The Letters of Eileen Chang - Part 2

As a major figure in twentieth-century Chinese literature, Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) is the center of attention especially since she was not the self-promoting type of person.  Newly discovered biographical information is especially interesting to her many fans.  Of special interest is Eileen Chang's correspondence with a few others because the letters may give insight to her works.

The following is translated from an old newspaper clipping in United News Daily:

Professor C.T. Hsia had 106 letters from Eileen Chang.  He has sold these letters to the Eileen Chang Special Collections Center at the University of Southern California.  The monetary amount was US$20,000, but the money was not the point.  C.T. Hsia said, "When I pass away, my wife would not know what to do with these letters.  It is better that I sell them.  I chose the University of Southern California because the letters will be administered by the library for research purposes.  I feel better that way."  He said that he would not have sold the letters to a private collector for any amount of money.

The other reason was that the University of Southern California's Southeast Asian Library has a Eileen Chang Special Collections Center.  This was established by Professor Dominic Cheung with contributions coming from Crown Press and Mae Fong Soong (the wife of Stephen Soong).  Those contributions included the English translation of "The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai," English-language originals of speeches delivered by Eileen Chang and the uncompleted English-language story <The Young Marshall> and its Chinese-language original.  The Crown Press donations were photocopies of manuscripts.

There are other people who have published their correspondence with Eileen Chang.  For example, Zhuang Xinzheng published the 84 letters from Eileen Chang.  One of the problems with correspondence is that this is usually one-sided in the age where copier machines or computers did not exist.  That is, people may have retained the letters that they received from Eileen Chang, but they sent out their letters to her without retaining copies for themselves.  In C.T. Hsia's case, the estate of Eileen Chang contained a dozen or so letters from him and these were contributed by Mae Fong Soong (note: the executor of the literary estate of Eileen Chang) to the Eileen Chang Special Collections Center.  This helps to illuminate the interaction between Chang and Hsia.

And then there are some people who have not yet done so.  The ESWN blogger is in the unique situation of being the current stand-in administrator of the largest stash of such letters which are mostly between his parents (Stephen Soong and Mae Fong Soong) with Eileen Chang.  The circumstances are also unusual because not only were some of the letters still in the estate of Eileen Chang, but my mother had copies.  How come?  Because in the age before copier machines or computers existed, my mother would either copy out my father's letters by hand or else write her own letters on carbon paper.

However, it is not as simple as just shipping the boxes of letters to a library (and money is a total matter of indifference here).  Why?  Because they are "messy."  I am going to show this with images of a randomly selected letter from Stephen Soong to Eileen Chang with the postal date of January 25, 1987.  This letter was found in the estate of Eileen Chang and shipped to Mae Fong Soong.

One characteristic of those letters found in the estate of Eileen Chang is that when an idea came to her, she would grab any piece of paper (such as the envelop for a letter sent from someone) and start to scribble.  Sometimes, it is a shopping list; or it may be a list of errands; but other times it could be an inspired paragraph for some work in progress.

Now we move to the contents of the letter itself.  There were actually two different letters.  One was business-related and the other one was personal in nature.  Here are the three pages of the business-related portion.

At issue was the publication of the short story "Xiao Ai (小艾)."  Since Eileen Chang had not published for some time, the appearance of this work created a sensation.  The debut appearance occurred in Ming Pao Monthly (Hong Kong).  Next, it appeared in United Daily News -- but with unauthorized censorship.  An analysis of those censorious activities are reported in two clippings from a column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal (January 21, 1987; January 22, 1987).

What did UDN censor and why did they do it?  The explanation was this: "When Shanghai fell to the Communists, Eileen Chang's situation was not optimistic ... if she publishes anything, she must state her position in order to cover up the ideology of her work even though it was not required to the story content.  Therefore, she did not mean what she wrote."  "In April that year, there was a rectification campaign in mainland China and everybody was worried.  Eileen Chang obviously had worries and doubts, and her work displayed certain defensiveness.  It is speculated that she had to publish the work because she had difficulty in making ends meet.  After 'Xiao Ai' was published, she left Shanghai for Hong Kong.  She did not have a sense of security (the facts later would prove that she was right to depart)."  Based upon these points, the United Daily supplement editor made some deletions to "Xiao Ai" on behalf of Eileen Chang.

What was deleted?  Here is an example: "When Jin Huai returned this time ... the corruption and the rot led by the financial speculations from the leaders showed nothing about 'fighting the war of resistance and constructing the nation.'  There was no war of resistance here.  Now that they gained victory without even knowing why, they started a civil war ... Xiao Ai felt that he was less interested in talking about current affairs."  Here is another example: "This was the final spring in which Chiang Kai-shek's bandits were in Shanghai.  Liberation occurred in May.  The Sun family living downstairs were deceived by the Kuomintang ... after the liberation, the Sun family survived on salted fish for several months.  They were bitter.  After the liberation, Jin Huai was very dedicated to learning ... her personal experience was that the prices were stable and life was secure and steady ... she slowly forgot the nightmare experiences before."

In the letter, Stephen Soong also proposed two collections of short stories, under the premise that if Eileen Chang did not publish them, then someone else would.  The eventually published collections differed in terms of what were collected, but this letter is useful for those interested in the process and motivations.

Now we come to the two pages of the personal part of the letter.

There were several different issues in the personal letter.  There was an update on Mae Fong Soong's treatment for stomach cancer.  The subject of the controversy about "Xiao Ai" was brought up again, with the warning that Eileen Chang could not afford to give cause for a discussion of her 'position' and therefore a brief statement would be appropriate.  There was also a letter from Eileen Chang's aunt sent to Stephen Soong seeking to re-contact Eileen Chang (see below):

In forwarding the letter, Stephen Soong went into an discussion about the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist government.  Eileen Chang is the most famous Chinese writer, while Stephen Soong had been a well-known figure in the movie industry, so they were both prime targets to be won over.  A visit to mainland China by either would be a major publicity victory.  In the end, neither ever went back to China.  But this letter displayed a certain wariness of the process.

The letter then ended with an update of the portfolio that Stephen Soong managed for Eileen Chang (invest in ECU's!) and then a recommendation to Eileen Chang that she may consider coming to Hong Kong because medical care is better and cheaper in Hong Kong.  Actually, in many of the other Chang-Soongs letters, there is a great deal of information about financial transactions (for example, HK$200 for an article published somewhere; a cheque was not cashed and therefore had to be cancelled and another one had to be requested, etc).  The point here is that the letters are 'messy' (especially with the scribbles) and so it does not do any favors to release them in bulk without context.  Yet it is recognized that there are some important information in those letters that are previously unknown.  For example, the censorship issue brought up in this particular issue is significant for how an apolitical writer was forced to deal with political matters.