Essay:《打人》Hitting Someone by Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang)

The advanced posts have been getting crazy long and difficult, so I’m taking it down a tiny notch with this essay by Zhang Ailing (张爱玲), better known in the west by her English name Eileen Chang. And also, hot damn, it’s about time I put some women writers up on here!

Zhang Ailing was the fashionable diva of mid-20th century Chinese literature. One of her most famous works was Lust, Caution, which was translated into English and made into a very spicy motion picture.

This short essay was published in June 1944 in the monthly magazine《天地》, issue 9. It is set in Shanghai, and describes a brief scene of police brutality she witnessed. Considering the global protests over the death of George Floyd, it seems like a pretty relevant post for the times.

Her torrid novels and short stories often mirrored her complicated family and love lives. The Zhang Ailing of my imagination, the woman her novels and language paint for me, was a jaded, witty, stylish It Girl, bedecked in diamonds, admired by all, waving a long cigarette around, someone who speaks flippantly and pretends to be concerned only with the trivialities of life – clothes and gossip and boyfriends – but whose devil-may-care persona masks a deep well of melancholy feeling. This piece is a great specimen of her feminine “I don’t care but actually I do” style.

Some language stuff

No matter how short Zhang Ailing’s stuff is, I always find a few phrases that I have a rough time with. Some because they’re colloquial, but more often because though the words in the sentence are reasonably simple, they always seem to carry a more nuanced meaning that I feel like I’m missing. The last two sentences in this piece are a perfect example. I had to read them several times to get to the heart of her meaning, and I have my own thoughts on it, but before I tell you mine, I’d like to hear yours in the comments.

A few other points:

外滩 wài tān – The Bund in Shanghai

手帕交 shǒu pà jiāo – A female best friend

姨太太 yí tài tai – A concubine

阿sir是为仔要我登牢子? – In this story, someone says this as a joke to a policeman who is staring at him threateningly. This is definitely not standard Mandarin. The two Chinese friends I asked didn’t know, and had to go look it up. Eventually, we worked out that this is a form of local dialect (mixed with English), and in more standard Mandarin is: 阿sir是不是为了要我去坐监牢? Or: “Is Sir [are you] doing that [staring at me like that] because you want me to go sit in jail?”

Want something easier?

Du Chinese has a big catalog of easy HSK 1 and HSK 2 texts for ultra-beginners. There are quite a few free practice lessons, but CRP readers get 10% off on paid accounts using the discount code CRP10.








Show English translation »
On the Bund, I saw a policeman beating sometime, for no particular reason, it was just momentary thrill. The person being beaten was a 15 or 16-year-old cleanly-dressed kid, in a cotton coat and cotton pants, with a belt tied about his waist. The policeman used a whip, and though I couldn’t see clearly, it appeared to be the round strap on the end of his baton. Wu, [the whip] came down, again and again, forcing the child up against the base of a wall. The kid could have run but he didn’t, just lifted his head and looked up at the policeman, scrunching his face, squinting, like a villager in the countryside who cannot fully open his eyes beneath a bright sun, it was almost as if he was wearing a small smile. It happened too suddenly, and those who lack experience on the stage had no time to adjust their expressions.
I’ve rarely ever had a sense of justice. Anything I’m unwilling to see, I’m able to not see. But this time, I couldn’t help but look back again and again, by breath caught in my chest, and as each strike came down, I felt my heart constrict. When the beating was finished, the policeman strolled my way, and I fixed him with an evil stare, wishing daggers would fly from my eyes, and I wished I could express the fullness of my disdain and fury, my abhorrence of such a leper. But the policeman was only [gratified by] the attention, and triumphantly tightened his leather belt. He was a long-faced, big-mouthed northerner, not un-handsome.

He walked to the door of the public restroom, and casually grabbed a shabby man wearing a long robe, but didn’t immediately begin hitting him, rather fixed his eyes upon him, one hand pressed to his cudgel. The man, though flustered, still [managed] to crack a joke, asking: “Are you staring at me like that because you want me to go sit in jail?”

Perhaps because my thinking hasn’t been properly trained, at this moment I thought nothing at all of the class revolution, in my anger, I just wished I was an official, or the Chairman’s wife, and could walk over and give that policeman two slaps in the face.

If this was an early Republic of China-era novel by Li Hanqiu, this is when a righteous western missionary, or the Chief of Police’s concubine (the female protagonist’s best friend, the male protagonist’s old lover) would jump out [onto the scene and save the day]. But [though] occasional [forays] into such naive thinking is no cause for concern, continual systematic naivety is no good at all.

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