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The famous novella, Love in a Fallen City is one of Eileen Chang’s most profound pieces of work. It doesn’t do justice to not state a brief history of Eileen Chang.
Chang was a Chinese writer whose life was significantly affected by the cataclysms of China in the 20th Century. Her birthplace, Shanghai was greatly affected by the instability of the nationalist republic. There was a constant battle between the modernists and the conservatives, Chang’s early life orbited around this time of dangerous political upheaval. Chang’s father was an opium addict from an aristocratic lineage, he was a vicious man who often got in trouble for domestic violence against his family.
Chang’s mother, on the other hand, was quite open to western ideologies. Although she abandoned the family and went to Europe due to Chang’s father taking in a concubine, after he went to the hospital for a morphine overdose, she came back for her daughter and had a powerful ambition for Chang to have a more liberal education. This included learning the English language, performing arts and music.
But as fate would have it, upon her father’s deplorable return, the domestic violence and the entire vicious cycle had an unfortunate revival, which ultimately led to the divorce of her parents. As both parents had joint custody, Chang had to demarcate her time between her mother’s contemporary apartment and her father’s opium lair. But just as Chang had turned 18, she at once escaped from her father’s brutality, but her story is far from over.
In 1939 at the University of Hong Kong, Chang studied literature. Only a few years later in Japan, her literary career thrived. Despite all her achievements, in Shanghai, this type of profession was very much underrated. But this was no barrier for Chang, she stepped up and inaugurated many stories and essays, which became very popular.
She did all this while staying out of trouble from the authorities as she disguised her work and masked it as “unserious”. Finally, her very first fiction collection was published in 1944, it was called Romances. Take a moment to process this, entertain this fervent life of an uprising writer who gorgeously bloomed from all the other flowers, despite the harsh conditions. This finally takes us to her most renowned novella, Love in a Fallen City.
Love in a Fallen City is not a romance novel, it’s an illuminating narrative of love and longing, with a dark and melancholic tone. The lives of various women situated between both the modern and the traditional, confined by very few options and social constraints are coerced into finding an equilibrium between respectability and freedom. The main topic of discussion in this novel is the intricate relationship between Bai and Fan, our two main characters.
Bai Liusu was 28 and had recently had a divorce, love wouldn’t reach her in the pure form, the reason was that she needed to be newly married so she could escape the Bai residence. Due to economic constraints, her family didn’t want her to stay at home. After attending a ball, she knew that Baoluo who was her cousin absolutely hated her. “It doesn’t matter how great a woman is: if she can’t get the love of a man, she can’t get the respect of women.” In order to gain respect from other women, she decided to go to Hong Kong with Mrs. Xu to try to win the love of Fan Liyuan, a rich playboy from England. It’s pretty obvious that Bai hadn’t fallen in love with Fan since her intention for this trip was to marry Fan in order to get the recognition from the other women, hence it was a gamble. Fan wasn’t a trustworthy figure as Bai believed that he has always lied to women. Bai knew that if she wanted to truly win the heart of Fan she had “trade” her beauty and seduce Fan into marrying her.
The first step that Bai had to take was to marry Fan. She lived in Hong Kong for a while and kind of got to know Fan, she thought “Clearly, he did want her, but he wasn’t willing to marry her.” It definitely disappointed her and made her angry. At one point Fan summoned Bai and simply said “I love you” then immediately asked her, “Do you love me?” Bai reacted quite differently saying, “Why not go ahead and just say, flat-out, that you don’t want to marry me, and leave it at that!”. All that was important to Bai back then was marriage and all her focus and attention went towards getting that. She would do whatever it takes to marry someone, especially someone like Fan who was very financially stable. Love didn’t really matter to her, as was proved by her bizarre reaction to Fan’s confession of loving her. The whole matter was a trade, if she married him she would reap all the fruits that came with it and be destined for a comfortable life away from her family. The last thing that Bai would want is to return to the pitiful life she had with her family, who in reality didn’t even want her. This situation was a lot more complicated as its resolution wasn’t straightforward at all.
Fan kept saying that he required her to understand the matter. Alas, Bai was very naïve and didn’t know much about Fan. What really concerned Fan was spiritual love, which might lead to marriage but the issue was that Fan had said things that Bai simply couldn’t comprehend back then. But Bai couldn’t care less as in her arguably narrow perspective, life itself was crystal clear.
Bai was quite emotionally distorted as she wanted things to happen is a certain way and if even one thing happened differently she would let out a fit. This positions the readers to not feel even the slightest bit of sympathy for her. In fact, a lot of readers would immediately dislike her personality as she appears to be an irritating sook, crying about the simplest things. A good example of this is when she returns from Hong Kong the first time, Fan sends her a ticket to come back. She felt really cheap; “…tears dropped from her eyes. Crying made her lose her self-control; she found she could not bear it anymore.” (Chang, 1943) Her tears were more for starting to lose her youth than her love for Fan. She was around 30 years at that time and it was getting too late, the older she gets the less chance she would have in attaining a fulfilling marriage and people around her would tease her and even go to the extent of abusing her and calling her a slut. Enough had happened, Bai desperately needed to get married to Fan.
The irony of this intriguing situation is that while Bai had no real hope of love, she still wanted to get married and live peacefully. But how can she do that if she didn’t hope for love? Without this essential ingredient, how can you get married and live peacefully? This clearly shows how selfish of a woman she was. On the other hand, Fan had just returned from England, he “went through some hard times, but at last, he got the right to inherit his father’s wealth.” Although he was brought up in a foreign country he still thought that; “Real Chinese women are the most beautiful woman in the world.”
One of the ways that Bai attracted Fan was bowing her head to show respect, this is a traditional Chinese style of greeting. Although Fan had many dreams about China, everything that he experienced since he came back had disheartened him. Fan said to Bai, “I know you’re not happy. You’ve certainly seen more than enough of these awful people, and awful things, all around us.” (Chang, 1943) Although Fan was a playboy and a lot of young women were attracted to him, Fan had found so many things in common with Bai that he was attracted to her, all of this despite Bai’s selfish attitude that didn’t seem to keep the relationship running smoothly. He treated Bai as a true friend who not only understands him but also in a sense comforts him. What really enticed Fan was Bai’s fragile, conflicted and isolated heart, Fan related her characteristics to his, because he also felt the same way. It was clear that Fan wanted a proper, genuine and sincere relationship with Bai, but Bai simply couldn’t understand that and Fan also wasn’t very sure if Bai truly loved him. This is why their relationship was so irritatingly complicated. I’m sure a lot of the reader’s at some point just thought, seriously guys, just get married and get on with it, what’s with all this rubbish! But this is the beauty of Chang’s writing, it’s so realistic that it has the power to frustrate its readers. There was a point when Fan said to Bai, “Basically, you think that marriage is long-term prostitution.” Although this appeared to sound rude, it couldn’t be better said. Bai used her love as a mockery to trade for Fan’s marriage and money. Not long after, Fan returned to England, but promised to come back. At this very point, the story of the “fallen city” begins.
The war in Hong Kong had occurred, though all the destruction and ruin came about a positive result, they finally got married! Yes it took an entire war and the fall of Hong Kong for Bai to finally understand that there is absolutely no certainty in this world, nothing lasts forever and this limbo that the two of them were in would also come crashing to an unfortunate end. A war causes people to think of what really matters in life, they both knew that they were right for each other, but it took a war for them to truly realise it. “He reached out from the bedding and grasped her hand. They looked and saw each other, saw each other entirely. It was only one moment of deep understanding, but this moment was enough to keep them happy together for a decade or so.” Although everything seemed perfect, a real couple must have affection for each not only because they dwell in each other’s company, but also because they completely understand and appreciate one another from the heart. This bond wasn’t fully evident as their relationship started as a trade and not of affection. Despite all that happened in this tale, the reader’s should ask themselves, is a marriage without true love happy? As Chang had grown up in some harsh and cruel environments her view of pure love never appeared in her novels, her view was that everyone did everything for his or her own benefit. Love in an unsettled realm is like a delicate flower that will fall when it’s windy.
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