Excerpt

Little Reunions

Eileen Chang, Trans. by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz

January 19, 2018 
The following is from Eileen Chang’s novel, Little Reunions. After going to school in Hong Kong, Julie is living in Shanghai, where she meets the charming, but traitorous Chih-Yung. Eileen Chang gained notoriety for her essays and stories published in 1940s Shanghai, and in the 1950s was commissioned by the U.S. Information Service to write two novels as anti-communist propaganda. This is the first time Little Reunions has been translated into English.

Just when she thought her torment was over, he reappeared. She didn’t ask him why he had not come to see her for so many days. Later he confessed, “At the time I thought if it really couldn’t work out then I should just forget about it.” She smiled, a little dazed.

On another occasion he said, “I thought if you turned out to be a fool, we wouldn’t have a future.”

Before that he had said more than once, “I think it will be hard for you.” Which was to say it would be difficult for Julie to find someone who’d love her.

“I know.” Julie smiled. Actually, she wanted him to leave.

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In Hong Kong she had once said to Bebe, “I’m afraid of the future.”

She didn’t say what she feared, but Bebe knew. “Life has to be lived,” Bebe said with a sad smile.

“I can’t stop myself telling people about you,” said Chih-yung cheerfully. “I asked Hsü Heng, ‘Do you think Miss Sheng’s beautiful?’” Hsü Heng was a painter she had met at Hsiang Ching’s place. “And he said, ‘Her disposition is quite good.’ I was furious.”

Julie kept smiling. The searchlight on the other side of the harbor found her. Inside the niche at the temporary shrine she felt the blue mist freeze her from head to toe.

He gave her several albums of Japanese woodblock prints and sat beside her as they looked through them together. When they finished, he once again held her hand and examined it. She suddenly noticed her very thin wrist inside her peacock-blue bell-shaped sleeve. She realized that he was also looking at her wrist and couldn’t help saying in her own defense, “Actually, I’m not usually this thin.”

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He paused. “Is it because of me?”

She flushed and lowered her head. All the clichés in old novels flashed through her mind, like “She was unable to raise her head. It felt as heavy as a thousand pounds.” Now she couldn’t raise her own head. Was this really the case, she thought to herself, or was she acting? He gazed at her for a long moment then kissed her. The peacock-blue sleeves timidly climbed up his shoulders and wrapped around his neck.

“You seem to be very experienced.”

“I saw it in a movie.” She giggled.

This time, and repeatedly, again just like in the movies, he only kissed her on the lips.

He embraced her as she sat on his knees, cheek to cheek. His eyes, so close to her cheek, sparkled like diamond pendants.

“You have piercing eyes.”

“They say I have ‘droopy eyes.’”

Who could have said that to him? She thought it must have been a classmate or a colleague when he was a teacher.

In the silence she could make out a popular love song playing over the radio some distance away. To hear a folksy love song at that moment made them both burst out laughing. It was not the sort of music one usually heard in the upper floors of an apartment building—it belonged in the streets. Yet at that moment, even the hackneyed lyrics sounded profound. Every so often they could clearly make out a line or two.

“Hey, these songs are actually quite good.” He was listening, too. Although Julie couldn’t be sure, she thought it resembled an

English song Second Aunt and Third Aunt used to sing:

Down the river of Golden Dreams
Drifting
along
Humming a song of love

Julie had never felt this safe since childhood. Time became drawn out, boundless, and infinite, a golden desert, majestically devoid of everything except vibrant music, and the palace doors to the past and the future flung wide open—surely this is what immortality must be like. She had never experienced time like this in her whole life, the moment totally unrelated to anything else in her life. She would merely accompany him a short distance—in a rowboat on the river of golden dreams. She could disembark and go ashore at any time.

He gazed at her. “You are beautiful,” he said. “Why do you say you are not?” And then added, “Your smile wasn’t quite right, but now it’s perfect.”

“Simply because the smile is unaffected,” she thought.

He was thirty-nine. “When people reach my age, they all become apathetic.” He chuckled.

From his tone of voice she could tell he feared adversity. But of course he meant he was unlike other people, that he had the determination to start a new life. She also vaguely knew that without the aura of enduring love, her golden eternal life would never be as she envisaged.

He calculated the age difference between the writer Lu Hsün and his wife, Hsü Kuang-ping. “They were only together for nine years. Too short, really.

But Hsü Kuang-ping was his student,” he continued. “Lu Hsün always saw her as a young woman worthy of being cherished.”

Chih-yung constantly analyzed their relationship. He also talked about Wang Ching-wei and Ch’en Pi-chün. When they were comrades in the Nationalist Party, Ch’en Pi-chün went to see Wang on official business. She stood in the rain the entire night, then the next morning he opened the gate and invited her in.

Julie had seen a photograph of Ch’en Pi-chün. She was short and fat, wore glasses, and was quite ugly. People said Wang Ching-wei was very handsome.

“We like each other equally, so there’s no issue of who is pursuing whom.” When he saw Julie laugh without responding, he added, “I’ve probably gone six steps and you have gone four steps,” as if he were bargaining, which made her laugh even more.

On another occasion he said, “Women with too much initiative tend to scare away most men.”

It is because I simply want to express my feelings for you. Well never have a future together. This relationship won’t go anywhere. But at the time she couldn’t think of how to respond. And even if she were able to defend herself to him, it felt like the wrong time to bring it up. Later he would understand—not much later. How much more time would there be?

 

Time became drawn out, boundless, and infinite, a golden desert, majestically devoid of everything except vibrant music, and the palace doors to the past and the future flung wide open—surely this is what immortality must be like.”

 

She ran her fingertips around his eyes, his nose, his mouth, to sketch the same profile of him in silhouette she had seen before when sitting across the room, smiling vaguely and looking down. But there was a trace of desolation in his smile.

“I’m always wild with joy,” she said, “while you seem mournful.” He smiled. “I’m like a child who has cried a long time for an apple, but continues to sob after he’s received it.”

She knew he was saying that he had always wanted to meet someone like her.

“You look like a Six Dynasties Buddhist statue,” she once said to Chih-yung.

“Yes, I love those Buddhist statues with their willowy, thin waists. I don’t know when it began, all those big-bellied Buddhas.”

Those stone statues were specifically from the northern dynasties. He claimed his ancestors were descendants of ancient nomadic Chi-ang tribesmen.

“Hsiu-nan says she’s never seen me like this.”

Hsiu-nan was his niece. “My niece has always been with me; she looks after my household affairs and is very good to me. She realized my life will always be unsettled, and to help with my daily expenses, she married a lumber merchant, a Mr. Wen. He’s also from my hometown. A good man.”

Julie had met Hsiu-nan once when she visited Chih-yung’s residence in Shanghai. A pretty, fair-skinned, angular face. Long wavy hair draped down her back; blue cotton overcoat. She appeared to be in her twenties at the most. Mr. Wen was there, too. He bowed awkwardly to Julie. He wore a suit and appeared to be in his thirties. His face was pockmarked—hardly a good match for Hsiu-nan.

“She loves her uncle,” Julie thought to herself.

Chih-yung told Julie he had written in letter to a friend. “Miss Julie Sheng and I, are in love.” There was a slight emphasis on the last three words.

Julie didn’t say anything but she was delighted. She itched to share the news. And this letter was publicity.

Her legs weren’t particularly skinny. A band of skin, smooth and white, remained exposed above her socks.

He caressed that part of her leg. “Such a wonderful person to allow me such intimacy.”

A gentle breeze caressed the palm fronds. The tide rose on the sands as the meandering white line stretched to the horizon, imperceptibly ascended and then retreated, yet seemingly motionless. She wanted this feeling to last forever, or at least to let her luxuriate a little more in this golden immortality.

One day she found herself sitting on him again, when suddenly something below began to lash her. She couldn’t believe what she saw—a fly whisk fashioned out of what looked like a lion’s or tiger’s tail connected to a police truncheon wrapped in fabric. She hadn’t seen such an object in the two erotic albums she had perused, and for a moment couldn’t understand what she was seeing. She ought to have jumped up and giggled, acted like she didn’t care. But before she could execute this strategy the whipping ceased. She didn’t immediately slide off his knees. That would have been too obvious.

Later that day she told him, “Hsiang Ching wrote some disapproving things about you in a letter to me. He warned me to be wary of you.” She let out a small laugh.

“Hsiang Ching is a good person who really understands me. He said it wasn’t easy for a person as poor as me to have accomplished as much as I have. He said he couldn’t do that.”

He doesn’t trust me! She couldn’t believe it. Why would I want to say bad things about Hsiang Ching to him? Maybe he thought I was trying to show that someone else cares for me in order to sound important.

Julie was confused, but sensed Chih-yung had a lot of faith in his own ability to influence people and simply couldn’t believe anyone would betray him. He was very possessive about his friends and didn’t want to lose a single one.

She kept the letter in her desk drawer. First Hsiang Ching praised her short “masterpiece” then went on to warn her to be careful of “the demons in this society who eat people alive.” Of course he didn’t mention any names, but even Wendy by this time observed, “Everyone’s saying that you and Shao Chih-yung are extremely close.”

Julie didn’t retrieve the letter to show Chih-yung. She was always afraid of embarrassing people, and him even more so, though she shouldn’t have been. Perhaps she was unwilling to face the fact that he was rather unquenchable when it came to romance.

In the end, she asked Judy to help her write a polite yet obscure reply to Hsiang Ching.

Chih-yung returned to Nanking. He wrote to say he was meeting with friends as usual, playing chess, and taking walks on Mount Ch’ingliang, “But everything feels wrong. Life is like a fish writhing in my hands—I want to grab hold of it but I’m repulsed by the fishy smell.”

She wasn’t fond of this metaphor—for some reason the tiger-tail fly whisk flashed into her mind.

But his long letter seemed respectable; she showed it to Judy to prevent her from suspecting that something inappropriate had taken place.

“It’s about time—you deserve a love letter,” Judy observed with a wry smile.

__________________________________

From Little Reunions. Copyright © 2009 by Crown Publishing (H. K.), LTD.; Translation copyright © by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz




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