Such is the poise of Eileen Chang’s writing that it is easy to spend much of your time reading her, muttering to yourself, “She can’t have only been 24 when she wrote this. She just can’t.” But, of course, she was, and her place as one of the great (perhaps the great) Chinese female writers is surely secure, some 20 years after her death. Lust, Caution is an odd collection insofar as that while the eponymous story is a taut spy thriller, the four remaining take a completely different tack and are all realist studies in everyday Chinese society. The book is clearly an attempt to ride on the popularity of Ang Lee’s marginally controversial film adaptation, with a few other stories bolted on as an afterthought. Fortunately, Chang’s prose employs such economy and is so polished that this slight disconnect barely matters.
Writing at the tail-end of China’s Republic Period (1912 – 1949), Chang was out of step with many of her contemporaries. While they were off scribbling important missives about revolution, civil war, and the state of the nation, Chang’s pen was focused dead squarely on one thing: people and their relationships with each other. Though the collection is set, and largely written, in Shanghai in the mid-1940s when the city was under Japanese occupation, Chang’s writing largely ignores the blood, warfare, and geo-politics of the time, instead often referring to such goings on as “these difficult times”. Harsh critics could (and have) easily write off Chang as wilfully burying her head in the sand, ignoring the central questions of her times, but attempting to answer such questions are not her raison d’être. She writes to a different register, instead, trying to illuminate her time and place by shining an intense light on the more mundane minutiae of people’s lives, be it the touch of an elbow on a woman’s breast, gossiping at the doctor’s surgery, or the matching of a linen jacket with the right pants.
If this all sounds hum-drum that is because it is, but Chang always maintained the central importance of such themes, writing, “Though my characters are not heroes, they are the ones who bear the burden of our age…they sum up this age of ours better than any hero…we should perhaps move beyond the notion that literary works should have ‘main themes’.” If her work has a core thesis, and it is something that she would have rejected, it is, perhaps, that, humanity, in all its hypocrisy, will keep marching on as it always does with people primarily concerned with how they appear to others, falling in love, and, of course, the cost of rice. The final line of “In the Waiting Room” says it succinctly, “And life kept going on, walking its own way.”
Other than “Lust, Caution” all of the stories have an almost relentless kitchen sink quality—plotless slices of life that record thoughts and feelings with a surgeon’s precision. “In the Waiting Room” is entirely devoted to a bunch of old woman gossiping while they wait to see a doctor; “Great Felicity” dissects a wedding preparation and the cruel jealousies that lurk within a family; “Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Autumn” is an exploration of the unexciting life of a cleaner to a foreign playboy; and “Traces of Love” examines the complexities of being a second wife. Whether or not you find Chang’s themes sublime or banal, it is the brilliance of her writing that enables her to pull it off and she has an eye for small details and a prose style that immediately puts her amongst the very finest of writers. Her touch for simile and metaphor, for example, are outstanding, as when she describes an envious old woman, “Although she had a dowager’s fondness for keeping young, pretty woman clustered around her–like a galaxy of stars reflecting glory on to the moon around which they circulated–she was not yet too old for flashes of jealousy .”
Even when describing something as simple as bad teeth, Chang’s writing resonates vibrantly, “But for some unknown reason the lower part of his face simply fell away. His bucked teeth were like a hand reaching downwards, pulling his mouth along with it.” Though, she is not a feminist writer by any means, it is fair to say that her preoccupations, at least how they are perceived, are feminine ones: marriage, domestic labour, family matters, love, sex, and adultery. And she often deals in metaphors that you feel could only have come from the mind of a woman: “She glanced at her watch again. She felt a kind of chilling premonition of failure, like a long snag in a silk stocking silently creeping up her body.”
However, it would be inaccurate to portray Chang as only dealing with female matters, and she is easily able to place and write confidently about the male malaise, usually making profound points with astounding economy, “With the woman of his past, it was rows and fights. With her, sometimes he had to say ‘I’m sorry’, sometimes ‘thank you’. But that was all, thank you, I’m sorry.” Surely, this description of male-female relations will resonate with men and women the world over. She can be crueller still, “Moreover, it was now clear to him that women were all more or less the same.”
As is fitting of one of the great chroniclers of 20th century Chinese life, Chang constantly gives a strong account of the quirks and obsessions of Chinese society, barely a few pages goes past before there is a debate about the (ever increasing) cost of things, or a discussion of food. Other familiar tropes are well covered too: the Chinese predilection for showing-off, “His melancholic remarks were laced with irony, and he was always making passing references to his close relationships with big officials.” Or the obsession with getting married that drives even the most headstrong of Chinese women to distraction, “Tangqian was a spirited girl. But in spite of her spiritedness, she was still unmarried, and she was beginning to lose her self-confidence.” The nation’s seemingly matter-of-fact attitudes towards adultery get aired a few times too, “Oh, Mrs Pang—don’t I know it. I have thought for a long time now that he must have taken a concubine. Once a man’s been away for six months, you can’t count on him anymore. That’s what I have always said!”
“Cautionary Tales” is a story from our newest issue, “Family”, coming soon. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.