Eileen Chang on the Page and Screen
2020 marks the centennial of the birth of Eileen Chang, the celebrated Shanghai-born Chinese American essayist, novelist, and screenwriter. Known to many western audiences through the film adaptation of her novella Lust, Caution, Chang's extensive body of work reveals a complex woman chronicling modernity through her experiences in Republican and Communist China, post-war Hong Kong, and the United States.
Asia Society Museum marks this milestone anniversary with a month-long celebration of her life and work. We're sharing a list of recommendations of her writings, film adaptations, and further readings on the times and places she lived in. Choose your own adventure: cherry pick through the selections, or take it all in. At the end of the month, join us for a conversation on her life and work with a panel of experts on 20th-century Chinese literature, history, and culture.
Love in a Fallen City
Translated by Karen S. Kingsbury. Published by New York Review of Books and Penguin Random House, 2006.
Love in a Fallen City is a collection of short stories, first published in 1944. Three of the stories, Love in a Fallen City (1943), The Golden Cangue (1944), and Red Rose, White Rose (1944) are among her most famous works and established her as a gifted writer.
Half a Life Long Romance
Translated by Karen S. Kingsbury. Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016.
Half a Life Long Romance was Chang’s first completed novel, published in 1948. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, it's a classic love story of two young people, engineer Shen Shijun and factory worker Gu Manzhen, confronted with the tug-of-war between family, friends, and other relations.
The Rice Sprout Song (1955)
Eileen Chang wrote The Rice Sprout Song in English and later translated it into Chinese herself. The story is very typical of the genre that examines individual experiences in the midst of historical events. However, Chang's storytelling ability stands out in this tale of a rural village during Land Reform in 1950s China.
Lust, Caution (1979)
A spy thriller set against the backdrop of socialites and intrigue in 1940s Shanghai and somewhat infamously adapted on film by Ang Lee in 2007, Lust, Caution features Chang's signature ability to convey simple yet intricate details of her characters' psychology.
Love in a Fallen City. Dir. by Ann Hui. 1984. Hong Kong. 93 min. Color. Cantonese with English subtitles.
Adapted by Hong Kong director Ann Hui and featuring Cora Miao and a very young Chow Yun-Fat, the film captures the lingering melancholy present throughout the beautiful novella and feels like a love letter to a bygone Shanghai and Hong Kong. Bai Liu-su (Miao), a Shanghai divorcée, returns to live with her large family, who constantly shame her for her failed marriage even as they rely on her for money. Her friend, seeing her situation, introduces her to a charming, young businessman, Fan Liu-yuan (Chow). Are they meant to be together?
Red Rose White Rose. Dir. by Stanley Kwan. 1994. Hong Kong. 126 min. Color. Chinese with English subtitles.
Stanley Kwan’s aesthetics are unmatched in this film: the lingering, tightly cropped frames with dimmed light help illustrate the details of what was unsaid, and most importantly, the transformation of personalities, or perhaps the dormant characteristics being awoken, throughout the story. Is Red Rose better, or White Rose? In the mind of Tung Zhen-Bao (Winston Chao), he can never be sure.
Eighteen Springs (1997). Dir. by Ann Hui. 1997. Hong Kong. 127 min. Color. Mandarin Chinese.
While no English-subtitled version is available, for those who can appreciate this film in Chinese, this is Hong Kong director Ann Hui’s second attempt at adapting an Eileen Chang classic. The film gathers some of the brightest stars of the Chinese-speaking world in the late 1990s to tell the story of two star-crossed lovers and their family members in 1930s and 1940s Shanghai.
Lust, Caution. Dir. by Ang Lee. 2007. Taiwan, China, and United States. 159 min. Color. Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese) with English subtitles.
The twenty-six-page short story from Eileen Chang comes alive in Ang Lee’s masterful film adaptation of the story. At the time of its release, most Chinese-language critics and audiences focused on the infamously explicit — albeit brief — sex scenes. No matter why you choose to watch this film, remember to pay attention to all the details: the hair, the qipaos, the jewelry on the figures that dash across the screen during the crucial mahjong scenes, the décor of each room. You may just be able to find more clues in this spy thriller.
Flowers of Shanghai. Dir. by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. 1998. Taiwan. 130 min. Color. Chinese (Shanghainese, Cantonese, and Mandarin)
Based on Eileen Chang's translation of Han Bangqing's novel Shanghai Flowers, adapted by director Hou Hsiao-hsien and longtime collaborator Chu T'ien-wen, Flower of Shanghai is set in the world of Shanghai brothels at the twilight of the Qing dynasty. Sadly the film is currently not available via streaming or otherwise to the general public, but it was part of the Mark Lee Ping-Bing retrospective at the MoMA in 2016 and Museum of the Moving Image’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective in 2014. In December 2019 the film was digitally restored in Taiwan and we hope that the 4K version with Chinese and English subtitles will be available soon.
Videos of 1930s Shanghai from the Huntley Film Archives
Films starring silent movie actress Ruan Lingyu, available on YouTube through Modern Chinese Cultural Studies, University of British Columbia.
Playthings. Dir. by Sun Yu. 1933. China. 103 min. B/W. Silent. Chinese with English subtitles.
Goddess. Dir. by Yugang Wu. 1934. China 78 min. B/W. Silent. Chinese with English subtitles.
New Women. Dir. by Cai Chusheng. 1935. China. 103 min. B/W. Silent. Chinese with English subtitles.