Thursday, February 7, 2019

Eileen Chang's Love In A Fallen City

Shanghai's clocks were set an hour ahead so the city could "save daylight," but the Bai family said, "We go by the old clock." Ten o'clock to them was eleven to everyone else. Their singing was behind the beat; they couldn't keep up with the huqin of life.
That's the opening paragraph of the title story in this collection of Eileen Chang stories Love In A Fallen City. It gives a good sense: these six stories are about families, mostly stuck in tradition. People refer to others by their place in the family hierarchy: Second Master, Fourth Mistress, Third Sister. The men are incompetently in charge; the women, trying to scrape up a little power by whatever means. The young of both sexes are trying to get out from under. For the girls, prostitution is an available option. Money is tight, but opium is readily available. Generally nobody gets what they want.

The stories take place in either Shanghai or Hong Kong, or both, in the years leading up to and then including the Japanese occupation; the stories were written (in Chinese) during the occupation and slipped past the censors. They're apolitical and generally don't mention the Japanese. They give a sense of how much and how fast China was changing in those years, though mostly without the cooperation of the characters.

My favorite was the title story. Bai Liusu has divorced her husband and returned home because he beat her. The Bai family take her back in, but they grumble about it, and when her ex-husband dies, they suggest Liusu return to her husband's family and take the role of widow. She refuses.

A family friend, Mrs. Xu, takes Liusu to Hong Kong; maybe there she can meet a male protector. But what will be her role? Will she be his wife, his legal concubine, his whore? Liusu doesn't really trust Mrs. Xu to do the right thing for her, and Liusu's position is delicate. She meets Fan Liuyuan, who's interested in her; he's kind enough and rich enough. Liusu is willing to accept legal concubinage, she figures she's twenty-eight, divorced and widowed, but wishes for more. First Hong Kong falls to the Japanese, then Shanghai. Everything is in chaos, the couple are reduced to living in poverty in an occupied city--and it's still the happiest story in the collection.

Grim, but I thought they were very good. New York Review Books have reissued at least two of her novels as well. I'm now likely to read them.


  1. I started reading this but it's a bit bleak for my current mood. Hope to get back to it when things get brighter.

    1. They are kind of bleak! Not in retrospect mid-winter reading. I did read them one at a time & mixed in other things.