Last week I came across a nice article in the NYTimes about Eileen Chang and the writings she left behind at her death. This article seemed especially timely because I was in the middle of reading Chang’s novel, The Rice Sprout Song (University of California Press, 1998).
Chang was born in Shanghai in 1920 and studied in Hong Kong just before Japan invaded the colony in 1941. Returning to Shanghai during the war, she became a well-known novelist and essayist. But given her family’s bourgeois past and her marriage to a man who had sympathized with the Japanese, Chang didn’t see a future for herself in China after the Communists beat the Nationalists. So she left Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1952, even though she’d divorced her first husband.
She wrote The Rice Sprout Song in 1955, the year she moved to the US. (She married an American the following year). The story takes place in the Chinese countryside just after the Communist Revolution and depicts a devastating famine that the peasants won’t and can’t discuss. When one of the villagers participates in a demonstration to obtain more rice, he and his wife meet with a tragic end.
Eerily enough, the famine depicted in The Rice Sprout Song foreshadowed the horrible consequences of the Great Leap Forward, which started three years after the book was published.
The Rice Sprout Song was banned in China for decades. So were Eileen Chang’s other books. I remember the first time I flew into China in 1988. The customs officials in Beijing searched our bags for contraband books like Chang’s.
But sometime in the mid-1990s, her books started resurfacing on the mainland and have enjoyed a nice revival there, supplemented in part by films like Red Rose, White Rose and more recently, Lust, Caution, both adapted from Chang’s novellas and both shown in China.
As a side note, C.T. Hsia, now professor emeritus at Columbia University, was responsible for introducing Chang to American audiences. I’ve known Hsia’s name my entire life. He and my father were close friends in graduate school back in the 40s.