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Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence


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Emmanuel Levinas's ethical philosophy, particularly his notions of transcendence and the "face of the other," illuminates Eileen Chang's short story Lust, Caution (Se, jie) and, to a lesser extent, Ang Lee's film adaptation. Lust, Caution tells of an assassination plot against a collaborator with the Japanese during the second Sino-Japanese War in which the heroine's fatal decision to let go of her enemy results in the deaths of herself and her comrades. The story problematizes the status of the personal and ethical in times of war, occupation, and resistance through the heroine's path from the collective anonymity of national salvation to the theatrical solitude of underground activism and the intersubjective encounter with the face of the other. Also relevant is Hannah Arendt's theory of the (bourgeois) social, which in conjunction with its feminist revision prompts reflections on women's space of action in "dark times."
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Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust,
Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
 
HAIYAN LEE is assistant professor of Chi-
nese literature at Stanford University. She
is the author of Revolution of the Heart:
A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950
(Stanford UP, 2007), winner of the Associ-
ation for Asian Studies 2009 Joseph Lev-
enson Prize for the best English- language
academic book on post- 1900 China.
ere is no action possible without a little acting.
George Eliot
If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I
hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
E. M. Forster
writer Eileen Chang (1920–95 [g. 1]) in the Chinese- speaking
world had barely been understood by literary scholars when the
director Ang Lee put legions of Chang fans on tenterhooks by setting out
to adapt her short story Lust, Caution (Se, jie , ) for the big screen.
Chang was a Shanghai native born into a declining gentry family. In 1939
she won a scholarship to the University of London but attended instead
the University of Hong Kong because of the outbreak of World War II in
Europe. When her college education was interrupted by Japan’s occupa-
tion of Hong Kong in 1941, she returned to Shanghai to take up writing.
In the space of a few years, she published a series of short stories and
no vel las that catapulted her to instant literary stardom. She remained in
Shanghai briey aer the founding of the People’s Republic (1949) before
emigrating rst to Hong Kong and then to the United States. She spent
the next forty years trying with little success to launch a literary career in
En glish, though her Chinese writing continued to be embraced by read-
ers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Chinese diasporas, and, more recently,
mainland China (see Kingsbury; Lovell). She began writing Lust, Cau-
tion during her brief (second) sojourn in Hong Kong in the early 1950s
©        
and published it some twenty years later in Tai-
wan. e laconic story tells of an assassination
plot by a group of college students against a col-
laborator with the Japanese during the second
Sino- Japanese War (also known as the War of
Resistance against Japan [1937–45]). e heroine,
Wang Jiazhi (Wong Chia- chih), is charged with
seducing and entrapping the target, Mr. Yi (Yee);
but at the crucial moment, she lets him get away
and ends up sacricing herself and her comrades
to Yi’s swi reprisal on the execution ground.
e storm that greeted the lm’s release
in fall 2007 was only to be expected. Hardcore
devotees wrung their hands about the lm’s
deviation from or distortion of the short
story, particularly the blunting of its feminist
edge. Nationalist critics raged over the lm’s
sympathetic portrayal of a traitor. e histori-
cally minded dug up the original spy- assassin
episode that was supposed to have inspired
Chang’s story. Nearly all found themselves
speculating on the extent to which Chang’s
short- lived marriage to Hu Lancheng (1906–
81), a one- time collaborationist intellectual,
motivated the story’s inception and multiple
revisions between 1953 and 1978. Amid the
tussle of biography, history, memory, ction,
and screen adaptation, there was a sense of
inevitability that one of the most renowned
Asian directors should turn his camera lens
to the work of a beloved but neglected (by in-
ternational critics) Chinese writer. Although
Lee’s choice of Lust, Caution surprised some
who regarded the story as a minor achieve-
ment compared with Chang’s early claim- to-
fame stories, his abiding interest in her work
was shared by numerous Chinese readers,
critics, and scholars, winning for him zealous
viewers and commentators almost by default.
Chang’s meteoric rise to literary fame
in 1940s Shanghai and the cultish devotion
of readers in spite of her decades- long reclu-
sion have puzzled many. Some point to her
unrelenting focus on the urban everyday in
an age when “serious” literature overwhelm-
ingly rallied to the cause of nationalism. Oth-
ers celebrate her as a supreme stylist who
uses her lapidary prose to limn the allures
and constraints of bourgeois respectability.
She is valorized, in recent critical discourse,
for her feminist irreverence toward male-
dominated grand narratives (Chow; Huang;
L. Lee, Shanghai Modern). Her long exclusion
from the politicized canon, however, does not
mean that her work was apolitical or that she
was merely concerned with “quiet, private
themes” while eeing from the “loud, public
questions” of the day (Lovell xix). I aim to
show that her deceptively terse story brings
to a head, in the enigma of the heroine’s nal
act, the central preoccupations of her literary
career: What is the meaning of the everyday?
How are human dignity and decency possible
in a brutal system? Can or should individual
purposes be defined against collective pur-
poses and at what cost? These questions, I
Haiyan Lee 
i g
. 1
Eileen Chang
argue, are best approached through the theo-
retical prism of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical
philosophy, particularly his notions of tran-
scendence and the “face of the other.”
For Levinas, the individual being par-
takes of life as enjoyment—breathing, con-
suming, feeling, laboring, and suering—but
remains immersed in a prereexive interior-
ity until it comes up against the exteriority
of the other, or “the Stranger who disturbs
the being at home with oneself” (Tot alit y 39).
The other, in its literal or figurative “desti-
tution and hunger” (200), summons the self
to ethical responsibility and transcendence.
The other is not an object of incorporation
or enjoyment but confronts the self as alter-
ity, inassimilable to the totality of the self:
“He escapes my grasp by an essential dimen-
sion. . . . He is not wholly in my site” (39). e
Levinasian ethics is fundamentally an asym-
metrical movement or orientation toward the
other: “A relation whose terms do not form
a totality can hence be produced within the
general economy of being only as proceeding
from the I to the other, as a face to face, as
delineating a distance in depth—that of con-
versation, of goodness, of Desire” (39).
Adam Newton believes that certain kinds
of prose ction enact Levinas’s description of
the ethical encounter particularly well:
Cutting athwart the mediatory role of reason,
narrative situations create an immediacy and
force, framing relations of provocation, call
and response. . . . ese relations oen pre-
cede decision and understanding, with con-
sciousness arriving late, aer the assumption
or imposition of intersubjective ties. Prose
ction translates the interactive problematic
of ethics into literary forms. (13)
I submit that Chang’s fiction is captivating
owing not only to its zestful depiction of the
enjoyment of everyday life, or what Hannah
Arendt calls “the social” (Human Condition),
but also to its enactment of the dyadic inter-
subjective encounter and the “traumatisms of
astonishment” that accompany ethical tran-
scendence (Newton 13). In her fiction, the
reader is thrust into a world of things, senses,
feelings, and interactive rituals, only to wit-
ness the aching yearning for some kind of in-
terruption or astonishment.
The social fascinates Chang as a source
of endless secular enchantment, or what I call
“contingent transcendence.” Levinas, to be
sure, restricts transcendence to the irruption
of the other. Everyday life, including erotic
life, is essentially the domain of consumption
and delectation, of the incorporation of the
other into the same. Ethical transcendence, by
contrast, is only possible in relation to an un-
incorporated other. In a parallel move, Arendt
also demarcates the social from the political,
averring that true “action” is only possible
once bodily needs have been ministered to
through “work” and “labor” in the household
and workplace (Human Condition). Both
Levinas and Arendt associate biological and
social reproduction with women and theorize
ethical and political subjectivity almost exclu-
sively in masculine terms. Levinas, in partic-
ular, associates the “feminine other” with the
domicile and is profoundly ambivalent about
the ethical promise of eros in view of the fem-
inine other’s “simultaneity of need and desire,
of concupiscence and transcendence” (Total-
ity 255; see also Bergo; Moyn; Sandford).
In reading Chang’s fiction through the
analytic lens of contingent transcendence, I
am adapting feminist revisionary eorts that
have made it possible to locate ethical and po-
litical agency in the domain of the social, the
everyday, and the feminine (Honig, Feminist
Interpretations; Moruzzi). I coin contingent
transcendence to delineate a concept more ca-
pacious than the Levinasian “true” transcen-
dence and distinct from traditional modes of
transcendence, or the “higher life,” oen iden-
tied with monasticism, military adventure,
or philosophical contemplation. Historically,
the higher life was a male pursuit and was
premised on the denigration of ordinary life
 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
as the feminine sphere of necessity; thus, pri-
vate life in ancient thought was also the realm
of deprivation. Secular capitalist modernity,
however, has paved the way for ordinary life
to be armed as the good life, thereby casting
in doubt any conception of the transcendent
that trumps or injures the secular pursuits of
happiness—romance, family life, career, com-
merce, and civic participation (Taylor). As Ar-
endt notes, “[W]e no longer think primarily
of deprivation when we use the word ‘privacy,
and this is partly due to the enormous enrich-
ment of the private sphere through modern
individualism” (Human Condition 38).
e bourgeois armation of privacy and
ordinary life does not entail a categorical re-
jection of transcendence. Instead, it posits
an immanent conception of transcendence
that not only reserves a space for religious
spirituality in private life but also seeks to
imbue certain sensorially intense experi-
ences—aesthetic, erotic, or theatrical—with
an aura of the sublime and the sacred. Eros
has been a prime candidate for such sacral-
izing impulses because its orientation toward
the other, despite Levinas’s qualifications,
approximates the intersubjective situation of
ethical transcendence. In the age of disen-
chantment, romance has become the modal-
ity of secular transcendence for the everyman
and everywoman—precisely the bourgeois or
petit bourgeois characters that Chang’s ction
immortalizes—in their stubborn refusal to
accept the given and their faltering but never
relinquished hope for coming in touch with
the beautiful and the sublime.
Many writers of Chang’s time approached
the problem of contingent transcendence by
recourse to a literary formula called 革命加戀
‘revolution plus romance,’ whereby a bour-
geois romantic, at the end of a tortuous aaire
de cæur, overcomes his or her “privation” by
plunging into revolutionary torrents (H. Lee,
Revolution 255–86). Chang, however, preferred
the inverse. Her ction desublimates the sub-
ject, prying it loose from the ecstasy of mass
politics to problematize the status of the per-
sonal and ethical in times of war, occupation,
and resistance. Lust, Caution thus delineates
the trajectory of the female self from the collec-
tive anonymity of national salvation to the the-
atrical solitude of underground activism and
the intersubjective encounter with an other.
e story emphatically calls our attention to
the fragility of the ethical, or the contingency
of transcendence, when the face of the other
is abducted by power and becomes a site of
instrumentality and tyranny. is is the basic
scenario of Lust, Caution, wherein power is the
very condition of the exteriority of the other
that obliterates the ethical (feminine) self.
Theatricality and the Seduction of the
e intriguing Chinese title of Lust, Caution
is a play on the Buddhist injunction against
carnal licentiousness, sejie 色戒. By inserting
a comma between the two characters of the
compound, Chang calls our attention to their
separate, secondary meanings in Buddhist
and philosophical usage: se as the seething
realm of desires, attachments, and social rela-
tions; jie as the metaphysical or religious
overcoming of worldliness, of “red dust.” e
En glish rendition, Lust, Caution, captures at
most a partial meaning, for the story is not
merely a cautionary tale about lust and its
perils. It is a story about how desire opens
the self up for the ethical encounter with the
other and entangles the social and the politi-
cal by way of the theatrical underground.
Underground activism is a form of politi-
cal theater that exercises a peculiar attraction
for the bourgeois individual. In joining a col-
lective movement, the individual is promised a
kind of clarity, focus, purposefulness, and in-
tensity that is perceived to be sorely lacking in
the bourgeois social, in “the ‘sad opaqueness’
of a private life centered about nothing but it-
self ” (Arendt, Between Past 4). Arendt locates
the force that sucked French intellectuals into
Haiyan Lee 
the Resistance in the discovery that “he who
‘joined the Resistance, found himself,’ that
he ceased to be ‘in quest of [himself] without
mastery, in naked unsatisfaction,’ that he no
longer suspected himself of ‘insincerity,’ of
being ‘a carping, suspicious actor of life,’ that
he could aord to ‘go naked.’” e Resistance
aorded an occasion for bourgeois intellectu-
als to take leave of “the weightless irrelevance
of their personal aairs” (4).
Underground activism is premised on a
schizoid conception of the self in which the
ideologically committed mind (or ‘heart-
mind’) is detached from and remains haugh-
tily indierent to the experiential body. One
pretends to relish the compromised pleasures
of life under occupation while cherishing se-
cret allegiance to a higher purpose or righ-
teous principle. However mired the body is in
senseless enjoyment, the mind remains incor-
ruptible. e debasement of the body is really
a baptism of the senses (se) through which the
true revolutionary heart is tempered (jie). e
logic of the underground therefore subordi-
nates surface to depth, appearance to essence.
e bodily experience is meaningless and -
nite, to be terminated abruptly once its utility
has been exhausted. ose who are incapable of
eecting the inner severance of mind and body
are revealed to be false revolutionaries, or weak-
kneed bourgeois dilettantes easily corrupted by
the sugar- coated bullets of the enemy.
However, the logic and logistics of under-
ground activism require that individuals en-
mesh themselves in interpersonal desires and
attachments to get under the enemy’s skin
and destroy the enemy. The underground
thus negates the intersubjective orientation
of the bourgeois social while apparently mak-
ing room for it. For this reason, revolutionary
politics not only co- opts the bourgeois yearn-
ing for contingent, secular transcendence but
also short- circuits it. And this process, I sub-
mit, is the crux of Chang’s story.
In the space of a few pages, Chang
sketches out a portrait of the heroine, Wang
Jia zhi, as a budding bourgeois romantic: her
membership in the student drama club and
her subsequent role in the assassination plot
are motivated primarily by a romantic dispo-
sition and a taste for the intoxication of the
stage. e story spans merely one aernoon
and evening, beginning and ending at the
Shanghai residence of Mr. Yi, the spymaster of
the Nanjing- based puppet regime (1940–44)
headed by Wang Jingwei. At this house, Mrs.
Yi and her lady friends (all wives of Wang
Jingwei’s ministers) play endless mah-jongg
games and exchange gossip. We learn at the
outset that one of these lady friends (Jiazhi) is
an assassin’s plant who is in fact an ex–college
student recruited by the secret service of the
Chongqing- based Nationalist government to
entrap Yi by a 人計beauty stratagem’ (Se
400). We are then given a whirlwind ashback
to two years ago, when the Yis rst met Jiazhi
during their sojourn in British Hong Kong,
shortly before it fell, like much of eastern
China, to the onslaught of the Japanese impe-
rial army. Jiazhi was at the time a college stu-
dent and the lead actress of a student drama
club that was feverishly staging patriotic plays
to rouse the apathetic inhabitants of Hong
Kong. Over a summer break, the restive ama-
teur dramatists, putting their theatrical skills
to real use, cooked up a scheme to snag Yi,
who they learned was a high- ranking member
of the Wang Jingwei clique, then rumored to
be preparing to break away from the Nation-
alist government in exile (1937–45) and make
a separate peace with the Japanese (g. 2). Ji-
azhi was as a matter of course given the role
of Mrs. Mai, a fictive wealthy merchant’s
bored wife who was to befriend an equally
bored Mrs. Yi and then seduce Yi. The plot
was forestalled by the Yis’ abrupt departure
for the mainland, though Jia zhi had already
lost her virginity in “practice sessions” with
one of the male students in the group.
When Jiazhi reconnects with the Yis in
Shanghai, she is still acting the part of Mrs.
Mai with a well- rehearsed story about her del-
 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
icate situation. She moves in with them and
rejoins the daily mah-jongg games, and it is
not long before she rekindles the ames of de-
sire in Yi (g. 3). e story then jumps forward
to the fateful aernoon when Jiazhi and Yi re-
pair surreptitiously to a rendezvous location.
Having tipped o her comrades, she makes
him accompany her to a jewelry store, claim-
ing to need to have an earring repaired. Once
there, Yi proposes to buy her a diamond ring.
e narrative gradually slows down from this
point on, indeed coming nearly to a standstill,
as it lingers over the ambience of the cramped
store, the conversation with the Indian jew-
eler, the bantering between the couple, and
their interior monologues. After seemingly
an eternity, Jiazhi whispers to Yi, 快走! ‘Run!’
(Se 412). Yi dashes out and miraculously gets
away unharmed. But when Jiazhi tries to ee
the scene, she discovers that the section of the
city she is in has been sealed o. e narrative
then shis back to the Yi residence, where a
ustered Yi, having just signed the death war-
rant of Jiazhi and her comrades, is trying to
prepare a story to explain Jiazhi’s sudden dis-
appearance to his wife and his boss.
In a story whose economy of language
poses a challenge to readers unfamiliar with
historical circumstances, there are repeated
references to playacting—onstage and in the
underground. e rst reference doubles as a
transitional device from the narrative present
to the days of the college drama troupe in Hong
Kong: “[Jiazhi] had, in a past life, been an ac-
tress; and here she was again, still playing a part,
but in a drama too secret to make her famous”
(20). But anonymity on the resistance front is
only the obverse of her solitary subjectivity in
the underground, where theatricality is not
only her modus operandi but also her modus
vivendi. Masquerading as Mrs. Mai, she craves
the adulating gaze of her classmates, who alone
are in on the secret and can witness the innite
horizon (or abyss) stretched out before her.
Once she is deep into her mission, Jiazhi
must act as her own spectator as she pan-
tomimes the merry- go- round of bourgeois
leisure activities: shopping, mah-jongg play-
ing, theatergoing, dining out, and, of course,
courtship and lovemaking. One senses that the
seriousness with which Jiazhi applies herself to
these activities is fortied by her sense of mis-
sion, by the knowledge that there is a subtext
to every trivial remark or gesture when she is
in the company of the Yis and their ilk. Every-
thing takes on an extra dimension of mean-
ing because it has been made the pretext for
something else, something beyond the imagi-
nation of those she consorts with, whom she
therefore holds in secret contempt. eir lives,
for all their duplicity in the realpolitik of oc-
cupation and collaboration, are pallid and
one- dimensional. None of them lives with
the kind of risk and danger that stares down
at Jiazhi from minute to minute; none needs
to contemplate the eventuality of having a
mah- jongg game or lovemaking session inter-
rupted by a burst of gunshots and a splattering
of blood and guts; none needs to question the
meaning of everyday life that is scheduled to
i g
. 2
Frame from Ang
Lee’s Lust, Caution
Haiyan Lee 
i g
. 3
Frame from Ang
Lee’s Lust, Caution
be terminated by an act of revolutionary vio-
lence. Jiazhi has to do all of this while pretend-
ing to be immersed in the thrills of bourgeois
sociability and sensuality. Her doubleness is
only possible thanks to a theatrical division
of the mind and body whereby the mind is a
detached spectator of the body’s charade. Her
nal act, however, blurs this division. Instead
of suspending the ecacy of her bodily role as
Mrs. Mai, she lets its objects, rituals, and emo-
tions ood the theatrically detached space of
the mind. For this coup against the “theatrical
contract” (Schamus 64), she pays with her life.
The Face of the Other and the Structure
of Sacrifice
ere is no indication that Yi is similarly torn
between the hedonics of the body and the as-
cetics of the soul. To the extent that he does
not profess any ideological conviction, his
heart is not in theory elsewhere, wedded to
some alternative vision of society, such as the
Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, the
ideological linchpin of Japanese imperialism
in Asia. Even illicit sexual love, which seems
to render him more human, does not detract
from his public identity. Indeed, his ability to
secure a steady supply of mistresses is atten-
dant on his being in a position of arbitrary
power in a brutal world. Hence, he has no
need of probing Jiazhi’s motive for attaching
herself to him. As far as he is concerned, both
he and Jiazhi are players in the bourgeois so-
cial, in which enjoyment is comingled with
games of power and privilege and rituals of
assignation and prestation.
In the short story, Yi is a self- satised ca-
reer spy and philanderer, otherwise manifest-
ing no despicable traits. In the lm, not only
does he see no meaning in his sinister profes-
sion, he positively despises himself as a spine-
less servant of foreign masters—hence his
comparison of his profession to prostitution
in a Japanese inn (see Duara; g. 4). Without
any ideological conviction and without a se-
cret self to fall back on, Yi comes o as some-
what pathetic, and his interest in pursuing and
keeping alive a dangerous liaison seems all the
more pardonable. When he is with Jiazhi, she
is no more and no less than a woman to him.
She is the instrument of his pleasure and grat-
ication, and so is he hers. It is largely on ac-
count of this kind of reciprocity that Levinas
considers eros a lesser transcendence. But the
mutuality of ends and means in sexual love
holds instrumentality in abeyance, allowing
the lovers to lay bare their neediness—or “des-
titution and hunger,” in Levinas’s language—
and willingly suspend absolute control.
The film version is unflinchingly ebul-
lient about the power of eros even as it draws
an unambiguous connection between sex and
political betrayal. e notorious eight minutes
of bedroom calisthenics—earning the lm an
NC- 17 rating in North America—enshrines
sexual passion as the last true site of transcen-
dence. Only in the corporeality of sex, the lm
suggests, is the bourgeois social able to shed its
nagging self- doubt and cynicism. Sex thus has
the power to exonerate and expiate. Aer he
issues the execution order, Yi is shown saun-
tering into Jiazhi’s bedroom and sitting down
on her bed with a woebegone expression.
is touch is no doubt the most humanizing
one that Lee brings to Yi’s character. Yi is es-
sentially a confessional sexual subject whose
sexual authenticity trumps his morally and
politically compromised identity as a collabo-
rator in an occupied territory. In other words,
his private identity as a passionate lover miti-
i g
. 4
Frame from Ang
Lee’s Lust, Caution
 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
gates his public (mis)conduct, attesting to “the
enormous enrichment of the private sphere”
that Arendt believes is central to the erosion of
the political. ere is something redeemable,
it seems, about even the most notorious crimi-
nal if he (sometimes she) can be shown to be
capable of true love in private life. Note that
Yi pursues libidinal gratication nearly to the
oblivion of his political duties, so much so that
during interrogation sessions, Jiazhi’s image
would, by his own confession, crop up to dis-
tract him and weaken his resolve to worst his
enemy. His sexuality thus redeems him and
wins him sympathy from contemporary audi-
ences, who are well schooled in the catechisms
of post- 1960s sexual libertarianism, who are
probably more comfortable with a sex end
than with an ideological fanatic, and who pre-
fer to be swept o their feet by the eroticism of
the body than by the frenzy of politics.
e short story, however, does not betray
such a faith in the redemptive powers of sex.
Rather, it lavishes over a quarter of the narra-
tive space on the jewelry-store scene, whose
dreamscape quality heightens the theatrical-
ity of the underground:
She felt a numb chill creeping up the back of
her head; the display windows downstairs and
the glass door between them seemed to be
broadening out, growing taller, as if behind her
were an enormous, two- story- high expanse of
brilliant, fragile glass, ready to disintegrate
at any moment. But even as she felt almost
dizzy with the precariousness of her situation,
the shop seemed to be blanketing her in tor-
por. . . . e warm, sweet air inside the oce
pressed soporically down on her like a quilt.
ough she was vaguely aware that something
was about to happen, her heavy head was tell-
ing her that it must all be a dream.
She examined the ring under the lamp-
light, turning it over in her ngers. . . . “Six
carats. Try it on,” the Indian urged.
She decided to enjoy the drowsy intimacy
of this jeweler’s den. Her eyes flitted to the
reection of her foot, nestling amid clumps
of peonies, in the mirror propped against the
wall, then back to the fabulous treasure
worthy, surely, of a tale from the Thousand
and One Nightson her finger. She turned
the ring this way, then that. . . . Inside the
gloomy oce it had an alluring sparkle, like a
star burning pink in dusk light. She registered
a twinge of regret that it was to be no more
than a prop in the short, penultimate scene of
the drama unfolding around it. (39–40)
In the enchanted space that the upstairs of-
ce of the shop has become in these medita-
tive pages, the diamond is a magic stone that
connects the here and the beyond, the present
travail and the sweet hereaer. “Only in the
Arabian Nights were there such happenings.
Buying things with gold, too, felt like an-
other detail stolen from the Arabian Nights
(41). But bewitching as the diamond may be,
Jia zhi knows well that it is only a prop in a
spy- seduction thriller. Its fairy-tale glory lasts
only as long as it takes for her comrades to get
their act together and come aer Yi at last.
The narrative voice then shifts to Yi’s
thoughts. With a wistful smile on his face, Yi
wonders how much of Jiazhi’s attraction to him
is attributable to his power. As if knowing that
there is no true answer to such a question, he
does what is necessary to enjoy her company:
“taking his paramours shopping, ministering
to their whims, retreating into the background
while they made their choices.” But there is
“absolutely no irony in his grin at this mo-
ment, just a shade of sadness” (45)—sadness
because he, unlike Jiazhi, is not a conspirator
and cannot feel self- righteous about what he is
doing. ere is no deeper meaning to humor-
ing his mistress and indulging her feminine
vanity. He may be a ruthless player in the game
of power politics between Nanjing and Chong-
qing, but at this moment he is just a man try-
ing to secure his paramour’s heart by treating
her as an ordinary (bourgeois) woman with
ordinary (bourgeois) weaknesses. Thus, he
willingly invests time and money and greedily
soaks up the euphoria of nding love at middle
age, all the while apparently ignorant of the
Haiyan Lee 
grave jeopardy he is in. For all the deceit and
skullduggery that he must practice daily, he is
fooled by an ingenue who knows something
about acting. Rather than a strutting mover
and shaker feared by all, he now appears to be
a pathetic lecher doomed by his lust. It is this
display, however involuntary, of male failing
that suddenly tips the balance for Jiazhi:
He sat in silhouette against the lamp, seem-
ingly sunk into an attitude of tenderly aec-
tionate contemplation, his downcast eyelashes
tinged [with] the dull cream of moth wings as
they rested on his gaunt cheeks.
He really loves me, she thought. Inside,
she felt a raw tremor of shock—then a vague
sense of loss. (45–46)
In this passage, which has been pored
over by countless critics, what stands out most
conspicuously and yet most inexplicably is Yi’s
face. Levinas considers the face of the other—
in its very nakedness—the ultimate locus of
humanity. It calls forth from the self the “vo-
cation of saintliness”: “the epiphany of the hu-
man face constitutes a penetration of the crust,
so to speak, of ‘being persevering in its being’
and preoccupied with itself” (Alterity 171). If
the existential and social “crust” permits peo-
ple to parade in egoism, the naked face of the
other penetrates that crust and summons the
self to reach for ethical heights, the innite:
“The infinite paralyses power by its infinite
resistance to murder, which, rm and insur-
mountable, gleams in the face of the Other, in
the total nudity of his defenceless eyes, in the
nudity of the absolute openness of the Tran-
scendence” (Tot a l i t y 199). In Levinas’s natural
theology, God speaks to the self through the
face of the other. Saintliness, charity, or love,
all dened as “an unlimited obligation toward
the other” (Alterity 175), is a mode of secular
transcendence whose ultimate realization is
dying for the other:
e priority of the other over the I . . . is pre-
cisely the latter’s response to the nakedness
of the face and its mortality. It is there that
the concern for the other’s death is realized,
and that “dying for him” “dying his death”
takes priority over “authentic” death. Not a
post- mortem life, but the excessiveness of sac-
rice, holiness in charity and mercy. is fu-
ture of death in the present of love is probably
one of the original secrets of temporality itself
and beyond all metaphor. (Entre Nous 217)
Jiazhi’s martyrdom approximates the exces-
siveness of sacrice. Instead of dying her own
“authentic” death, Jiazhi dies an extravagant
death, Yi’s death, in his stead and by his hand.
It is the ultimate saintly act, which not infre-
quently takes on a delusional quality. Her
spontaneous, almost subconscious saintli-
ness is called forth by the sight of Yi’s face,
bare and defenseless under the lamplight, ut-
terly ignorant of the coming catastrophe. It
is true that the Levinasian face is, as Judith
Butler reminds us, never simply a literal face
but a gure or catachresis for something that
resists representation—human suering, or
what she terms “the precariousness of life”
(133). Hence, what turns the jewelry store into
an ethical and transcendental zone is a face
that seems the very gure of “glorious abase-
ment,” soon to be a lifeless mask but at the
moment a “master called to invest and justify
my freedom” (Levinas, Tota l it y 251). Whereas
Lee’s lm resorts to lengthy and excruciating
coital sequences in an effort to account for
Jia zhi’s change of heart, the short story ex-
tends the diamond transaction into a medi-
tation on what Levinas calls “love without
concupiscence” (Alterity 175). In the lm, her
utterance of “Run” seems activated by bodily
memories—an instance of speaking sexual
truth to power, as it were. In the story, by con-
trast, it is the face of a man whose eyelashes
are likened to ethereal moth wings that takes
Jia zhi to the beyond. The faintly feminine
imagery of the cream- colored moth wings
(a common metaphor for women’s eyebrows
in traditional Chinese aesthetics) calls atten-
tion to the incongruence between a hardened
 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
journeyman spy with blood on his hands and
a resigned suitor trying to do a credible job
in enacting the romantic ritual. The other-
worldly temporality of the store, it seems, has
its secret in Jiazhi’s “future” of death, which
is realized in the present of her “love,” her
麗而蒼涼的手beautiful and desolate ges-
ture’ of sacrice.
However, when the narrative voice returns
to Yi a couple of pages later, we are made to
witness the cruel irony of Jiazhi’s martyrdom:
whereas Jiazhi abandons her mission at the
instance of being touched by his vulnerabil-
ity, Yi credits the fatal attraction to his 無毒
不丈夫 cold- blooded manliness’ (Se 415; my
trans.). He gloats over his decisive action in
putting the student conspirators to death, not
least to avoid unwelcome publicity in which
“they would have become patriotic heroes
plotting to assassinate a national traitor” (54).
Jia zhi’s death, in fact, completes his enjoyment
by way of romantic martyrdom: she has loved
him, saved him, and then died for saving him
and by his own order. is is his moment of
contingent transcendence, for to have inspired
another’s self-sacrice is tantamount to being
consecrated as a divinity. Given the nature
of his job, every so oen he probably has to
confront recalcitrant captives who refuse to
betray their comrades and who willingly die
for their beliefs—beliefs that he does not un-
derstand or has no sympathy for. In putting
such people to death, he is merely rearming
his powerlessness: he can break their bodies
but not their spirit. But now, nally, someone
has died for choosing him over her cause and
in so doing has deied him and turned the su-
preme power of life and death over to him. It
is as if God had spoken to Jiazhi through Yi’s
quizzical face: “ou shalt not kill.” Instead
of being an uncomprehending instrument
of someone else’s ascension to revolutionary
martyrdom, Yi is the exalted end of a woman’s
response to an ethical injunction. No wonder
Yi practically gives himself away at the mah-
jongg table to the discerning Mrs. Ma, who
notices that his inattentiveness carries a deli-
cious glow of postclimactic beatitude.
Yi’s self- satisfaction undercuts the sig-
nicance of the jewelry-store scene as a mo-
ment of transcendence for Jiazhi. While for
Yi presenting a gi of a diamond is a routine,
if pricey, step of the romantic ritual, for Jiazhi
it is a moment radically elevated above the or-
dinary, so much so that the Indian jeweler ap-
pears to be a mythical gure from the Arabian
Nights there to witness her metamorphosis.
e diamond for her is not merely a coveted
commodity but a symbol of permanence and
indestructibility. To consecrate this priceless
moment, she enacts a saintly gesture of sacri-
ce. Does her death, then, illustrate the limits
of the Levinasian ethics? Butler suggests that
the dyadic structure of the Levinasian ethics
is ill suited to the sphere of politics, which is
by denition a plural aair, with “more than
two subjects at play” in any given situation
(139). She asks pointedly, “I may decide not to
invoke my own desire to preserve my life as a
justication for violence, but what if violence
is done to someone I love? What if there is an
Other who does violence to another Other? To
which Other do I respond ethically? Which
Other do I put before myself? Or do I then
stand by?” (139–40).
If the suerings of a plural other—her fel-
low Chinese—were at least one of the factors
that initially drew Jiazhi into the resistance
movement and if loyalty to her comrades has
turned her into a competent spy- seductress,
then these others seem all to have vanished
from the dyadic structure and the enchanted
eld of appearances in the jewelry store. e
claims of these others, it seems, cannot be
accommodated in the struggle between self-
preservation and the face of the other, and
hence a beautiful gesture of ethical transcen-
dence is simultaneously a desolate, indeed
ignominious, act of betrayal. Does her rash
blindness to the enormity of the consequence
issue from her inability to admit the political
into her eld of vision, at least not before she
Haiyan Lee 
arrives at the cordon line? is view would
tally well with the habitual condemnation in
radical camps of the bourgeoisie who hitch
their romantic dreams to the bandwagon of
revolution only to end up on the road to per-
dition. e bourgeoisie, it is believed, join the
revolution for the aesthetic and emotional
exultations that only a collective movement
can oer, without a rm ideological commit-
ment. In Marxist parlance, they are aicted
with bourgeois vacillation. Is Jiazhi’s fateful
utterance an acting out of this aiction? Is
her Levinasian moment inherently injurious
to the political? To address these questions,
we will take a brief detour in the story’s his-
torical double.
Forgiveness in Dark Times
Since the release of Lee’s lm, the spy- assassin
story that is widely believed to be Chang’s
source has resurfaced. e once largely for-
gotten name of Zheng Pingru (1918–40
[fig. 5]) is now nearly a household name in
the sinophone world. Zheng’s father was a
Fudan University professor and one- time
chief prosecutor of the Jiangsu High Court,
and her mother was Japanese. Gorgeous, vi-
vacious, and uent in Chinese and Japanese,
Zheng was a shining star in Shanghai’s high
society. Aer she was inducted into the secret
service of the Nationalist government, she
made much use of her family connections
with the Japanese and with Wang Jingwei’s
collaborationist regime. She succeeded in
luring Wang’s security chief, Ding Mocun
(1901–47), into an aair, but at the planned
site of his assassination (a leather-and-fur-
goods store), a bumbling assassin accidentally
exposed the plot, allowing Ding a narrow es-
cape. Zheng was apprehended and executed
in secret shortly aer, reportedly at the urg-
ings of the wives of Wang’s top ocials. As
far as we know, Zheng remained loyal to her
cause and never betrayed her comrades. She
was twenty-three years old when she died.
If the speculation that Zheng was the
prototype of Wang Jiazhi is not unreasonable,
then new questions arise: Why did Chang give
her story such a perverse twist, so that instead
of dying a true martyr’s death, the heroine
dies a traitor? Why did Chang make Jiazhi ut-
ter that treacherous word, “Run,” when Zheng
never did such a thing? And, for that matter,
why did Lee choose to work with Chang’s con-
trarian (some might say perverse) little story
instead of Zheng’s true-life story? In my view,
Lust, Caution is a deliberate deformation of
Zheng’s story precisely because the latter is
easily absorbed into the archetypal national
narrative that defers individual purposes and
subsumes them into the totalizing ideology
of national liberation, a teleology that justi-
es the instrumentalization of the individual
body, particularly the female body. Chang’s
story renders this teleology inoperable. To
evoke Lydia Liu’s o- cited reading of the novel
The Field of Life and Death, by Xiao Hong
(1911–42), we might say that Jiazhi’s change
of heart foregrounds women’s mediated rela-
i g
. 5
Zheng Pingru
 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
tion to the patriarchal nation (199–213). Her
one- word utterance inserts a wedge between
woman and nation and obstructs the latter’s
righteous subsumption of the former.
When Lust, Caution first appeared, in
a Taiwanese newspaper supplement, it was
skewered by an overseas- based male writer
who found its ambivalent treatment of “trea-
son” unconscionable (Yuwairen). Breaking
her long- held reticence, Chang published a
spirited rejoinder in a subsequent issue. Sig-
nicantly, she links Jiazhi’s change of heart to
the problem of instrumentalism. In the Hong
Kong part of the assassination plot, Chang
reminds us, Jiazhi purposefully loses her vir-
ginity so that she will be able to play the role
of a married woman convincingly. But her
sacrice is rendered moot when her prey un-
expectedly slips away. e despondent group
begins to distance itself from Jia zhi, even
looking askance at her as a soiled woman.
Not even the ringleader, to whom she is at-
tracted, spares her this oppressive feeling.
受 了 很 激 。她 上 了
當 ,有 出 ,有 ‘She is very
hurt by all this. She even begins to doubt if
she has been duped by them. And yet she has
no one to turn to. She thus becomes a little
unhinged’ (“Yangmao” 455; my trans.). Be-
coming unhinged portends the realization
that undercover activism turns on a sexist
logic of instrumentalism: once the goal is lost,
the (feminine) instrument is deemed not only
useless but also worthless for having been de-
led. Zheng submitted to the logic, but her
immediate arrest and execution allowed her
no chance to dwell in the purgatory of being
a purposeless and damaged tool or to brood
over the mediated relation between gender
and nation. But ction is about what might
have been. The diegetic interruption of the
conspiracy plot—turning the story into a tale
of two cities—is a literary enactment of the
Benjaminian brushing of history against the
grain. In this light, Jiazhi’s willingness to re-
sume playing Mrs. Mai in Shanghai when the
ringleader (now working for the Chongqing-
based secret service) approaches her again
may well be driven by a desire to reattach a
purpose to her irredeemably instrumental-
ized self or to exchange purgatorial ambigu-
ity for the clarity of revolutionary action. In
doing so, she reactivates the politicization of
the social with a feminist caveat.
Lust, Caution is a feminist counternarra-
tive in its insistent meditation on the intersec-
tion of the political and the social for women.
The theatricality of the underground takes
Jia zhi out of the communal anonymity of the
resistance movement and throws her into a
state of solitude in which she alone confronts
the other. Ethical subjectivity and transcen-
dence beckon almost in spite of herself, “with
consciousness arriving late” (Newton 13). In
letting go of Yi, Jiazhi forgives who he is in the
political arena for the sake of what he is in the
zone of intersubjective encounter. Forgiving,
according to Arendt, is the only “reaction”
that bears the aleatory and hence creative
quality of “action” (Human Condition 241), for
it undoes what is done and redeems humanity
from the irreversibility of action. In particular,
“only love has the power to forgive . . . because
it is unconcerned with what the loved person
may be, with his qualities and shortcomings
no less than with his achievements, failings,
and transgressions” (242). What impels Jiazhi
to forgive is love called forth by the face of the
other, the gure of transcendence. Forgiveness
takes love from the erotic eld to the politi-
cal domain of friendship. Her one- word ut-
terance contravenes Arendt’s conviction that
the rise of the social has led to the eclipse of
the political. As Bonnie Honig strenuously
argues, “with and against Arendt,” the social
is a fertile ground for enacting the Arendtian
agonistic politics, a politics that questions, re-
sists, and revises the patriarchal, racial, and
class organization of bodies and identities
(158). Instead of smothering the political—
Arendt’s fear is vividly captured by Hanna
Pitkin’s phrase “the attack of the blob”—the
Haiyan Lee 
social can be transformed, by and for women,
into an agonal space of freedom and action.
But Lust, Caution also shows how eas-
ily women’s space of action can be annulled
when violence and aggression have displaced
genuine politics. e condition of occupation
ushers in what Arendt calls “dark times,” in
which the “interspaces between men in all
their variety” (Men 31), or the “in- between,”
are closed o. us rendered worldless, the
insulted and the injured seek strength and
compensation in the warmth of subaltern
fraternity, while friendship becomes unten-
able. However, Arendt believes that the task
of humanity in dark times is not merely to
retreat into the comfort of fraternal intimacy
but to practice “vigilant partiality,” which
involves “taking sides for the world’s sake,
understanding and judging everything in
terms of its position in the world at any given
time” (7–8). Lisa Disch extends Arendt’s no-
tion of “in- between” (or “inter- est”) to elabo-
rate a concept of “third- person identity,” or
an I who is dened in the third person, “in
the categorical terms of political facts such as
race, class, gender, and sexuality” (297).
Disch’s creative interpretation of Arendt
gives us a new angle on Levinas’s notion of
the face of the other, which can be glossed as
the condition of possibility of third-person
identication. e notion signies the ethico-
political fact of alterity, distance, and plural-
ity. It is still a gure of human vulnerability
but not merely of the boundless suffering
that inspires compassion—this would make
the Levinasian ethics indistinguishable from
universalist religious ethics. Rather, the face
localizes the in- between as a space of appear-
ances and discourses, where we all travel, in
Disch’s terms, as part of a “suspect” class and
have to contend with “the discontinuity be-
tween the ‘I’ at home and the ‘I’ in the world”
(297). By appearing in this space, we open
ourselves up to the promise of friendship and
freedom as well as to the risk of deception and
disintegration. Our safety and dignity rest as
much on the goodwill of others as on abstract
principles. The political fact of our third-
person identity is what makes ethical and po-
litical agency possible. e Levinasian ethics
is less about a decisionist self choosing among
competing claims or imperatives, as Butler
implies, than about a self that is responsible
for and responsive to its third- person identity,
to the alterity and plurality gured in the face
of the other. Indeed, Levinas conceives of his
philosophy as fundamentally about the fact
of human multiplicity: “multiplicity can be
produced only if the individuals retain their
secrecy, if the relation that unites them into
a multiplicity is not visible from the outside,
but proceeds from one unto the other. . . . e
relation proceeding from me to the other can-
not be included within a network of relations
visible to a third party” (Totalit y 12 0– 21).
e reference here to secrecy and invis-
ibility to “a third party” is dierent from the
intimate secrecy of collective movements in
dark times; rather, the emphasis is on the in-
dependence of the face-to-face from any kind
of totality that attempts to legislate how one
being relates to another or from “any doc-
trine that in principle bar[s] the possibility
of friendship between two human beings”
(Arendt, Men 29), thereby negating alterity
and multiplicity. Jiazhi’s nal act, at the sight
of Yi’s pensive face, enacts the movement
from the same to the other that is not ap-
prehensible to a third party—the nationalist
or resistance movement from which she has
momentarily detached herself, absconded, as
it were. Speaking of a hypothetical friendship
between a German and a Jew under Nazism,
Arendt asks whether the Nazi racist doctrine,
if somehow scientically proved, “would . . .
be worth the sacrice of so much as a single
friendship between two men?” (29). Jia-
zhi’s choice enacts the response that Arendt
clearly has in mind. In honoring a friendship
forged in the interpersonal spaces invisible
and hence oensive to patriarchal national-
ism, Jiazhi contests the political fact of her
 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
Chineseness, which mandates that she sur-
render to the truth of national belonging and
forgo any possibility of friendship with some-
one who has crossed the national line. At the
same time, she also contests the political fact
of her gender, whereby she is no more than an
eroticized and instrumentalized body, a cog
in the collective liberation movement. This
is where the lm is most misleading, for her
apparently impulsive utterance is not the ir-
repressible or culminating expression of an
authentic sexual self but a feminist gesture of
deance by which a passive body speaks up as
an acting and forgiving subject. e dénoue-
ment of the story is thus a poignant indict-
ment of patriarchal- nationalist politics that
short- circuits the extension of the Levinasian
ethics to the Arendtian space of agonistic
politics. Her double betrayal—her betraying
the cause and her being betrayed by Yi—is an
allegory not of the limits of the Levinasian
ethics but rather of the limits of the politics
of violence that forecloses the in- between of
the public arena and the space for action.
e enduring appeal of Eileen Chang can be
located in her persistent return to the ques-
tion of the bourgeois social and its tensions,
pretensions, discontents, and fatal attrac-
tions. In no other text, however, does she di-
rectly tackle its entanglement with ethics and
politics as she does in Lust, Caution. Chang
is said to have begun craing this story (in
En glish) in the early 1950s while working as a
sta writer for the United States Information
Service in Hong Kong, during which time
she also wrote two “greenback” novels in En-
glish. When the short story was eventually
published in the late 1970s, the cold war was
entering its détente phase. In what ways, then,
is the cold war relevant to our understanding
of a story that seems coterminous with it?
If the cold war was, among other things, an
ideological stando between the self- styled
liberal, individualist, and democratic West
on the one side and the authoritarian, collec-
tivist, and fanatical Communist bloc on the
other side, then Chang’s intervention seems
to serve the former in two ways: on the one
hand, she deates the sanctimony of revolu-
tionary politics by laying bare its ruthless in-
strumental, patriarchal, and totalizing logics;
on the other hand, she depicts the bourgeois
social not as mere bad faith, or the realm of
“weightless irrelevance,” but as an inescapable
modern condition that requires both a stoic
appreciation of the ordinary and a guarded
openness for contingent transcendence. e
realm of bourgeois vacillation is, paradoxi-
cally, also the basis of ethical hope.
Chang’s ironic humanism draws her close
to Levinas and to a small number of postwar
thinkers who, according to Samuel Moyn,
sought to defend “a realm of interpersonal
moral intimacy against the totalizing claims
of Hegelian and Marxist intellectuals who
argued for the priority of collective politics
and historical progress to intimate morality
and eternal norms” (219–20). In turning to
Chang’s story, Lee shrewdly senses the reso-
nance it has for post- 9/11 metropolitan audi-
ences, who, perhaps more than ever, have been
committed to the intrinsic value of the inter-
personal and the everyday since the events of
September 2001 brought the terror of total-
izing ideologies, or what Michael Dutton calls
“commitment politics,” to their doorstep.
In the preface to her rst short story col-
lection, Chang likens her writing to tradi-
tional opera:
In the savage wilderness, the woman who
comes to power is not, as most people imag-
ine, a wild rose with big, black, burning eyes,
stronger than a man, whip in hand, ready to
strike at any moment. That’s just a fantasy
made up by city- folk in need of new stimula-
tion. In the wilderness that is coming, among
the shards and rubble, only the painted- lady
type from “Hop- Hop” opera, this kind of
woman, can carry on with simple ease. Her
Haiyan Lee 
home is everywhere, in any era, any society.
(“Preface” 3–4)
Originated in northeastern China, 蹦蹦 ‘hop-
hop’ opera belongs to the nonrepresentational
tradition of Chinese theater, which empha-
sizes the body in performance over mimetic
realism. Chang’s writing, too, is drawn to the
possibility of nding meaning and contingent
transcendence in the masquerade of everyday
life. Depth, essence, or absolute transcendence
is for her as illusory as the shining- eyed, whip-
wielding woman who would permanently de-
liver humanity from its existential misery. In
creating the spy thriller manqué that is Lust,
Caution, Chang chooses to play the part of the
painted- lady chanteuse who can be at home
anywhere because everywhere people grapple
with the predicaments of ethics and politics.
She would go on to serenade us, beckoning us
to ponder what it means to pursue transcen-
dence amid the “shards and rubble” of the
“savage wilderness” that is our world today.
No t e s
Prasenjit Duara, Paul Festa, and Viren Murthy were
the rst and most involved readers of this article. I am
grateful for their deep engagements. I would also like to
acknowledge the input of Jo Chen, Esther Cheung, Pe-
ter Gries, Andrew Jones, Karen Kingsbury, Perry Link,
Gina Marchetti, Ban Wang, Mary Wong Shuk- han, and
Esther Yau.
1. Most of t hese have been tra nslated into En glish and
anthologized in Love in a Fallen City, which I reviewed
for an online resource center (“Eileen Chang’s Poetics”).
This article develops some of the ideas I initially pre-
sented in the review.
2. See L. Lee (Di Se, jie 1–5) for an evenhanded survey
of the range of critical opinions on the lm in Asia, Eu-
rope, and North America.
3. In discounting the ethical promise of eros, Levi-
nas seems to slide between the beloved and the domes-
tic or feminine other, associating innity only with the
offspring of a heterosexual union. But literature and
popular culture furnish ample evidence of the noniso-
morphism of the beloved and the domestic other. See H.
Lee, “Guest Editor’s Introduction.”
4. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations of Lust,
Caution in English are from Julia Lovell’s translation.
e Chinese text (Se, jie) comes from the 2006 edition of
Chang’s selected works.
5. Ang Lee points out that in the lm Yi mocks him-
self as a 倀 ‘tiger’s ghost,’ which in Chinese mythology
refers to a tiger’s kill who then does the 為虎作倀 ‘ tig er’s
evil bidding,’ and that this word is homonymous with
the word for “whore” () in Chinese (Aerword 60). In
the story, Chang uses the rst term to describe what Yi
thinks of the already dead Jiazhi: “And now he possessed
her utterly, primitively—as a hunter does his quarry, a
tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead, she
was his ghost” (54). Possession annuls the ethical by an-
nulling the alterity of the other.
6. If the first sex scene, which features some mild
sadomasochism, smacks of male chauvinism, the coital
congurations in subsequent scenes are so Kama Sutra
esque that it would be unreasonable to doubt that the en-
joyment is mutual. As phallic brutality gradually fades
out of the picture, sex is a state of communitas in which
power relations are suspended and in which human vul-
nerabilities are on full display. In one scene, the camera
movement repeatedly calls our attention to the fact that
Yi has completely let down his guard: his gun, partially
sticking out of his coat pocket, is for the moment out of
his reach; Jiazhi is riding on top of him and holding a pil-
low to his face while eyeing the gun. We are seized with
the apprehension that she might try to grab the gun and
nish him o during his climactic paroxysm. But the fact
that she does not act on the opportunity prepares us for
the real climax of the story.
7. is is Chang’s sig nature phrase (Qingcheng zhi lian
169), frequently and lovingly repeated by her commenta-
tors. See L. Lee (Shanghai Modern 267–303; Cangliang),
B. Wang (89–100), and Xu for the most extensive and at-
tentive explications of Chang’s aesthetics of desolation.
See also D. Wang (“Zhang Ailing”) and Chow for analy-
ses of Chang’s feminist narrative strategies and the écri-
ture fé mi nine tradition that she has inspired in postwar
sinophone literature.
8. See Cai for a reconstruction of the assassination
plot and the careers of the major players on the basis of
journalist and literary accounts.
9. Drawing on Slavoj Žižek, the screenwriter James
Scha mus reads Jiazhi ’s suicidal act as “a supreme form
of feminine rejection” and “a profound cry of protest
against warring structures of domination that so cata-
clysmically shaped midcentury China” (65).
10. An undated En glish manuscript tentatively enti-
tled “e Spyring” was recently unearthed from Chang’s
archives and published in the Hong Kong– based maga-
zine Muse, with an accompanying article by Leo Oufan
Lee (“Spying”). Likely composed in the early 1950s, “e
Spy ring” is now assumed to be the prototype for Lust,
Cau tion (Ma). Greenback is a label affixed to writings
 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
commissioned or sponsored by the United States Infor-
mation Service that generally toed the anticommunist
line of cold war ideology—see David Wang’s discussion
of e Rice- Sprout Song (Monster 131–37).
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 Enemy under My Skin: Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and the Politics of Transcendence
... She has often been compared to Jane Austen in her ability to dissect in minute detail the mundane things in life that affect human relationships (Louie, 2012;Luo and Wang, 2012). Consequently, scholars have stressed that Chang represents an unapologetically introspective and sentimental but largely apolitical writer (Huang, 2005;Lee, 2010;Tsu, 2010). As Ping-Kwan Leung points out: "the predominant accusation is that her works are trivial and narrow in scope, Rachel Leng/6 Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies, (March 2014), 13-34. ...
Eileen Chang has been described by critics as an unapologetically introspective and sentimental but largely apolitical writer. When most other writers of her time were concentrating on the grand and the abstract in exploring the May Fourth modernist spirit, Eileen Chang’s approach to her writing poignantly laid bare an intense interest in the modern relationships between men and women, between an individual and the collective. Contrary to popular interpretation, this paper argues that there is a strong political and subversive dimension to Chang’s writings that has hitherto been glided over or ignored completely. Specifically, this paper suggests that recurring themes of abortive parent-child relationships, the dilapidated household, and disillusioned sexual unions throughout Chang’s work not only intertwines references to her own private life and love affairs, but reflects a larger sociopolitical history anchored in the rise of a national eugenics movement at the bedrock of Chinese modernity. The parallel narratives of The Golden Cangue (1943) and The Rouge of The North (1967) engage intimately in a social critique of the Chinese state’s propagation of eugenic practices related to reproduction. These stories unveil Eileen Chang at her best in uncovering, even allegorically, the relationship between the feminine and the sociopolitical changes besetting contemporary China. She limns a fictional world where Chinese modernity has engendered its own reflection in the image of the monstrous, embittered woman suffering from psychological and bodily decay and grapples with the corporeal manifestation of the malaise of social and marital relations in modern China.
... Like Eileen Chang's "Lust, Caution," which twists a real-life assassination plot to make a feminist-inflected Levinasian point (Lee 2010), the novel confirms something long known to psychologists and Hollywood screenwriters: our compassion for strangers needs to be anchored by a "bridge" character, a discrete individual, a person with a face, without whom we can remain unmoved by faceless mass suffering. Here Adam is the bridge character who puts a face on a crowd and beckons May to moral action. ...
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In the late 1930s and early 1940s, tens of thousands of European Jews fleeing Nazi genocide found a temporary safe-haven in Shanghai. They were able to do so because Shanghai was an open city under divided governance and because China was at war with Japan and could not exercise sovereign control over its borders. In this article, I ponder the moral lessons from this fortuitous episode of humanitarianism through the lens of moral philosophy and moral psychology. Using the Canadian-Chinese writer Beila’s novel A Cursed Piano as my textual anchor, I argue that fiction, even if counterfactual, is an aid to the affective, imaginative, and reflexive exercise of moral reasoning, and can help us counteract the retreat of morality in modern life.
In the film adaptation of Lust, Caution , the importance of sex is apparent. This is not necessarily the case in Se, Jie . In Eileen Chang’s story, there is an interconnection between sex, death, and a ring. This relationship is portrayed differently in Julia Lovell’s Lust, Caution . Viewing Eileen Chang as world literature reveals similarities and differences between Se, Jie and Lust, Caution and their different thematic emphases. This article explores how the imageries of the ring, sex, and death are interrelated. The transaction involving the ring in Chang’s text is similar to a sexual transaction. Analyzing the difference between the source and the target texts reveals how Lovell places a “heavier” emphasis on women’s bodies, suggesting the suppression women suffer in a patriarchal society. While the thematic importance of death is also present in Lust, Caution , it is brought out by the notion of foreignness and undecipherability.
In Vulgar Beauty Mila Zuo offers a new theorization of cinematic feminine beauty by showing how mediated encounters with Chinese film and popular culture stars produce feelings of Chineseness. To illustrate this, Zuo uses the vulgar as an analytic to trace how racial, gendered, and cultural identity is imagined and produced through affect. She frames the vulgar as a characteristic that is experienced through the Chinese concept of weidao, or flavor, in which bitter, salty, pungent, sweet, and sour performances of beauty produce non-Western forms of sexualized and racialized femininity. Analyzing contemporary film and media ranging from actress Gong Li’s post-Mao movies of the late 1980s and 1990s to Joan Chen’s performance in Twin Peaks to Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy specials, Zuo shows how vulgar beauty disrupts Western and colonial notions of beauty. Vulgar beauty, then, becomes the taste of difference. By demonstrating how Chinese feminine beauty becomes a cinematic invention invested in forms of affective racialization, Zuo makes a critical reconsideration of aesthetic theory.
In Vulgar Beauty Mila Zuo offers a new theorization of cinematic feminine beauty by showing how mediated encounters with Chinese film and popular culture stars produce feelings of Chineseness. To illustrate this, Zuo uses the vulgar as an analytic to trace how racial, gendered, and cultural identity is imagined and produced through affect. She frames the vulgar as a characteristic that is experienced through the Chinese concept of weidao, or flavor, in which bitter, salty, pungent, sweet, and sour performances of beauty produce non-Western forms of sexualized and racialized femininity. Analyzing contemporary film and media ranging from actress Gong Li’s post-Mao movies of the late 1980s and 1990s to Joan Chen’s performance in Twin Peaks to Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy specials, Zuo shows how vulgar beauty disrupts Western and colonial notions of beauty. Vulgar beauty, then, becomes the taste of difference. By demonstrating how Chinese feminine beauty becomes a cinematic invention invested in forms of affective racialization, Zuo makes a critical reconsideration of aesthetic theory.
In Vulgar Beauty Mila Zuo offers a new theorization of cinematic feminine beauty by showing how mediated encounters with Chinese film and popular culture stars produce feelings of Chineseness. To illustrate this, Zuo uses the vulgar as an analytic to trace how racial, gendered, and cultural identity is imagined and produced through affect. She frames the vulgar as a characteristic that is experienced through the Chinese concept of weidao, or flavor, in which bitter, salty, pungent, sweet, and sour performances of beauty produce non-Western forms of sexualized and racialized femininity. Analyzing contemporary film and media ranging from actress Gong Li’s post-Mao movies of the late 1980s and 1990s to Joan Chen’s performance in Twin Peaks to Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy specials, Zuo shows how vulgar beauty disrupts Western and colonial notions of beauty. Vulgar beauty, then, becomes the taste of difference. By demonstrating how Chinese feminine beauty becomes a cinematic invention invested in forms of affective racialization, Zuo makes a critical reconsideration of aesthetic theory.
In Vulgar Beauty Mila Zuo offers a new theorization of cinematic feminine beauty by showing how mediated encounters with Chinese film and popular culture stars produce feelings of Chineseness. To illustrate this, Zuo uses the vulgar as an analytic to trace how racial, gendered, and cultural identity is imagined and produced through affect. She frames the vulgar as a characteristic that is experienced through the Chinese concept of weidao, or flavor, in which bitter, salty, pungent, sweet, and sour performances of beauty produce non-Western forms of sexualized and racialized femininity. Analyzing contemporary film and media ranging from actress Gong Li’s post-Mao movies of the late 1980s and 1990s to Joan Chen’s performance in Twin Peaks to Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy specials, Zuo shows how vulgar beauty disrupts Western and colonial notions of beauty. Vulgar beauty, then, becomes the taste of difference. By demonstrating how Chinese feminine beauty becomes a cinematic invention invested in forms of affective racialization, Zuo makes a critical reconsideration of aesthetic theory.
In Vulgar Beauty Mila Zuo offers a new theorization of cinematic feminine beauty by showing how mediated encounters with Chinese film and popular culture stars produce feelings of Chineseness. To illustrate this, Zuo uses the vulgar as an analytic to trace how racial, gendered, and cultural identity is imagined and produced through affect. She frames the vulgar as a characteristic that is experienced through the Chinese concept of weidao, or flavor, in which bitter, salty, pungent, sweet, and sour performances of beauty produce non-Western forms of sexualized and racialized femininity. Analyzing contemporary film and media ranging from actress Gong Li’s post-Mao movies of the late 1980s and 1990s to Joan Chen’s performance in Twin Peaks to Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy specials, Zuo shows how vulgar beauty disrupts Western and colonial notions of beauty. Vulgar beauty, then, becomes the taste of difference. By demonstrating how Chinese feminine beauty becomes a cinematic invention invested in forms of affective racialization, Zuo makes a critical reconsideration of aesthetic theory.
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This study reconsiders The Story of the Stone as a literary exemplum of the “Buddhist conquest of China.” The kind of Buddhism that Stone embodies in its fictional form and makes indelible on the Chinese cultural imagination simultaneously indulges in and wavers from the Mahāyāna teachings of the nonduality of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. The dialectics of truth and falsehood, love and emptiness, passion and compassion, which Stone dramatizes and problematizes, continues to stir the creative impulses of artists in revolutionary and post-revolutionary China. This study features three of Stone’s modern reincarnations. Tale of the Crimson Silk, a story by the amorous poet-monk Su Manshu (1884–1918), recasts at once the idea of Buddhist monkhood and that of “free love” in early Republican China. In Lust, Caution, a spy story by the celebrated writer Eileen Chang (1920–1995), a revolutionary heroine is compelled to weigh the emptiness/truth of carnal desire against the truth/emptiness of patriotic commitment. Decades later, love and illusion dwell again at the epicenter of a fallen empire in the director Chen Kaige’s (b. 1952) 2017 film, The Legend of the Demon Cat, in which an illustrious poet sings testimony to the (un)witting (com)passion of a femme fatale.
A friend, long deceased, once told me how he had decided to specialize in Japanese literature. In the early 1970s, he heard a talk by a well-known Japanologist, who contrasted China study and Japan study by citing the opening lines of two primers for foreign students. The Chinese primer began with the line “I am hungry”; the Japanese one began with the line “The cherry blossoms are falling from the sky.” My friend chose to go the way of the cherry blossoms.
In ancient China a monster called Taowu was known for both its vicious nature and its power to see the past and the future. Over the centuries Taowu underwent many incarnations until it became identifiable with history itself. Since the seventeenth century, fictive accounts of history have accommodated themselves to the monstrous nature of Taowu. Moving effortlessly across the entire twentieth-century literary landscape, David Der-wei Wang delineates the many meanings of Chinese violence and its literary manifestations. Taking into account the campaigns of violence and brutality that have rocked generations of Chinese-often in the name of enlightenment, rationality, and utopian plenitude-this book places its arguments along two related axes: history and representation, modernity and monstrosity. Wang considers modern Chinese history as a complex of geopolitical, ethnic, gendered, and personal articulations of bygone and ongoing events. His discussion ranges from the politics of decapitation to the poetics of suicide, and from the typology of hunger and starvation to the technology of crime and punishment.