positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 427-441
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A Chronicle of Changing Clothes
Appearing for the first time in the January 1943 issue of the XXth Century, an English-language journal published in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Eileen Chang's “Chinese Life and Fashions” has become an inevitable touchstone for scholars of modern Chinese fashion and a key text in modern Chinese cultural studies by one of the most celebrated of all modern Chinese writers. A brief introductory note for the piece, penned by the journal's editor in chief, Axis apologist Klaus Mehnert, somewhat unwittingly suggests both the compelling scope of this particular essay and the ambiguities and ambivalence of Chang's position as a cultural mediator, woman writer, and translingual critic: “This article needs no recommendation to the ladies among our readers; for them, the word ‘fashions' speaks for itself. But perhaps we should mention for the benefit of our male readers that the following pages contain more than just an essay on fashions. Indeed, [End Page 427] they offer an amusing psychoanalysis of modern China.”1 Less than a year later, Chang translated, revised, and expanded the piece for publication in a Chinese-language journal, Gujin [Past and present], retitling it “Gengyi ji” [A chronicle of changing clothes].2 While much of the material remained the same, this retooling of the essay involved a subtle reconfiguration of Chang's authorial voice and self-positioning vis-à-vis her Chinese readers, who are addressed less as psychiatric subjects than as collaborators in a troubled cultural history that extends through the largely unspoken (but ever present) privations of life during wartime. It was this version of the article that was ultimately included in Chang's 1945 collection of essays and cultural criticism, Liuyan [Written on water].3
The text presented here, along with original illustrations by Chang herself, is a triangulated translation into English of Chang's translation into Chinese, which attempts to mediate Chang's successive mediations between different languages, audiences, genders, and positions. What emerges from these textual complexities is a layered and finely grained articulation of the relation between history (intellectual, social, and political) and fashion in modern China. This is materialist history that takes a palpable delight in fabrics, in colors, in textures, and in what Chang terms the “pointless” yet crucially significant accumulation of details that compose the language of fashion. It also represents the rigorous application of a set of theoretical hypotheses concerning the homology between the social body and its apparel to the study of historical process. Thus Chang forges not only an expansive theory of the “fashion system” in modern China but also a strikingly novel mode for the writing of cultural history and social theory in modern Chinese.
A Chronicle of Changing Clothes
If all the clothing handed down for generations had never been sold to dealers in secondhand goods, their annual sunning in June would be a brilliant and lively affair. You would move down the path between bamboo poles, flanked by walls of silk and satin—an excavated corridor within an ancient underground palace buried deep under the ground. You could press your forehead against brocades shot through with gold thread. When the sun was still here, this thread was warmed by the light, but now it is cold. [End Page 428]
People in the past went laboriously about their lives, but all their deeds end up coated in a thick layer of dust. When their descendants air these old clothes, that dust is shaken out and set dancing in the yellow sunlight. If memory has a smell, it is the scent of camphor, sweet and cozy like remembered happiness, sweet and forlorn like forgotten sorrow.
We cannot really imagine the world of the past—so dilatory, so quiet, and so orderly that over the course of three hundred years of Manchu rule, women lacked anything that might be referred to as fashion. Generation after generation of women wore the same sorts of clothes without feeling in the least perturbed...