class. The very first story, “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier”, is about a young girl, Weilong, moving in with her scandalous aunt, Madame Liang, to further her studies, but who is quickly diverted by Liang’s lifestyle, full of manipulating men for money, sumptuous clothing, and parties. It’s downright decadent, and, while I find it also a way to lighten the darkness here, it can also underscore the family politics at work here, performed subtly in public. If nothing else (and there is plenty else), Love in a Fallen City reveals a very particular age of Shanghai from the eyes of someone who lived through it.
Chang’s writing is pointed, startling, and beautiful—I don’t want to compare her to Jane Austen solely because the two women deal with the sexual politics of their times, but I can see Chang as a sort of alternate Austen, one who doesn’t believe in happy endings. Kingsbury’s translation helps (I’d like to call it deft, but I haven’t any grounds for comparison!), although “The Golden Cangue” was translated by Chang herself—Kingsbury’s translation flows a bit better, but, of course, it’s usually best to have a translation by the author. Her imagery is swift and luscious; when Weilong suspects her aunt of seducing a man she’s interested in, she sees “their eyes beaded on a single string” (40). Through her imagery, Shanghai (and Hong Kong) are very vividly brought to life, which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I prefer a little more happiness in my fiction. I was quite pleased with this collection; it’s nothing like what I usually read, and I learned a great deal from it.
On a purely editorial note, I was a bit thrown by the fact that “The Golden Cangue” has footnotes while the other notes are deferred to a section in the back; these notes explain bits of contemporary Chinese culture that a Western audience would, presumably, not immediately understand. I vastly preferred the footnotes, as they’re in the moment and, in this particular book, typographically unobtrusive.
Bottom line: The first English collection of celebrated Chinese author Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City is lush and unrelentingly dark, exploring sexual politics and the struggle between tradition and modernity (often used to mean Western) in 1920s to 1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Chang, Eileen. Love in a Fallen City. Trans. Karen S. Kingsbury. New York: New York Review of Books, 2007. Print.