Struggling Through

In Eileen Chang's Naked Earth, holding on to reality in Maoist China means living in the details.

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In an early scene of Eileen Chang’s 1956 novel Naked Earth (reissued this month by NYRB Classics), Liu Ch’uen – a young, enthusiastic new participant in Chairman Mao’s Land Reform movement – watches the “struggle session” of a local landlord’s wife. The woman has been brought into a courtyard to make a confession before the student recruits, Party members and local villagers. The landlord’s wife is frightened and pregnant.

As they approached the low flight of stone steps they saw that a thick rope hung down from the eaves. It hung loose, swaying a little in the breeze. Several tenant farmers were standing around, looking nervous. The atmosphere was thick, as if somebody had hanged himself here and the body had just been taken down and removed.

Standing in the courtyard, the landlord’s wife affirms her innocence. She doesn’t understand that her innocence is moot; there is only the acceptance or rejection of her self-criticism.

“Quick, t’an pai, confess! Where’s the rest of your money? And your jewelry? Where did you hide them?” a Positive Element shouted at her.

And the landlord’s wife screams,

“Ai-yo, I’m wronged, I’m innocent! Ai-yo, what sins I must have committed in my last life, to deserve such a death!”

Think you’re going to die now? That easy?” Pao could not help laughing out loud.

Struggle sessions – sessions of public denunciation, beatings and humiliation – were held throughout Mao Zedong’s regime. These sessions were not trials. They had little to do with discovering the real nature of people’s “crimes”. In Maoist China, neighbors and co-workers were coerced to inform against loved ones, colleagues and friends, and convince them to confess (t’an pai) to accusations brought against them by the government. It did not matter if the accusations brought against you were real. A person was expected to agree that the accusations were true; forgiveness was then up to the Party. Self-criticism was the most important part of a struggle session. In a struggle session, individuals were, in effect, forced to inform on themselves, under the pretense that it was both in their own, and society’s best interest.

In Eileen Chang’s portrayal, struggle sessions were not isolated incidents directed at businessmen and suspected class enemies. They were carried out as a matter of course — in the countryside, at the office, at home. Denunciations were perpetual and unpredictable, happening even within Party ranks. (During the Rectification movement, for instance, 40,000 cadres were expelled from the Party, 20 percent of the Politburo’s Secretariat was removed and around 60 Party officials were forced to commit suicide.)

“The struggle of the Three Anti’s will strike like a violent storm,” Liu Ch’uen remembers hearing, “assailing everybody, both the good and the bad. Only thus can we make certain who might survive and who must be exterminated.” Ostensibly, struggle sessions were created to cleanse Chinese society of counter-revolutionary thinking. Actually, they created a society of split personalities.

Eileen Chang in 1954
Eileen Chang in 1954

Chang herself never directly experienced Maoist persecution. But she did not escape the weird reality of 20th century China. Eileen Chang was born in 1920 to a decaying aristocratic family in Shanghai. In several autobiographical works, Chang wrote of her Westernized self-indulgent mother (who managed to leave her husband and two children in China for several years while she traipsed about Europe on bound feet), and her opium-addicted father who once, after an argument, beat Chang and imprisoned her in her room, where Chang contracted dysentery and languished in bed through an entire autumn and winter, without medical care. In 1944, Chang married Hu Lancheng, a prominent editor and notorious pro-Japanese collaborator. The marriage dissolved three years later at the war’s end when Hu went on the run, enjoying the company of several other women in hiding.

Eileen Chang started writing early, completing her first novel at the age of 12. By the time the Communist government came to power, Eileen Chang was a well-known writer in China (now considered by many to be China’s first modernist). Dubious about her role in this new society, however, Chang chose self-imposed exile. She moved to Hong Kong, then Japan, then back to Hong Kong, and eventually to Los Angeles, where she died alone in her apartment in 1995. Chang never again returned to mainland China. In Hong Kong, America became Eileen Chang’s patron. For three years, she worked as a translator for the United States Information Service. Then the USIS hired Chang to write anti-Communist propaganda in the form of two novels: The Rice Sprout Song and Naked Earth. Wanting propaganda, the Information Service encouraged Chang to be unsparing in her depiction of China’s confessional spectacles. And so she was.

In another early scene from Naked Earth, a Mass Meeting is held in the vacant lot in front of an ancestral temple. Tang, a Middling Farmer (neither unfortunately rich nor blessedly poor), is brought to a platform for his session. Schoolchildren wave paper flags and sing loudly. They are accompanied by militiamen, members of the Farm Workers Association, the Women’s Association, the Youth Vanguard Corps. On the platform, Tang is silent. He is shouted at and spat upon. Refusing to defend himself or confess, Tang is eventually beaten.

“His face,” wrote Chang, “was…at once guarded and remote,”

“as if thinking that all they could do was wet his feathers, while the real him was wrapped into a small package tucked in the bosom of his blouse. …

The struggle against the prisoner had reached its climax. A high conical white paper cap was slapped on his head. Written on it was the slogan “Exterminate the Feudal Forces.”

These lines are key to understanding what is at stake for Chang in these confessional scenes. Tang knows his situation is hopeless, that he will likely die if he does not t’an pai. With his non-participation, Tang becomes occupied with one thing: protecting the “real him.” Unlike the Communist government and her American patrons, Chang was less interested in the question, “Who is really to blame?” which is a political question. In her work, Chang asks a more essential question: “What is real?”


From a struggle session
From a struggle session

In Mao Zedong’s China, one of the first things to go was privacy. Every bit of private space was on display, even the space between lovers, even one’s own psychological space. A country filled with shouting smothered the more insidious sound of whispers. Every feeling, every act, was reduced to a slogan: Felled in the Struggle. Draw the Line Clear. United with Actual Circumstances. Isolated Retrospection.

Toward the end of Naked Earth we find Liu in jail. The room is crowded with twenty men. And yet, the scene Chang creates is acutely intimate.

No talking was allowed. Somebody was scratching, though. Alarmingly at first, the microphone high up on the wall also started scratching in long dry rustling strokes. Up until now it had just been a silent fixture on the wall, like an electric or gas meter. After a good bit of desultory sandpapering, a man’s voice came on. The low pleasant voice was little more than a breathy whisper “T’an-pai! T’an-pai quick! … T’an-pai is the road to life; resistance is the road to death.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Eileen Chang’s writing is her attention to detail. Reading Chang, you are at one moment learning about the History of China with a big ‘h’, and then the next moment you are made to notice the scratching of a microphone, or an incense stick placed just like that in the snow, or the particular folds of a robe over a chair. Chang is often described as a cinematic writer. But for Chang, details are more than atmosphere.

In her essay “The Religion of the Chinese”, Chang wrote about the nature of Chinese tragedy:

The fact that Chinese literature is full of sadness is due to lack of belief in anything. It takes pleasure only in material details (hence The Golden Lotus and Dream of the Red Chamber set out the menus of whole banquets in exact particular and with unflagging interest for no other reason than fondness), because the details are normally pleasant, satisfying and absorbing, while the main theme is always gloomy. All general observation of human life points to emptiness.

Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, written in the mid-18th century. It was beloved even by Chairman Mao, who believed the novel exposed the decadence of “feudal” society. Dream is a vast epic about the rise and ruin of an aristocratic family during the Qing Dynasty, known for its huge cast of characters and nearly obsessive depiction of the quotidian stuff of Chinese life: food, tea culture, medicine, customs, religion, expectations, household furnishings. For example:

Raised high on a stand formed of nine intertwined golden dragons stood a tall tablet, on the azure background of which three large ideographs in gold announced that this was the “Hall of Glory and Beatitude.” On the wall behind it was an inscription of the date on which the Son of Heaven had honored the first Prince of Yungkuo with this tablet. Wherever she looked she saw works of art with the Imperial sign-manual engraved upon them. ‘Here, on a red sandalwood table with snake-pattern carving, stood an ancient three-foot-high tripod kettle covered with verdigris. There, there glittered magnificent goblets of embossed gold. Here, again, sparkled transparent bowls of crystal. Along the walls stood sixteen carved seats of precious cedarwood. But Black Jade had not nearly enough time to admire all the valuable objects assembled here…

And it goes on.

Eileen Chang first read Dream of the Red Chamber when she was eight; it became a literary influence and a lifelong touchstone. In her last years, Chang studied Dream for clues – translating it, researching it – especially the first 80 chapters. Chang once wrote that there was no single important event in the original 80 chapters of Dream of the Red Chamber. “What the first 80 chapters provide is the vivid and close texture of life.”

What a beautiful antidote in these first 80 chapters – in which nothing important happens – to the simplistic Maoist slogans with capital letters which tried to rid China of its messy love of details. Details, for Chang, were the “vivid and close texture of life.” They were the humanity of Chinese people. Details – like shiny, sparkling pinwheels – distracted Chinese people from life. And details brought them closer to it. In Naked Earth, we as readers are forever being pulled into and pushed away from the lives of Chang’s characters, just as they are sucked out of their lives into the sea of History, only to be pushed so far back into the tragedy of their personal experience it seems like they might never escape. The voice playing over the microphone in Liu’s jail room is the voice of unreality. But by noticing every last crackle, that same voice reminds Liu of himself.

As anti-Communist propaganda, Naked Earth fails in this respect: It doesn’t have any heroes. Chang’s protagonists are always compromised, always naive, always believing in big ideas and always getting wrenched back into the petty inessentials. As the landlord’s wife lies helpless and bloody, begging for mercy, no one comes to her aid. But then, the sun comes in from under the eaves and lights up her body. A fly moves through the sunlight and turns “gold all over.” It circles and settles on her nose, “which had been beaten into a blob.” Eileen Chang was not afraid of the petty inessentials. Petty inessentials, for Chang, were more important than plot, or mood, or character development. In Naked Earth, Chang resists both the brave Socialist Realism of Communism, and the heroic, redemptive literature of her American patrons. Naked Earth is a book of profoundly petty inessentials, of lowercase letters, of personal – rather than national – redemption.

“I do not like heroics,” wrote Chang in her 1944 essay “Writing of One’s Own,”

I like tragedy and, even better, desolation. Heroism has strength but no beauty and thus seems to lack humanity. Tragedy, however, resembles the matching of bright red with deep green: an intense and unequivocal contrast. And yet it is more exciting than truly revelatory. The reason desolation resonates far more profoundly is that it resembles the conjunction of scallion green with peach red, creating an equivocal contrast.


The opening chapter of Dream of the Red Chamber begins with a couplet:

“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”

The world of illusion and the world of reality, says the couplet, are hard to pull apart. It is a good motto for Eileen Chang’s literature of details, which tried to locate the real Chinese person within the illusion. Reality is less like the exciting and unequivocal way bright red matches with deep green (as it might in a struggle session). It is more like the beautiful, profound, and more dubious contrast between scallion green and peach red — the golden, the sunlit fly on the nose of a tortured woman. •

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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