The Eng-Lite Program Lecture Series: Talk No 6


Topic:A Glimpse of Taiwan: Eileen Chang's Frontier Towns

Lecturer:Nicole Huang , Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, The University of Hong Kong

Host:Wen-Hsun Chang, Associate Professor and Institute Director, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University

Venue: College of Liberal Arts Auditorium

By Chi-Yu Lin

Professor Nicole Huang’s lecture, “A Glimpse of Taiwan: Eileen Chang’s Frontier Towns,” was a continuation of her recently published magnum opus, Hong Kong Connections: Eileen Chang and Worldmaking (《緣起香港:張愛玲的異鄉和世界》, 2022). Huang shifted her focus from Hong Kong to Taiwan in the lecture and reframed the moment when Eileen Chang first encountered Taiwan and its culture. Huang’s key text was Chang’s posthumously published essay “Revisiting the Frontier Towns” (《重訪邊城》, circa 1982).

The former life of “Revisiting the Frontier Towns” was a short essay written in English, titled “A Return to the Frontier,” published in 1963. Twenty years later, Eileen Chang chose to retrieve her original travel notes and refashioned the narrative in Chinese, with much more extensive depictions of Taiwan as she first saw it and as she remembered. Chang’s manuscript was unearthed after her death in 1995. In reading this 1980s essay, Huang asked: What prompted Chang to retrieve her old travel notes and rewrite an old essay from twenty years ago? What does Eileen Chang mean to Taiwan, and what does Taiwan mean to Chang? Professor Huang argued that the connection between Eileen Chang and Taiwan needed to be located on a deeper, and aesthetic, level.

Professor Huang first showcased pages from the Chang manuscript. Going along with the manuscript, we learned of Chang’s visit, which was made possible by the United States Information Agency. Huang then directed the audience’s attention to Chang’s several mentionings of the painter Shiy De-jinn (席德進, 1923-1981). Shiy was Chang’s guide in Taipei and Chang’s reimagining of her Taiwan trip twenty years later might have been prompted by Shiy’s 1981 death. More importantly, Huang argued that it was Chang’s resonance with Shiy’s aesthetics that prompted her to rethink her connections with Taiwan.

Key to Professor Huang’s argument was the “misty atmospheric state” (渾濛蒼鬱底大氣) characterstic of Shiy’s depictions of Taiwan landscape in watercolor and ink. Huang offered a parallel reading of “Revisiting the Frontier Towns” and “Chronicle of a Strange Land,” Chang’s travelogue written in 1946, and traced the aesthetic and intellectual lineage of the “blueish-green landscape”(青綠山水) recurrent in her narratives. Huang placed Chang and Shiy both on a complex landscape of cold war geopolitics. As Huang previously argued in her book Hong Kong Connections, “in every stage of her life and every voyage she takes, there is a blueish greenness lurking in the background.” It was therefore through an aesthetic lens that Eileen Chang remembered Shiy and re-encountered Taiwan.

The audience responded to Professor Huang’s lecture with many thoughtful questions. Taiwan is indeed as Huang called the “base camp of an Eileen Chang literacy.” Several questions continued to speculate what must have prompted Chang’s rewriting of her Taiwan trip. Professor Huang was convinced that the reason was more personal and innate than external. Others asked about the drastic differences of Taiwan and Hong Kong depicted in the essay; the part on Taiwan is cleaner (both the narration and the manuscript condition) while the part on Hong Kong is more gloomy and even “messy.” Huang explained that it was in part a narrative gesture Chang often used in her travel narratives, as similar contrasts could be spotted in “Chronicle of a Strange Land.”

In sum, Professor Huang’s lecture made a case for a rethinking of the connection between Eileen Chang and Taiwan. The heated dialogue after the lecture also proved that Eileen Chang’s lasting impact in Taiwan will continue to resonate with generations of Taiwan readers.