Eileen Chang's Life: A Story Worth Telling

November 28, 2007
Editor: zhuhong

"I'm filled with joy and lightheartedness when I'm alone. But I can hardly release myself from the tangle of the nibbling trivial vexations. To me, life is just like a magnificent garment, which is covered with lice." — Eileen Chang

Eileen Chang

Early Life

Born in Shanghai on September 30, 1920, into a renowned family, Eileen Chang's paternal grandfather, Zhang Peilun, was a son-in-law to Li Hongzhang, an influential court official during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Chang's family moved to Tianjin in 1922, where she started school—at the age of four.

When Chang (who also used the surname Zhang) was still a toddler, the Zhang family was deprived of its social eminence, due to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. Chang's father, Zhang Tingzhong, was a young adherent of the overthrown dynasty, and he lived a prodigal life, thanks to the family's treasure that had been passed down to him. He had a taste for classical Chinese literature, and he occasionally helped his daughter complete her homework. He even wrote the chapter subtitle (of a traditional novel) for her first lengthy novel, A Modern Dream of Red Mansions.

Chang's mother, Huang Yifan, was a fashionable woman—in both appearance and spirit. Huang had received the new-style education during her childhood. So, Huang was out of sync with her dissolute-natured, opium-using husband. They quarreled often. When Chang was four, Huang went to France with her sister-in-law. A year later, Zhang hired a private-school teacher to tutor Chang and her younger brother. Zhang was fond of reading popular novels and tabloids, and he bought many such books. Chang began to read such materials at a young age. She soon decided that fiction was more enthralling than real life.

When Chang was eight, her father wrote to her mother, who was still abroad, expressing his will to repent and reform himself. He asked her to return home. He also moved the family back to Shanghai, to help him forget his unhappy past. On the trip to Shanghai, Chang saw the sea for the first time. At night, on the ship, she read the novel Journey to the West. She was filled with excitement by the time she arrived in Shanghai.

Chang's mother and aunt returned to China, and the children regained their long-lost lightheartedness and liveliness. Huang wanted to cultivate her daughter into an elegant lady with artistic tastes. They played piano and mimicked some films. Chang enjoyed herself during those happy days. But that didn't last long. Her father eventually relapsed, and Chang's parents agreed to divorce. Zhang remarried, which meant Chang had a stepmother.
 Chang could never have imagined that she would suffer from what she had least wanted—her stepmother. The woman mistreated Chang and her brother. After Chang had graduated from middle school, she asked her father to let her study abroad. Her father, who thought Chang was being encouraged by her birth mother, rejected the idea.

One incident led to a falling out with her father—her father severely beat Chang, based on a false accusation by her stepmother. She was then locked in her room for half a year. That period was the darkest time in her life. Eventually, Chang escaped from her father's home. She went to live with her mother.


Chang had been labeled a prodigy from the time she was a toddler—she recited Tang poems when she was three; she wrote her first novel (a tragedy involving sisters-in-law) at seven; and she attempted to write a utopian-like novel, entitled Happy Village, when she was eight. Chang was addicted to reading A Dream of Red Mansions. The first lengthy novel that she wrote, as she entered middle school, was A Modern Dream of Red Mansions.

It seems that many talented people are precocious. Chang was no exception. What's more, Chang was diligent and had a strong sense of time. She even read books on New Year's Eve. One New Year's Day, she awoke late because she had studied hard the previous night. In fact, she had missed the ceremony to welcome the New Year. She cried a whole day and became more aware that time and tide waits for no man.

In 1939, Chang enrolled in London University in Britain. She had the top score from the Far East region (at that time, the Far East Examination Area was headquartered in Shanghai). Due to the start of World War II, she enrolled in Hong Kong University. Two years later, the Pacific War reduced Hong Kong to an occupied city by the Japanese intruders. The chaos caused by the wars turned her academic life upside down. But three years of university had helped Chang master the skills needed to write essays in English. At the end of 1942, Chang returned to Shanghai to live with her aunt. To make ends meet, she began a career as a storyteller.

 In 1943, her acclaimed novel, Chen Xiang Xie, made her an overnight success in Shanghai. Soon, many other works, which would become famous, were published by Chang. Those works included Qing Cheng Zhi Lian and Jin Suo Ji. She had arrived—at 23.

In 1943, The Legend was written, and it became a bestseller. The work was a miracle, in terms of both content and artistic expression. Chang had many fans, in all segments of society. In the prelude to the book's second edition, Chang spoke her mind about seeking fame: "One ought to become famous as early as possible. If fame comes late, the joy of success won't be complete… Even if one is patient, time won't wait for you."

Chang was praised by many famous scholars of the day.

First Marriage and Being Unhappy

Due to her uncommon family background and her unparalleled talent, Chang gave others the impression that she was aloof, reclusive and hard to get close to. Chang's world of emotion was empty, as she had not experienced much parental love.

In 1944, Hu Lancheng, a handsome, 38-year-old man, visited Chang after he read one of her novels. Soon, Chang fell in love with him, even though he was married. Chang and Hu married that August. They did not have a wedding ceremony. Chang's good friend, Yan Ying, was the witness. But Hu soon lost interest in Chang, and developed a romantic interest in a young nurse. He left Chang. After China's victory in the War of Resistance against Japan, Hu, fled to Hangzhou and, later, to Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, as he was considered a traitor to China. In Wenzhou, he lived with another woman. Chang traveled 1,000 miles to look for him, but Hu wasn't moved by her determination. Chang realized she couldn't salvage their marriage. She left Hu a large sum of money, which was the combined payment for her two latest works, and they divorced. 
Hong Kong and America

The Chinese mainland was liberated in 1949, and it underwent great changes, in all aspects of society. As a career writer who concentrated on the topics of family and love, Chang felt that it was too difficult to cope with the new situation in the mainland. In 1952, she left Shanghai for Hong Kong.

At first, she did translations for a local press to make a living. Later, Chang developed a lifelong friendship with a colleague, Kuang Guangmei, and her husband, Song Qi.
In 1955, Chang moved to New York, where she became reacquainted with Yan Ying, who had immigrated some time before.

Chang visited Hu Shi, a famous Chinese literary pioneer and director of Princeton University's library. Hu had read her novel, The Rice Sprout Song, while Chang was still living in Hong Kong. Hu thought highly of Chang's writing skills, and he treated her like a daughter.

In April 1958, Hu left America for Taiwan. Four years later, he died of a heart attack. Chang was overwhelmed by his death. She wrote the essay Remembering Hu Shizhi, in which she expressed her heartfelt sorrow.
Second Marriage and the Later Years

In February 1956, Chang received the two-year writer's grant awarded by the Edward MacDowell Association. With the grant, Chang was able to live and write in a quiet, comfortable residence in New Hampshire, the United States. There, she met her second husband, American scriptwriter Ferdinand Reyer.

Reyer was a public figure who made acquaintances with many international celebrities. He was a talented writer. He once finished a short story in one night, and it was published in the influential The Saturday Evening Post.

Chang married Reyer, who was 30 years her senior, in August 1956, when Reyer was 65. They had a simple wedding ceremony. Reyer was an extrovert. He was popular among his many friends, and he assisted needy people. Chang, meanwhile, was just the opposite—an introvert who enjoyed solitude and always haggling.

Despite their obvious differences, they got along well, and they lived in great harmony. 
Shortly after their wedding, Chang visited Taiwan. She had a good time meeting other writers, and she toured the island and experienced the local customs. During that trip, Chang received news that her husband had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed. He was confined to bed. Chang took care of Reyer until his death. They never quarreled during their 10-year marriage.

In her later years, Chang lived a secluded life. She devoted herself to studying the Dream of Red Mansions and to translating the novel Hai Shang Hua, or Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (a celebrated Qing novel in the Wu dialect by Han Bangqing, 1856-1894), into English. In her will, she instructed that her bequests be given to her friends and Kuang Guangmei in Hong Kong. She also asked that her ashes be scattered in the wilderness.

 Trials and tribulations are often long, while life is short. In September 1995, Chang died in her apartment in Los Angeles. She was 75. She bid farewell to the chaotic, and sad, world. Her body was found more than a week after her death.

(Source: Women of China)

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