Page 1 of 2 Eileen Chang's fractured legacy
By Peter Lee
In 1976, Eileen Chang's close friend, Stephen Soong, earnestly advised her not
to risk her reputation as a cultural icon - and her position in the Taiwan
literary market - by publishing an autobiographical novel entitled Little
"You might not only lose your reputation, your livelihood in the Taiwan
literary arena might end and the goodwill accumulated over many years might be
swept away. I'm not saying this just to alarm you. I have a lot of experience
in PR, I've seen a lot, and I'm not pulling these fears out of thin air."
What a difference 30 years - and a hit movie, a sea-change in
cultural attitudes and the rise of a pan-Greater China cult of celebrity - can
Little Reunion was published this year in Taiwan (February 24), Hong
Kong (February 28) and China (April 8) editions in a whirlwind of publicity and
Little Reunion is on the top of the best seller lists in Taiwan (where
it is in its eighth printing) and Hong Kong (sixth printing).
In China, the first printing of 300,000 copies sold out before the official
data of publication and a second printing of 100,000 has been ordered. The
Taiwan version (in traditional characters) came out a month earlier and has
already been bootlegged by China's indefatigable intellectual-property pirates.
The false promise of the downloadable text has been used as a lure by China's
equally indefatigable propagators of computer malware.
Well-heeled mainland buyers are also acquiring copies of the Hong Kong and
Taiwan editions to evade possible censorship of political and sexual themes and
get their Eileen Chang undiluted and uncut (the publisher insists that the
mainland version has not been snipped).
It's an odd fate for an instinctively elitist, introspective and apolitical
writer who wrote her greatest works in Japan-occupied Shanghai in the 1940s and
died alone in Los Angeles in 1995.
Chang is revered as China's first truly modern writer. Her sensibility could be
described as the acute social and emotional observation of Cao Xueqin (author
of Dream of the Red Chamber) filtered through the sensibility of
Virginia Woolf. She secured her fame with a series of jewel-like short stories
of manners, morals and folly including The Golden Cangue and Love in a
Fallen City. In 1957, the pre-eminent Chinese literary critic in the
West, Columbia University's C T Hsia, anointed her as the most gifted Chinese
writer to emerge in the 1940s.
Beyond Chang's literary merits, her emergence as a Greater China literary
celebrity can be attributed in part to the extremely public unwinding of her
intensely fraught bond with a traitor, hanjian, her first husband, the
pro-Japanese collaborator, Hu Lancheng.
Hu Lancheng was a literary figure of some note in 1940s China. He threw in his
lot with Wang Ching-wei, the one-time revolutionary, patriot and Kuomintang
(KMT) big-wheel who broke with Chiang Kai-shek and was installed by the
Japanese as the head of a puppet regime in Wuhan.
Hu was installed in the regime's Ministry of Propaganda and charged with
publishing Da Chu Bao, ie The Great Chu News, an attempt by the Japanese to
evoke memories of the glorious and ancient independent state of Chu as an
alternative focus for the loyalties of the residents of central China - as
Manchukuo was meant to encourage the centripetal tendencies of Northeast China.
During the period of Japanese occupation, Hu spent a good part of his time
pursuing literary and ultimately physical companionship in Shanghai with Eileen
Chang. They married in 1943.
Once Hu had bagged his literary trophy, he went to Wuhan to run Da Chu Bao -
and engage in a dalliance with a 17-year old nurse, Zhou Dexun.
Intelligent and charismatic, Hu was always aboil with ideas and ambitions.
Hu styled himself another Liu Bang - the brilliant, bootstrapping rebel who
overthrew the established order in the state of Chu 2,000 years before and
established the Han Dynasty.
He actively pursued the patronage of the Japanese officers who ran the regime
more or less behind the scenes, obtaining their backing for a Whampoa-style
military academy in Wuhan that would churn out cadres loyal to Hu.
In 1945, when Wang Ching-wei died and the Japanese surrendered, Hu's moment was
at hand. However, the military academy hadn't started up and Hu had no muscle
or money of his own.
Hu tried to jawbone the commanders of the Chinese forces holding onto Wuhan
into establishing it as an independent power center - instead of promptly
handing it over to Chiang Kai-shek - and using the local military stockpiles
provided by his Japanese friends to conduct a multi-year guerilla war in
central China's mountains.
However, his proposals fell on deaf ears and within two weeks the demoralized
and war-weary commanders in Wuhan capitulated to the Chunking government.
Hu, his transgressions upgraded from feckless collaborator to genuine traitor
against Chiang Kai-shek's KMT, went on the run, eventually bringing his
criminal baggage and philandering habits to Wenzhou for a brief and disastrous
reunion with Eileen Chang that has achieved legendary status.
Chang had learned of Hu's whereabouts from a mutual friend and surprised him in
his sanctuary. The visit was 20 days of pure misery. Hu, preoccupied with
rationalizing and coping with the utter collapse of his ambitions and the
threat of execution hanging over his head, clearly regarded Chang as a closed
chapter in his life.
During his fugitive wanderings through central China, Hu had taken up with an
accommodating 40-year-old widow Fan Xiumei, whose education had gone no further
than the local sericulture school. Hu apparently did not miss the intellectual
stimulation; more importantly, Fan provided him with the added security of
making it possible to travel as a couple, and also assiduously tended to his
Chang tried to make the best of it during awkward meetings in her hotel, and
offered to paint Fan's portrait. But when it came time to sketch Fan's mouth,
she was unable to proceed, telling Hu she could not continue because “[Fan's]
mouth looked more and more like yours”.
Chang wasn't even second in line in Hu's catalog of girlfriends. Hu proclaimed
his continued infatuation with the young and delectable Zhou Dexun, who was by
this time incarcerated in Wuhan.
When Chang tried to force Hu to choose between her and the absent nurse - whom
it was clear that Hu would never see again - Hu refused. Rejected, miserable
and tearful, Chang returned to Shanghai, aware that her marriage, such as it
was, was over.
Hu justified and excused his personal and political transgressions with
reference to his unique genius. In a passage written in the 1940s, Hu
emphatically stated his personal and artistic credo - no apologies and no
I write for my own pleasure and not for any reason. My
attitude toward revolution is the same. Some people can make mistakes that
aren't crimes; there are people who can do good, but that doesn't make them
After the Wenzhou sojourn, Hu escaped to Japan where he
scratched out a living courtesy of his erstwhile Japanese patrons. Through the
1950s and 1960s, he pursued a career as a writer and lecturer in Japanese exile
and infuriated Chang by publishing his memoir, This World, These Times,
which placed Chang in an overlapping continuum of eight girlfriends and
provided a detailed and self-aggrandizing account of the excruciating sojourn
Chang divorced Hu in 1947 and later remarried. However, the matter of Hu
agitated her and continued to inform her work - work that she dithered over,
revised frequently, and, in the case of Little Reunion, could not bring
herself to publish in her lifetime. (She died on September 8, 1995.)
Prior to Little Reunion, the most high-profile workout of Chang's issues
with Hu Lancheng is the short story Lust, Caution, on which the Ang Lee
film of the same name is based.
Eileen Chang's short story dealt with a failed assassination attempt on a
high-level Chinese collaborator. The plotters rely on an idealistic young
actress/student, Wang Chiachih, to serve as a sexual lure to trick the target,
Mr Yee, into fatally disregarding his normal security precautions.
The conspiracy goes pfft as the discombobulated Wang responds to a genuine but
superficial display of affection by the middle-aged, toad-like apparatchik she
has endured two years of effort, danger and degradation to murder, and
impulsively warns him to flee the approaching assassins.
Yee escapes and immediately issues the order to round up Wang and her
accomplices. The conspirators are interrogated and executed within a few hours;
and Eileen Chang provides the merciless coda:
He was not optimistic
about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for
him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die
happy - without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting
him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something.
And now he possessed her utterly, primitively - as a hunter does his quarry, a
tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead she was his ghost.
Behind Chang's nervous, sardonic laugh is the ghost of her relationship with Hu
The toxic relationship receives a further workout in Little Reunion, an
explicitly autobiographical roman a clef that deals both with Chang's messy,
privileged childhood and her traumatic romance with Hu Lancheng.
The title itself is a mocking inversion of the "Big Reunion", the joyful
celebration when a scholar's triumph at the imperial examinations guarantees
the power and prestige of his household and allows the wives and concubines to
take a break from their habitual backbiting and jealousy to enjoy their shared
By contrast, the "Little Reunion" presided over in Wenzhou by would-be culture
hero Hu Lancheng served up only a sordid threesome stewing in shame and
In the book, Chang's stand-in describes her thoughts as she deals with the
reality of her philandering, unapologetically no-good husband:
was a carving knife in the kitchen - too heavy. There was also a knife for
cutting watermelon that lay in the hand more comfortably. Aim the blade at that
narrow golden spine ...
Instead, Chang decided to write a novel
about Hu, which she was unable to bring herself to publish.
In fact, in 1992 she mooted destroying Little Reunion as recorded in a
letter she wrote to Stephen Soong. The decision by Roland Soong, the respected
proprietor of the blog EastSouthWestNorth - who inherited the role of Chang's
literary executor from his deceased parents - to publish Little Reunion therefore
provoked an agitated outcry among the guardians of Eileen Chang's reputation.
One Taiwanese literatus angrily called for the book "not be bought, read, or
However, Little Reunion was clearly a work ready for publication - its
imminent release had been promised by Chang's Taiwan publishers, Crown,
Chang's anxiety and ambivalence over the work had little to do with its merits
and lot to do with the re-emergence of her bad penny ex-husband, Hu Lancheng,
at the center of the Taiwanese literary community.
Reeling from the shock of president Richard Nixon's recognition of China's
government, the KMT government was happy to garner support wherever it could
find it in the diplomatic, political and cultural realms. In a let bygones be
bygones spirit, Hu was allowed to enter Taiwan in 1974 and lecture at an
unaccredited institution outside Taipei
After reading the manuscript of Little Reunion, Stephen Soong wrote
Don't forget, there's a time bomb: that worthless fellow who,
through whatever route, managed to get to Taiwan and become an instructor at
the Chinese Academy of Literature …if Little Reunion is published, it will be
like delivering a fat pig to the door. He will welcome this opportunity to make
a fuss and write all sorts of wild stuff …A drowning man will grasp at
anything, and if he's able to grab onto you he'll drag you under as well.
Indeed, Hu was at this point under attack for his collaborationist past and on
his way to losing his post at the academy.