This Chronicle is dedicated to Ian Dennis, Secretary-Treasurer and general mainstay of the GASC, who introduced me to the writings of Eileen Chang (1920-1995), aka Zhang Ai-Ling.
Having spent my university career teaching 19th-century French novels, I rarely had the time for, or even much interest in, reading others. But since retiring, I have been able to read a good many, especially novels by women, who, with a few very great exceptions, I tend to find more attuned than men to the novelistic sensibility, and are perhaps even better at the short story. This Chronicle discusses a masterpiece of short fiction by a major Chinese writer, strangely little known to the American literate public, exploring how it diverges from, and at the same time, clarifies, the Western conception of “romantic” or transcendent love.
Stacey and I thought very highly of Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution when it came out in 2007-8, although it does not seem to have left a strong general impression. I think many of its critics were distracted by its lengthy (NC-17-rated) erotic scenes, which, although by no means gratuitous in the context of the film, modified the thematic of its literary source.
It is only when, quite recently, Ian introduced me to Chang that I had occasion to examine this source: a story by the same name, originally drafted sometime in the 1950s, revised over two decades, and published only in 1979, near the end of Chang’s creative life. (She died a recluse in Los Angeles in 1995.) But if the film is excellent, the story is a masterpiece, among the greatest of the genre. It runs some 40-odd pages, about 8000 words; but what makes it unforgettable, and the film as well, is the concentration of the narrative action and its revelatory force in a single word.
If Lust, Caution seems a strange title, in Chinese, it is a pun, whose words can also be understood as “colorful ring,” the object whose purchase brings about the narration’s climax.
The story, roughly based on a historic incident, takes place in the context of WWII. Beginning in Hong Kong, then after its 1941 Japanese takeover, in Shanghai, Wang Chia-Chih, a beautiful student and amateur actress, is recruited by a patriotic student group to seduce Mr. Yee, a key Japanese-collaborationist official. Pretending to be the wife of a businessman, she joins Yee’s wife’s mah-jongg group and catches his eye, leading to a series of assignations.
The action of the story takes place on a day when, setting Yee up for assassination by the group, Chia-Chih entices him to a jewelry shop on the pretext of repairing an earring. Not altogether unexpectedly, once at the jeweler’s, Yee decides to offer Chia-Chih a rare and valuable pink-diamond ring.
They sit together on the mezzanine of the shop while the Indian jeweler writes out the receipt:
Only now, as this last, tense moment of calm stretched infinitely out, on this cramped balcony, the artificial brightness of its lamplight contrasting grubbily with the pale sky visible through the door and windows downstairs, could she permit herself to relax and inquire into her own feelings. Somehow, the nearby presence of the Indian, bent over his writing desk, only intensified her sense of being entirely alone with her lover. But now was not the moment to ask herself whether she loved him; instead, she needed to—
He was gazing off into the middle distance, a faintly sorrowful smile on his face. He had never dared dream such happiness would come his way in middle age. It was, of course, his power and position that he had principally to thank; they were an inseparable part of him. Presents, too, were essential, though they needed to be distributed at the correct moments. Given too soon, they carried within an insulting insinuation of greed. Though he knew perfectly well the rules of the game they were playing, he had to permit himself a brief moment of euphoria at the prize that had fallen into his lap; otherwise, the entire exercise was meaningless.
He was an old hand at this: taking his paramours shopping, ministering to their whims, retreating into the background while they made their choices. But there was, she noted again, no cynicism in his smile just then; only sadness. He sat in silhouette against the lamp, seemingly sunk into an attitude of tenderly affectionate contemplation, his downcast eyelashes tinged the dull cream of moths’ wings as they rested on his gaunt cheeks.
He really loves me, she thought. Inside, she felt a raw tremor of shock—then a vague sense of loss.
It was too late.
The Indian passed the receipt to him. He placed it inside his jacket.
“Run,” she said softly.
For a moment he stared, and then understood everything. Springing up, he barged the door open . . .
(Lust, Caution. Tr. Julia Lovell, Anchor Books, 2007: 44-46)
Few softly-spoken words in any work of fiction accomplish what Chia-Chih’s does here. It saves Yee’s life and declares to him her love—at the same time as it destroys the students’ plot and all their lives, including her own. There is no instant of mutual recognition; her demonstration of love, as soon as he understands it, sends him away without a glance.
Leaving the shop minutes after Yee, Chia-Chih, seeking to leave the area, is caught within a cordon set up to catch the conspirators. That is the last we see of her.
Returning home after all is finished, Yee, realizing that she was “his first true love” (52), muses that, despite his pessimism about the future course of the war,
. . . now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy—without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively—as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead, she was his ghost. (54)
Chang’s love stories do not have “happy endings”; this is as happy as they get. My impression is that, in Chang’s world-view, this is as happy as it ever gets.
No doubt both Yee and Chia-Chih each had the revelation of the other’s love; she before warning him, and he afterward. In both cases, it was indeed the first; we learn that, as part of her training for the operation, Chia-Chih, a traditionally brought-up Chinese girl, had to lose her virginity and be “initiated” by the only member of the student group who had been to a brothel, an experience anything but amorous.
In contrast to the Wagnerian love-death Schwärmerei, the ultimate hyperbolization of the Western love tradition, the power of Chang’s story is in inverse proportion to its sentimentality. Not only is there no mutual revelation of love, but Yee revels in the finality of their separation. “Possessing” his lover as a ghost, a “shadow forever near him,” is for him the contrary of privation: it is a permanent state of grace that reconciles him to death.
I have not been able to consult the critical literature, but the translator’s preface expresses in no uncertain terms what I imagine to be the common view of the story. Julia Lovell speaks of Chia-Chih’s “impulsive abandonment of the cause for an illusory love,” her “final, self-destructive change of heart,” making the story “a disturbing meditation on psychological fragility, self-deception, and amoral sexual possession” (xv-xvi). Finally, she helpfully points out that the author’s first marriage was with a Japanese collaborator whom she helped to escape punishment after the war, but eventually separated from after discovering his unfaithfulness.
With all due respect, I believe this interpretation trivializes the story and fails to grasp the immense difference between it and the works that made Chang famous in the 1940s, stories of failed romance and female disillusion, the best-known of which are “Love in a Fallen City” and “The Golden Cangue.” The implication of Ms. Lovell’s words is that the substance of the passages quoted above, particularly Yee’s post-mortem meditation, should be taken ironically. Yet Yee’s feeling, after having ordered the execution of this young woman, that her demonstration of love was not just the high point of his life, but that it will allow him to die happy—beyond being the very opposite of Chang’s collaborator husband’s presumed view of his analogous experience—is, as presented, altogether impervious to irony.
If we see Chia-Chih as deluded and Yee as a ruthless traitor to his people, her life-changing word is reduced to a pathetic, misguided gesture feeding the vanity of a villain. But if Chang leaves us at the story’s end with Yee, it can only be to show us his awareness that the grace she has given him means more to him than life itself. What comeuppance indeed can befall someone who feels he can die “without regret” now that he has known “the love of a beautiful woman”? If the author did not want us to take Yee’s words seriously, the story would be no more than gratuitous black comedy.
There is indeed real irony in Lust, Caution, but it is between the author and the reader. In contrast with Ang Lee, who ends his film with Chia-Chih on her way to execution, Chang does not follow her beyond the point where her escape is cut off. Having given her proof of love, her feelings, on which Yee speculates post mortem in the passage above, have become irrelevant. Nor is Yee fated to have a happy future; we, and already he too, know how the war will end.
But if a blossoming young woman could not be expected to find her life’s fulfillment in the sublimity of this love, Yee, “squat,” middle-aged, and world-weary, could truly appreciate it. We imagine that his last thought would be of the beautiful Wang Chia-Chih, whose ghost had never left him. And this makes us realize retrospectively that, observing his melancholy, affectionate air, it was her intuition of this future that brought forth, softly, the word “Run.”
Unlike the hard-edged heroines of Chang’s earlier stories, Chia-Chih gives up the battle, both against the Japanese occupation and against the masculine-centered vision of love—neither of which will, in any case, survive the war—for the sake of a sublimity that she can share only from without. Is this a sign of Chang’s self-deceived submission to “paternalistic” values? On the contrary, the irony of her tale conveys the understanding that man’s lack of the biological integrity of the female is the source of a salvation through love that woman does not need. Has any woman ever thought to herself, “now I can die happy . . . without regret” simply because she has possessed, for an instant, “the love of a handsome man”? The idea is slightly ludicrous.
Let us think back to the origins of transcendent love in the West. The biblical Song of Songs is charming, but hardly sublime. The sublimity of the Western love-tradition was the creation of Sappho. Very few of her poems have been left to us, but the remaining fragment of her oeuvre is enough to reveal the revolution it made possible, and that only a woman could have accomplished.
In the Hebrew tradition, sex is about being fruitful and multiplying. Only with Christianity, a religion of paradox that integrates within Hebrew transcendence Greek tragic passion, could the Judeo-Christian West make sense of Sappho’s antinomian love for what does not directly benefit the social order, either by winning battles or by producing children. Sappho’s one perfect poem affirms, through her preference of the grace of her beloved Anactoria to the armies sung by epic poets, the precedence of individual love over tribal solidarity. Let us not forget that the Trojan War, in Greek legend, was fought over a beautiful woman.
What then is “non-Western” about Chang’s vision? I certainly would not seek to classify this cosmopolitan writer as “Oriental.” Yet the character of Mr. Yee, on which the story’s credibility rests, is hardly plausible in a Westerner. A Western man who profits from his position of power to enjoy the favors of many women (think Ted Kennedy) can hardly be imagined attributing his ultimate happiness to “the love of a beautiful woman.”
The difference between Lust, Caution and Tristan und Isolde is the absence from it of any sense of sin. For Judeo-Christian culture to incorporate Sappho, she must be conceived as sinful, absolved only through her suffering. This is, to all appearances, an attitude profoundly irrelevant to Chang’s world-view. We learn that Yee, unlike Chia-Chih, speaks little English because he studied in Japan. Yet the story takes place, significantly, in the European concessions of Shanghai, and was written in the West. I think we can say that, even if Yee’s attitude toward love is truly Chinese, as illustrated for example by the 18th-century Dream of the Red Chamber, only a writer aware of the Western tradition could have conceived this story.
It is relevant to note that in her later years, Chang devoted many hours to translating into Mandarin (version published in 1985), and then into English (published posthumously in 2005), Han Bangqing’s late-19th-century Chinese novel The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, which narrates a long series of love-affairs, often far from vulgarly sexual, between clients and courtesans. Like the geishas of Japan, the “sing-song girls” had a quite different status from prostitutes in the West. Just as, in Chang’s youth, it remained common for men of a certain standing to have one or more concubines, and these accepted relationships were often as serious as marriages.
Only in such a society, where sexuality can be thought of as a bodily need that neither implies nor excludes love in the transcendental sense, could a man like Yee have the thought, even before Chia-Chih’s word of sacrifice, that he “had never dared dream such happiness would come his way in middle age.” Is Chia-Chih really so much more beautiful than all the other young women he has known? Or is it that the combination of her beauty and her inexperience inspired in Yee an intuition of plenitude that, sitting in the jewelry shop, he could do nothing to render definitive, but merely wish for—and that her word of warning, inspired in turn by her sense of this intuition, fulfills in a way he could never have anticipated.
Lust, Caution portrays, ironically but not nihilistically, a fallen world in which human love alone is other than illusion. It is also a world that, at the time of writing, had forever disappeared. This judgment is made all the more persuasive by the fact that this elegiac rectification of the disillusioned view of love in Chang’s early stories by a paradoxical yet all the more real sense of the sublime was worked out over twenty years, and finished at the end of her creative career.
I think we may be certain that only a woman could have sympathetically imagined, in the heart of her otherwise cynical male protagonist, this transcendent revelation of salvation through love. With all the good will in the world, we cannot share Sappho’s love, however much we admire her genius. But we can share that of Mr. Yee, both a woman’s worshiper and a woman’s creation, realized through an act of artistic magnanimity that Sappho, in a simpler time, could not have conceived. In my judgment, this extraordinary tale sets Eileen Chang among the world’s great artists.