Zhang Ailing, also known as Eileen Chang was a female Chinese writer who was born in the year 1920 into a large Shanghai family. Although she came from a privileged family, Zhang Ailing did not have a happy childhood. This is because both her parents had irreconcilable differences and the consequent drawn-out estrangement and divorce embittered them both and had a lasting impact on Zhang Ailing’s life (Louie, 2012). Her mother for instance was more concerned with personal liberation than with her children’s happiness while her father took up another wife and was a heavy opium user. Born one year after the outbreak of the May Forth Movement, Zhang lived her childhood years in the larger social context of the commencement and rapid development of the New Cultural movement. Moreover, by the time of her birth, Western concepts such as democracy and science had already began creeping into the Chinese society. The popularity of Zhang Ailing soared in Shanghai when she published her first work which was a collection of short stories titled Romances. Several of her novels have also been made into plays and films in the last few decades, and her popularity has increased as a consequence (Louie, 2012). Zhang Ailing created numerous literary works, which includes novels, essays, screenplays, and her letters, which were studied as part of her literary writings. The childhood experiences of Zhang Ailing shaped how she expressed most of her work. When she reached ten years old, her mother took arranged for her to go to primary school in order for her to study English. This was done against the wishes of her father. During this period, she also learnt how to play the piano and the art of drawing. This period where she interacted with the western culture formed some of her happiest memories. Not only did her childhood experiences shape up her personal character, but also how she expressed herself in her writings.
She wrote her first book at the age of seven which she titled “dream of a genius”. The focus of this book was about a family tragedy. Her second story was about a woman who commits suicide. Throughout her life, Zhang Ailing has published several books. The first book she published is titled “The Unfortunate her” which she did a year after her parents’ divorce. “The unfortunate her” shows that the institutions of marriage and love fallen in predicament is closely related to the intense anxiety of self-identity, which is pertaining not only to individual status, but also to a collective, class/national identity. That same year when her work got published, her mother moved to Europe and her father took up another wife. This made Zhang Ailing’s relationship with her father to deteriorate even more. In the spring of 1938, after a series of abuse from her father who beat her up mercilessly and then locked her up in her room for months because of a heated argument Zhang had had with her step mother, She decided to escape and join her mother who had returned to Shanghai from Europe. During the period when she was isolated in her room, Zhang Ailing spent her time writing about the incident with her father and her unhappy childhood in an essay she titled “What a Life! What a girl’s Life”. The essay stemmed from her desire to escape from the clutches of her father. Her imprisonment by her father, together with her disenchantment with her mother’s image, sowed the seeds of Zhang’s subsequent tragic vision and anti-romantic worldview (Hoyan, 1996). The essay went on to be published in English in the newspaper called Shanghai Evening post, which is located in Shanghai China. By publishing in English, Zhang Ailing was able to reach out to both Chinese and English readers. She continued to incorporate bilingualism and biculturalism in the course of her illustrious writing profession. In the year 1943, Zhang not only published three cultural critiques, but also six film reviews in The Twentieth Century. The three cultural critiques are the “Chinese Life and Fashions,” “Still Alive,” and “Demons and Fairies. These works were later rewritten in Chinese language and they mainly focused on the culture and characteristics of the Chinese people (Hoyan, 1996).
She wrote in a self-mocking tone in “My dream of genius” an essay written at the age of nineteen: “I do not know how to peel an apple… I am afraid of occasions such as visiting the hairdresser or having a fitting in front of the tailor. Many people tried to teach me how to knit, but none of them succeeded. After living in the house for two years, I still failed to figure out where the doorbell was…In short; I am a piece of garbage in society… My mother’s serious warnings exert no influence on me, except to upset my psychological balance”. Such strong sentiments were molded during her childhood years. The two years that her mother tried to teach her how to act as a lady seemingly damaged her pride. She expressed her sentiments in the essay titled My Dream of a Genius. Even though Zhang Ailing was not able to grasp the teachings of her mother on how to become a lady, she was able to excel academically as she gained admission to London University based on merit. She went on to study English, Chinese, translation and literature. Also, her admission to London University exposed her to the Western culture which taught her a lot. In addition, the cold war together with world tensions might have created in Zhang Ailing a sense of insecurity about the possibility of personal and political betrayal. She had apolitical view on the war. Her apolitical attitude explains the reason why she was willing to write under the Japanese occupation in the subsequent years (Hoyan, 1996). To her, reality is something unsystematic, random, fragmented and difficult to understand (Hoyan, 1996).
In the last years of her life, Zhang Ailing dedicated her time to write two novels; one in Chinese and the other in English. She embarked on writing the Chinese novel in the year 1970 and upon completion, she gave it the title little reunion. The novel was posthumously published in the year 2009. In the year 1969, Zhang published Romance of Half a Lifetime in Taiwan two yers removed from her husband’s death. The novel was a rewriting of the novel Eighteen Springs although she made several changes to remove the pro- communist elements. The fact that her last two novels are rewritings of earlier works is an indication of a decline in inspiration.
In conclusion, Zhang was a self-conscious writer whose works speak volume of her incredible writing prowess. Her works show a strong sensuality and sympathetic understanding, as well as an identification with femininity and with everyday life (Hoyan, 1996).
Louie, Kam. Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012. Print
Hoyan, and Carole H.F. “The Life and Works of Zhang Ailing: a Critical Study.” Open Collections, 1996. Print