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Found in translation

Love in a fallen city

Title: Love in a fallen city
By: Ailing Zhang

In 2007, New York Review Books published Love in a Fallen City, a collection of seven novellas by famed Chinese writer Zhang Ailing. Originally published in 1943, it tells the story of a rapidly declining aristocratic family in Shanghai at the end of the 1930s. Not unlike Mrs. Bennet, the mother in Pride and Prejudice, the old matriarch is anxious to marry off her three grown-up daughters, especially Bai Liusu, the sixth daughter, whose ex-husband has just died, to eligible rich bachelors. Instead of succumbing to fate as a widow to claim a share of the inheritance or a future of shaving her hair to become a nun, the 28-year-old Liusu is determined to live her own life: "First marriage for the family, second marriage for oneself." Her half-sister, the seventh daughter, admires Liusu’s fiery and free spirit and chooses her as her companion for her first formal meeting with Fan Liuyuan, a wealthy Chinese heir from London. In a twist of fate, the sophisticated Liuyuan shows more interest in Liusu than in the intended betrothed. He engineers an invitation to Hong Kong for her. They fall in love after resolving a series of misunderstandings, and survive untold hardships during the 1941-1945 Japanese occupation.

The title story, which made Zhang Ailing the most popular new writer in Shanghai in the 1940s, displayed what became her literary trademarks: settings (Shanghai and Hong Kong), time periods (prior to and after World War II), characters (European or American educated intellectuals from declining aristocratic families), and themes (tension and uncertainty between love/freedom and societal restraints). She drew substantially from her real life experience, as reflected in her autobiographical novel Xiao tuan yuan (SCPL has a copy in Chinese).

Despite her early success and later recognition as one of China's four female literary giants (along with Lü Bicheng, Xiao Hong, and Shi Pingmei), Ailing remains relatively unknown to today’s readers. Her first marriage, to a Japanese collaborator in the Sino-Japanese War, resulted in the banning of her books in Mainland China until recently. And, while a handful of her books have been translated into English, many subtleties have been lost in the process. However, Ailing's literary works transcend time and space with their penetrating language to portray "the desires, imaginations, and personalities of urban residents," (Encyclopedia Britannica). Meanwhile, their conflict between traditional Chinese culture and Western modernity is one of the constant themes favored by film/TV directors. Many of them have been adapted into movies, mostly notably, Love in a Fallen City (1984), Red Rose, White Rose (1994), and Half a Lifelong Romance (1997 as a film; 2003 as a TV series).

View similarly tagged posts: fiction

Posted on May 15, 2016 at 1:38 a.m.

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