Entrenched cultural values collide with rapid social change in this collection of the stories and novellas of the late (1920–95) Chinese author.
Most of Chang’s protagonists are young women seeking escape from the narrow paths of convention in which a patriarchal society has enclosed them. But there are significant exceptions. In “Jasmine Tea,” unprepossessing student Chuanqing, dominated by his wealthy father, his austere mentor and the latter’s capricious daughter (his fellow student), attempts “escape” from his imprisoning mediocrity in an impulsive violent act—which fails utterly to alter his insignificance and self-hatred. “Red Rose, White Rose” traces the sexual history of successful young executive Zhenbao, through a sexless first crush, a ruinous affair with an unstable married woman and acquiescence to the quiet wife whose endless patience and iron will put him firmly, unhappily in his place. The yearning for escape (a recurring theme) is satisfactorily resolved only, if imperfectly, in the title novella, a compact group portrayal of a financially strapped Shanghai family who subsist on advantageous marriages, and specifically of the mousy daughter (Liusu) who fashions a “victory” over the seducer who hesitates to marry her, out of the ashes of the events of Dec. 7, 1941. Chang succeeds brilliantly in the story of idealistic student Weilong and her eventual absorption into the lifestyle that has made her querulous aunt both a wealthy matron and a de facto procuress (“Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier”); and especially in “The Golden Cangue,” in which a houseful of concubines and their children enact a cycle of dependence and submission that will never be broken. Employing gorgeous spare imagery (e.g., “the moon was barely visible . . . a dab of black, a dab of white like a ferocious theatrical mask”) and a seductive tone of worldly fatalism, Chang depicts a woman’s fate as memorably as do Colette’s tales of La Belle Époque.
A major rediscovery.