Chang, Eileen (1920–1995)

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Chang, Eileen (1920–1995)

Chinese novelist and short story writer, considered by critics to be one of the greatest figures of modern Chinese literature. Born Chang Ai-ling (Zhang Ailing) in Shanghai on September 30, 1920; found dead in her apartment in Los Angeles, California, on September 8, 1995; married Hu Lan Cheng; married Ferdinand Reyher.

Eileen Chang, who was to become one of the greatest figures of 20th-century Chinese literature through her powerful depictions of a traditional society in the throes of moral and social decay, grew up in the highest levels of that same society. She was born Chang Ai-ling (Zhang Ailing) in Shanghai in 1920 into an elite family with a distinguished lineage that included statesmen of the Imperial court as well as classical scholars. Despite her affluence, she grew up in emotional turmoil. Her father was a domestic tyrant who tormented his daughter by locking her up in the house for months at a time. A profoundly troubled man, Chang's father derived pleasure from the mental torture he inflicted on his child, who eventually was able to flee and join her mother, a woman of cosmopolitan education who had studied painting in France and had already fled from her abusive husband. After having lost both wife and daughter, Chang Ai-ling's father lived openly with his concubine and rapidly declined into a haze of opium addiction.

Determined to put her life in order, Chang enrolled at the University of Hong Kong in 1938 where she studied literature and English. During these years, she continued her intensive investigations, already begun in her earliest years, of Chinese literary classics including the 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber. Starting in 1937, China was embroiled in a bloody war with Japan, and although she had the means to leave, Chang decided to remain in Hong Kong. She was still there in December 1941 when Japanese invasion brought panic to the city. In 1942, she returned to Shanghai, now under a harsh regime of Japanese occupation. Here, she made her living by turning out both novels and film scripts. Although they were all conceived of as commercial products and their literary quality varied greatly, these apprentice writings were nevertheless all superbly crafted and gave evidence of Chang's deep study of the great works of modern Western literature, particularly the French naturalist school of Emile Zola and others. Her romance Love in a Lost City caught the mood of the city in wartime and made her an overnight cultural celebrity.

In her personal life, Chang did not show the deliberation and order so apparent in her art. Although much desired because of her beauty and stylishness (she designed her own elegant dresses), she had been unlucky in her amours; she then fell recklessly in love with Hu Lan Cheng , who unfortunately was not only married but served as a high official of the pro-Japanese puppet Chinese regime as well. Unable to rein in her emotions even though many of her friends urged caution, the affair ended in inevitable calamity: her lover fled for his life when Japan lost the war and their Chinese collaborators were reviled as traitors.

The end of the war did not bring peace either to China or to Chang. Growing politicization of literature and the rapid collapse of the Nationalist regime made ideology attractive to the majority of Chinese writers and Chang's aristocratic disdain for politics served to isolate her within intellectual circles. Although they would later be held in high esteem, the books she published during these tumultuous years found little critical or popular support. Rumors, a collection of essays, and Strange Stories, a collection of her short stories, were viewed as showing indifference to the great events transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese. With misgivings, but hoping to make the best of the radically new situation, she decided to remain in China as Mao Zedong's Red Army swept all before it.

The birth of the Chinese People's Republic in 1949 created a radically new environment for bourgeois intellectuals like Chang Ai-ling. Although by no means dogmatically opposed to the sorely-needed reforms the Communists would bring to a corrupt and morally exhausted society, she remained independent in spirit so that try as she might, she could neither accept Communist goals nor join the party. In 1952, Chang left the mainland for Hong Kong, where a collection of her short stories appeared in print in 1954. The next year would mark a turning point in Chang's career, transforming her into an international literary star. She moved to the United States in 1955, settling in Los Angeles, and published The Rice-Sprout Song, a novel about the harsh impact of the Korean War on China's peasantry. To mark her entrance onto the stage of world literature with a work that she had first written in English and then herself translated into Chinese, Chang Ai-ling now signed her writings with her newly adopted Western name of Eileen Chang.

The Rice-Sprout Song was a great success in part for the wrong reasons, having been viewed in a strongly political context by many American critics. With anti-Communism still a dominant feature of intellectual life, some Americans read Chang's novel more as an ideological tract than as commentary on a tragic phase of modern Chinese history. Chinese Communist cultural bureaucrats were outraged, banning all of her works—a measure that remained in place for three decades. Although an effective piece of literature, The Rice-Sprout Song was by no means Eileen Chang's best work, having been written at least in part in anger. Western readers would not be able to read her best work for at least another decade.

Critics agree that Chang's greatest work is her 1944 novella The Golden Cangue, which relates the life of a beautiful girl who marries for money and finds herself the object of her husband's abuse (cangue refers to a form of restraint resembling the stocks used in colonial America). When expanded into a full-length novel as The Rouge of the North, the story takes on added depth and psychological subtlety, showing how the once-compassionate girl was transformed into a despotic matriarch. Chang's subtle use of the Chinese vernacular, effectively translated into English, impressed Western critics who hailed the novel as a masterpiece when it was published in 1967. Unfortunately for Chang, her work continued to be viewed in light of the Cold War, rather than simply literary art. Feeling that her efforts were misunderstood by both critics and readers, by the 1960s she rapidly lost confidence in her abilities as a writer.

In the 1960s, Eileen Chang was a writer-inresidence at the University of California, Berkeley. By this time she had essentially abandoned her own writing, concentrating instead on teaching and working on a translation from the Shanghai dialect into Mandarin Chinese of The Lives of Shanghai Beauties, a classic novel of the Qing dynasty. A loner throughout her life, Chang now became a recluse, rarely emerging from her Los Angeles apartment. She was married a second time to Ferdinand Reyher, a Hollywood screenwriter who had been a close friend of Bertolt Brecht. After Reyher's death in 1967, Chang withdrew into ever more strict hermit-like seclusion. She never read the innumerable scholarly articles praising her writings, she granted no interviews, and she disappointed countless readers by no longer even considering a resumption of her writing career. Literary fanatics went so far as to search her garbage for signs of renewed writing activity, but to no avail. Totally alone but with her work by no means forgotten by the literary world, Eileen Chang died on an unknown date in early September 1995 in her Los Angeles apartment. Her body was discovered on September 8. Unfortunately for her many readers, no literary manuscripts were found among her effects.


Chang, Eileen. Naked Earth: A Novel about China. Hong Kong: Union Press, 1964.

——. Red Rose, White Rose (1995 motion picture, directed by Stanley Kwan).

——. The Rice-Sprout Song. NY: Scribner, 1955.

——. The Rouge of the North. London: Cassell, 1967.

"Eileen Chang," in Daily Telegraph [London]. September 20, 1995, p. 21.

"Eileen Chang," in The Times [London]. September 18, 1995, p. 21.

Hsia, Chih-tsing. A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

——, ed. Twentieth-Century Chinese Stories. NY: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Lau, Joseph S.M., C.T. Hsia and Leo Ou-Fan Lee, eds. Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas 1919–1949. NY: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Thomas, Robert McG., Jr. "Eileen Chang, 74, Chinese Writer Revered Outside the Mainland," in The New York Times Biographical Service. September 1995, p. 1352.

Tsai, Nai-huei Shen. "Patriarchy and Female Subjectivity: Eileen Chang's The Golden Cangue and The Rouge of the North." M.A. Thesis, University of California, San Diego, 1992.

Tseng, Sally. "An Analysis of Eileen Chang's The Rice-Sprout Song: Irony." M.A. Thesis, University of Toronto, 1992.

Weissman, Dorothy Tsungsu. "Chang, Eileen," in Martin Tucker, ed. Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century: An Analysis and Biographical Dictionary. NY: Greenwood Press, 1991, p. 177.

Zhao, Henry. "Shanghai Classic," in The Guardian. October 6, 1995, p. 17.

John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia