Madame White, The Book of Change, and Eileen Chang
On A Poetics of Involution
In the studies of Eileen Chang 張愛玲 (1920-1995) one aspect yet to be explored is her
penchant for rewriting existing works in multiple iterations and languages. This essay discusses
Chang’s aesthetic of revision and bilingualism by examining her two English novels, The Fall of
the Pagoda and The Book of Change, which were discovered in 2009 and will be published in
2010. These two novels were written in the late fifties, when Chang had just settled in the Unites
States. In many ways, they provide a missing link in Chang’s (re)writing of her own life story,
from English to Chinese and vice versa, from essay to fiction and photo album, and from
autobiographical “whispers” to dramatized exposé. The titles of these two novels, one referring
to the Leifeng Pagoda of the White Snake legend, and the other the esoteric classic The Book of
Change, suggest Chang’s effort to integrate her writings into a broader cycle of Chinese
discourses and temporalities.
Through a comparative reading of the two novels and other texts, the essay seeks to make
the following observations:
1. Insofar as mimetic realism was the canonical form of modern Chinese literature, the
way in which Chang repeats herself by traversing rhetorical, generic, and linguistic boundaries
has given rise to a peculiar poetics, one that highlights not revelation but derivation, not
revolution but involution.
2. Through the multiple versions of her story, Chang tries to challenge the master plot of
her family romance by proliferating it, and dispel her past by continually revisiting it. More
provocatively, to write is to translate memory into art, an effort to re-member pieces of the past
in a mediated form.
3. The circular, derivative inclination in Chang’s writing also points to a unique view of
(literary) history. It has at least two models, Haishang hualiezhuan 海上花列傳 (Singsong girls
from Shanghai, 1894) and Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 (Dream of the red chamber, 1792). When she
was rewriting her own life story in various formats in the last four decades of her career, Chang
was at the same time engaged in two parallel projects: translating Singsong Girls from Shanghai
from the Wu dialect first into Mandarin Chinese, and then into English; annotating The Dream of
Red Chamber by means of textual analysis, philological verification, and biographical research.
Writers and critics of the revolutionary discourse would not welcome Chang’s vision.
But insofar as her writing entertains a negative dialectic of history and progress, Chang has
provided a sobering view from which to detect Chinese literary modernity at its most convoluted.