Written on Water

Written on Water

by Eileen Chang, Andrew Jones, Andrew F. Jones
     
 

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Known as "the Garbo of Chinese letters" for her elegance and the aura of mystery that surrounded her, Eileen Chang is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential modern Chinese novelists and cultural critics of the twentieth century. In Written on Water, first published in 1945 and now available for the first time in English, Chang offers essays on

Overview

Known as "the Garbo of Chinese letters" for her elegance and the aura of mystery that surrounded her, Eileen Chang is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential modern Chinese novelists and cultural critics of the twentieth century. In Written on Water, first published in 1945 and now available for the first time in English, Chang offers essays on art, literature, war, and urban life, as well as autobiographical reflections. Chang takes in the sights and sounds of wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, with the tremors of national upheaval and the drone of warplanes in the background, and inventively fuses explorations of urban life, literary trends, domestic habits, and historic events.

These evocative and moving firsthand accounts examine the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of the Japanese bombing and occupation of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Eileen Chang writes of friends, colleagues, and teachers turned soldiers or wartime volunteers, and her own experiences as a part-time nurse. Her nuanced depictions range from observations of how a woman's elegant dress affects morale to descriptions of hospital life.

With a distinctive style that is at once meditative, vibrant, and humorous, Chang engages the reader through sly, ironic humor; an occasionally chatty tone; and an intense fascination with the subtleties of modern urban life. The collection vividly captures the sights and sounds of Shanghai, a city defined by its mix of tradition and modernity. Chang explores the city's food, fashions, shops, cultural life, and social mores; she reveals and upends prevalent attitudes toward women and in the process presents a portrait of a liberated, cosmopolitan woman, enjoying the opportunities, freedoms, and pleasures offered by urban life. In addition to her descriptions of daily life, Chang also reflects on a variety of artistic and literary issues, including contemporary films, the aims of the writer, the popularity of the Peking Opera, dance, and painting.

Columbia University Press

Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times - Susan Salter Reynolds

It is the warmth and sophistication of her observations that fix her in literature. One settles in almost immediately for a chat that could last a lifetime.

ForeWord Magazine - Peter Skinner

Invariably, Chang catches the moment and crystallizes the experience; with her preferred "forthright simplicity" and whimsical line drawings, she knows how to beguile her readers.

Rain Taxi - Lucas Klein

Chinese Communist Correctness has long since receded, changing Eileen Chang's writing from being a guilty pleasure to simply a pleasure.

Renditions - David E. Pollard

Always perceptive, imaginative, outspoken, and capable of the most sensitive empathy and sympathy.

Choice

Chang's self-effacing, mannered prose and power for observing visual designs and social manners shine when she writes of fashion, the family, her past, and film and drama.

Los Angeles Times
It is the warmth and sophistication of her observations that fix her in literature. One settles in almost immediately for a chat that could last a lifetime.

— Susan Salter Reynolds

Booklist

Chang captures the subtleties of the urban experience, pointedly from a woman's perspective, and the trivialities of daily endeavors during the Japanese occupation, with humor and insight.

ForeWord Magazine
Invariably, Chang catches the moment and crystallizes the experience; with her preferred "forthright simplicity" and whimsical line drawings, she knows how to beguile her readers.

— Peter Skinner

Ms.

In these joyfully self-absorbed essays she anticipated the New Journalism...They combine timeless girlishness with utterly fresh feminism.

Bust

The complex feelings that she reveals when talking about the arts contrast with her depictions of her own life, and help the reader to understand the mind of a woman trying to come to terms with her life through her passions.

Rain Taxi
Chinese Communist Correctness has long since receded, changing Eileen Chang's writing from being a guilty pleasure to simply a pleasure.

— Lucas Klein

Renditions
Always perceptive, imaginative, outspoken, and capable of the most sensitive empathy and sympathy.

— David E. Pollard

Boston Review

[Chang's] obsession with privacy made her known as the 'Garbo of Chinese letters,' and photographs reveal a woman whose elegance and contemplative introspection justify that title. Nevertheless, from out of the frenzy of renown that surrounded her, the sheer quality of Chang's prose emerges clearly, and her voice-raw, low, exquisitely modulated-has a sound like none other in the canon of Chinese, or for that matter, American prose stylists.

Kirkus Reviews
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 herpeers 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780231131391
Publisher:
Columbia University Press
Publication date:
12/03/2007
Series:
Weatherhead Books on Asia Series
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Theodore Huters

This book of essays--the first to offer a complete rendering of Eileen Chang's 1945 legendary collection, Written on Water--opens a whole new arena of insight onto the complicated and cosmopolitan world of Shanghai and Hong Kong in the war years of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Chang's startling original observations, phrased in a powerfully evocative language, at once bring to life a long-forgotten era as well as a lively literary intelligence of which English readers have heretofore been able to see only a small part. The translations themselves set a new standard for the rendering of the Chinese essay into English: at once meticulous in attention to detail and diction even while they capture the free flow of the original texts. This brilliant volume belongs on the shelf of every reader concerned with the evolution and vicissitudes of the modern trans-national city.

David Der-wei Wang

Eileen Chang is no doubt the most talented woman writer in 20th century China. Written on Water showcases why, more than half a century after she first won fame in Shanghai, Chang still enjoys an enormous popularity among readers, both in China and overseas. Eileen Chang's stylized depictions of Chinese manners and morals, her witty inquiry into urban trivia, and her "celebration" of historical contingency are a tableau vivant of modern Chinese lives at their most complex and fascinating.

Meet the Author

Eileen Chang (1920-1995), who lived in the United States after fleeing Communist China in 1956, was a prominent fiction writer, essayist, and public intellectual. She is the author of Romances, The Rice-Sprout Song: A Novel of Modern China, and The Rouge of the North.Andrew F. Jones is associate professor of Chinese at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age and Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music, and the translator of Yu Hua's Chronicle of a Blood Merchant.

Columbia University Press

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