Eileen Chang was one of the most influential Chinese writers of her time, and perhaps the single most influential female Chinese writer of the 20th century. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang lived through the glamor of 1940s Shanghai and the tumult of the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1940s. She came from a fractured family — her parents divorced when she was 10 and she was largely raised by her opium-addicted father who was physically and emotionally abusive toward her. Later, she studied in Hong Kong and spent time living in England with her mother before permanently settling in the United States.
Eileen Chang was a notorious recluse, becoming ever more solitary as she got older. She endured two marriages and a miscarriage before passing away alone in her apartment in Los Angeles at the age of 74.
A born writer, Eileen Chang penned her first short novel at the age of 12 and never looked back. In her early 20s, an important Shanghai editor became interested in Chang’s writings and, by 1944, she was one of the most popular writers in the city. In her 30s after she’d emigrated to the U.S., Chang began to write books in English, although most of her work from that period was not appreciated until after her death.
Eileen Chang is celebrated largely for her ability to capture life “on the ground” in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Themes of love, longing and loss run throughout her work. She is also one of the few writers of the time to capture the lives of women, giving an uncanny glimpse into the emotional struggles, fears and celebrations that Chinese women felt during the 1920s and ’30s. And many praise and others heavily criticize her for the lack of political dialogue in her novels, despite writing during a time of great social and political upheaval in both China and Hong Kong, where she lived.
Among Eileen Chang’s most popular and celebrated novels, Love in a Fallen City is a series of six short stories that trace the lives and loves of Shanghaiers in the 1940s. The Rouge of the North centers on the life of Yindi, a beautiful and capable woman who marries into a noble family and suffers under the weight of suffocation, while Written on Water is a collection of essays, letters and reflections on the turbulent Sino-Japanese War.
A number of Eileen Chang’s works have also become screenplays. Most notably, Lust, Caution was a 1979 espionage thriller novella set in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. The work was brought to the silver screen in 2007 by director Ang Lee.
This video offers some insights into Chang’s life and career from Roland Soong, who inherited her estate.