The advanced posts have been getting crazy long and difficult, so I’m taking it down a tiny notch with this essay by Zhang Ailing (张爱玲), better known in the west by her English name Eileen Chang. And also, hot damn, it’s about time I put some women writers up on here!
Zhang Ailing was the fashionable diva of mid-20th century Chinese literature. One of her most famous works was Lust, Caution, which was translated into English and made into a very spicy motion picture.
This short essay was published in June 1944 in the monthly magazine《天地》, issue 9. It is set in Shanghai, and describes a brief scene of police brutality she witnessed. Considering the global protests over the death of George Floyd, it seems like a pretty relevant post for the times.
Her torrid novels and short stories often mirrored her complicated family and love lives. The Zhang Ailing of my imagination, the woman her novels and language paint for me, was a jaded, witty, stylish It Girl, bedecked in diamonds, admired by all, waving a long cigarette around, someone who speaks flippantly and pretends to be concerned only with the trivialities of life – clothes and gossip and boyfriends – but whose devil-may-care persona masks a deep well of melancholy feeling. This piece is a great specimen of her feminine “I don’t care but actually I do” style.
Some language stuff
No matter how short Zhang Ailing’s stuff is, I always find a few phrases that I have a rough time with. Some because they’re colloquial, but more often because though the words in the sentence are reasonably simple, they always seem to carry a more nuanced meaning that I feel like I’m missing. The last two sentences in this piece are a perfect example. I had to read them several times to get to the heart of her meaning, and I have my own thoughts on it, but before I tell you mine, I’d like to hear yours in the comments.
A few other points:
外滩 wài tān – The Bund in Shanghai
手帕交 shǒu pà jiāo – A female best friend
姨太太 yí tài tai – A concubine
阿sir是为仔要我登牢子? – In this story, someone says this as a joke to a policeman who is staring at him threateningly. This is definitely not standard Mandarin. The two Chinese friends I asked didn’t know, and had to go look it up. Eventually, we worked out that this is a form of local dialect (mixed with English), and in more standard Mandarin is: 阿sir是不是为了要我去坐监牢? Or: “Is Sir [are you] doing that [staring at me like that] because you want me to go sit in jail?”