Probably most famous to contemporary audiences as the author of Lust, Caution, Eileen Chang was born Zhang Ying in Shanghai on September 30, 1920. Her family was one of standing, boasting a rich military and aristocratic history; her paternal great grandfather was Li Hongzhang, a successful general and leading statesman. But her upbringing was tumultuous.
The family was deprived of its social eminence due to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, and when Chang was just five, her mother – "a sophisticated woman of cosmopolitan taste" – left for Europe when Chang's father took a concubine and became addicted to opium. She returned in 1928 when he promised to quit the drug and separate from the concubine, only to divorce two years later following his relapse.
Her father remarried, but Chang did not get on with her new stepmother, who is said to have mistreated her. Things came to a head when she was 18 – in response to a false accusation by her stepmother, her father severely beat Chang and then locked in her room for six months. She eventually escaped and fled to live with her mother and aunt in room 51 of 195 Changde Lu, known as Eddington House.
Eddington House at 195 Changde Lu
Chang had always been a precocious child. Labeled a prodigy from the time she recited Tang poems at just three, she is said to have written her first novel (a tragedy involving sisters-in-law) at seven. Offered a scholarship to study at the University of London, the ongoing war in China forced her to study literature at the University of Hong Kong instead. But when the city fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day of 1941, she was forced to return to Shanghai without completing her degree.
It was in Shanghai, in the spring of 1943, that she was introduced to a famous editor, Shoujuan Zhou. With his backing, and at just 23 years of age, she became the hottest new writer in Shanghai. She was living back at Eddington House, this time in room 65, and in the five years she spent in the apartment she wrote 25 essays, 18 novels – including Love in a Fallen City and The Golden Cangue – and a play.
It was also here that she was visited by Hu Lancheng, a handsome 38-year-old writer, editor and official in the Shanghai government collaborating with the Japanese. Despite his treachery, and the fact that he was still married to his third wife, she fell deeply in love with him and they were married. (Chang was to project her wartime experience as a collaborator’s lover into novella Lust, Caution).
Hu soon lost interest in Chang, taking up with a young nurse. And when the Japanese were defeated he fled to Wenzhou under a fake name. Undeterred, Chang traveled the 1,000 miles to look for him, only to find he had taken up with yet another young woman.
Heartbroken and disillusioned, she divorced him and moved to Hong Kong, before leaving for the United States in 1955 never to return to Shanghai – or China – again.
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