Eileen Chang (author), Jane Weizhen Pan (translator) and Martin Merz (translator), Little Reunions, NYRB Classics, 2018. 352 pgs.
In the fall of 1995, Eileen Chang’s landlord let himself into her apartment. She hadn’t answered the phone in several days, and he was worried about her. When he opened her door, he found her, dead of cardiac arrest, alone and anonymous in her Los Angeles apartment. Yet the reclusive Chang was also a shining star, one of China’s most celebrated writers, beloved in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the diaspora. More than a dozen of her novels and novellas have been translated into English, and two—Love in a Fallen City and Lust, Caution—have been adapted into films. Now Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz bring us a translation of Little Reunions, a searing, semi-autobiographical story of war in the world and in the family, from a manuscript Chang nearly destroyed just before her death.
In Chinese culture, big reunions take place when families get together for major holidays like the Lunar New Year. Little reunions are smaller gatherings—perhaps just between mother and daughter. Little Reunions is a family saga centering around Julie Sheng and Rachel Pien, a type of daughter and mother Eileen Chang fans already know from The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change. (Chang’s mother gave her the English name of Eileen, and she in turn gives English names to her characters.)
Since Julie was four years old, she hasn’t spent much time with her jet-setting mother, who comes back into Julie’s life every few years. Rachel, whose feet were bound as a child, frees herself of her bandages and her opium-addicted husband, going off for months at a time to tour India or ski in the Alps. Rachel teaches Julie to be independent, too, but always has a stranglehold on her daughter, both financially and emotionally. For instance, Rachel urges her daughter to study in England as she did, but there is no money for England, and Julie ends up at the University of Hong Kong. When her mother visits her in Hong Kong, Julie is convinced her mother has no money, as Rachel is all too eager to announce. But Rachel will only meet her daughter at the luxurious Repulse Bay Hotel, where her mother has somehow found accommodation.
When war breaks out and Hong Kong is occupied by the Japanese in late 1941, Julie returns to Shanghai. There, she lives with her paternal aunt, Judy, her father’s younger sister. Judy and Rachel are also close, so when Rachel is off on one of her jaunts around the world, Judy becomes a de facto mother to Julie and Julie’s younger brother, Julian, a minor character in Little Reunions.
Julie and Judy have their share of relationship problems, and in this book, rape and sexual assault are discussed in ways one wouldn’t expect in a story from the 1930s (but written in the mid-1970s), when women didn’t speak out and were rather conditioned to brush aside harassment and assault. It wasn’t even framed in these terms in the 1930s or even the 1970s when perpetrated by acquaintances, colleagues or romantic partners. #MeToo was still seventy years away at the time this story takes place, so Chang’s observations were quite progressive for her era.
I wondered if the translators took liberty and used the English word “rape” in 2018 when Chang may have used a lesser Chinese word in the original from the mid-1970s. So I obtained a copy of the original Chinese and searched for what had been translated into English as, “It was clear she was referring obliquely to rape.” In the original, I find Chang writes “強奸,” which means rape in Chinese.
As in her other stories, like Half a Lifelong Romance and Red Rose, White Rose, her female characters often have a moment of reckoning on a Shanghai tram with a male character they’ve either been romantically involved with or, in this case, worked with. In Little Reunions, Chang includes assault in her tram scene.
Julie finds herself entrapped by her editor one evening on their commute home:
The tram was very crowded. The cake, purchased at a famous bakery and topped with cream, would soon be crushed into a soggy mess. Hsin Hwa took advantage of the crowd to suddenly squeeze her thighs between his knees. Julie had always been opposed to women slapping men in the face, especially close acquaintances, because it attracted attention with its ostentatious display. She had to wait a short while before turning in her seat and easing herself away as if nothing happened. But in that instant she shuddered—his knees had made her go through the agony of the tiger-bench torture. Julie feared that he would disembark at the same tram stop and she wouldn’t be able to get rid of him.
Other seemingly minor details that appear in her other works include the main female character being locked away by her stepmother while her father allows this to happen. This detail was autobiographical and occurs in Little Reunions when Julie lives with her father, Ned, and his second wife, Jade Flower. Julie is locked in an attic and escapes after getting sick. This happened in real life, but it took place over a longer amount of time than she writes about in Little Reunions. We see similar imprisonments in Half a Lifelong Romance and The Fall of the Pagoda.
Julie marries Shao Chih-yung, an official in the Wang Ching-wei government and a Japanese sympathiser. Chang’s first husband was also a Japanese sympathiser and a serial adulterer. In Little Reunions, Chih-yung flaunts his other women, and Julie tries to downplay his infidelity to convince herself that her husband really loves her and these women don’t mean anything. For part of their marriage, Chih-yung flees to the countryside to hide at the end of World War II. If found, he would be arrested for colluding with the Japanese. Julie stays behind in Shanghai, but her reputation is damaged for her association with Chih-yung.
The most tragic part of her marriage occurs at the end, when she confronts Chih-yung about his relationship with a Miss K’ang, a nurse Chih-yung often talks about in front of Julie, and asks him if they were ever intimate. Chi-yung replies: “‘only once, when I was about to leave.’ His voice lowered. ‘In the end I forced myself upon her … perhaps that is always inevitable—but of course you were different.'”
I did notice a discrepancy in this part of the translation. In the Chinese original, Chang writes, “大概最後都是要用強的。–當然你不是這樣。” Unlike the translators, Chang doesn’t write anything about it being inevitable, only that he says he perhaps used force. Adding this phrase about inevitability shows that Chih-yung was trying to excuse his actions, whereas in the original he doesn’t justify them.
Nonetheless, this passage is telling because Chang shows how men often got their way without any regard to the women they are pursuing and how Julie may have voluntarily become intimate with her husband, but in the end, he loved her no more than the other women and treated her no better. Chang shows how women can still be strong, but at the mercy of an internal conditioning that causes them to stay with men who are anything but good for them.
We see similar relationships in other Eileen Chang stories, including romance with a Japanese sympathiser in Lust, Caution, and husbands who neglect their devoted wives in Red Rose, White Rose. These stories also feature strong female characters who can’t help falling for the wrong men, men who mistreat their partners and think only of themselves. This is an important message now more than ever as we’re understanding more about women’s conditioning and how we put up with seemingly little things when in reality there’s no excuse for mistreatment at the hands of the patriarchy. Chang’s stories are important feminist tales, and even though she repeats the same themes and scenes in many of her books, including Little Reunions, the stories never seem to get old and always have a reinforcing message to warn that we can do better.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown.