Belinda Chang on Eileen Chang

Sex and Love Really Are Two Different Things

The health education class I remember most clearly is the one we had on sex. Our unmarried secondary school teacher covered, as she was supposed to, the chapter on female sexuality, then skipped over the male one. Eileen Chang did the same thing in her oeuvre, presenting only the female perspective in case after exciting case. She probably wrote in reaction to the inequality of her times: men had it much better after all, taking, if they wished, wives and mistresses alike.

From the outset, the first lesson Eileen Chang gives us is this: when a woman wants, misery ensues. Let's bear in mind the times in which Chang was writing so that we might grasp the extent of her daring to write so unflinchingly about feminine desire. This is what it's like to be a woman, she says, and we can almost hear her matter-of-fact tone. What's even more remarkable is that her work appeared way before writing "from the body" (or "the lower half of the body", for that matter) gained currency.

Though withheld at first in her stories, desire nevertheless inheres to the condition of the woman, the open admission of which surfaces after a few twists. (In fact, the very first feminist writing, which set much store by this desire, came as a clamorous reversal of a repressed state.) Chang never wrote from any moralism; on the contrary, she liked to call a spade a spade and expose any and all pretension with a mocking tone. For her, desire was a quotidian fact, as everyday as eating and dressing—not something to get the reader's attention. Yet, desire—or at least the kind depicted by Chang—was not likely to achieve consummation through sanctioned routes, and therefore more often than not resulted in misery and repression so tortured it caused character deformity. In The Golden Cangue's Cao Qiqiao, we find a good example of this. Qiqiao, a fresh and nubile young thing, whose looks even call to mind the celebrated beauty Si Shi, is married to a rich albeit disabled man but secretly in love with her brother-in-law. In the end, wearing the titular golden cangue, she destroys the lives of those around her as well as her own—a combination of bodily desire and greed having brought about the clearly symbolic fetters.

In A Series of Lovers, Nixi, like Qiqiao, is a beauty born of lowly background, but, compared to her, of a more sexually loose ilk. Besides, in Chang's own words: "Nixi had no heart." Without heart, but desirous all the same, and celebrated by all as a queen of desire's realm. The woman who as a young girl was sold to an Indian owner of a silkstore comes to see beauty as her only asset, and sex the most effective means to an end. She goes from one man to another, relying on her sexual capital to find a way out. No one will be a true love; every man a rodent, albeit one who may give her what she needs. This brings us to the second lesson we might glean from reading Eileen Chang: sex is a means of survival. This is a leitmotif that runs through her oeuvre—in many of her stories, the protagonist, after being contracted to a loveless marriage, reconciles with her fate and uses sex to ensure her own existence.

Chang didn't believe in everlasting love; even in feelings, she believed there must exist some accounting; in any case, passion always runs out. Eighteen Springs proved that she could write a traditional romance—the tenderness with which she describes the love story would satisfy most readers of the genre. Yet, no happily-ever-after ending lies in store: Chang has the female protagonist, Manzhen, violated by a brother-in-law. And importantly: the Manzhen we see after the rape is, unlike the "fallen women" of contemporary literature, without any sense that she has let her fiancé down—a detail most telling of Chang's liberal and authentic attitude towards sexuality. In this genre's canon, one does not encounter many novels in which the female protagonist gets raped—which stems perhaps from some reluctance to undermine a certain pristine aura of the female—but Eileen Chang, in Xiao Ai, readily delivers a second.

Chang never wrote about the sensual heights afforded by sex; for her, sex is a necessity, like drink, like food, and as to whether the drink or food in question is good, she doesn't say. Perhaps, having never enjoyed sex herself—and here I speculate—, she couldn't? After all, in the autobiographical novel, A Little Reunion, Eileen Chang describes Zhong Jiuli helplessly suffering the sex initiated by the lustful Zhixiang. Thus, we arrive by this way at the third lesson that Eileen Chang teaches: sex is inherently violent.

In the end, the household described in A Little Reunion turns out to be a hotbed of sexual corruption—incest, even—just as only the stone lions flanking the entrance chez Ning in Dream of the Red Chamber are clean. The mother has countless boyfriends and many abortions, yet hypocritically condemns premarital sex in front of her daughter; no word related to sex, she warns her daughter, should come from her mouth at all. In the realm of relationships what hasn't the jaded Eileen Chang seen, but here the mother says something especially noteworthy: "the most perfect love is the one that hasn't been consummated yet." Except, from the man's point of view at least, love has to—must!—progress towards sex.

The moment a man and a woman reach that point, the relationship is stabilized, i.e., confirmed. This is the traditional Chinese conception of the love narrative, and also what Zhixiang means when he attempts to persuade Jiuli to sleep with him with the words "I want to confirm my relationship with you." Thus the fourth lesson: sex can be used to confirm love. And so, because sex can be read as a commitment to a relationship, a woman must never give her body away easily; she must guard it as one guards a city.

Case in point: Love in a Fallen City. Here, the female protagonist, Bai Liusu, returns to her maiden home after a divorce only to find herself the subject of taunting and derision. To escape from this predicament, she responds to the romantic overtures of rich playboy Fan Liuyan. The relationship between the two develops uncertainly—although Liuyan, as a man, is freer to pursue love, he can be too love-stricken to act. While Liuyan pours out his feelings to Liusu one moonlit night, Liusu, pressed against a wall, only wonders when Liuyan is going to request to bring the relationship to the next stage. Liuyan's linguistic overtures do nothing to convince Liusu of his love; it's only through sex that the moat is crossed, and their relationship ultimately "confirmed."

Love may look to sex, but sex can happen outside of love. Among the lovers conjured up in the many love stories penned by Chang, we have a most valiant lover (The Red Rose and The White Rose's Wang Jiaorui), a tricked one (Crumbs of Ligumaloes's  Ge Weilong), a muddled one—who ends up throwing away her own life (Lust, Caution's Wang Jiazhi). As she writes about love in all its myriad forms, Chang never lets us forget that in the end, sex is merely a thing used to up the ante in a relationship's power struggle.

In the recently unearthed Eileen Chang manuscript, Friends From My Youth Are All Successful, sex is the dominant theme. Good friends at an all-girls school part upon graduation only to encounter different life experiences that foist on them covetous envy of the rich and reflexive shame of being poor. In a narrative pieced together by snatches of familial conversation, she gives us details of: a lesbian love affair, a sexual awakening, a group of university students having an orgy in the wild, even the naked blondes in a magazine spread—swollen clit and all—, breasts that have been enlarged surgically by men, a classmate's cousin's losing her virginity. Collectively, these snapshots give us Chang's take on sexuality.

In this story though, it is her treatment of puppy love that is most singularly affecting. When Zhaojue meets her classmate and objet d'amour on a road flanked by thorn apples, "her heart expands until it almost explodes"; but the sex depicted elsewhere is devastatingly matter-of-fact, even banal. Enjuan, a good friend from secondary school days, returns from Chongqing for a visit and speaks of her husband in disdainful terms, but meaningfully adds, "Still, we have great sex." At the novel's end, Zhaojue suddenly realizes that Enjuan, who has never gotten over a secondary school crush, will never in this life know love.

"Sex and love really are two different things," Chang concludes.

translated from the Chinese by Lee Yew Leong

Used by permission of 聯合文學.

Click here to read Francis Li Zhuoxiong's interview in the Jan 2011 issue, in which Eileen Chang is cited as a major influence on his work.

Click here to read Dylan Suher's review of Eileen Chang's Little Reunions from our April 2018 issue.