Eileen Chang is one of those authors whose books I have been collecting over the years without actually reading them. Until now. As I was scouring some potential reads for WITMonth, I felt the time was ripe to finally delve into some of her work. And Love in a Fallen City published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics is what I decided to go with.

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Eileen Chang’s real life itself was quite dramatic and full of upheavals and possibly provided her with some rich material for her writing. Chang’s father was deeply traditional and an opium addict. Her mother, on the other hand, was a sophisticated woman of cosmopolitan tastes. With such a varied outlook on life, her parents eventually divorced and Eileen initially chose to stay with her father. But that experience proved traumatic as she was beaten for defying her stepmother and locked in her room for nearly half a year. She managed to escape. While she studied in Hong Kong, Japanese invasion of the city in 1941 forced her to return to occupied Shanghai where she first published the stories included in this collection, making her a literary star.

So here’s a brief taster of her novellas and some of the themes that are displayed in them…

In the first novella “Aloeswood Incense”, the protagonist finds out that love is not a simple, romantic affair, rather more of a business transaction. In the opening pages, young Weilong visits the residence her wealthy aunt who is otherwise estranged from the family. Weilong’s parents have decided to move to Shanghai but Weilong wants to stay back in Hong Kong and complete her schooling. Thus, she approaches her Aunt Liang with a request that she be given a room to stay in the house. Aunt Liang, at first, is hesitant given her strained relations with the girl’s family. But she relents on the condition that Weilong actively participates in various social gatherings in her home and learns the attributes of being a good hostess. Gradually, Weilong is introduced to a world of fine dresses, parties, flirting and socializing with rich men. When she does actually fall in love, she realizes that it’s not all smooth sailing and she resigns to a pact of compromise.

The second novella “Love in a Fallen City” has a happier ending but not without a sword of uncertainty hanging over the couple’s heads. As the novel opens, our protagonist Liusu has already come back home to stay with her large, extended family. Liusu was married, but having suffered constant abuse by her husband, she is compelled her to divorce him. When Liusu’s family learns of his death, they pressurize her to go back to her married home and assume the role of a dignified, mourning widow.  Liusu flatly refuses and this further strains her relations with her family making living with them quite unbearable. Meanwhile, having given up hopes of Liusui ever remarrying given her age, the family begins focusing on getting her younger sister married off. A suitable match is found – his name is Liuyuan. However, when the family goes for an outing with Liuyuan, it is Liusu who catches his fancy.

The matchmaker offers to take Liusu with her as a companion to Hong Kong. Liusu readily accepts because it also means it is an opportunity for her to meet Liuyuan and also get away from her family. However, when Liusu and Liuyuan regularly start seeing each other, she still remains uncertain of her position in their relationship. Until one day, Japan invades Hong Kong in December 1941.

Family tensions are also palpable in the third novella “The Golden Cangue”, the only one that has been translated by Eileen Chang herself. Our protagonist is a woman called Ch’i-ch’iao who is married into the well-to-do Chiang family. However, Ch’i-ch’iao’s husband is a cripple and Ch’i-ch’iao herself comes from a family of traders (they run a sesame oil shop), a social background that is looked down upon by the Chiangs. Her origins as well as her irascible personality alienate her from the Chiang family and several years later she vents her frustration on her son and daughter.

Ch’i-ch’iao lay half asleep on the opium couch. For thirty years now she had worn a golden cangue. She had used its heavy edges to chop down several people; those that did not die were half killed. She knew that her son and daughter hated her to the death, that the relatives on her husband’s side hated her, and that her own kinsfolk also hated her.

Women are the central figures in the first three novellas but in “Red Rose, White Rose” our protagonist is Zhenbao, who has worked his way up and is a self-made man. Here’s how the novella opens:

There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress.

Coming from a poor background, he becomes an engineer through sheer hard work and secures a good position in a textile company. Zhenbao takes it upon himself to provide for his mother and also fund the education of his brother and sisters. And then he becomes passionately involved with his friend’s wife Jiaorui who is a progressive woman with a London upbringing. Not wanting to damage his reputation and irk his mother with this alliance, Zhenbao ends it and marries a traditional woman called Yanli. But he remains disappointed and the zeal with which he aspires to be a so-called ‘good’ man does not give him much satisfaction. Yanli, for her part, also finds herself trapped in a claustrophobic setting.

In these stories, the one theme that stands out is the limited opportunities available to women in Chinese society in the early 20th century. Having a career, in the way we understand it today, was pretty much unheard of. The only way to climb up the society ladder and attain financial security was by marrying a well-to-do man. For instance, in “Love in a Fallen City” when Liusu can no longer stand the presence of her family, she realizes that a good marriage is the only way she can escape their clutches and that too quickly rather than finding a job and establishing herself, which will turn out to be a slow, painstaking process.  

Married men having mistresses is rampant and the women in Chang’s world can’t do much about it. But if it’s all about the money, even mistresses can attain financial means. This is apparent in “Aloeswood Incense”, where Weilong’s aunt is financially secure simply because she was well provided for despite her status as a mistress.

And yet, despite such a constrained environment, the women in Chang’s novellas are not necessarily doormats. Even in such confined circumstances, they harbor ambitions of getting ahead.

The other striking feature in Chang’s novellas is the prevalence of sexual politics. It is vividly described in conversations when couples are either flirting or courting seriously. A simple declaration of love is not taken at face value but is only an indication that there is something more simmering under the surface.

Chang’s novellas also bring to the fore a blend of traditional and modern values. Men, who have been abroad for a while and have seen something of the world, are fascinated by traditional Chinese women back home. And yet, divorces, although probably looked down upon, were not entirely non-existent in early 20th century China.

Difficulties of being an offspring with a mixed heritage are also hinted at in this conversation between Weilong and a girl called Jijie whose origins are an amalgamation of Arab, Indian, Negro, Indonesian, Portuguese with a dash of Chinese.

“I’m mixed-blood myself and I’ve been through it all. These mixed-blood boys are the ones we’re most likely to marry. We can’t marry a Chinese – we’ve got foreign-style educations, so we don’t fit in with the pure Chinese types. We can’t marry a foreigner, either – have you seen any whites here who aren’t deeply influenced by race concepts? Even if one of them wanted to marry one of us, there’d be too much social pressure against it. Anyone who marries an Oriental loses his career. In this day and age, who could be that romantic?”

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things.

It was a humid spring evening, and the Hong Kong hills are famous for their fog. The white Liang mansion was melting viscously into the white mist, leaving only the greenish gleam of the lamplight shining through square after square of the green windowpanes, like ice cubes in peppermint schnapps. When the fog thickened, the ice cubes dissolved, and the lights went out.

She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.


13 thoughts on “Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

  1. I love reading Eileen Chang – it makes me feel like I am in the film In the Mood for Love while reading her work… You are right about the haze of melancholy hanging over everything.


    1. I have fallen for Chang’s writing too and plan to read more of her work. I have two more of her books on my shelves – Lust, Caution and Half A Lifelong Romance. Have you read either of them?


  2. I have often wondered about this book without really knowing what it was about, so it’s good to learn more about it here. Your final quote is lovely, the one about the humid spring evening – beautiful. One for the list, I think…


    1. It’s a lovely book Jacqui. I really enjoyed her writing and it transported me to a different world. Definitely worthy trying her work and this collection is a good place to start.


  3. Well captured. I finished this myself earlier this month and really liked it (I’d saved your review a while back but hadn’t read it until I read the book myself). She’s a subtle and evocative writer. I’ve also read Lust, Caution which is very good too.


    1. Thank you, Max! She’s a subtle writer indeed and I plan to read much more of her work especially since NYRB Classics had released quite a few of her books recently. Great to know you liked Lust, Caution…it’s the one I want to read next.


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