Review of Eileen Chang's "Little Reunions"

By Carlos Rojas

Chang’s original manuscript of  Little Reunions , courtesy Roland Soong.

Chang’s original manuscript of Little Reunions, courtesy Roland Soong.

The literary career of Eileen Chang 张爱玲 – one of modern China’s most beloved and celebrated authors – is framed by a pair of intense yet truncated engagements with two classic Qing dynasty novels and her posthumously published novel Little Reunions could be viewed as a hybrid of these two earlier literary engagements. When Chang was sixteen she decided to rewrite Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber, transplanting its fictional characters into the contemporary period. The text was subsequently lost, and all that remains are a few short quotes and Chang’s own later description of the project. Then, during the final decades of her life, Chang translated Han Bangqing’s 1894 courtesan novel Singsong Girls of Shanghai, first into standard Mandarin (the dialogue of the original work was written in the Wu dialect of the Shanghai region), and then again into English. Chang published two chapters of the English translation of Han Bangqing’s novel in 1982 and the complete Mandarin translation in 1983. When she passed away in 1995 it was assumed that the rest of translation had been lost, but a complete manuscript was discovered among her papers and published in 2005 (after extensive revision by Eva Hung). Like Dream of the Red Chamber, Little Reunions revolves around members of two once-prominent Chinese clans and features an abundance of erudite literary references, but, like Singsong Girls of Shanghai, the novel also devotes considerable attention to an intricate web of romantic and sexual encounters, including but not limited to those involving former courtesans.

Chang completed Little Reunions in 1976 and mailed a copy of the manuscript to her friend Stephen Soong and his wife Mae Fong Song in Hong Kong. The work, which revolves around a young female author named Julie who lives in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1940s – clearly takes inspiration from Chang’s own life, and also features fictionalized versions of many of Chang’s friends and relatives. Given the work’s autobiographical resonances and its occasionally lurid details, it was initially deemed unpublishable. Following Eileen Chang’s death in 1995 and Stephen Soong’s death the following year, Stephen’s son, Roland Soong, inherited his father’s position as executor of Chang’s estate, which included oversight of her unpublished manuscripts. After another decade and a half the younger Soong decided to publish the novel, reasoning that Chang, in some of her correspondence with Stephen Soong, had indicated that she hoped it might one day be released. Furthermore, by that point all of the real-life individuals alluded to in the work had already passed away and could not be directly harmed by the novel’s revelations. The Chinese version of the novel was published in Hong Kong in 2009, and was followed in 2010 by two other posthumously published novels that Chang had originally written in English —The Book of Changes and Fall of the Pagoda.

This translation of Little Reunions, published by the New York Review of Books, is excellent. In their preface, translators Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz explain that their rendition is based not only on the published Chinese-language version of the novel, but also on a copy of the handwritten manuscript that Chang sent to Stephen Soong in 1976—noting that the latter manuscript “differs only slightly from the Hong Kong edition, in that some characters are deliberately written slightly larger, or physically to one side. We have attempted to typographically reproduce these differences in the translation.” Pan and Merz also deftly handle Chang’s multi-lingual writing style, discretely signaling points in the original novel where there is a shift in linguistic register – a shift either between colloquial Chinese and a more formal classical form of the language, between standard Mandarin and another dialect of Chinese, or between Chinese and English. For Chinese names that are clearly reverse-translations of English ones (such as Julie, Rachel, and Ned), Pan and Merz use the original Anglicized names, and for other names and nicknames that have an obvious literal meaning in Chinese, they generally opt for a semantic translation. For the remaining Chinese names, they use a version of the Wade-Giles transliteration system that was the default system during the mid-century period in which the novel was set, and furthermore was the system that Chang herself tended to use in her own English-language writings. Pan and Merz also include an appendix with a very helpful list of all of the fictional characters who appear in the novel, together with short biographical descriptions.

The novel’s main plotline begins with the quasi-autobiographical protagonist Julie enrolled in a university in Hong Kong in the early 1940s and it concludes with her living “overseas” at some point shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. At the same time, however, the work also makes occasional reference to events that occurred either before or after this decade-long period. Although set against the politically tumultuous backdrop of 1940s China, the narrative proper focuses as much on the details of everyday life as it does on the larger political arena. One of the work’s most notable features involves its treatment of the complex web of romantic and sexual relationships that entangles almost every one of the work’s characters. Julie, for example, is married to Shao Chih-yung, a character who is clearly inspired by Chang’s own first husband, Hu Lancheng (like Hu Lancheng, Shao Chih-yung also works for the Wang Jingwei [a.k.a Wang Ching-wei] puppet government during the Japanese occupation). Julie and Chih-yung initially get together when Chih-yung is still married to another woman; he then cheats on Julie while they are married and both of them proceed to have other partners after they eventually separate. Meanwhile, Julie’s parents, Rachel and Ned—whom Julie has been instructed to address as Second Aunt and Second Uncle rather than Mother and Father—are also divorced, with Ned addicted to opium and living with a former courtesan and Rachel having secret romantic affairs with an impressive array of other men.

Julie’s attitude toward sex and romance is simultaneously pragmatic and charmingly innocent. For instance, while discussing Julie’s relationship with Chih-yung at one point, the narrator notes that

“There are similarities between the desire for food and for sex. Just as she couldn’t prepare refined dishes, Julie wasn’t prepared for intimacy. Each time it happened like an unexpected event, and she felt too embarrassed to make any preparations. Apart from the underwear she wore that was eventually removed during their encounters, she never prepared in any other way. When she washed her underwear the next morning, she could smell an odor that reminded her of the warm congee she was given as a child whenever she became sick.”

A different version of this same congee metaphor then recurs two pages later, when the narrator is describing Julie’s encounter with a woman named Miss Chu – who is the girlfriend of Julie’s editor, Hsün Hwa, and the mother of three of his children, despite the fact that he officially remains married to a woman in the countryside. The narrator notes that during this encounter – when Julie, while trying to deliver some manuscripts to Hsün Hwa, ran into Miss Chu outside of Hsün Hwa’s residence – Miss Chu had mistakenly assumed that Julie was Hsün Hwa’s new girlfriend, and therefore was attempting to warn her off, though Julie herself had not realized this at the time. The narrator then remarks,

“In the Nanking dialect such situations are called ‘a mixed-up mess like a pot of congee,’ which Julie never felt applied to her own romantic situation. She thought that the bond between herself and Chih-yung was unique and no one could truly empathize with her, and that, in fact, even a casual glance her way would risk misunderstanding her.”

The irony, of course, is that Julie’s innocence and naiveté are being detailed incisively and ironically by her own real-life counterpart, Eileen Chang, as she reflects back on her life decades later.

The narrative gives considerable attention to the social dimension of these various romantic affairs, while also noting some of the practical ramifications of this sexual activity. For instance, at one point Julie goes to see a doctor because her period is late, only to learn that she is not pregnant but rather has a torn cervix. This injury is discussed near the end of the novel, after Julie has already divorced Chih-yung and is with her new partner, Yen Shan. Julie is surprised when the obstetrician tells her about the injury to her cervix:

“Julie thought it must have dated back to Chih-yung, as it had not hurt so much after him. She was a little startled to hear the news and didn’t ask a single question.

The tiny, sallow face of the doctor’s taut Cantonese visage dissuaded her from asking anything. Plus, these matters had always been taboo for Julie. She had always associated sex and fertility with the primitive origins of mankind, thus embodying all the mysterious and terrifying qualities of life.

Yen Shan came the next day for news. Julie had originally intended to say that it was only a false alarm and not mention the torn cervix, but since he knew the doctor and would sooner or later hear it from her, Julie had to tell him. It will certainly make him think of me not only as a fallen woman, a withered flower, but as one who has allowed herself to be ruined and rendered useless, infertile.”

As it turns out, however, the injury did not leave Julie infertile. We already know from a passage that appears earlier in the novel – but which looks forward to a period after Julie has left China and is living in New York with her second husband, who is modeled on Chang’s own second husband, Ferdinand Reyhe – that Julie would subsequently become pregnant and arrange for an abortion:

“Over a decade later in New York, she made an exception to her usual practice and bathed in the afternoon. Bathing while waiting for the abortionist to come was like those housewives in the West tidying up the house before the maid arrived.

It’s a desperate situation. Four months already. She had read in novels that it was too dangerous to have an abortion after three months. It was so difficult to find someone willing to do it.

Her breasts became fuller while she was pregnant, but now as she lay in the bathtub they flattened out. She already looked like a female cadaver, drained of blood, pale, bobbing up and down in the water.”

It is, of course, quaintly fitting that Eileen Chang’s fictional counterpart would look to literature for guidance on how to proceed with her abortion, and we find a similar intertextual gesture when the doctor arrives:

“So it’d be the suppository method. ‘Old woman Wong’s suppository string’ was mentioned in the Republican-era novel Tides of the Hwang-pao. Living in a foreign land while being killed by a suppository at the hands of a midwife in early Republican-era Shanghai—the overlap of time and place in her mind veered into the absurd.”

While the ensuing description of the abortion itself is strikingly graphic, what is perhaps more remarkable about this sequence is the way in which it portrays Julie – who by this point is already living in New York – viewing a traumatic medical intervention through the lens of a somewhat obscure reference to a Chinese novel published nearly half a century earlier.

The “overlap of time and place” that characterizes this abortion sequence also pertains to the novel as a novel. The narrative repeatedly jumps back and forth between different periods in Julie’s life, when she was living in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and the United States. Perhaps the most striking example of this sort of “overlap of time and place,” however, can be found in the passage that is repeated word-for-word in the work’s first and final paragraphs:

“Only the somber mood of troops waiting in the dawn before battle can compare with the morning of final exams, like the rebel slave army in Spartacus silently peering through the predawn mist at the Roman troops maneuvering in the distance—surely the most chilling moment in any war film—everything charged with anticipation.”

Although Chang’s narration frequently interweaves allusions to films and literary works (both Chinese and Western) from earlier periods, this particular allusion to Kirk Douglas’s classic film appears peculiarly anachronistic, given that the 1960 film was released two decades after the early 1940s period when Julie would have been taking her university exams.

On the other hand, Chang’s decision to frame her novel with this fond invocation of the film’s portrayal of the rebel slave army may be seen as an indirect commentary on her own position. As is well-known, the screenplay for Spartacus was written by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for years after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. During the period in which he was blacklisted, however, he continued to work clandestinely, and two of the films for which he wrote screenplays even won Academy Awards (though his contribution to those works was not publically acknowledged until later). It was, in fact, not until the 1960s films Exodus and Spartacus (which also won four Academy Awards) that Trumbo once again began receiving formal screen credit for his scripts, as the blacklisting system finally began to fall apart.

During roughly the same mid-century period, Eileen Chang occupied a position that was a mirror image of Trumbo’s. She began her literary career in the 1940s, against the backdrop of the War of Japanese Resistance, World War II, and the Chinese civil war, and then in the early 1950s she famously worked for the United States Information Service (USIS) in Hong Kong, which commissioned her novels Naked Earth and Rice Sprout Song (though both works convey a more political message than their USIS origins would suggest). Just as Trumbo was blacklisted in the US due to his alleged pro-communist sympathies, accordingly, for decades the nominally apolitical Chang’s reception in China and elsewhere was inflected by her perceived anti-communist stance. The critical reappraisal of Chang’s work began during the final decades of her life, and has continued after her death with a series of posthumous publications of works like Little Reunions that, for various personal, political, and institutional reasons, could not be published when she was still alive.

Little Reunions, Eileen Chang, trans. from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz. NYRB Classics, 2018.

Carlos Rojas is a professor of Chinese Cultural Studies; Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies; and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University. He has written, edited, and translated numerous books, including Homesickness: Culture, Contagion and National Transformation, the Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures (co-edited with Andrea Bachner), and several volumes of literary translation of works by Yan Lianke, Yu Hua, Jia Pingwa, and Ng Kim Chew.