Eileen Chang is a prominent figure in the Chinese literary world of the 1940s. Chinese literature encompasses a wide range of literary theories and genres associated with many cultural factors. However, Chinese literature traditionally has been male-dominated and the voice of the Chinese women writers was marginalized. However, Eileen Chang is one of the few female authors who have successfully made a mark in the male-dominated Chinese literary circle. Her work transgressed all the traditional literary boundaries and created a new literary style, distinct from the classical technique.
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Her familial heritage and residence in a cosmopolitan city enabled her to express her feelings more openly, which others found exceedingly difficult in other parts of the parochial country. Moreover, her distinctive personal observation and understanding about life, society, culture, and politics created a unique ensemble in her stories that the writers of her time were unable to capture. Her presence in the Chinese literary circle has created a separate space for women writers as well as made space for new literary ideas. Her writings show the modern life of Shanghai and how modern western ideals clashed with traditional Chinese values to create a unique culture. Therefore, the aim of the essay is to discuss the characteristic of Eileen Chang’s literary writings and the significant influences, which her literary writings bring to contemporary literature.
Significance of Eileen Chang’s Literary Works
Eileen Chang’s work assumes a significant place in Chinese literature. For decades, literary critics were unsure as to where her works should be placed. They were uncertain about its genre and technique as well as the themes. More importantly, they were unsure as to where her works could be placed in the historical literary process of Chinese literature. Her work is significant as it reverberates a new form of reality that the Chinese literature did not exploit. For instance, in modern Chinese literature, there are varied ideas about the definition of an ordinary man. Some believe that the literature of the ordinary man should comprise of an unadorned and pure story of the life of the common people as opposed to that of the nobility.
Thus, there should always be an element of morality and existence in stories dealing with the ordinary man. Then the proliferation of the communist literature in the 1920s gave birth to a distinct class identity known as the common or the ordinary people. Broadly, Chinese literature has defined common man opposite to the hero or the superhero. However, Eileen Chang completely altered this idea of the ordinary people in her literary works. From her point of view, the definition of “common man” was not based on the character’s social, political, or economic background as was prevalent in traditional Chinese literature. On the contrary, she believed that the best way to create the character of an ordinary man was by describing their personality, spiritual inclination, and lifestyle choices.1
Chang’s characters are not heroes. They are not extreme or have no tragedy. They are simply the common people living through mundane modern life. The absence of any tragic or comic focus ends the possibility of completion. Her characters are not tragic. They are desolate and it is in their desolation they gain a revelation. Her characters are “ordinary, weak people without the strength of heroes” and she believes it is these ordinary people who are better in “representing the totality of this era”.2 In her anthology of essays, Eileen Chang defines the term ordinary people as she has used it. These characters are not morally upright or faultless. On the contrary, they are wicked and weak, hideous, and meek. Thus, her characters are more real and human than her predecessors as she created people who bear the burden of the era instead of those who fight and do something great.
Chang’s idea of human existence in modern times also digresses from that of her predecessors. She believes that we live in a disorderly world. Even though her characters live in a historical era, their existence depends on the memories of the past that assist in identity creation.3 However, there arises a discord between the memory and the reality that creates the disharmony of modern life. Thus, her concentration, as opposed to her predecessors, is in the trivialities of life that presents no serious consequence to society but molds the way the common man lives.
Eileen Chang’s work is significant as she made the characters more realistic. The mingling of individual characteristics, with the dawn of modern life, and the rise of the necessity to exist rises above thematic representation of the text. She believes literary works with a specific and broad theme are less successful as literary works when compared to those with no significant theme but a strong story with human characters.4
Characteristics of Chang’s Works
Eileen Chang did not adhere to the conventional storytelling formula of setting a theme and developing characters and plots based on the theme. The question that now arises is what are the characteristics of her writing.
The three main characteristics of Chang’s fictional writings are a distinct feminist characteristic, the use of uneven contrast as a literary style, and aestheticism.
Distinct Feminist Characteristics
Eileen Chang’s literary writings differ from traditional Chinese literary works written mostly from a male perspective. Her early realization of the difference between the two genders instilled in her a desire to surpass her male counterparts in intellect.5 Chang’s writings introduce female voice and perspective, creating space for the subverted feminine voice in both Chinese society and literature.6 Though the distinctive feminist aspect is abundantly clear in her writing, Eileen Chang, unlike other feminist writers, does not conform to revolutionary feminism. She showed the pain of the upper-class and middle-class women who suffered loneliness and desired companionship.7 Her female characters are entrapped and depressed.8 Her high-modernist style is an outspoken criticism of the idealist social structure imposed on the citizens of new China in the 1930s and 1940s. In her work, she shows the damaging effect of Chinese modernity on the female body and psyche.9
Chang in her essay “My Writing” states, “I like writing that uses uneven contrasts because it is close to reality”.10 She claims that this style of writing is better than direct contrast as she felt modern life could not be replicated using the classic model of absolute opposites. It is believed that uneven contrast had been a predominant stylistic character of Chang writings. She, like most modern writers, is concerned not only about the fictional representation but also about representation itself. In this particular literary style, Chang brings forth the memories of the past in her writings. Her intention is to create a disruptive reality that interrupts the monologue of mundane, nondescript modern life. The deep-rooted influence of the historical, social, and political upheaval in China during the forties shaped her writing sensibilities that searched for the meaning of societal and cultural realities. Moreover, her cosmopolitan upbringing in Shanghai and a broken family left a deep sadness in her that subsequently affected her literary style. Her situation in life made her realize that life can never be a conglomeration of absolute emotions. She broke away from the traditional literary style to represent the modern Chinese experiences in her work.
Aestheticism / Romantic Style
Chang’s writings are usually romantic with a subtle presence of melodrama. However, the style can hardly be called romantic.11 Her fictions talk of love and romance between man and woman, and how their fate meets a “(non)romantic” end due to the socio-political affair of the country.12 In her literary works, Chang uses graceful words, unique metaphor, and meticulous psychological depiction and vivid description of the characters set in modern Chinese cities.13 She joins modern elements of a novel with that of the romance that is antithetical. Therefore, her novels are both realistic as well as romantic.14 In a way, they seem anachronistic as the characters are modern but their society and ideals are set in the past. The presence of romance in her writings antithetically stands out against the traditional romantic style. The elements of romanticism are intelligently utilized in her fiction to create a uniquely modern style.
Eileen Chang’s style presents a departure from the traditional Chinese literary tradition. Her writings presented a uniquely feminine perspective of the patriarchal Chinese society. Her fictions are both realistic as well as romantic and that is due to her use of uneven contrast and distinct literary aesthetics. These features make Chang’s work both distinct and irreplaceable.
Chang, Eileen. “My Writing.” Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature 1893-1945, edited by Kirk Denton, Stanford University Press, 2005, pp. 436-442.
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Leng, Rachel. “Eileen Chang’s Feminine Chinese Modernity: Dysfunctional Marriages, Hysterical Women, and the Primordial Eugenic Threat.” Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, 2014, pp. 13-34.
Liu, Joyce Chi-Hui. “Filmic Transposition of the Roses: Stanley Kwan’s Feminine Response to Eileen Chnag’e Women.” Feminism/Femininity in Chinese Literature, edited by Peng-hsiang Chen and Whitney Crothers Dilley, Rodopi, 2002, pp. 145-158.
Sang, Tze-lan. “Romancing Rhetoricity and History.” Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres, edited by Kam Louie, Hong Kong University Press, 2012, pp. 193-214.
Wang, Xiaoping. “Eileen Chang’s Cross-Cultural Writing and Rewriting in Love in a Fallen City.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 49, no. 4, 2012, pp. 565-584.
Yang, Bin. “Under and Beyond the Pen of Eileen Chang: Shanghai, Nanyang, Huaqiao, and Greater China.” Frontiers of History in China, vol. 11, no. 3, 2016, pp. 458–484.
Zhang, Ailing. Written on Water. Columbia University Press, 2005.
Zoren, Zhou. “Women and Literature.” Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, edited by Kirk A Denton, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 228-232.
- See Yang, especially page 471 for a clear understanding of Eileen Chang’s literary style.
- See Chang, especially her ideas about writing and what she wanted to write about. The quotation is taken from page 438 of Chang’s essay “My Writing”.
- See Chang, page 438 for a detailed discussion of her worldview.
- See Chang, especially page 440 about her belief in literary writing.
- See Zang, especially page 150 to understand the feminist aspect of Eileen Chang’s works.
- See Zoren, especially pages 228 to 231 to get a clear view of the subversion of Chinese women and its reflection in Chinese literature.
- See Zang, page 165.
- See Liu, especially page 165 for a detailed discussion on Chang’s female characters.
- See Leng, especially page 32 to understand how social structure altered Chinese identity post 1930s.
- See Chang, page 437.
- See Wang, page 18 to 20 for a discussion on the romantic theme in Chang’s writings.
- See Wang, page 18.
- See Yang, page 474 for a brief understanding of how Chang’s characters opposed traditional romantic ideals.
- See Sang, page 192 for a clear understanding of how Chang’s writings were both realistic as well as romantic.