Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution

What better pedigree for a book than being a Penguin Modern Classic and the source for a new film by the reliable Ang Lee? I had never heard of Eileen Chang before, but either of those factors alone would have been enough to interest me in it. The zinger is that it’s also only 150 pages and sets a new high in movie tie-in covers. Come to daddy.

Lust, Caution is a collection of five stories, most published in the 1940s when Chang was in her 20s. The title story however was begun in the 1950s and not published until 1979; so what’s another thirty years to wait for this translation? It’s a remarkable tale, a masterpiece of compression, fitting so much into its 35 pages – with even an acceleration of action at the end – that it makes perfect sense for it to become a full-length feature film. It is a story of romance, politics and betrayal, introducing us to Jiazhi (“since the age of twelve or thirteen, she had been no stranger to the admiring male gaze”) who as a member of a revolutionary sect, has been tasked to seduce Mr Yi, a government employee, and lead him to his death.

She felt a kind of chilling premonition of failure, like a long snag in a silk stocking, silently creeping up her body. … She had, in a past life, been an actress; and here she was, still playing a part, but in a drama too secret to make her famous. … In truth, every time she was with Yi, she felt cleansed, as if by a scalding hot bath; for now everything she did was for the cause.

What gives the story its richness is the compact way Chang has of fitting in the characters’ background sometimes in just one sentence, leaving plenty of space for resonance and reader reflection. Mr Yi’s wife, for example, “had a dowager’s fondness for keeping young, pretty women clustered around her – like a galaxy of stars reflecting glory onto the moon around which they circulated.”

And this reminder that people are the same the world over is useful. As the title suggests, Lust, Caution, like the other stories in the collection, is about conflict between differences: temptation and loyalty, women and men, East and West. This is particularly well depicted in the story Great Felicity, about an approaching family wedding. On the one hand, some feel drawn to the ‘superiority’ of Western culture (“He put on his slippers and lay on the couch to rest while he flipped through an old Esquire magazine. The Americans really knew how to advertise their products. … Xiaobo had a degree from America, he was a real scholar”). At the same time, all the usual family conflicts and jealousies remind us of the universality of human nature. In addition, Chang, who lived in the USA from the 1950s until her death, cleverly anticipates Western readers’ expectations when she seems to give us details of authenticity:

In the grand hall, there were great red pillars entwined with green dragons. The walls were of black glass and a black glass altar held a little gold Buddha.

– before subverting it, as we nod comfortably, by adding: “This was the Orient as a little old foreign lady might imagine it.” Ouch.

Chang is especially good at capturing the essence of failure or a disappointed life, taking society not as it should be but as it is (or was), whether pointing out that a character “was still unmarried, and she was beginning to lose her self-confidence. Her little round soul had shattered, and had been repaired with white china,” or another young girl who “had a lot of siblings, so she wouldn’t get any pretty clothes until she had a likely match – but since she didn’t have anything pretty to wear, she couldn’t get a match. She was trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to spend her blooming years in wistful longing: no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.”

This last is from In the Waiting Room, a merciless but somehow tender portrayal of the gossipy women in the waiting room of a massage clinic (which incidentally provides the only doubtful translation in the whole collection: could a child really have been wearing “split-crotch pants in a tiny floral pattern”? Each story, unusually, has a different translator). Like the other stories, it seems much more modern to our Western eyes than we would expect.

The best tribute I can pay the stories in Lust, Caution is that although Chang’s style took some getting used to, I found myself wanting more and more as there were fewer and fewer left. Thank goodness then that I already have stocked up her collection of novellas, Love in a Fallen City, which is being issued in Penguin Modern Classics along with this volume. Not least, these stories will provide a welcome dose of exoticism as the winter draws in. And who couldn’t use a little of that?


  1. Et tu again? Another book to buy? If you have not done so already you might want to read Clare Wigfall’s story collection. It is longer but her stories are so masterful you cold swear she had been writing for decades. I have a review of the book, The Loudest Sound and Nothing, on my blog and I believe Dovegrey reviewed it awhile back.

    Off to Amazon. I love short stories.

  2. I have quite an aversion to short stories, I tend to like to immerse myself into something a bit longer – but you have made this sound very tempting and quite satisfying. I’ll have to add it to the lists.

  3. Well I agree jem, I don’t normally read whole collections in one go – usually I buy them and read one or two, then leave them on the shelf with good intentions and little further involvement. But Chang became very moreish. It’s not that I don’t like stories, I do, but I think my completist impulse leads me always to want to start another novel next.

    I remember seeing Clare Wigfall praised by dovegreyreader, Candy, so thanks for the reminder and I will read your own comments on her with interest too.

  4. I enjoy reading your review. I was shocked at the motion picture as you have noticed, Chang did not emphasize on the sexual nature of Yi and Mai Taitai’s relationship. Her prose is so unrelenting and cutting that even the backdrop is the Japanese invasion of China, somehow this significant time factor gets a bit sidelined to make room for the confusion, frustration, and conflicts of these ordinary individuals whose lives are tricked by fate.

    My other favorite is Love in a Fallen City. It was made into a theatrical a couple years ago in Hong Kong.

    18 Springs is one of her best long novels, but unfortunately is not available in English. It was made into a film back in 1997. Check it out! 🙂

  5. You may be pleased to know that I have bought the rights and commissioned a new translation of 18 Springs – it will appear in Penguin Modern Classics in 2009.

  6. Thanks for the tips, Matt. I have Love in a Fallen City too (Penguin Modern Classics have rejacketed the NYRB edition for the UK market) and hope to get onto that soon.

    Mariateresa: that’s terrific news! I read pretty much everything that appears in Penguin Modern Classics editions so this is additionally welcome. I shall count down the months until it appears…

  7. Yes, little children of both sexes in China are usually dressed in split-crotch pants. It’s nothing to do with sex; it’s a practical way of coping with kids before they are toilet-trained.

  8. Well, read the story at the tail end of last year. Saw the film today. They’ve done a great job of putting back story into the film, given that the published story was pretty much in the jeweller’s with the occasional flashback.The visuals are wonderful, not that I’d be able to discern their authenticity. It left me wanting just that little bit more. But what that more is, I don’t know.

  9. Thanks for filling us in Stewart. I did think the story invited expansion of the back story. I’ll be going to see the film next weekend I hope, so will be in a better position then.

  10. As you said, Chang was good at captuering the most embarresing scenes of human beings, women most of all, and also men (I really appreciate her talent to “feel” like a man- white rose, red rose is a novel written from the angel of men).

    Lust and caution is one of the best novels from her. It’s very dramatic and very real at the same time, plus very cruel, and very surprising.. From the first part of the movie, we see a lot of “thinkings” in Jiazhi’s head and we see that Jiazhi is a naiive girl who enjoys playing theater and basically we may get the impression that Jiazhi is a typical kind of pretty girl who is spoiled by her male fans and she is not very involved in “love motions”. Then we see a lot about the political situations in China at that time, we see the truth of patriotism – the human, individual feelings behind the “big stage”, we see that diamond is really an important thing for a woman – even at the most dangerous and crucial situation. We also see that for Mr.Yi, Jiazhi is just one of his mistresses, he decided to buy a diamond for her, but just as a general manner from a man with a pretty woman.

    And now comes a break point. At the moment Jiazhi saw the diamond, she said to herself, “He must be in love with me.” And so, she betrayed her group, (betrayed the country, her initial willing too??) She let him go, his life is saved.

    The most most fantastic part of the novel is coming at last in the end of the novel – Yi commanded to kill Jiazhi together with the group of students because its too complicated to make an excuse to his boss to save her life and its probably risky too. He is obviously sad about his decision so he is trying to make some excuses to himself to feel better – She must understand him doing this and forgive him. Once be his lover and after her death she will be forever(a chinese phrase)….

    If a reader is used to Chang’s “unhappy-end relationship”style, he or she may see this ending as unexpected happy-end. Jiazhi is dead for her lover and Mr. Yi sees Jiazhi as his beloved. We may wipe the sweat from our faces now. The most complicated, most times selfish male female relationship- adultery here, becomes a beautiful legend, the diamond, the most plain, corny symbol of love saved one life and killed one too, wow so plain is not a right word anymore. Plus for Jiazhi death is not necessarily a bad thing because she would be in big trouble with her betray. Plus for Yi, he still has a wife and a dangerous career to take care of.

    My english is poor, I hope its understandable

  11. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ennian – your English is very good! Your comments have reminded me that I still have Chang’s Love in a Fallen City to look forward to.

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