Monday, May 29, 2017, 11:54 AM CST – China

Culture

Eileen Chang

Closing the Book

Two decades after her death, Eileen Chang remains one of China’s legendary modern writers. The recent release of new versions of two of her manuscripts makes the author’s oeuvre complete at last on the Chinese mainland

A portrait of Eileen Chang used as cover art for The Young Marshal Illustration by Leng Bingchuan

Few modern Chinese writers have received as much attention as Eileen Chang. This public scrutiny is not limited to her work — everything about her, including her marriages, family drama and even her fashion choices, has been the topic of much discussion and research.

Even when previously unpublished works hit bookstores after Chang’s death, they each shot to the top of bestseller lists.

Recently, two of her novels found a second life in newly published forms; the manuscript version of Small Reunions and the simplified Chinese version of The Young Marshal were both released on the Chinese mainland this past October in honor of the 20th anniversary of the writer’s death. At last, all of Chang’s works have been published in her homeland. And her legacy lives on.

This ‘Gift’

Before she died in Los Angeles in September 1995, Eileen Chang willed all her possessions to Stephen and Mae Fong Soong, a married couple who, in her later years, had been her closest friends in the US. Chang’s estate included all of her unpublished works, and eventually the couple’s son, Roland, became the executor of Chang’s literary legacy.

However, “If I could choose again, I definitely wouldn’t accept this ‘gift,’” Roland Soong told NewsChina.

Born in 1949 in Shanghai, the younger Soong moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was four months old. At 18, he left for the US and lived there for 30 years. The apple fell far from the tree — unlike his parents, who spent most of their professional lives immersed in the literary world, Soong has a doctorate in statistics and his career has had little to do with the written word.

Though Soong still recalls meeting Eileen Chang when he was little, his memories have faded over the years. He told NewsChina that he remembers her as tall and slim. She wore glasses and talked with his parents in the Shanghai dialect. He actually felt little interest in Chang as a child and complained “whenever she came, she would take my bedroom and I would have to sleep in the sitting room.”

However, when Soong’s mother died in 2007, Soong was left with no choice but to take up her mantle by managing Chang’s literary estate.

Since publishing Chang’s first posthumous work, the essay “A Return to the Frontier,” in 2008, Soong continued combing through Chang’s old manuscripts and published Small Reunions, Strange Country, Quotations of Eileen Chang, The Book of Change, The Fall of the Pagoda and The Young Marshal. Soong also co-wrote a memoir of his father, which includes stories about his family’s interactions with important Chinese literary figures like Chang and Qian Zhongshu.

Soong admits he’s no expert on Chang. “What I’ve done in the past years could hardly count as research,” he said. “I just like solving problems.”

“Solving problems” is the mindset Soong has had towards managing this part of his inheritance. In deciding which unpublished works of Chang’s to send to the printers, Soong’s approach reflected his analytical background. Each time he investigated an as-yet undiscovered piece, he’d first read through the correspondence between his parents and Chang, a massive mound of text filled with some 900,000 characters, to pick out parts that mentioned that particular composition. Through these letters, Soong would deduce Chang’s attitude towards the material and its importance to her. He would extend his sleuthing to all sorts of external sources on the Internet and in other media, finally creating a statistical analysis based on his findings.

“I won’t judge whether a work of Chang’s is good or not, because I really don’t know much,” Soong told NewsChina. “To me, it’s all a matter of numbers.”

Not So ‘Small’

Although he works with numbers instead of letters, Soong’s contribution to Chang’s literary estate cannot be denied. Chen Zishan, a known researcher of the author’s texts, said that Soong has a “very clear” mind and a special perspective when it comes to managing her works.

The first Chang novel that Soong published was Small Reunions, a semi-autobiographical work that caused a great deal of controversy, not over its literary merits, but over whether or not the book should have been published in the first place.

The dispute stemmed from Chang’s will, in which she writes: “… Small Reunions should be destroyed. I haven’t thought over these things thoroughly; we will discuss it later.”

When Soong found the draft in his hands, he was surprised by the careful, neat handwriting that tidily filled 619 pages with some 160,000 characters. “I had never seen a manuscript as thick as Small Reunions. I went through it page by page, and it was all written so neatly,” Soong told NewsChina. “Just the thought of destroying it made me feel so guilty.”

Soong decided to publish the work in 2009. “I had three choices: publish it, destroy it, or put it aside for others to decide in the future,” he said. “However the last choice was actually not a possibility. I was already in my 60s, with no kids. My sister’s children are all Chinese American and can’t speak or read Chinese. So I had to make the decision by myself.”

A Different View

Mu Xin, a famous Chinese artist, writer and literary critic, commented in an article that Eileen Chang was a “beautiful woman in troubled times,” but when “the times are no longer troubled, the woman isn’t beautiful anymore.” The “troubled times” Mu was referring to were the days Chang spent in Shanghai in the 1940s during the Japanese occupation, and the subsequent civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. Many of Chang’s most important and famous works, including Love in a Fallen City, The Golden Cangue and The Red Rose and White Rose, were published during this time. However, when Chang left Shanghai for Hong Kong and later moved to the US in the 1950s, Mu wrote that her literary flair “faded away.”

Zhi An, a writer and the chief editor of The Complete Works of Eileen Chang, which was published on the Chinese mainland in 2009, disagreed with Mu, saying Mu only thinks that because he is “unfamiliar with Chang’s literary works from her later years.”

According to Zhi, Small Reunions actually provided a precious vehicle through which readers and researchers could get a deeper, contrasting perspective towards Chang and her other works. “It’s not just supplementary to [earlier] research on Chang, it actually overturns many previous conclusions,” he commented.

“After reading Small Reunions, we realized that the biographies written about Chang in the past had all gotten it wrong in many ways,” Zhi said. “We have to adjust how we view her relationships with many people, including Fu Lei, Su Qing, Hu Lancheng and Sang Hu,” Zhi said. “Small Reunions doesn’t provide biographical information [on Chang], but instead destroys present biographical information.”

The Young Marshal, which saw fresh life this October with its first publication in simplified Chinese, is actually an unfinished work based on the story of Kuomintang marshal Zhang Xueliang (Chang Hsüeh-liang) and his wife, Edith Chao. Zhang, nicknamed “Young Marshal,” was an instigator of the 1936 Xi’an Incident and had Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek arrested, for which he was put under house arrest for 50 years. His wife stayed by his side for nearly the entire period.

Eileen Chang wrote the story in the 1960s in the US. She spent three years collecting materials and doing research about the Young Marshal. However, Chang stopped writing after just seven chapters, leaving the story several years short of the Xi’an Incident.

Few knew of the existence of the Young Marshal manuscript before Chang’s death, and no one really knows why she suddenly gave it up.

“I don’t think The Young Marshal is a successful work. If you are not familiar with Chang, you might be confused by what she was writing,” commented Soong.

In Zhi An’s opinion, it was the love between the Young Marshal and his wife that overcame political conflict and the turmoil of war that drove Chang to write the story. Chang’s first marriage was to Hu Lancheng, a writer who collaborated with the Japanese and worked in their puppet government in China in the 1940s. Many Chinese people regard him as a traitor. The four-year marriage was a painful failure to Chang that haunted her for a lifetime.

The Young Marshal is actually a love story,” said Zhi. Yet when Chang started writing the story in the ’60s, the events she was describing had happened about 40 years prior. “If another person were to write down their story some 40 years ago, it would definitely be just a pure romance novel,” he said. “But after 40 years, all the dust had settled down. An elderly couple was all that was left, alive but forgotten by the world.” In his opinion, it might be the vicissitudes of the couple’s life at the time that attracted Chang’s interest in the first place

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