China in September: Shanghai Then and Now

This month I’ve been meaning to read mainly Chinese writers – as it happens, all women in translation, so my #WITMonth continues.

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution and Other Stories (transl. Julia Lovell, Karen Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Simon Patton and Eva Hung)

Eileen Chang had a brief moment of fame in Japan-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War, which she was never quite able to replicate later, when she moved to Hong Kong and then to the United States. She became a recluse; sadly, her body was found in her apartment in LA several days after she died in 1995.

However, her posthumous success in China has been phenomenal. Her essays and stories were rediscovered in the 1970/80s and she became one of the most influential writers for younger authors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and finally mainland China, but she is not that well known in the West, even after director Ang Lee adapted her story Lust, Caution into a film in 2007. Although she is not an overtly political writer and has occasionally been criticised for focusing almost exclusively on the lives of women, there is no one to match her sharp observational skills. She not only manages to give us a slice of life of a certain period in Shanghai’s history, but also captures issues of class, exploitation and gender expectations in a way that feels perenially relevant. The stories are often very funny, for example In the Waiting Room, with quirky and diverse characters such as you would expect to find in a doctor’s waiting room, but far more willing to open up about their personal lives and worries than anything you might encounter in England.

Above all, I like the way she describes the simmering resentments and misunderstandings between East and West in cosmopolitan Shanghai. My favourite story in this slim volume is Steamed Osmanthus Flower, in which a Chinese housekeeper navigates the tricky relationship with her English master, while simultaneously trying to keep her husband and child content.

The title story Lust, Caution is about an affair but also a tale of war-time espionage and an assassination attempt. Apparently, it took nearly twenty years to write, and it shows: each word is so precise, so perfectly placed, the dialogue is so sparkling and full of innuendo. This is perhaps the most openly ‘political’ of her stories, but it shows how ordinary people’s everyday lives are being shaped (and sometimes destroyed) by politics rather than arguing for or against a particular political thesis.

Zhou Wei Hui: Shanghai Baby, transl. Bruce Humes

By way of contrast, Zhou Wei Hui’s novel set in late 1990s Shanghai has little of Chang’s subtlety or awareness of the complexity of East/West relations. It is the story of Coco, a young woman who aspires to be a writer, and who is torn between two men: her romance with a Chinese boyfriend who is impotent and her sexual entanglements with a married German. The Shanghai she describes certainly doesn’t correspond to any images of China you might still have lingering in your head: people in Mao suits riding bicycles or struggling to make ends meet. This is the Shanghai of the well-off, a consumer’s paradise, a city full of nightclubs and drugs, a ‘feminine’ city as the narrator describes it, in comparison to the macho cities of northern China. Coco and her friends think nothing of hopping onto a plane at short notice to attend a concert by a band in Beijing.

Ironically, the hedonistic lifestyle she describes was regarded with suspicion by the Chinese authorities and the book was banned shortly after publication for its immoral nature and irreverent style. There is nothing there that is very shocking to a Western reader: a lot of sex, a lot of drug-taking, but the details are not prurient or voyeuristic. It is clear that the author admires Western culture – there are several quotes from Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Milan Kundera but also from various musicians, but overall the style is pedestrian, while trying achingly hard to be hipsterish (if the term was in existence back in 2000 when this was first published). It is a young person’s book, so perhaps I am being a little harsh: it reminded me of the so-called millenial writers like Otessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney (neither of whom I’ve read exhaustively because… they bore me. I am not the target age group, I think.) But, needless to say, there are plenty of people who love those English-speaking writers, so you might love this book. It certainly helps to dismantle some stereotypes and shows a Chinese society in flux.

14 thoughts on “China in September: Shanghai Then and Now”

  1. I have them both on my piles but was actually thinking of culling Shanghai Baby. It might have spoken to me when I was young. I have high hopes for Eileen Chang though. So, you pretty much confirm my thinking.

    1. It was a really interesting contrast between cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930s and cosmopolitan Shanghai of the turn of the 21st century. But yes, Wei Hui name drops Eileen Chang but is not a patch on her, to my mind!

  2. I love Chang Eileen! Have you read Love in a fallen city? Wei Hui is just a very dated editorial coup, in the early 2000s she and Mian Mian were scandalous authors, therefore geniuses… It left me cold. You should try Chi Li (another female writer, review to come soon), Yan Geling, Zhang Kankan, Wang Anyi, … There are many translations in French from the Piquier publishing company.

    1. I should have known you would have some great suggestions – sadly, I don’t think most of them have been translated into English, but I will try to find them. And yes, your assessment of Wei Hui is probably accurate.

  3. I’m very tempted to read Eileen Chang now, Marina Sofia! I remember when Shanghai Baby came out and although very hyped I didn’t fancy it and now I think I was right. Your experience of reading it sounds a bit like my experience of reading Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen – I was definitely too old for it and so it bored me a bit.

  4. I saw most of the movie, Lust, Caution. It is very good. The cast is excellent. It’s based on a true story. But the brutality is very hard to take at the end. My sympathy lies with the young Chinese people who are trying to fight for China’s sovereighty and against brutal collaborators with the Japanese occupiers. It gets too brutal at the end, which is the reality of the real story. So I had to stop watching it. Too sad.

  5. Well, watch British mystery programs, some escapism, some reality. But watching a story about people trying to get rid of a collaborator with brutal occupiers, based on a true story, is different. One knows real, earnest human beings were killed.

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