In a Bronze Mirror: Eileen Chang’s Life and Literature

Historical Translations
and Cross-Cultural Futures

Eileen Chang drew great inspiration from the classic Qing Dynasty novels Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), written by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) in the 1750s, and Sing-song Girls (海上花列傳), written by Han Bangqing (韓邦慶) and published in its entirety in 1894. She devoted much of her time in the United States to researching Dream of the Red Chamber and translating Sing-song Girls into English. From Chang’s perspective, Dream of the Red Chamber stands as the first novel about romantic love in China, and Sing-song Girls came as the former’s late Qing successor. Sing-song Girls focuses on courtesan life in the late Qing Dynasty, and uniquely portrays romantic love between courtesans and their clients. As described in a letter to Professor C.T. Hsia, Chang understands Sing-song Girls as the first Chinese novel to treat men and women equally. Before completing the English version of Sing-song Girls, Chang translated the novel’s parts in Wu-dialect into Mandarin Chinese with extensive annotations. In translating the novel, Chang understood her role as transmitter, rather than creator. Yet Chang’s distinct annotations link traditional and modern concepts of literature and literary creation. Chang values the author’s ability to depict sentiments and evoke feelings through descriptive images and scenes. She finds in Sing-song Girls a lyrical quality often associated with classical Chinese poetry. Chang was at one of the lowest points in her life when she set out to translate Sing-song Girls. Her previous English manuscripts had been rejected by numerous publishers and her second husband passed away shortly after she started the translation project. Despite these circumstances, Chang persisted in her mission to introduce Chinese literature to English readers.

Eileen Chang’s unwavering commitment to cross-cultural studies, transformative foregrounding of female protagonists, and nuanced stories of love, lust, and familial dynamics reverberate today. Supported by Chang’s legacy, contemporary Chinese American women artists and designers, including notable figures at USC, make evocative works that probe, embody, and celebrate cross-cultural identities and experiences.   

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