Republican Fever

8 JANUARY 2019 | KAREN KAO

The Republic of China didn’t last long as dynasties go. It ran from the fall of the Qing in 1912 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In China, you don’t speak of, let alone praise, the Republican Era.

Except during a brief moment of time when Republican fever raged through China. Qipao and round wire-rimmed glasses came back into fashion. Some shops reverted to traditional characters to make their store signs. Broadminded parents gave their children Republican era textbooks. This was the year 2009, when Little Reunions by Eileen Chang was published.

Eileen Chang is one of my literary heroes. Her short story collection, Love in a Fallen City, influenced the way I described Shanghai in my own novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. The film version of her novella, Lust, Caution, is my picture of wartime Shanghai: the clothes, the furnishings, the snacks at the mahjong table. When New York Review Books announced that it would issue a new translation of Little Reunions, I was eager to read.

Battle of Hong Kong

Little Reunions opens on the eve of the Battle of Hong Kong. The main character, Julie, is 18 years old and a boarder at a university in Hong Kong. The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, and Singapore on 8 December 1941. Some of Julie’s fellow students flee to China. Others, like Julie, man the air defense towers. But the battle is brief and life soon returns to normal. Julie and her girlfriend Bebe go shopping for cloth to make dresses. They want a particular Cantonese style in dazzling green and hot pink. En route to the fabric market they stumble upon a sign of war.

A corpse was neatly laid on the footpath. Someone must have straightened out his arms and legs. His Chinese jacket and pants, as well as his shoes, were as clean as could be. He had probably been killed by a stray bullet. The battle had ended days ago and he was still there.

“Don’t look,” Bebe quickly shouted. Julie turned her head and looked away.

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Chang says little more about the war. In fact, she hardly dwells on any of the historical events that mark this novel. The end of the Republican Era merits no more than this:

After the communists took over, Julian lost his job. One day he visited wearing a brand-new suit.

“I just had several new suits made,” he moaned, “and now I won’t be able to wear them.”

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Mothers and Daughters

Chang treats historical events with an aplomb bordering on indifference. Her focus is on Julie and her glamorous mother. Rachel doesn’t deign to visit often. Normally, Rachel is abroad with a beau and a constant need for cash. The mother-daughter relationship is a strained one, a battle that lasts the rest of Julie’s life.

The autobiographical component of Little Reunions is unmistakable. Eileen Chang had an estranged relationship with her own mother who was also often abroad and thoroughly Westernized. While Chang’s mother traveled through Europe, Chang and her younger brother were left in the care of their father. He was a member of the traditional elite: an aristocrat, an opium addict and the owner of several concubines. That clash between mother and father, East and West, traditional Confucian values and New Culture Movement ideas defined Eileen Chang.

Husbands and Wives

Chang’s alter ego, Julie, slips easily into Chang’s high-heeled shoes. Julie returns to Shanghai to live with her maiden aunt Judy. Julie’s writing career takes off. One enthusiastic reviewer is Shao Chih-yung, a government official working with the Wang Ching-wei administration. In other words, a Japanese collaborator.

This, too, is anchored in Eileen Chang’s real life.

At the age of twenty-three, [Chang] began a relationship with the thirty-seven-year-old Hu Lancheng, an impeccable prose stylist himself and a minor official in the collaborationist government of Wang Jingwei. Hu was already married when they met, and almost immediately after he married Chang in a secret ceremony, he openly began an affair with a seventeen-year-old nurse. Hu claimed to Chang that he loved her so much that he had to share his love with other women so as not to overwhelm her (yes, he was that guy). Although their marriage rapidly disintegrated, Chang’s association with Hu made her politically and aesthetically suspect for the rest of her career.

Dylan Suher, Review of Little Reunions by Eileen Chang, Asymptote, accessed on 6 Jan 2019

Unfinished Business

Chang started writing Little Reunions in 1975. She never finished for fear that her ex-husband might retaliate. She considered burning it altogether. When her literary executors published the novel in 2009, Chang had been dead for 14 years. Yes, her novel added fuel to the Republican fever raging in China. But to my Western eyes, Little Reunions remains an unfinished manuscript.

First, there’s the problem of time. The novel slips and slides between past and present. There are wormholes like Chapter 3 that take us deep into Julie’s back story and abrupt flash forwards to show her in the United States. Was Chang adhering to some Asian notion of time fluidity? I suspect not. Like Dylan Suher, my guess is that Chang never got around to ordering her material the way she wanted.

Second, there is the issue of narrative arc. Julie is the center of the novel and the lens through which we experience her world. Sometimes we hear the voice of the young Julie, in the moment. At others, an older voice creeps in. Yet no matter which Julie is speaking, she doesn’t evolve. Passivity is the default response. For example, when Julie learns that her cervix is torn, her only worry is what her current lover will think.

It will certainly make him think of me not only as a fallen woman, a withered flower, but as one who has allowed herself to be ruined and rendered useless, infertile.

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The Fever Breaks

In the first six months following its publication in 2009, Little Reunions sold 700,000 copies in China. Eileen Chang fever reached a new pitch. With the ascendance of Xi Jinping in 2012, the air began to cool. In 2013, his government issued Document No. 9.

It warned against “constitutional democracy,” “civil society,” “press freedom,” “historical nihilism,” and other maladies that had been seeping into China. The phrase “historical nihilism,” which seemed puzzling at first, was political code for denying the glorious record of the Chinese Communist Party. Censors set to work enforcing Document No. 9, and two years later Republican fever began to recede.

Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, “Before the Revolution”, The New York Review of Books, 7 June 2018

Republican fever gave way to the now well-known narrative of the Century of Humiliation. In this story, the West bullied China and thus caused all its current woes. Little Reunions contradicts that tale of victim-hood by presenting Westerners and Chinese as equally flawed. Even worse, Chang reminds us that there was once a China before Mao Zedong.

Little Reunions is a glimpse of Shanghai when it was still on the verge of monumental transformation. For the older Chinese reader, the novel may have nostalgic charms. For the new Chinese generations, too young to have experienced China without Communism, Little Reunions is a portal into a parallel universe. It’s an historical document and, for those who care, a map into the glamour of Eileen Chang. Not quite enough to raise a fever.