Widely considered the best Chinese writer of her generation, essayist and novelist Chang Ai-ling, originally named Chang Yang and better known as Eileen Chang, was born in Shanghai on September 30th, 1920 to a prominent family. Her grandfather, Chang Pei-lun (1848–1903), served as a naval commander during the Sino-French War (1884–85).
At the age of four she joined prestigious Saint Mary’s Hall, an all-female, bilingual Christian school founded in 1851 in her home town by the Episcopal Church of the United States.
The unhappy marriage between her father Chang Chi-yi (1896-1953), a well-read opium addict who frequented prostitutes, and her mother Huang Su-chi’ung (1893-1957), a highly-educated, though emotionally unstable woman, ended in divorce in 1930.
Chang Chi-yi then raised her together with his new wife. He managed to lock her in her room for nearly half a year after she contracted dysentery. The relationship deteriorated and in consequence, Chang ran away to live with her mother shortly after her 18th birthday.
Shanghai had been occupied since 1937 by the Japanese Imperial Army. Nevertheless, the occupiers attempted to maintain many aspects of life as they had been before.
It was the beginning of World War II on September 1st, 1939 that prevented her from making use of a full scholarship she had received from the University of London.
Instead,Chang studied English Literature at the University of Hong Kong, but when the city also surrendered to Japan on Christmas Day 1941, she was forced to return home.
In 1943 she published The Golden Cangue and Love in a Fallen City, as well as various essays in two volumes: Romances in 1944, and Written on Water in 1945, which made her famous.
In 1944 Chang married writer and pro-Japanese politician Hu Lan-cheng (1906-1981), to divorce him in 1947 because of his sexual infidelities. Hu, considered a traitor by both Nationalists and Communists, settled in Japan at the beginning of the Cold War.
Following Mao Tse-tung’s takeover of China in 1949, Chang step by step realized that her writing career there was over and moved to Hong Kong again in 1952.
In the British Crown colony she translated Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow into Chinese, among other classics.
During Chang’s two-year stint at its local branch, the newly-established anticommunist United States Information Agency (USIA) commissioned her first novel in English, The Rice Sprout Song, in 1955.
It also sponsored Naked Earth in 1956, after she had already immigrated to the US. Having obtained American citizenship in 1960, Chang briefly went to Taiwan, but never returned to the Chinese mainland.
The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change, two semi-biographical novels finished in 1963, didn’t suit the public’s taste at the time and both came out only in 2010. The more successful The Rouge of the North of 1966 describes the decay of rich people in the late Qing-Dynasty.
Despite he had convinced her to abort the child she was expecting, Chang still married American screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher (1891-1967) in 1956 and lived with him in New Hampshire until he passed away.
From 1969 to 1971 she hold the position of a researcher at the University of California’s Center for Chinese Studies in Berkeley, then taking up her last residence in Los Angeles in 1972.
She finished the translation into Mandarin of Biographies of Flowers by the Seashore, written in a regional language in 1892. In her estate, even the English version was discovered.
In spite of the tremendous revival of interest in her writing that began in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora communities in the 1970s, which later spread to China, Chang became ever more reclusive as she grew older.
Chang was found dead in her LA apartment by the building manager on September 8th, 1995 after not answering the telephone for several days, probably due to a cardiovascular disease. According to her last will, she was cremated without any memorial service and her ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Chang’s most important contribution remains an alternative wartime narrative detached from the usual topics of national salvation and revolution.
Her impressionistic view of modernity displays colors, lines, shapes, textures and moods, which are often crystallized in the changing styles of women’s clothes.
To celebrate the acclaimed author’s 100th birthday, various Taiwanese publishing houses offer special editions, which include a limited commemorative anthology, featuring redesigned covers with her own illustrations and handwriting.
Chang’s private correspondence over 30 years with literary critic Hsia Chih-tsing (1921-2013) is another highlight. Additionally, essays by contemporary academics analyze how Taiwanese film director and producer Ang Lee made Lust, Caution, Chang’s 1979 novella, into a movie released in 2007.
She inspired many writers in Taiwan and China, both male and female, and her illustrious career still maintains an outsized influence on today’s Chinese-language literary circles.
Chang’s life reflects the drastic changes of modern China itself and her name nowadays stands for the glories of a bygone era.
The Chinese Civil War might be the reason why Chang never received the Nobel Prize in Literature she probably deserved. In any case, the sudden loss of her homeland definitely marked her decisively.