WRITTEN ON WATER by Eileen Chang
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The “Garbo of Chinese letters” speaks, and most eloquently.

Novelist Chang, who left China in 1956 and died in the US in 1995, is perhaps better thought of as China’s answer to the always curious Walter Benjamin of the Arcades Project, less the arcane language, or perhaps even to Susan Sontag. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Chang returned to her native city, took up residence on the top floor of an apartment building whose elevator man, even, was “well read and erudite, of rare cultivation” and from her aerie made pregnant observations on the things she saw in everyday life. Strangely, the Japanese occupiers do not occupy her overmuch; instead, Chang writes with keen self-awareness of her petit-bourgeois, almost untroubled life in the larger context of a rapidly changing China. One thing that did draw her attention was a long-emerging culture war that foreshadowed the political war to follow Japan’s defeat; she writes, for instance, of the “young intellectuals [who] condemned all that was traditional, even all that was Chinese,” while conservatives, “shocked out of their complacency, redoubled their efforts to suppress them.” (Mao and company, it appears, were among the conservatives.) Just so, Chang writes of the decline of kowtowing, a ritual that she was able to perform with some difficulty but preferred to reserve for special occasions. “It is only now when the custom is about to die out entirely,” she writes, “that it is mourned.” Resolutely modern, Chang finds only a little to mourn in the rise of social dancing, which had earlier been all but unknown; though she mistakenly attributes the tango to Spain and not Argentina, it seems to have fascinated her, even though her peers disliked it for its “polite promiscuity.” And on the matter of promiscuity, Chang’s description of a weathered prostitute trying to buy half a pound of pork in a proper butcher shop is priceless.

Original, memorable and unlike anything else that has come from the era. A fine contribution to Chinese letters in translation.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-231-13138-0
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2005


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