Love in a Fallen City

Eileen Chang

translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury
New York Review Books 2007 [1943]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Set in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930s, the four novellas in Love in a Fallen City describe the lives of women located between the modern and the traditional, trapped by limited options and social constraints, and forced to find a balance between respectability and freedom. They are "the most sustained and widely acclaimed efforts from Chang's first volume of fiction, Chuanqi" ("Romances" or "Legends", published in 1943), supplemented here with two shorter stories, "Jasmine Tea" and "Sealed Off".

In "Aloeswood Incense" the young Weilong, wanting to stay in Hong Kong to finish her schooling, approaches the worldly aunt who is estranged from her more staid family. This brings her into a glittering world of dresses and parties and rich men, but the relationship she ends up in is an uneasy compromise between love, ambition, and autonomy.

The title story "Love in a Fallen City" has a happier ending, with the fall of Hong Kong bringing Liusiu and her lover to a positive decision. But it is an ending haunted by uncertainty and dark premonition.

"Hong Kong's defeat had brought Liusiu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? ... When the huqin wails on a night of ten thousand lamps, the bow slides back and forth, drawing forth a tale too desolate for words — oh! why go into it?"

"The Golden Cangue" tells the story of a woman from a poorer family — she has worked in a shop selling sesame oil — who is married into a wealthy, traditional family, but to a cripple. Through her attempts to maintain her status and her prickly personality she alienates her in-laws as well as those of her own family who try to stay in contact. And then, after she has gained independence on the death of her husband, she takes out her bitterness and frustration on her own children. (A "cangue" is a kind of portable yoke, used to punish criminals.)

"Red Rose, White Rose" has a male protagonist, Zhenbao, and recounts the history of his relationships with women, starting during his studies in Britain. But it is just as much a study of two women, the red and white roses of the title — the passionate Jiaorui, a friend's wife with whom Zhenbao has an affair, and the passive Yanli, whom he marries.

There is a mix of traditional Chinese and Western influences in Chang's style as well as in the situations of her characters. Her descriptions of objects and clothing and little details are realist but also convey classical imagery and symbols.

The events covered in these novellas span considerable periods of time — many decades in some cases — and they are almost family sagas, tracing the life stories of individuals and their families. In some ways her canvases are quite limited, but Chang fits a real diversity of characters and events onto them.

February 2012

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%T Love in a Fallen City
%A Chang, Eileen
%M Chinese
%F Kingsbury, Karen S.
%I New York Review Books
%D 2007 [1943]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781590171783
%P 321pp