Eileen Chang's "Sealed Off"

Dear all,

Here are some thoughts and questions on Eileen Chang’s short story “Sealed Off.”

First of all, I wanted to mention that in some Chinese editions, the story does not end in the way it does in Karen Kingsbury’s translation, but has one more paragraph. I have never been able to find out why that is – did Eileen Chang prefer it that way? Whatever the reason, I thought I would share the second ending with you – I translated the paragraph and pasted it below. This could also be the first (or maybe last?) question we discuss. In what way does this ending alter the narrative, in what way might it effect our interpretation, and why two endings?

My next question is somewhat inspired by Leo Lee’s reading of Chang in his Shanghai Modern. Much has been written about Chang’s obsession with detail, with the mundane, the quotidian, and even trivial, especially in times of war. Even this short piece displays some of these characteristics. How can we relate Chang’s obsession with such microcosms with the macrocosm of urban Shanghai and of urban modernity? How does Chang’s small-world Shanghai relate to the big Shanghai, or to the Berlin in Irmagard Keun’s Artificial Silkgirl, and to our ongoing discussion about responses to modernity?

Leading on from this question, I would like to discuss to what degree the notion of ‘Anti-romanticism,’ a term first used by Edward Gunn in his study Unwelcome Muse to describe Chang’s highly personal and unconventional style, is useful. It is a question I am personally very interested in. Might it not be just as legitimate to read her withdrawal into the private, her aestheticizing of details and the quotidian, and especially her celebration of romance – all at a time of national crisis – as a Romantic gesture? Does it matter?

This national crisis – the Sino-Japanese war and the occupation of all of Shanghai following Pearl Harbor – adds a new dimension to our discussion. Chang in her writing responds not only to modernity at large, but also to the very concrete condition of war. I plan to talk a little bit about the prevalent popular wartime discourses in Shanghai, and where Chang fits in. In this context, I find Nicole Huang’s Women, War, Domesticity intriguing, and have also posted her introduction, if anybody is interested and has the time. Huang’s describes Chang (and her female protagonists) as a ‘Beauty in Turbulent Times,’ a Chinese personification of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind which enjoyed huge popularity in wartime Shanghai. If we want to read Chang against Keun (or other urban modernists), is the ‘Beauty’s in Turbulent Times’ trope likewise applicable? Film, and Hollywood in particular, is also important on another dimension. Several critics, Leo Lee among them, have made the case that Hollywood had an important impact on Chang’s writing, especially in the way cinematic techniques can manipulate time and focus on detail. If we have time, we might want to follow that lead. This, of course, also relates to two questions raised today: the relationship between the modern entertainment industry and urban modernism, and the degree to which Chang’s work can stand alone, in a universal context, free of its socio-historical and spatial context. 

Finally, we surely will spend much time tomorrow talking about female representations of urban modernity, and representations of women, especially in comparison to the ways the city is frequently presented in the figure of modern women through male imagination. The city clearly takes on a very different meaning for both Keun and Eileen Chang, and although we have just read this one little short story by Chang, we might be able to discuss the ways her depiction of the city and especially its female inhabitants offers an alternative approach to China’s urban modernity. To what degree can (and need it) be linked to the historical moment?  What kind of spaces do these female heroine inhabit or seek out?

Sorry for my endless rambling, I will make it short tomorrow.

Here is the alternative ending, see you all tomorrow,


Alternative Ending for Sealed Off

Lü Zongzhen arrived at home just in time for dinner.  While he ate, he was looking over his daughter’s grade report, which had just been sent. He still remembered what had happened on board the tram, but his memory of Cuiyuan’s face was already a little blurred –- there simply had not been anything memorable about that face. He could not remember anything of what she had said, yet he clearly remembered what he had been saying, in his gentle tone 

“How -- how old are you?” And then, impassionedly: “I cannot let you sacrifice your future.”

  When he had finished his dinner, he rubbed his face with a hot towel. He walked into the bedroom, and turned on the light.  A black bug had been crawling from this end of the room to the other. It had only crawled half way when Zongzhen had turned on the light, and was now sitting motionlessly in the middle of the floor. Was it feigning death? What was it thinking? Crawling back and forth all day, it surely had little time for thinking. And even so, at the end of the day, its thinking would probably amount to little more than suffering and pain. Zongzhen turned off the light. Still holding the switch, his hand began to sweat. Then, his entire body started to sweat and he felt as if insects were crawling all over him. He turned the light back on, but the black bug had disappeared. It had returned to its hideout.

Women, War, Domesticity (Prologue).pdf1.14 MB
Women, War, Domesticity (ch.1).pdf2.07 MB