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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 Reunion.

"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 bring.

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 sales.

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 needs.

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 regrets:
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 great.
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 in Wenzhou.

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 Lancheng.

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 success.

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 resentment.

In the book, Chang's stand-in describes her thoughts as she deals with the reality of her philandering, unapologetically no-good husband:
There 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 reviewed".

However, Little Reunion was clearly a work ready for publication - its imminent release had been promised by Chang's Taiwan publishers, Crown, numerous times.

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 Chang:
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.  Eventually, he would be forced to leave Taiwan and would die in Japan in 1981.

However, Hu did not quite resemble the drowning man that Stephen Soong feared would drag down Eileen Chang's reputation by peddling sensationalistic revelations. His actual attack on Chang's literary standing in Taiwan was much more subtle.

After Hu was dismissed from the academy and asked to vacate his housing, a prominent author, Zhu Xining, stepped forward and arranged for Hu to stay in an apartment next to the Zhu household.

Over the next six months, Hu lectured on the Book of Changes and Book of Poetry and created an indelible impression on Zhu and his daughters, Zhu Tianwen and Zhu Tianxin, both of whom became leading literati of their generation.

The Zhu family created a periodical, the Sansan Jikan, as a vehicle for Hu to publish his writings. Young writers clustered around Hu and Sansan Jikan became the intellectual guiding light for a generation of Taiwanese authors, and a direct challenge to Eileen Chang's literary legacy and the widespread veneration she enjoyed inside Taiwan.

In post-1949 Taiwan, Chang's disengaged, apolitical stance had filled a dual need. As an alternative to the doggedly leftist attitudes of the great mainland writers such as Lu Hsun (Lu Xun), she could be claimed by the Chiang Kai-shek regime as a Chinese writer of world stature who was not hostile to the KMT. For mainland emigre readers on Taiwan, her dispassionate use of the Japanese occupation as little more than context for her fiction offered them the license to regard their regime's undemocratic occupation of Formosa as simply the background for the private, privileged dramas at the center of their lives.

By the mid-1970s, however, the KMT's loss of international legitimacy and the political and literary challenge of the burgeoning Formosan movement for self-determination could no longer be complaisantly ignored.

In the world of literature, young mainlanders bursting with intellectual and emotional energy but unwilling to engage with the moral bankruptcy of the KMT's control over Taiwan's political and cultural life busied themselves with the expression and promotion of transcendental and eternal Chinese cultural ideals.

A group of these self-consciously erudite young reactionaries rejected the West-inspired iconoclasm of the May 4th movement and the instinctive, immersive modernism of Eileen Chang. Instead, they adopted the stance of neo-literati, protecting the essence of Chinese civilization against the destructive forces of Chinese communism, alien Western culture, and Formosan provincialism.

Hu Lancheng - who himself had defiantly and energetically collaborated with a bankrupt regime because it was the only available vessel for his exalted ambitions - was a fitting godfather to the new literary movement, sometimes characterized as “Greater China Utopianism”, centered on the Sansan literary journal.

Hu Lancheng directed and validated the emergence of young Taiwan writers from Eileen Chang's shadow. He shifted the debate over Chang's legacy to the more favorable terms of Chang's naivete versus his rich life experiences - albeit, in the realms of love and politics, experiences of the most discreditable sort, but still darkly fascinating to his youthful coterie.

The group constellated around Hu considered themselves as writers in the Eileen Chang tradition - with a difference.

The new dispensation was that Chang and Hu had formed a complementary literary diad: in Chinese operatic terms Chang sang the qiang and Hu the diao. Some went further, stating that Hu had “instructed” Chang, providing crucial intellectual insights that raised Chang to greatness.

Today the Zhu sisters regard Chang as an emotionally and intellectually immature writer lacking the necessary “perspective” - an understanding of the crucial cultural and philosophical context in which great literature is embedded - that Hu bestowed on the literati of the Sansan group.

Hu's followers critiqued and deconstructed Chang's influence, ironically guaranteeing that the flood of Eileen Chang literary studies could only increase as the theses and counter-theses multiplied exponentially in the world's universities and academic and literary journals.

It would be easier to dismiss Hu as an opportunistic poseur. However, both Zhu sisters became leading literary figures in Taiwan and Hu's close and formative association with so many of Greater China's greatest writers is difficult to gainsay.

Even on the mainland, where Japanese collaborators and Taiwanese literary squabbles are given short shrift, the leading Eileen Chang scholar, Zhi An, has cautiously endorsed Hu's exceptional literary ability.

On Taiwan, there is a certain sense of awe surrounding Hu's charisma, intellect and mysterious talent-spotting mojo.

Zhu Tianwen, in particular, has displayed her adoration for Hu in the most extravagant terms in the 30 years since she first met him.

In an English-language interview promoting Hou Hsiao-jen's film Sing Song Girls of Shanghai, Zhu, who wrote the screenplay, rattled on and on about Hu Lancheng with not a word about Eileen Chang - even though the movie was based on a 19th century novel that Chang devoted the last years of her life to translating, first into Mandarin and then into English:
The Sansan jikan ... was actually only started because of Hu Lancheng. Because of his controversial political past, serving under Wang Jingwei in the Japanese-run puppet government, he was labeled a traitor to China and his writings were banned. We, on the other hand, saw something really special in both he and his works that other people didn't seem to recognize.
In many ways, the aforementioned aspiration to become more than a mere writer or literati and strive to become like a traditional Chinese scholar, or shi, all had its start with Hu Lancheng.
Hu Lancheng passed away in 1981, so all together we only knew him for seven years. He was only in Taiwan for three of those seven years and only lived next door for six months - but those six months had an immense influence on our later lives as writers ... There is a line of poetry ... that goes, ... "The hand plucks the five strings, while the eyes see off the flying geese." What it means is that although what you are doing may be a relatively small task, like playing the zither, your mind is far off, gazing at the geese soaring at the edge of the heavens ... This perspective, this vision is really perhaps the greatest gift that Hu Lancheng left us with.
(Hou, Hsiao-hsien, 1947- and Zhu, Tianwen. and Berry, Michael. "Words and Images: A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu T'ien-wen." positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003): 675-716)
This context fills Eileen Chang's ambivalence about publishing Little Reunion with special pathos.

As Chang sank into a life of seclusion and disappointment in the United States, her detested ex-husband energetically and effectively nurtured an entire new generation of female writers who want not only to claim but supersede her legacy with his help.

Chang struggled to maintain control over her art and her history.

She originally wrote Little Reunion as a direct response to a letter from Zhu Tianwen's father, Zhu Xining, proposing that he write a biography of her - with the assistance of Hu Lancheng.

In Little Reunion there is a sly passage that seems to refer to Hu's overbearing efforts to appropriate her emotions and her voice:
He kissed her. A shudder shook his shoulders and she felt his forearms, so robust, through his sleeves. “He really loves me,” she thought. Then the blocky tip of his tongue suddenly jutted between her teeth, like a cork, dry from all the talking he had done. He sensed her disgust and released her with a smile.
Zhu never proceeded with his biography, so Chang apparently did not feel compelled to publish her version of events during her lifetime.

Ironically, it was only after her death, after control of her legacy fell into the hands of other artists with their own agendas, that her status as a Greater China cultural icon was assured.

Ang Lee's 2007 film version of Lust, Caution played an important role in expanding the readership for Chang's work in China, and establishing Eileen Chang as an important cultural brand - while distancing itself from the low-key observational style that is Chang's trademark.

The film did virtually no business in the United States, where its NC-17 rating excluded it from the main movie chains; however, it became a cause celebre throughout Asia, where passionate debate over its sexual explicitness, respect for the film and its source material, and the awareness of unfinished business in Chinese attitudes toward the anti-Japanese war combined to create intense interest in the film.

Lee's Lust, Caution could be characterized as The Passion of Wang Chiachih, in which Chang's doppelganger is exalted, transformed and destroyed by her illicit relationship. Wang is ennobled and excused for her warped liaison with the collaborator - the glamorous Tony Leung - in a way that it's difficult to believe Chang intended.

China, anxious to accommodate Ang Lee as an important filmmaker and burnish China's credentials as an international destination for movie projects, nevertheless insisted on putting its own spin on the movie's theme of passion over politics for the mainland release.

China's censors decided that Wang Chiachih's character could not be permitted to save her traitor-lover from the assassins. In the mainland version, Tony Leung's character intuits the conspiracy by himself and flees; Wang simply murmurs, “OK, go. [zou ba].”

Indeed, China's cultural guardians, ambivalent about providing official recognition of Chang's merits and importance, organized and then cancelled a planned conference on her work as recently as 2005.

Meanwhile, the descendants of a real-life female assassin asserted that the film was based on and traduced the true story of an attempt to kill a high official in Wang Ching-wei's government, Ding Mocun - a contention that Ang Lee has denied. The Taiwanese authorities obligingly determined that the lady in question was chaste, resolute and betrayed only by a malfunctioning revolver.

The price and glory of literary fame is apparently that readers and critics are all eager to appropriate Eileen Chang for their own purposes.

In an ironic intersection of censorship, piracy and post-modernist literary theory, a mainland critic addressed the controversy over publishing Little Reunion without Chang's explicit clearance for publication by invoking Roland Barthes to declare that once the story was written, it achieved an existence independent of Eileen Chang and her intentions.

Over the next few years, we will continue to hear Eileen Chang's unique voice, albeit filtered through our own preconceptions and expectations. Roland Soong has announced that he is preparing two more pieces for publication.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.