In these brilliantly written novellas, Eileen Chang brushes a harsh portrait of the Chinese society between the two world wars. It was based on clan power, wealth, family traditions, status, arranged marriages (matches), reputations, age (wrinkles), battles between old and young and between traditional and Western life style, and last but not least, on opium.
In `Love in a fallen City', all traditional values are crumbling down: `here in this uncertain world, money, property, the permanent things - they're all unreliable. The only thing she could rely on was the breath in her lungs and the person who lay sleeping beside her. He was just a selfish man; she was a selfish woman. In this age of chaos and disorder, there is no place for those who stand on their own, but for an ordinary married couple, room can always be found.'
`The Golden Cangue' is a fierce, merciless portrait of a member of a traditional Chinese polygamous family, who represents `the ancient China he had been homesick for ... His quiet and demure well-born Chinese girl was an opium smoker.'
`Aloeswood incense' tells the story of the sentimental education of a young girl, a king of Chinese `Gigi': `You shouldn't think that just because a person is reasonably good-looking, knows how to make a chitchat and sing a few English songs, that people are going to come running to give her stacks and stacks of money. You are too bashful, too weak, and too bad-tempered; you're indecisive, and you get too emotionally involved.'
Reputation isn't what it was before: `For a woman, there is nothing more important than her reputation. When I use the word `reputation', I mean something a bit different from a fusty old scholar's idea. These days, people don't care that much about chastity.'
In `Jasmine Tea' a student who is hated by his father, seeks revenge against the daughter of the former `friend' of his mother, who could have been his father.
In `Sealed Off', a married man and a young girl meet one another in a streetcar during a city blockade. But, even the slightest real contact seems impossible: `all she wanted was one small part of him, a little part that no one else wanted.'
In `Red Rose, White Rose', `maybe everyman has had two such women. Marry a red rose and eventually she'll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white rose is `moonlight in front of my bed'.'
Here, a man remembers the women in his life: a Paris whore, prostitutes, an English `not so puritan' young lady, the wife of a friend and a dull wife.
These novellas shine through the extreme intensity of the (strained) emotions, the merciless portraits of and the infighting in Chinese families between its hypocrite members and the difficulties to get engaged in a really sincere relationship.
Not to be missed.