WE KNOW MO YAN and Liu Xiaobo for their Nobel Prizes. But for what do we know Eileen Chang? The truth is, most of us don’t know her at all. It’s strange, isn’t it? Chang was one of the most popular Chinese-born writers of the 20th century. She lived in the United States for 40 years, became an American citizen, wrote novels in both English and Chinese. Her most beloved work, Half a Lifelong Romance, released in English translation for the first time this year, has been adapted countless times for the stage and screen in its original language.
But perhaps it has all simply been a matter of timing. Maybe now is the moment that the larger English-speaking world will come to know the writer, who died in seclusion in her Westwood, Los Angeles, home in 1995.
It feels right: in a literary scene enamored with Elena Ferrante, engaged in conversations about womanhood and the violence inherent therein, we are given this book as a small gift. It feels like fate.
Something we talk about now that we didn’t talk about before is women writers and fear. We know it, live with it, pump it through our veins.
We say it now when before we weren’t allowed: our stories are trivialized. Our experiences marginalized. We worry, with due cause, about being relegated to the “Women’s Section,” where respectable literary fiction goes to die. We change our names for book covers, use gender-neutral initials to spark interest and boost sales. We learn to tone it down.
But Chang? She didn’t give a damn, frankly. She reveled in womanhood. In its exteriors, its fashions, hairstyles, parties. In its interiors, its love, drama, angst.
In exploring these feminine spaces, she was unabashed, courageous, uncompromising. “There is no shame,” her work shouts, “in being a woman!” And yet, that shame is precisely what it’s all about.
As the title suggests, Chang’s novel is a love story. It is the story of a man and a woman, and then many men and many women, finding their way in and out of love.
Half A Lifelong Romance is one novel, straight through, divided only by chapter breaks. There’s no Part I and Part II, but by god if it doesn’t feel that way. Like one beast and two very different cuts of meat.
The first half of the book is calm, even languid at times. A lullaby, sung to us from Shanghai, where we meet our heroine, Manzhen. She’s young, working as a typist in a factory. She develops a friendship with two male co-workers, Shijun and Shuhui, over shared restaurant lunches. Their camaraderie grows briskly, breaks free from the workday’s confines, and becomes personal.
Between Manzhen and Shijun, we have innocent stirrings. Ardor is in the air.
All the makings of a perfect, melodramatic love triangle, right? We are, indeed, led to believe this. Two men in love with the same woman! One woman unable to choose! But alas, this inkling doesn’t amount to anything substantial. We will later look back and yearn for this possibility to play out. We will sigh and think, if only things had been that simple. And if only they’d stayed that way.
But let us not jump ahead. For now, at least, things are that simple.
This is 1920s and ’30s Shanghai, the “Paris of the East.” There’s glitz, glamour, make-up, fashion, automobiles, parties. Manzhen’s family bemoans being poor, sure, but everyone can afford to eat, and reasonably well. The children are sent to school. Manzhen and her crew work hard but play hard too. They regularly go to see films at the cinema. They take pedicabs all over town.
There are very few signs of the impending war, of the chaos that will engulf China in years to come. Chang’s work is notable, among many other reasons, for its preference of the personal narrative over the political.
In short, the first half of the book is a snapshot of middle-class life — circumstances that most mainland Chinese wouldn’t see again until the 1990s.
There is something about middle-class existence — this harmonious life — that allows us to delude ourselves into believing that egalitarianism can be a reality. Indeed, women do more housework than men. Yes, there are unfair prejudices against women who take jobs outside of the home. Sure, women are expected to marry and have children, and are defined by their roles as wives and mothers. Okay, whatever, we get it. But mostly, things are equal, right? And if not equal, then fair. Or fair enough.
Chang knows this. She hears our assent, and then she poses us a question: But then, what about our heroine’s older sister, Manlu? What about these two sisters?
Manzhen and Manlu’s father died when they were young. Manlu, a teenager at the time, was forced to break off an engagement to her sweetheart, Yujin, and become a taxi-dancer (a prostitute) to support her mother, grandmother, and younger siblings. Once Manzhen became old enough to work, she took a job, lifting some of her older sister’s financial burden. Bear in mind, though, that Manzhen was able to find white-collar work because she had an education. An education paid for by her sister.
“Okay, Ms. Chang,” we say, “So what’s your point?”
Here she lifts an eyebrow, answers with another question: Are women truly equal when our bodies are commodified? When we are viewed as property, to be rented and sold?
“Maybe,” we respond, “women’s availability in this regard is also an asset, a powerful tool. Something we can fall back upon when times get tough. And maybe this knowledge, this secret weapon makes us stronger. Manzhen and Manlu live in a household supported entirely by women, after all. Women work and women do the housework and women pay the bills. In their world, women don’t hold up half the sky; woman are the goddamn sky.”
However, Chang raises: What about the younger siblings, who see the men coming and going from Manlu’s room? Don’t they possess a vague awareness that something peculiar is happening and an even cloudier awareness of their own role in this happening? What about Manzhen telling Shijun she cannot marry him until these younger siblings finish school, until she knows they are grown and spoken for?
To these questions, we lack answers. We stand down.
But here Chang assures us that nothing too heavy has been lost: Shijun understands Manzhen’s reasoning, and is fine with waiting. Manlu eventually gives up taxi dancing and gets married to a man who becomes wealthy, who whisks her off to live in a big house, who makes her queen of her very own castle.
Chang is toying with us. This is her candy and up ahead is her van.
The second half of this book casts off our delusions: seizes them, sends them flying, smashing against the wall, and leaves them in shards.
“You are wrong,” Chang screams at us, “things are not equal, nor are they fair!”
“But —” we sputter. “What about —”
It is here that she takes a breath. Steps forward. Clears her throat. Proclaims, this. This is what it is like to be a woman.
We shut the hell up. We listen.
Pause. Before we have the specificity of womanhood, we have cruel twists of fate — misunderstandings, bad timing, letters that never seem to reach the intended recipient. All of these tiny tragedies that affect males and females alike. All who pass are left broken, shattered by unrequited love. This is unequivocal. This, too, is true.
But let us not be distracted for another second from the savagery. First, we have real life. Later, fiction.
Chang’s father, with whom she spent her teenage years, was a drug addict and a womanizer. He beat her, verbally abused her. Shortly after she graduated high school, she contracted dysentery. Her father’s response? To lock her in a room, where she was subsequently kept prisoner for six months.
In 2016, we have sitcoms about such scenarios (look at the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for example). We have Oscar-nominated films. For the duration of these Hollywood renditions, we laugh, we cry, and we hope like hell that it never happens to us.
In 1937, Eileen Chang had a room.
Something that is both disturbing and entirely necessary about history, both public and personal, is the power of hindsight to speed up time, to place limits on events, to whitewash anguish, to cauterize wounds. We forget that during a war, no one knows when the war will end. Or that it will end at all. In the present, there is only a year that marks the beginning and a dash and then some question marks.
“People,” Chang writes “say time flies like a train, an analogy that makes good sense: a train really does steam across time.” Yes, and some train rides are longer than others.
Did Chang look back years later, and say to her 17-year-old self, “Hold on, hold on for six months and then it will be over”? Or at a distance, did she, too, gloss over time? And at the time, did she hope to die, to be released from this world and into the next? Or did she hope she’d live to tell the tale?
Hope is a dangling carrot. It is what keeps us going in these open-ended time frames. And Chang’s women — how they grapple for it.
Take Tsuizhi, a vivacious young Nanjing socialite and one of the novel’s most memorable secondary characters. She wants what many of us want: to attend university, secure a job, build a life of her own choosing. In the latter half of the book, Tsuizhi works up the courage to run away and actually make this life happen.
She gets as far as the train station platform before her family catches up with her and drags her home.
Tsuizhi is not trapped in a room. She is trapped in circumstance. She’s a prisoner inside the word should: she should be a wife, should be a mother, should be happy with what she already has. She should want what women should want.
Tsuizhi is a woman clutching hope, balled up in her fists, sparring with the world.
Manzhen, meanwhile, is participant in an unrelenting brawl — punching, kicking, clawing, shrieking.
It all begins with her sister, Manlu, and that wealthy man she married, Hongtsai. Once Manlu is in his possession, he loses interest. He’s a spoiled child, bored with a once-desired toy. He avoids her, avoids home, runs around town with other women. Manlu is understandably unhappy with this arrangement. She is lonely, bored, ashamed. But she knows her husband has eyes for her younger sister. If only she could convince Manzhen to marry Hongtsai too, then maybe he’d have motivation to return home at night.
But Manzhen is no concubine. She’s a modern woman and she won’t hear it. Maybe, Manlu thinks, if I can trick her into it …
She feigns a serious illness, gets Manzhen to sleep over.
In the middle of the night, Hongtsai bursts into the guest room. A struggle ensues. Manzhen fights like hell, leaving his face bruised and blackened. But he is stronger and he knocks her unconscious.
He looks at her. He thinks, “She looks like a luscious corpse.”
He rapes her.
This is not the end of Manzhen’s nightmare; it is the beginning. She is kept prisoner in that room, allowed contact with no one outside the house. She is unable to get in touch with Shijun — they had a fight just before she went to her sister’s house. He takes her lack of contact as a sign that their relationship is finished.
Manzhen becomes pregnant by her rapist and nearly dies giving birth to his son.
Even in the hospital, she is a prisoner, monitored by family and nurses. As a prisoner, she holds her baby in her arms, watches him “greedily sucking her milk, as if he wanted to drink her up.” She notes that she “hated him before he was born, even though she knew he was blameless.”
Shortly thereafter, with the help of her sympathetic hospital roommate, Manzhen escapes, leaving the baby behind. Time, she finds, has ticked on without her. Her typist job now belongs to someone else. The man who was supposed to be her husband is now someone else’s husband. While she was locked in that room, her life left the station without her.
In a lesser writer’s hands, Manlu would be portrayed as a classic villain, as pure evil. She’d be easy to hate, to dismiss outright as little more than a bad seed.
It was, after all, Manlu who orchestrated Manzhen’s rape. Hontsiao, the actor, and Manlu, the director. But Chang is the master.
She gives us a woman who was forced — not through physical slavery, but through circumstance — into nights of sex with men she didn’t want to have sex with. Subjugated not by the very act of sex, but by obligation, allegiance. Duty and womanhood enslaved her. And in the end, the only thing that got her out of selling her body to men was giving her whole life over to a man. What saved her was also what ultimately destroyed her.
Blame, in Chang’s world, does not fall squarely on the shoulders of any man, woman, or baby. That would be too easy. Men may have invented patriarchy and they may have a vested interest in its continuation, but don’t we all work to propagate it? As in many Chinese tales, women as well as men connive and scheme and vie for power. Chang’s women, particularly the older generation, meddle and gossip and screw things up.
Chang is adamant in not assigning blame to a gender, a body, a name. Doing that would be a disservice both to truth and to the complex stories she sought to tell.
Half a Lifelong Romance is also a tragedy.
No silver platters here. There are no easy answers or viable solutions. We are left only with observation — what we can perceive with our eyes and conclude with our minds. We note the discrepancies in the way Chang’s world treats women and men. Heartache is doled out in equal measure, fate laughs in all of our faces, but how do the men fare? Well, let’s have a look:
Take Shijun. He suffered a broken heart, lost love. Then he marries a nice, wealthy woman. Has children. Has a career, aided by his university education.
Take Shuhui. He suffered a broken heart, lost love. Then he goes to the United States, where he earns his PhD. He lives and works there, avoiding the worst years of Japan’s occupation of China.
Take Yujin. He suffered a broken heart, lost love. Then he becomes a countryside doctor, a satisfying albeit not financially rewarding career. He meets a woman, has a happy marriage. This marriage ends abruptly when his wife is brutally raped and killed by the Japanese. A traumatic experience, no doubt, an unspeakable tragedy that will undoubtedly haunt him for the rest of his life. But there is a rest of his life. He has choices. He’s not a prisoner. He never was.
And as for the women, caged within walls, caged within words? The final line of Chang’s own New York Times obituary seems to sum it up as well as anything.
As for the women, “there are no survivors.”