Book review: Eileen Chang’s vivid recreation of life in China in the 1930s

Chang has long been considered one of the most influential modern Chinese writers, and in this new translation she shows her deep understanding of the tensions between society and self, duty and love

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 6:00am

Half a Lifelong Romance

by Eileen Chang


3.5/5 stars

Half a Lifelong Romance is broad in its scope and exceptionally moving in its characterisations, painting a picture of life in China in the 1930s. The novel was originally published in serial form in Shanghai in 1950, under the name Eighteen Springs (Shiba chun).

Half a Lifelong Romance introduces a broad cast of characters as they struggle to breach generational divides and familial pressures in their search for love and genuine connection.

Shen Shijun, an engineer, falls in love with his co-worker Gu Manzhen, whose family has been forced to put personal dreams and desires aside to survive financially. Both families attempt to coerce Shijun and Manzhen into arranged marriages and careers to gain some semblance of security in a turbulent society. Chang effortlessly leads readers through a maze of deceits, lies and threats that threaten to pull the two apart in a novel that never loses focus or suspense.

Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres

Chang’s legacy as one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century is fully realised in this work. Through comprehensive and incredibly detailed descriptions of everyday life in 1930s Shanghai, Half a Lifelong Romance reveals broad societal truths through daily realities.

Her characters’ tragic yet sometimes comical attempts to navigate unfair expectations and maintain illusions of proper manners resonate with all readers regardless of background. These experiences are even reminiscent of the struggles of Jane Austen’s protagonists.

The characters face anxieties over how to address one another after familial or professional realignments; they try to follow their desires without offending or disrupting; ultimately, they try to balance their own wants and needs with the pressure to help their families.

There is a vast amount of detail in this novel, and readers are asked to juggle plots, follow many characters, and endure countless daily moments. Sometimes, these details can feel tedious. Chang included moments of brilliantly simple observations, though, that help readers understand why so much detail is included.

Hong Kong, by the books

For example, after countless instances of children deceiving their parents, one of the protagonists sees her own mother doing the same to her, and Chang delivers: “Parents, when they get older, can be a little afraid of their own children.”

Between learning about a certain place in history and caring deeply for the troubles of Chang’s fully developed characters, the reader’s efforts are repaid in full.

Tribune News Service