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.