Eileen Chang was born in Shanghai on September 30, 1920 to a renowned family. Her paternal grandfather was a son-in-law to Li Hongzhang, an influential Qing court official. Her family moved to Tianjin in 1922, where she started school at the age of four. When she was five, her birth mother left for Britain after her father took in a concubine and grew addicted to opium. Although she did return four years later, following his promise to quit the drug and split with the concubine, a divorce could not be averted. Chang's unhappy childhood in the broken family probably gave her later works their pessimistic overtone.
Chang was renamed Eileen in preparation for her entry into the Saint Maria Girls' School. During her secondary education, she was already deemed a genius in literature. Her writings were published in the school magazine. In 1939, she was accepted into the University of Hong Kong to study literature. She also received a scholarship to study in the University of London, though the opportunity had to be given up when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in 1941. Chang then returned to Shanghai. Living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai she wrote many popular pieces published in mass-circulation magazines, but her remarkable use of language meant that she was also taken seriously as a writer. She fed herself with what she was best at - writing. It was during this period when some of her most acclaimed works were penned and the Chang Legend began with the publication of her first short story in Shanghai in 1942.
Chang met her first husband in 1943 and married him in the following year. She loved him dearly, despite him being already married as well as labeled a traitor to the Japanese. When Japan was defeated in 1945, her husband escaped to Wenzhou, where he fell in love with yet another woman. When Chang traced him to his refuge, she realized she could not salvage the marriage. They were finally divorced in 1947.
However, the Communists' takeover of China in 1949 cut short Chang's run of stardom, for with a much publicized prestigious family background, Chang knew that she would become a conspicuous target for Communist persecution. Foreseeing political trouble, she escaped to Hong Kong in 1952 and worked as a translator for the American News Agency for three years. She then left for the United States in the fall of 1955, never to return to Chinese mainland again. The Rice Sprout Song, the first book published after her immigration, probes the ironies of life under the Communists. Her inspiration for the novel is a newspaper article about a party member who finds him questioning orders to shoot peasants who are raiding a granary during a famine.
In New York, Chang met her second husband, an American scriptwriter, whom she married in August 1956. He died in 1967. After his death, she held short-term jobs at Radcliffe College and UC Berkeley. She relocated to Los Angeles in 1973. Two years later, she completed the English translation of a celebrated Qing novel written in the Wu dialect. On September 8, 1995, she was found dead in her apartment. According to her will, she was cremated without any open funeral and her ashes were released to the Pacific Ocean.
Chang is no doubt the most talented woman writer in the 20th century China. Over the last century few writers have had as much influence on the development of modern Chinese literature in Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as her. Her obsession with privacy made her known as the "Garbo of Chinese letters", and photographs reveal a woman whose elegance and contemplative introspection justify that title. Written on Water, first published in 1945, showcases why, more than half a century after she first won fame in Shanghai, Chang still enjoys an enormous popularity among readers, both in China and overseas. She offers essays on art, literature, war, and urban life, as well as autobiographical reflections. She takes in the sights and sounds of wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, with the tremors of national upheaval and the drone of warplanes in the background, and inventively fuses explorations of urban life, literary trends, domestic habits, and historic events. Her stylized depictions of Chinese manners and morals, her witty inquiry into urban trivia, and her "celebration" of historical contingency are a tableau vivant of modern Chinese lives at their most complex and fascinating. She captures the subtleties of the urban experience, pointedly from a woman's perspective, and the trivialities of daily endeavors during the Japanese occupation, with humor and insight. Her self-effacing, mannered prose and power for observing visual designs and social manners shine when she writes of fashion, the family, her past, and film and drama.
With a distinctive style that is at once meditative, vibrant, and humorous, Chang engages the reader through sly, ironic humor; an occasionally chatty tone; and an intense fascination with the subtleties of modern urban life. Her works vividly capture the sights and sounds of Shanghai, a city defined by its mix of tradition and modernity. She explores the city's food, fashions, shops, cultural life, and social mores; she reveals and upends prevalent attitudes toward women and in the process presents a portrait of a liberated, cosmopolitan woman, enjoying the opportunities, freedoms, and pleasures offered by urban life. In addition to her descriptions of daily life, she also reflects on a variety of artistic and literary issues, including contemporary films, the aims of the writer, the popularity of the Peking Opera, dance, and painting.
Her works frequently deal with the tensions between men and women in love. Her writing is very detailed. She used a lot of adjectives and idioms in describing some subtle and complex plots and characters of the story. Compared to other writers, she is very distinct when describing the characters, setting the details out quite strongly and giving the reader a good sense about who they are. The conversations that she creates between characters really show her skills as an outstanding writer because of how realistic they are. None of the dialogues seem to be unnatural or unbelievable.
Chang is a talented storyteller, which is clearly shown on how skillful she unfolds a story of a love between a widow and a playboy, ending in a marriage unpredictable to most of its readers. The perspectives that are used are first person and third person narratives. Shortly after these dialogues, she sometimes used her own narration to provide more objective views.