On 4 May, Prof Xu Zidong, Head of the Department of Chinese of Lingnan University, shared anecdotes of renowned modern Chinese writer Eileen Chang in the US, as revealed in Prof C T Hsia’s latest book The Letters of Eileen Chang, a compilation of correspondences between Prof Hsia and Ms Chang between 1963 and 1994.
Prof Xu identified three keywords in Ms Chang’s letters to Prof Hsia, namely “work”, “literature” and “health/sickness”. Each of these dominated their correspondences during a particular period. For example, “work” seemed to be a major concern of Ms Chang between 1963 and 1971, probably because her husband Ferdinand Reyher had suffered a series of strokes and thus making ends meet had become a priority. The letters revealed that Ms Chang came across great difficulties in securing a university job in the US, despite the assistance offered by her friends in the academic and literature circles. Between 1982 and 1994 (the year before she died), however, Ms Chang wrote mostly about her health problems and the number of correspondences with Prof Hsia also dropped significantly.
Although Ms Chang was a gifted modern Chinese writer, Prof Xu pointed out that her literary works have never been adequately recognised by the US critics for a number of reasons. For one thing, non-Chinese readers often fail to appreciate the subtlety of Ms Chang’s writing as a result of the loss of meaning and flavour in translation. For another, her works are not really compatible with what the US literary critics expect from Chinese writers. This is also probably why, during her stay in the US, she had focused on writing about herself, as shown in her English novels The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change, and doing research on Chinese classics such as Dream of the Red Chamber and The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai.