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Isolation and Decluttering: reading Eileen Chang in 2020
Eileen Chang 100
2020 is meant to be The Eileen Chang year. On the 100th anniversary of her birth, many cities went into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Isolation was Chang' s regular state of existence.
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Commissioned Article by Carole Hoyan
Associate Professor, Vice Chairperson (Student Affairs) of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Recent works include "Include Me Out: Reading Eileen Chang as a World Literature Author."
2020 is meant to be The Eileen Chang year. On the 100th anniversary of her birth, many cities went into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Isolation was Chang's regular state of existence. In 1979, she published "Include me Out" in Taiwan's United Daily News. The column article became the declaration of her position in the cultural political environment.

In modern Chinese literature, it is hard to find an author as enthusiastic about the world as Chang, and yet simultaneously as determined to steer clear of it. We could all recall Chang's well-known comment in "Preface to the Second Printing of Romances," "Get famous early! If fame comes too late, it won't be as gratifying." 19-year-old Chang dreamt big. She had plans to pursue her studies in the UK, and become more remarkable than Lin Yutang. She wanted to tour the world in the finest garments. However, her creative and personal life have always existed in isolation from the world.

Chang's encounter with Hong Kong started amidst WWII. The war halted her plans to study in the UK and send her through the gates of the University of Hong Kong instead. After the fall of Hong Kong, the city went into a state of isolation. The University was shut down. In exchange for food and accommodation, foreign students stayed on campus as members of the Air Defense Force. Chang described the 18-day-beseignment as such in "From the Ashes," "We have all experienced a common torture at 4am in the morning -- an icy dawn, with a blurred sense of reality, cold and confusing." Leaving before completing her studies, Chang returned to Shanghai. She continued to depict her feelings during wartime reclusion in Isolation, as well as describing the pressure of drool. The metaphor was almost prophetic: "the gigantic city dozed off in the sun, slumping its head on people's shoulder. Drool rolls down people's collars, suffocating them under unimaginable weight."

In "Love in a Fallen City," Chang created an intriguing metaphor of a box filled with claustrophobic anxiety, "at that moment, there was an earth shattering noise. Light went out on the whole world, like a huge chest clamping shut, putting a lid on sadness and sorrows interwoven like in a silk fabric." It was hoped that those sorrows would rest in the chest. However, the Chinese characters for silk fabrics (羅綺) share the radical which stand for "interlacing silk yarn" (繞絲邊). Far from resting, the sorrows entangle in the chest. The close lid marks the start of a period of scramble for food and panic hoarding. 

Chang not only depicts the weight and seclusiveness of isolation, but also how people clamber onto solid items in their emptiness and crushing anxiety. In "From the Ashes," she mentioned that the air defense forces were busy fighting over daily necessities. In "Love in a Fallen City," she portrayed the void and panic people were experiencing through a dejected lady who stayed out of the scramble for food: "Liu Su's home is empty. Her heart is empty. She failed to fill her house with food, so her stomach is also empty. Wind echoes in the vast nothingness, sending a chill down her spine."

Chang's readers might have a question: Chang visited Hong Kong thrice. Can she be regarded as a Hong Kong writer or a "South-coming writer"? The academia and the literary scene have always been strict about the definition of a Hong Kong writer. Chang's literary career has never firmly set foot in Hong Kong. She was, at most, a transient traveller. In the 50s, Chang revisited and stayed in Hong Kong for 3 years. Her preoccupations, however, were always with the world outside. Even so, Chang managed to create the most well-known literary descriptions of the city. Although she rarely wrote about Hong Kong while being here, she depicted extensively the city she called "exaggerated," "paradoxical," "luxurious but sad" while in Shanghai and the United States.

Chang started publishing English reviews in the 20th Century in 1943. She had hoped to tap into the Western market with her English novels but failed. Although her literary works did not impress the global audience, they made appearances on stage and in movies. Following the stage and film adaptation of her works, Chang became a cultural icon symbolising an acute sensitivity for the city and a thorough understanding of human nature. Splendor and desolation mark her works -- splendor for a city's materialism and desolation for the forces that drove the happenings around us. 

Chang's perception of human nature is inseparable from her isolation and tendency to declutter. Isolation requires frugality, but still allows a tiny room for choices. The art of choices and trade-offs became crucial. In "From the Ashes," Chang comments that university students tend to fall for and marry their first love: "Students are ignorant towards human nature. Once they had a glimpse of the reality under the mask - the fragile, ticklish, pathetic and laughable men and women -- they fell in love with their own discovery." In "Preface to the Second Printing of Romances," she wrote that people living in the freezing North-West China had nothing to live with but their family. Scarcity has trained them to remember what they had clearly.

"From the Ashes" seems to argue that true love can only be found in ruins. The rest can be casted away. "In a versatile world, money, property, everything that claims to last forever are unreliable. The only thing reliable is her own life, and the person sleeping beside her." Decluttering leaves behind a void. After the war, Liu Yuan and Liu Su entered the city. Chang captured the moment as such: "They entered the city and arrived at a turn. The road suddenly collapsed, revealing a void before them -- a light inkish, humid sky." 

Chang was perhaps a master of decluttering long before it became a viral hit. She was discovered dead in her home in the Westwood neighbourhood after a period of time. The house was mostly empty except for her beddings and necessities. In her old age, Chang had decluttered most of her furniture, leaving behind only her wig and clothes. It was her choice. The remaining items were hopefully the ones that pleased her the most -- what we call the "spark joy" items in the modern philosophy of decluttering. 

"Let's make our days tranquil and pleasant, our times peaceful and stable." The statement was always mistaken to be Chang's words. In reality, those were written by Hu Lancheng. In "A Woman of the Republican Era" in This Life, These Time, Hu mentioned that the first two lines in their marriage certificate were by Chang, while the last two by him. Chang wrote, "Hu Lancheng and Chang Ailing become married by signing this certificate." Hu wrote, "Let's make our days tranquil and pleasant, our times peaceful and stable." To vow to "make" their days a certain way implies Hu's arrogance. By contrast, Chang wasn't putting her focus in the future, nor in her contemporary present. In "The Way I Look at Su Qing," she used "we" as the subject. "We can only wish that everyone finds their own peace in their proximity." No one can guarantee tranquility and peace in the times to come, or outside of our immediate proximity. In 2020, let's wish everyone peace. 


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