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  • Beyond Symbolic Rape:The Insidious Trauma of Conquest in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Eileen Chang’s “Lust, Caution”

This article contrasts two visions of trauma: a symbolic imaginary on film where women’s violated bodies stand in for philosophical ideas about sex, violence, and politics; and a more complex literary imaginary using what Ann Cvetkovich calls an “archive of trauma.” The starting point for discussion is troubling representations of women on film; The Lover (1992, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud) and Lust, Caution (2007, dir. Ang Lee) both portray their heroines falling in love with their abusers, men whose shame and vulnerability are expressed through a symbolic rape. Rather than dwelling on this dubious aspect of the films, the main discussion returns to the more nuanced view of trauma in the source texts: The Lover (1984) by Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) and “Lust, Caution” (1979) by Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) (1920–1995), neither of which include sexual violence in an obvious way. Duras’s traumatic portrait of French colonialism and Chang’s sinister portrayal of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai refuse symbolic rape as shorthand for conquest. Instead, these stories present an archive of trauma through a series of objects that represent emotional value, and provoke affective responses. Duras and Chang lament what Cvetkovich labels “insidious” or everyday trauma—the impossible histories—carried by women as a result of colonialism and war.


Chang, Eileen, conquest, Cvetkovich, Ann, Duras, Marguerite, film adaptation, insidious trauma, literary archives, sexual violence

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In outlining the pleasures and dangers of women’s sexual journeys, Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) and Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) (1920–1995) are fellow travelers, though the backgrounds and contexts for their writing are distinct. Duras was born in colonial Indochina (present-day Vietnam), and grew up in relative poverty. Chang lived much of her life in two colonial cities: Shanghai and Hong Kong, though she eventually moved to the United States after World War II. Of the same generation, Duras and Chang experienced the complex machinations of imperialism and the suffering of war, though they later went on to live in Western societies.

The texts to be discussed—Duras’s novel The Lover (1984) and Chang’s short story “Lust, Caution” (1979)—are both thought of as versions of the roman à clef, though readings solely based on the writers’ biographies are reductive. Duras’s girl heroine in The Lover grows up in Indochina, and Duras, ever the sensationalist, stated after the book was published that it was pure autobiography. She later recanted her suggestion, telling Le Nouvel Observateur that the book was an “imaginative memory of time . . . rendered into life” (qtd. Garis 1991). Chia-chih, the heroine of “Lust, Caution,” studies, like Chang, at Hong Kong University, and Chang’s first husband, Hu Langcheng, was a collaborator with the Japanese, like the villain in “Lust Caution,” Mr. Yee, yet Chia-chih’s life as a seductress and spy is certainly an imaginative leap from Chang’s existence. These narratives are never simply autobiography, but the unique experiences of Duras and Chang make their visions of trauma extremely complex.

Rather than presenting a symbolic rape to represent trauma, Duras and Chang create a portrait of everyday trauma inherent in the dynamic of conquest. Film adaptations of these writers’ works, such as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992) and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), tell narratives about the personal sexual trauma of women, and connect that violation to the abuse of a land, country, or people. Inserting acts of rape into the narrative that were absent from the original stories, Annaud and Lee demonstrate the all-too-familiar tendency to use women’s bodies as the canvas on which violence and barbarity are etched.

Annaud and Lee employ the symbolic rape, an act of sexual violence inserted into a story that has symbolic or allegorical significance. Such use of rape in a narrative is exploitative because it takes an act of intimate violence and uses it for political means. Symbolic rape is a problem because it often constitutes a kind of ventriloquism. Ananya Jahanara Kabir notes that too often “in whatever guise one chooses to represent the raped woman and to tell her story, it is still her story being told by someone else” (2010, 156). This appropriation becomes even more dubious when rape narratives are inserted into fiction or film to make a rhetorical point, because as Kabir points out, there is no consideration of the “ ‘collateral damage’ . . . caused by rhetorical necessity” (150).

Kabir’s thoughts spring from the context of rape narratives from Southeast Asia, but the spheres inhabited by Duras and Chang are equally haunted by [End Page 2] the symbolic rape, which makes it all the more subversive that they resist such tropes. Chang’s story, set during World War II, uses the backdrop of relations between the Chinese and the conquering Japanese occupying Shanghai. One cannot help but be reminded of the rape of Nanjing in 1937, when after the bloody battle to conquer Shanghai, Nanjing surrendered to the Japanese, only to suffer a catastrophic unleashing of mass rape and murder, with (according to some estimates) the whole population of the city’s women being raped multiple times, and up to 300,000 citizens killed brutally. These literal violations were summed up in the symbolic rape of the city, which represented to the Chinese an extreme moment of trauma, and a rallying cry for resistance. The events in Nanjing later became a contested narrative, however, with China, Japan, and the West vying to control the symbolism of the massacre. As Takashi Yoshida laments, “In its worst moments, the debate over Nanjing has served to fuel the same kinds of racial and cultural hatred that tend to lead to massacres in the first place” (2006, 183).

In colonial Indochina (the setting for The Lover), violent exploitation of native women as concubines for European men was veiled in polite society, while the possibility of white women being sexually available to Europeans or natives was viewed as a violation “degrading European prestige at large” (Stoler 1997, 22). Ann Laura Stoler emphasizes that colonial critique of such racist assumptions also uses the symbolic rape, because it frames “sexual domination . . . as a social metaphor of European supremacy,” so Orientalism is symbolized by a native woman “penetrated, silenced and possessed” (1989, 635). Use of symbolic rape is dangerous, however, because it fails to recognize “the violence and violation at the heart of the act or the implication that it has for [victim]’s subjectivity”; it runs the risk of “perpetuating the view of [victim]’s bodies as a resource, property or guarded secret belonging to men” (Brigley Thompson and Gunne 2010, 2).

In contrast to the troubling film versions by Annaud and Lee, the source texts by Duras and Chang do not include sexual violence in a prominent way, though the experiences of the heroines in colonial or occupied societies are traumatic. Both texts explore problems of violence and colonialism/imperialism through a romantic relationship; for Duras, it is a liaison between a white trash colonial and a Chinese businessman, while Chang depicts an amateurish female spy who tries to seduce a collaborator with the invading Japanese. Annaud and Lee insert scenes of symbolic rape in the films, but these are absent from the source texts, because in the literary context, it is not the relationships themselves that are traumatic, but the colonial or occupied societies in which the heroines find themselves. Trauma is not triggered by one cataclysmic event, that is, a rape, but by experiences of everyday violence—physical, emotional, and social.

To frame this alternative experience of trauma, the discussion of Duras and Chang draws on Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, [End Page 3] and Lesbian Public Cultures and its definition of insidious trauma, which “resists the melodramatic structure of an easily identifiable origin of trauma” (2003, 33). Drawing on “feminism, critical race theory, Marxism, and queer theory,” Cvetkovich’s model describes a way of experiencing trauma that is insidious (20). For thinking about sexual violation, “insidious trauma” is particularly relevant, because as Kabir outlined in her discussion of rape narratives, sexual trauma is not simply caused by a rape itself, but by the everyday appropriation and exploitation of victims’ narratives and sexualities. Cvetkovich poses the possibility of trauma as an everyday occurrence that “emerg[es] from systemic forms of oppression” rather than an originary, traumatic event, as definitions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would have it (33). Sexual shame is a prominent theme in both The Lover and “Lust, Caution,” but the sense of violation is not a result of being raped by their lovers (as in the film versions); instead it is caused by the imperialist, racist, capitalist values of the societies in which they find themselves, where the sexuality of women is instrumental. The heroines of The Lover and “Lust, Caution” begin as powerless figures—the girl as a petit blanc, and Chia-chih being exploited in a game of conquest—but in building an archive of feeling, the narratives record what Cvetkovich labels “the idiosyncrasies of emotional life,” and these include traumatic experiences that are not cataclysmic events, but a slow, daily grind of misery experienced as traumatic (7).

Chang and Duras move beyond circulating easy metaphors for domination, where the raped woman is used for symbolic or rhetorical purposes. To use Cvetkovich’s term, the trauma represented is “insidious” (2003, 33). In these literary narratives, the “framework for violence,” as Cvetkovich puts it, is created by patriarchy, the desire for conquest, and the capitalist mindset rather than particular, symbolic, traumatic events (43). In The Lover, life in the colony and the values of imperialism instigate the everyday trauma of shame and humiliation, as women, the poor, and colonial subjects are relegated, regulated, and exploited: this mode of being is traumatic. In “Lust, Caution,” trauma derives from the power machinations in the Japanese occupation of Shanghai resulting from the second Sino-Japanese War. In both cases, representations of love are inflected by racial, cultural, and colonial conflicts, and the romantic domination of women relates to the violence of struggles for power in colonial Indochina and the Sino-Japanese conflict. The trauma in each context is experienced on a personal level, but it is insidious and everyday, rather than originating in a particular personal violation, a symbolic rape that gestures to a wider philosophical context. Such alternative narratives about trauma embrace other ways of expressing suffering, including “those moments when it is not possible to feel anything and when something other than a familiar or clichéd scene is necessary to conjure sentiment” (Cvetkovich 2003, 286). The experiences constitute what Cvetkovich labels an archive of feeling.

Duras’s The Lover is set during the time of French colonialism in 1920s Indochina, and the elliptical, poetic narrative tells the story of a young French [End Page 4] girl whose family members are poverty-stricken colonials in the Mekong Delta. She begins an affair with a wealthy Chinese businessman—the “lover”—and the story presents the complexities of the colonial society: its privileges and restrictions for the rich Chinese lover and the indigent petit blanc. Through representing the insidious trauma of their daily lives, Duras challenges benevolent representations of the colonial society, and she emphasizes how the violence of its proscriptions humiliates the love between the girl and the Chinese merchant, making their relationship an object of shame. It is not the relationship itself that is traumatic, but the colonial hostility to that love, because it is seen by the girl’s family and others as shameful, disgusting, and violating the norm. Trying to escape this scrutiny, the girl cannot help viewing herself as “another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes” (Duras 1985, 12–13).

Scrutiny and subterfuge are prominent too in Chang’s short story “Lust, Caution,” set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when the Japanese occupied Shanghai and Wang Jingwei led a collaborationist wartime government. The narrative slowly uncovers the heroine, Wong Chia-chih, who is posing as a wealthy, bourgeois woman in order to have an affair with Mr. Yee, a Japanese collaborator. Chia-chih is hardly a professional spy, but while studying acting in Hong Kong, she was involved in a bungled student plot to seduce and assassinate Yee, a role that she must reprise during the occupation. Chang recounts Chia-chih’s experience of lovelessness and loneliness in a society under siege, and the heroine’s growing sense of unreality constructs a feeling of insidious trauma, which inflects the turn of events leading to her own death. Questioning, “Surely she hadn’t fallen in love?” Chia-chih has no frame of reference in a society where it is safer to maintain “resistance to forming emotional attachments” (Chang 2007, 43). Chia-chih’s trauma is not simply the result of sexual violation, even though her experiences of sex are loveless. Instead, in acting the part that various men want her to play, she loses her sense of herself, becoming somewhat like the Durassian woman: a figure that Jane Bradley Winston describes as “silent, empty . . . unknowable” (2001, 147). Chia-chih realizes at the end that she is simply a pawn, not a human being, played in a game of conquest between the puppet government and the Chinese resistance.

In The Lover and “Lust, Caution,” the everyday trauma experienced is inherent in the power dynamics of the societies described. For both writers, connections are made between the policing of women’s bodies and more public conquests for land, power, and domination, but they manage to create these linkages without using symbolic rape as a lazy shorthand for power and domination. Instead, the writers portray everyday systemic injustices that contribute to a sense of insidious trauma, and the poignant nature of this suffering makes the visions of Duras and Chang so compelling. [End Page 5]

Symbolic Rape on Film

Before considering Duras’s and Chang’s subversive portraits of trauma, it is worth reviewing the troubling use of symbolic rape in film adaptations of The Lover and “Lust, Caution.” Showing violence onscreen, especially of a sexual nature, is always problematic because it is “bound up with the scopophilic gaze and the danger of exploitation” (Brigley Thompson and Gunne 2010, 15). The viewer may not be an impartial witness to trauma; as Tanya Horeck puts it, there is a fine line between the act of “bearing witness” and “participating in a shameful voyeuristic activity” (2004, iv). The directors—The Lover’s Jean-Jacques Annaud (born 1943) and Lust, Caution’s Ang Lee (born 1954)—could be forgiven for the mere act of representing sexual violence on film. However, they add scenes of graphic, traumatic sexual violence that were not in the original works by Duras and Chang. These additional scenes employ conventional ideas about sexual trauma, and figure the heroines as symbolic victims of societal conquests.

Duras, who was still alive when the film was being created, described Annaud’s version as “a story I didn’t recognize,” and refused to work with him further (qtd. Garis 1991). In interpreting The Lover, Annaud’s focus was on the portrayal of sex onscreen. In an interview (cf. Ryan 1992), he talks about the tendency in cinema to portray sex only in a violent or horrific manner, and he seeks to rectify that in his version of The Lover. It is ironic that Annaud does not appear to recognize the sexual violence in his adaptation, perhaps defining violation only in narrow terms of rape by a stranger, rather than date rape, or intimate partner violence. The rape of the girl by her Chinese lover is more reminiscent of the self-centered sadism inherited from the Marquis de Sade onwards.

There is a strong agenda too in the adaptation of Chang’s story for the screen, which represented a cross-cultural collaboration between Taiwanese screenwriter Wang Hui Ling and the American James Schamus. Lee emphasizes that it was not a straightforward adaptation, but that the writers “kept returning to [Chang’s] theater of cruelty and love until we had enough to make a movie of it” (in Chang, Wang, and Schamus 2007, vii). In stretching the short-story plot to a full-length movie, personal narratives and national myths surrounding Chang’s biography are exploited. Lee draws on anecdotes about Chang’s troubled relationship with her father, and he makes the backdrop of violent Japanese occupation far more prominent, gesturing to the violence of events like the Rape of Nanking. In contrast to Chang’s portrait of everyday trauma under Japanese occupation, Lee creates a melodramatic structure, which makes an absent and uncaring father significant, a figure absent from “Lust, Caution,” but who recalls Chang’s history with her own abusive father. Mr. Yee is a substitute for a figure of paternal indifference, but Chang’s original narrative never mentions the heroine’s father at all.

Another myth exploited is the suggestion that Chang’s story was based in part on events of 1940: the female spy Zheng Pingru’s failed attempt to [End Page 6] assassinate the secret police chief Ding Mocun in Shanghai. From this seed, the relationship between Chia-chih and Mr. Yee is changed significantly. Chang’s story describes Mr. Yee as an aide to the collaborationist government, and by the end, it is revealed that he runs Government Intelligence, but in the film, he is a figure active in the worst violence and brutalities committed by the Japanese. In this context, Mr. Yee’s rape of Chia-chih becomes laden with symbolic significance concerning power, war, and shame.

To serve the agendas of the films’ directors, rape scenes are inserted into the source texts’ narratives. In Rape in Art Cinema, Dominique Russell questions the prominence of sexual violence in art-house cinema, outlining such violence’s “prevalence, form, cultural purpose, ethical and political stakes” (2010, 2). Though Annaud and Lee have worked in the American movie system, they both straddle genres and types of world cinema. Annaud has talked about how he struggles with a divide between his Western sensibility and a non-rational, emotional otherness (cf. Shoard 2013), while Leo Ou-fan Lee has described Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s cinema as like “fusion food,” satisfying but lacking in “ ‘local’ flavor” (2008, 224). In these particular adaptations (despite Annaud’s protestations), the directors mimic art-cinema’s tendency to use explicit sex scenes, sometimes of a disturbing or traumatic nature; such scenes are often more for symbolic effect rather than for engaging with the problems of representing rape on-screen. In both films, the heroines are raped by their lovers, and they continue or grow to love these men in spite of the violence that occurs, or they are implicated in that very violence. This kind of narrative is especially disturbing, because it conjures the suspect trope of the masochistic woman who loves her abuser.

Rape On-Screen in The Lover

Russell has argued that sexual violence is an essential element of art-house films, and she notes the prevalence of prolonged and harrowing scenes of rape in art cinema (2010, 3). Exploitation of the female body, as Russell rightly points out, is subordinate to the art-house philosophy of male directors, which in turn “reinforces a hierarchy of male imagination over the feminine body” (2010, 6). Annaud shapes this kind of hierarchy in The Lover, not only through his direction, but as a co-writer of the screenplay; the resulting film omits the emphasis on female expression and sexuality so evident in Duras’s novella. Winston emphasizes that Annaud’s sumptuous drama, in the style of Merchant-Ivory productions, plays on “nostalgia for Empire, and the erotic fantasies that had always driven the French colonial subject” (2001, 88). Annaud “removes the historical and political signifiers” that complicate Duras’s vision; instead, he creates a story colored by “the western male desire of conquest” (Winston 2001, 87, 84).

One particular scene emphasizes the difference in vision; halfway through the book, Duras describes how the Chinese lover takes the girl’s “white trash” [End Page 7] family out to dinner and dancing, but, incited by the girl’s sinister elder brother, they studiously snub the Chinese lover while, of course, exploiting his money. The colonial family does not recognize the lover’s existence because the sexual relationship between the girl and her Chinese lover is a dangerous act of métissage (inter-racial union). In Western-privileged hierarchies of colonialism, such unions were a “paramount danger to racial purity and cultural identity” (Stoler 1997, 25). The family’s reaction brings the lover “to the brink of tears,” and only later, when they are alone, can the girl explain her brother’s “cold, insulting violence” as an “impulse . . . to kill, to wipe out, to hold sway over life, to scorn, to hunt, to make suffer” (Duras 1985, 54). The girl’s elder brother represents the deathly forces of colonialism that, on a daily basis, seek to enslave, exploit, and wound others to further their own consumption. The Chinese lover is an outsider in Indochina, like the girl, but to the colonial family he is just a cultural and racialized other. The girl (who represents those othered by gender and poverty) and the lover are both subjected to everyday or insidious trauma by the forces that the brother represents.

Annaud’s version of the story sees the girl implicated and punished for the family’s contempt. Though Annaud faithfully replicates the tension between the family and the Chinese lover at dinner and dancing in the club, the cause of the lover’s humiliation is not just political but personal. The sequence with the family ends with the lover jealously watching as the girl dances closely—almost incestuously—with her younger brother, a sequence that plays on myths and rumors about Duras’s close relationship with her real brother.

The scene that follows, however, is entirely invented. The lover and the girl return to their bedroom; in silence, the lover slaps the girl across the face, pushes her down onto the bed, rips off her underwear and begins to have sex with her. Shot from below, his face looms over her. During the forced intercourse, the camera lingers voyeuristically in close-up on the girl’s face: her expression is ambiguous and could signify pain or pleasure. Afterwards, the camera pans back from the girl on the bed to show her lying helplessly, her legs dangling off the bedstead. The girl asks spitefully how much such an act would cost in a brothel, to which the lover replies, “How much do you need?” She replies, “My mother needs 500 piastres,” and he tosses down the money. The rape is a personal punishment that works to reestablish masculine power. As the girl indicates in the film’s dialogue, the relationship is now based on money: a whore and her customer. At the end of the scene, the camera-work is more sympathetic to the lover. While the girl callously demands money, the Chinese lover is overcome with emotion; after he throws down the money, the lover covers his face and sits down with his back to the camera. The camera pans up and moves above and over him when he sits down in a chair, and finally it frames in close-up his pained expression.

Only one episode in Duras’s novella bears any resemblance to Annaud’s scene, but in Duras’s imagination, the sexual encounter is a sensuous, enjoyable [End Page 8] experience. In the book, after the family dinner, the girl does not suffer any retribution for this scene. Instead, she describes her lover’s scent “of English cigarettes, expensive perfume, honey” and explains, “his skin has taken on the scent of silk, the fruity smell of silk tussore, the smell of gold” (Duras 1985, 42). Duras signals that the wealth of the lover makes him “desirable,” but the male character does not need to re-exert his sexual power, and there is no hint that he rapes her (1985, 42). The closest that the sex comes to violation is when the girl describes how her lover “becomes rough,” but she adds that in response she “close[s] [her] eyes on the intense pleasure” (1985, 42). If there is sadomasochism in this scene, it is not what Allan Stoekl calls “the radical sexualized selfishness put forward by Sade,” but the eroticism espoused by Georges Batailles, where sex approaches the “limits of self”: it is “an act of giving” (2007, 489). Far from the seedy violation of Annaud’s version, Duras presents a portrait of ambivalence. The girl cannot reconcile in her own mind whether her desire for him is pure, or the result of avarice. The lover is elevated by his wealth, yet humiliated by his teenage lover’s “white trash” family, merely because of his race. Here is the insidious trauma that haunts their relationship.

This archive of feeling is replaced in Annaud’s film by what Renate Günther explains as an “obsessive focus on the physical appearance of Jane Marsh, the 17–year-old English girl chosen by Annaud to play the role of young Duras” (2002, 136). This voyeuristic focus is made all the more dubious by Annaud’s efforts to hype the sexual content of the film before it was released: “Annaud rather ungallantly suggested that Jane had been a virgin when he cast her, but had gained some experience before they shot the film” (Bradberry 2004). Annaud’s directorial strategies—his “loud realism” and (in his use of pornographic scenes) his “insistence on reaffirming the power of the image”—do not do justice to what Günther describes as Duras’s “subtle, understated poetry” in exploring trauma through prose and in her screenplays (2002, 136).

Rape Onscreen in Lust, Caution

Like Annaud, Lee relegates a female imaginary in recreating Chang’s “Lust, Caution,” and the new plot is propelled by brutal and traumatic acts that violate the female body. As with the casting of Marsh in Annaud’s version of The Lover, the actress chosen to play Chia-chih in Lust, Caution was the subject of controversy. Like Marsh, the actress Tang Wei was cast after a long search and was reportedly chosen over 10,000 other actresses. After the release of Lust, Caution, the Chinese government not only banned the film but also censored any screen appearances by the leading actress. The line between fiction and reality is blurred in perceptions of the actress and the sexually explicit scenes in Lust, Caution. Also like Annaud, Lee seeks to recreate and romanticize another era on film. In reconstructing the setting of Chang’s story (the colonial cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai during Japanese occupation), Lee exploits what [End Page 9] Robert Chi describes as the “contemporary nostalgia for the popular culture of pre-1949 Shanghai” (2009, 182).

The influence of nostalgia for American cinema is present too, especially given Ang Lee’s experience in Hollywood, the American contribution to the script, and the movement of the script from English-language versions to Chinese. In remaking the story, the film resembles an exotic film noir, yet Lee makes Wong Chia-chih’s question, “Surely she hadn’t fallen in love?” (Chang 2007, 43) all the more devastating, because like a kidnap victim with Stockholm Syndrome, Lee’s version of Chia-chih grows to love her abuser. Lee draws on a particular type of femme fatale that dominated 1970s American cinema, featuring mysterious women who, in Jack Boozer’s words, were subject to “ongoing personal and social abuse,” and were used to “unveil [society’s] brutish aspects through the illumination of [their] personal disasters” (1999, 24). The rape of the femme is symbolic, and Ang Lee justifies that symbolism by claiming that violation is the unspoken subtext of Chang’s writing, since “half of the art of Chinese literature lies in concealment, in not saying what you really mean” (in James 2008, 50). Chang’s story, however, hardly comments at all on the sexual intercourse between Chia-chih and her mark, Mr. Yee, and she never describes it as violent or brutal. She does comment on the unpleasantness of Chia-chih’s first sexual experience, precipitated during her involvement in the Hong Kong student plot; the bungling student plotters decide that she needs some sexual knowledge, so she sleeps with one of the students whose only experience is having slept with prostitutes.

Lee’s film is more disturbing because violent sex becomes a ritual in which Chia-chih and Mr. Yee struggle to gain power over each other. The most controversial addition to Chang’s plot is the initial, explicit sexual encounter between Mr. Yee and Chia-chih, a scene of intense brutality where Mr. Yee ties, lashes, and abuses his lover. Roseanna Ng, the film’s first assistant director, describes the filming of this first sex scene, commenting on how “scores of chipao (body-hugging traditional Chinese dress) and underwear were ripped apart violently” and the walls of the set were “fully padded” (2007, 256). Commentators were shocked by the brutality of the scene, with Todd Swift (2008), for example, describing the first sex scene as “weirdly savage.” Many critics, however, have been reluctant to describe this scene as a rape: it has been defined as “almost like a rape” (Dilley 2014, 125); “tantamount to rape” (Daruvala 2014, 117); “rough sex” (Sun 2014, 46); and “a non-consensual sadistic act” (Von Kowalis 2014, 55). The ambiguity of the scene is emphasized in the screenplay, which defines the event rather dubiously as “more or less a rape,” and, pandering to rape myths about women’s consent, Chia-chih’s face is described as “an astonished, anguished mix of anger and pleasure,” an image reproduced faithfully onscreen (Wang and Schamus 2007, 175). Yee unleashes a repressed and deadly male sexuality, which allows a compensatory power for his status as a traitor and conspirator with the conquering Japanese: rape becomes a symbolic regaining [End Page 10] of power and prestige (cf. Peng 2014, 174). As Jon Eugene Von Kowalis argues, violence allows Yee to expatiate his fear that he too will become a victim of the Japanese, sadomasochism working here in the sadistic, selfish, hedonistic mode of the Marquis de Sade rather than the equality in the eroticism of thinkers like Batailles (2014, 55).

In another scene added to Chang’s original plot, Chia-chih confronts the spymaster orchestrating the conspiracy, and she tells how Yee “hurts me until I bleed and scream before he comes, before he feels alive” (Wang and Schamus 2007, 195). More disturbing is Chia-chih’s confession that though “I play my part loyally, so I too can get inside him,” “he worms his way into my heart” (Wang and Schamus 2007, 195). This added scene emphasizes Lee’s message that the puppet government and the plotters are equal in the exploitation of Chia-chih; her allies are complicit in the sexual violence. These changes mean, however, that Chia-chih harbors conflicted feelings that depart from Chang’s story; instead of enduring a pompous and selfish lover, the Chia-chih of the film must be intimate with a sadist. She asks the spymaster, “You think he can’t smell the spy in me when he opens up my legs?” and this question echoes the second sex scene in the film (again absent from Chang’s story), which cross-cuts between the couple making love and police dogs straining at the leashes of faceless handlers (Wang and Schamus 2007, 195). While Chang’s story focuses on a woman who betrays herself after being subjected to the insidious trauma of a besieged society, in the film, Chia-chih’s betrayal of her mission is the act of a masochistic martyr who embraces her sadist lover.

Eventually, in Lee’s version, not only Chia-chih becomes attached, but Mr. Yee too falls in love, and he is portrayed far more sympathetically and controversially than in the original story. This sympathy is particularly evident in the Japanese tavern (or brothel) scene, when Mr. Yee summons Chia-chih for a liaison. She embraces him, and as they talk, her weary face in close-up dominates the conversation. “I know why you brought me here,” she tells him. “You want me to be your whore.” Mr. Yee laughs and replies, “I know better than you how to be a whore” (cf. Wang and Schamus 2007, 200–201). Talking about his interpretation here, Lee explains that the word for prostitute “sounds exactly like” the phrase tiger’s ghost, an idea taken from Chang’s story (Chang 2007, 60). Lee is aware of the symbol, describing “the figure of the tiger who kills a person. Thereafter, the person’s ghost willingly works for the tiger, helping to lure more prey into the jungle” (Chang 2007, 59). In Chang’s story, Mr. Yee imagines himself as the tiger, a symbol in Chinese traditions of military strength. It is Chia-chih who is the ghost, and Mr. Yee imagines her as his creature: “[N]ow 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” (Chang 2007, 54). Cruelly self-assured and buoyant after Chia-chih’s execution, Mr. Yee still imagines himself to possess the prize that he valued so highly. Lee’s version of Mr. Yee is far more sympathetic, since he and Chia-chih are framed as having a [End Page 11] shared vulnerability. Lee emphasizes that when Yee “refers to himself with that word in the Japanese tavern scene,” he refers to “his relationship with the Japanese” (Chang 2007, 60). Chia-chih is a ghost working for men for and against the collaborationist government, while Mr. Yee is a creature of the Japanese. When in the Japanese tavern scene, Chia-chih sings the popular song “Four Seasons” from the movie Street Angel, it brings tears to Mr. Yee’s eyes, and Leo Ou-fan Lee suggests that the “awareness of their shared victimization is what binds them together in one momentary escape into sentimentality” (2008, 233). This parallel reaches toward the equivalence of the girl and the lover in The Lover, but it is compromised by the symbolic rape, through which the sexual exploitation of Chia-chih and the conquest of the Chinese by the Japanese military are conflated.

Mr. Yee appears to be redeemed at the end of the film when he is presented as penitent: “dying for love,” he “steps out, tears in his eyes, and sentimentally pays a last tribute to [Chia-chih’s] bed: his shadow is cast on it—symbolically he becomes the ghost of [Chia-chih]” (Wang 2010, 583). Recalling Annaud’s sympathy to the Chinese lover after the rape scene, Lee presents a dubious portrait of a man forced to be an outsider by the Japanese occupiers. Some readings, like that of Chang Hsio-hung, have suggested that Mr. Yee as hanjian (traitor to China) is an objective correlative for Lee himself, a director who represents “the global man,” sometimes critiqued in China as hanjian himself (cf. Chang 2014, 186). Leo Ou-fan Lee notes Lee’s obsession with the figure of “loser,” and suggests that the framing of Mr. Yee as a kind of hero challenges “chauvinistic nationalism,” and highlights “collective amnesia . . . of a dark chapter of modern Chinese history” (2008, 237). The reconfiguration of the collaborator is one of the most compelling aspects of the film version, but Lee would do well not to enact this symbolism at the expense of the raped and violated woman.

Beyond the Symbolic Rape

Confronted by feminist objections in the United States to the implications of Chia-chih’s love for her abuser, Lee is reported to have said that “Americans lack the experience of being occupied by a foreign regime and hence do not have the concomitant empathetic feelings” (Wang 2010, 574). The violent and coercive sex inserted into the “Lust, Caution” narrative may indeed be an objective correlative for the domination of the Japanese conquest, but as the poet Todd Swift (2008) posts on his blog Eyewear about the film, “it is high time male directors stopped raping women in their movies simply because they think the violence is a useful metaphor for what they really want to talk about, which is dominant men.” The film versions of The Lover and “Lust, Caution” use the traumatic violation of their heroines as a lazy shorthand for symbolizing the problems of living under imperialism or occupation, especially regarding the men who are supposedly forced to rape, because of their own experiences [End Page 12] of violation from the societies in which they live. Annaud’s The Lover converts Duras’s poetic novella into a sumptuous Merchant-Ivory epic that depends on exoticism, orientalism, and voyeuristic scrutiny of women’s bodies. Lee makes Chang’s Chia-chih a pathetic kind of femme fatale who must play the masochist to serve Lee’s symbolic expiation of shame via sadomasochistic rape. The complex visions of the original source texts concerning women’s desire and sexuality are subordinated by Lee and Annaud, who promote a dubious male imaginary about men and domination.

Chang and Duras in the original stories avoid symbolic rape, expressing instead a sense of insidious trauma beyond the popular trauma narratives where a personal violation stands in for a societal failure. Duras and Chang employ affective, non-linear, poetic narratives that emphasize the women’s subjectivity, and outline the difficulty of reconstructing insidious trauma. In The Lover, ordinary testimony is made problematic by the poetic structure of the narrative, which circles around objects, especially photographs, and approaches traditional narratives in a non-linear way. The girl who narrates the story foregrounds objects like the lover’s car, photographs of family members, and the hat that she was wearing when she first met the lover. Duras’s archive rejects melodramatic ideas of trauma’s origins, but instead slowly, steadily, it brings into sight a sense of insidious trauma. “Lust, Caution” has a shifting narrative perspective, which begins with omniscience but later enters the thoughts of the spy Chia-chih and her mark, Mr. Yee. This shifting viewpoint creates dramatic irony and deepens the mystery of the characters’ real feelings for each other. Nothing is certain, but Chang brings into focus the crippling unreality of roles, especially for women, under occupation. This is achieved through an archive of symbolic objects and motifs: the pink diamond ring that Mr. Yee intends to buy Chiachih; the teapot and cups that represent the conquest of women; and the movie screen that Chia-chih sees in the glass window of the jewelry store. Imbued with affective trauma, these objects construct the harrowing experience of the society represented. Both literary texts create a counter-history of trauma made up of “what is emotionally meaningful as opposed to what is factually true” (Cvetkovich 2003, 275).

Insidious Trauma in The Lover

When Duras’s parents—French schoolteachers—went to Indochina on a mission to “civilize” those in need, they hardly realized the suffering that would characterize their experience of colonial life. Duras was born outside of Saigon in 1914, “long before any discourse about the contradictions of colonialism could be available to her or to her family” (Ladimer 1999, 150). Duras lived these contradictions, “shunned by the French” after her father’s death when she, her mother, and two brothers lived in relative poverty (Ladimer 1999, 151). The family, however, kept Vietnamese servants, and the mission of Duras’s parents [End Page 13] to “save” the natives exhibited the assumptions of the colonial project, which privileges the civilized West over the barbaric culture of the colonies. The everyday traumas of colonial life would be a source of inspiration for Duras’s writing. Ladimer suggests that Duras’s “lifelong personal sensitivity to suffering” was a direct consequence of her colonial upbringing, when “it was dangerous, even deadly, to be among the colonized or to be poor, but it was also very difficult to identify with the colonizer” (152).

For the white French girl in The Lover, insidious trauma emerges from experiences of Indochina and its colonial mindset, not the relationship with the Chinese lover in itself, which is nourishing and joyful in their sexual encounters. The girl’s family situation and experiences of colonial life—especially once her controversial relations with her lover are common knowledge—represent a kind of everyday trauma that relentlessly defines the girl as an object of shame and disgust. Racist and gendered assumptions violate the sanctity of their relationship, and this violation is traumatic, but not in terms of conventional definitions. Instead, it embraces “a range of affective experiences,” and goes beyond what Cvetkovich describes as “any narrow definition of traumatic symptoms” (2003, 119). Trying to confide in her lover about her colonial family life, the girl begins to “tell . . . how it was just so difficult to get food and clothes, to live,” but she is reduced to the speechlessness of trauma (Duras 1985, 45). Poverty has “knocked down the walls of the family and we were all left outside, each one fending for himself”; the family members are all supposedly “[s]hameless,” though the girl’s awareness of this fact indicates her shame even while she denies it (1985, 45). The girl’s experiences of redemptive sex with the lover are insidiously tainted by the supposed shame of métissage. Together the girl and the lover threaten the logic of colonialism. The girl is a member of a poor white underclass, what Stoler describes as “the quintessential petits blancs”; as a single woman of this class, the girl represents “the dangerous possibility that straitened circumstances would lead . . . to prostitution” (1997, 22). The Chinese lover is also an outsider. Indochina in this era maintained a large community of Chinese businessmen, an outside influence that preceded French colonialism in the region. This Chinese community continued to flourish under colonial rule, when Chinese merchants “negotiated the pathways and pitfalls of French colonial law to achieve their own agendas and maintain multidirectional ties” (Barrett 2012, 7). Not exactly a colonial subject, the Chinese lover still presents a threat, tapping into colonial anxieties about the sexuality of male racial others.

Duras is right to foreground that the white girl and the Chinese merchant are both complicit with and beneficiaries of colonial society; the girl benefits from her white privilege, and the lover is closer to Western culture than Vietnamese, and even appears at times to be a potential colonial oppressor himself. Nevertheless, if the girl and the lover both have privileges, they also have vulnerabilities—the girl being poor and female, and the Chinese lover suffering the racist gaze of white colonials. This shared sense of vulnerability adds to the [End Page 14] poignancy of the relationship, and brings to mind similar encounters in Duras’s work. For example, in Duras’s script for Hiroshima Mon Amour, set after World War II, a Japanese man from Hiroshima, a site of unfathomable trauma, begins a liaison with a French nurse, who suffered the violation of being shorn after sleeping with a German soldier; she watched her lover die in front of her. The man from Hiroshima and the shorn nurse are both vulnerable and wounded by trauma, and, similarly, the girl and the lover are both wounded by colonialism, though the trauma inflicted is not triggered by any one cataclysmic event, but by insidious everyday trauma. The relationship between a petit blanc and a racial other must be made shameful by colonial society, because it is dangerous for the status quo in the context of colonial Indochina, and the obstruction of the girl and her Chinese lover is the crux of the narrative.

Duras describes the insidious trauma of a life where the colonial women “in the streets of Saigon . . . just save themselves up, save themselves up for Europe, for lovers, holidays in Italy, the long six-month leaves every three years, when at last they’ll be able to talk about what it’s like here” (Duras 1985, 18–19). Superficially, the women embrace “this peculiar colonial existence,” including the luxuries provided by the colony’s exploited subjects and resources (19). Such villas, however, are “big enough to get lost in,” and their owners exist “in distant outposts” (19). Duras depicts the lack at the center of colonial life, which strips away the respectable veneer of imperialism. The moral emptiness exhibits itself in the reactions of colonial women, who “go mad” or “kill themselves” (19). Duras creates an archive of such women. The immodest schoolmate Helen Lagonelle is a source of erotic inspiration, but she is flimsy, beautiful, and helpless; she is “frightened, she comes up and sits beside you and stays there without speaking, crying sometimes” (72). The girl also remembers how, when she was a child, the madwoman of Vinh Long chased her, and she feared that should the woman touch her she would “enter into a state much worse than death, the state of madness” (84). Closely associated with the madwoman is the girl’s own mother; immediately after the description of the madwoman, the girl recalls her final meeting with her mother, where she regards “someone sitting in my mother’s place who wasn’t my mother, who looked like her but who had never been her” (85). Duras makes an archive of colonial women: all find themselves distracted, distressed, and displaced—driven to madness even—by their role in imperialist societies, but of particular significance is the “Lady,” a married woman who lives by the Mekong, and is rumored to have taken a lover who shot himself in despair. Like the “Lady,” the girl experiences the impossibility of particular kinds of love within the strictures of that community; the bliss of their relationships becomes “the mysterious death of lovers without love” (90).

In creating an archive of colonial women driven to despair and madness, Duras highlights a particular Western attitude to the colonial subject who was thought of as “a distinct and degenerate social type” (Stoler 1997, 24). Stoler explains how French doctors thought that colonial neurasthenia was “caused [End Page 15] by a distance from civilization and European community and by proximity to the colonized” and that “[s]ome doctors prescribed the only treatment to be la retour en Europe” (1997, 25). In The Lover, life in the colonies is represented as traumatic not because of exposure to some supposedly barbaric native culture, but due to the oppressive colonialist society.

No one originary event is the source of trauma. Instead, the narrative circles around a number of talismanic objects through which a sense of insidious trauma is slowly brought into view. The conceit of the novel invokes an older narrator remembering and reconstructing memories of Indochina, and in putting together this assemblage, photographs are especially evocative. Duras describes a photograph of the girl’s mother in despair at losing her husband, the girl’s father (1985, 31); numerous photos of the narrator as a child display “the same sadness” (4); and finally flashing forward in time, there is a photograph of the girl’s son: “poor, with that poor boy’s look, that attitude of someone young and thin” (13). These photographs are not simply about recovering memories, because Duras challenges notions of authenticity in remembering. Discussing Duras’s film India Song, Gill Houghton explains the significance of the photograph in her work: “The lens, like the iris, focuses through looking, gazing, opening and closing in an attempt, but fails ever to capture the image” (2000, 53). The photographs are not simple records of truth, but repositories of feeling, and in recovering these imaginative moments, Duras’s project is never simply about memory, but about conveying heightened, traumatic experiences in a poetic manner. The sadness of the photographed subjects is hardly revealing in suggesting a conventional trigger for trauma, but the repetition of such images builds an archive that gradually brings into being a sense of insidious trauma in the condition of the petit blanc in the colonial outpost.

In addition to “real” photographs, Duras also conjures imagined photographs: what Alex Hughes labels “the phantasmic photograph” (2000, 192). The most significant is an image of the girl on a ferry travelling from home to boarding school, where she meets the lover for the first time. The narrator explains, “It might have existed, a photograph might have been taken. . . . But it wasn’t. The subject was too slight” (Duras 1985, 10). The girl is not a subject worthy of pictures; she is, of course, nothing more than a petit blanc in the view of colonial society. The moment on the ferry, however, is of huge personal significance to the girl, and she returns to it again and again throughout the book (cf. 16, 17, 20–22, 26, 32–34). The picture of the girl on the ferry represents childish vulnerability in contrast to the maturing of female desire and the predicament of a young woman defined by her community as white trash. Initially, the girl talks about her immaturity; the girl on the ferry is a child “put . . . in the care of the Saigon bus drivers” (9). The girl’s position is precarious, and she might be subject to violence (“a rape, or an attack by pirates”) or general accident (“a fatal mishap on the ferry”) (9). Out of such danger, however, comes a tantalizing sense of possibility: the girl describes the adventure of “going on a journey” (9). [End Page 16]

Related to this sense of possibility is Duras’s emphasis that the girl is very much in command of her own sexuality despite her young age (15 years old). The girl describes her outfit: “a dress of real silk, but it’s threadbare, almost transparent”; “a sleeveless dress with a very low neck” (1985, 11). The provocative clothes are coupled with traditionally masculine accessories: a belt “belonging to one of my brothers” and a man’s fedora (12). Duras’s imaginary photograph invests these objects with a power that undercuts the apparently vulnerable and flimsy girl on the ferry.

No woman, no girl wore a man’s fedora in the colony then. No native woman, either. What must have happened is: I try it on for fun, look at myself in the shopkeeper’s glass and see that there, beneath the man’s hat, the awkward shape, the inadequacy of childhood, has turned into something else. Has ceased to be a harsh, inescapable imposition of nature. Has become on the contrary, a provoking choice of nature, a choice of the mind.


There is something ridiculous in the wearing the fedora—the girl later describes it as a “clown’s hat” (73)—yet it is also a provocative choice of apparel in the colony. Wearing the hat is an act of daring that transforms the inadequacy of adolescence. The girl’s immaturity ceases to be a burden, and instead works to transform the word “nature”: the macho associations of the fedora counter the supposedly innocent state of female adolescence.

A significant object in Duras’s archive of feeling, the image of the girl in the fedora is revisited again and again, until the true trauma of the petit blanc in colonial society is uncovered. Revisiting the image of the girl on the ferry, the narrator links the outlandish figure with the underlying destitution of the girl’s colonial family. Her outfit indicates a “link with poverty,” and insinuates possible reasons why “the mother lets the girl go out dressed like a child prostitute” (Duras 1985, 24). The girl imagines the disapproving comments of onlookers: “Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick . . . it’s to attract attention, money” (88). Indeed, the girl’s mother does not “stop her when she tries to make the money” out of her intimacy with the Chinese lover, and she is satisfied when her daughter lies that she is only having sex with the lover for money (24). The lovers’ intimacy is monetized in order to be accepted by the mother, and the mother’s actions from the very beginning set up her daughter as a sexual object for sale.

Unlike Annaud’s film version, where the Chinese lover makes a prostitute of the girl, Duras indicates that the colonial and hierarchical constructs in that particular society taint the relationship with shame. The situation is complex, however, because the girl is a colonizer of Indochina, and the Chinese lover is a capitalist emulating Western values. The lover is described “wearing European clothes—the light tussore suit of the Saigon bankers”—a mode of dress that signals capitalist enterprise and his adoption of Western, capitalist values (Duras 1985, 17). The lover is out to make a profit from his family business enterprises [End Page 17] providing slum housing for the poor; when the girl questions the state of his housing estates, he offers “some rigmarole” on how “people here like living close together, especially the poor” (48). Frantz Fanon’s comments seem relevant here, when he explains the recreation of imperialist values beyond Western institutions when the ruling class “remembers what it has read in European textbooks and imperceptibly it becomes not even a replica of Europe, but its caricature” ([1961] 1990, 141). Despite her privilege, the girl is not impervious to the violence of colonialism; she recognizes the reproduction of colonial carelessness in the lover’s attitudes, and such talk is particularly painful, as it comes after the girl’s own confession about her own poverty and what it is to be a petit blanc, when she suggests that the shamelessness of being poor has brought her to this intimacy with the lover (Duras 1985, 45).

In her experience of shame, the girl differs from her elder brother, a sinister figure who represents the ideal colonial adventurer for whom “anything is possible” as he cheats his way to his own profit (and eventually his own destruction) (Duras 1985, 76–80). The girl sees her brother’s “reign” as equivalent to the Nazis during World War II (62). The cold, brutal, inhuman logic of the colonial elder brother destroys the girl’s sensitive younger brother, who is brought to tears by the older brother’s bullying and who eventually dies young (76–80). Separated from her family by her interracial affair and the hypocritical standards of that colonial society, the girl must play the part of the colonial opportunist too, letting others believe that she is motivated by sex and money rather than affection.

Redolent of money and luxury, the Chinese lover’s limousine is revisited many times and becomes part of the archive of feeling that brings a sense of trauma into focus. Traditionally symbolic of Western power and wealth, the “big black limousine” is a blatantly sexual motif, described by the girl “as big as a bedroom” (Duras 1985, 17). Stepping into the limousine marks the girl’s choice to begin a sexual relationship with the lover and to be “excluded from the family” (35). It separates her from respectable, colonial society and acts as a tantalizing screen to curious onlookers: “Whether she’s taken away from them, carried off, wounded, spoiled, they will no longer know” (35). Hidden inside the limousine, the Chinese lover waits outside the girl’s school for an assignation, though it cannot protect him from shame: his head is “averted from humiliation” (110). When the girl is finally taken back to France and leaves the lover behind, the black limousine parks on the docks to see off her boat, and though she knows that the lover is watching, the black car represents the separation and impossibility of their relationship. Any real tenderness must be masked, so the girl hides her tears, only to break down once the ship is under way. The girl describes her love as being lost “like water in sand,” a beautiful and poignant metaphor that describes the loss of true feeling among the proscriptions and shaming of the colony (114). In reconstructing the affair in her poetic and repetitive way, Duras finds power for her heroine through the act of writing, because the archive constructed contains not only trauma but love, and the novel ends [End Page 18] by reaffirming that love, when the lover telephones, years later, to say “he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death” (117).

Insidious Trauma in “Lust, Caution”

Quite different in background to Marguerite Duras, Eileen Chang grew up in an aristocratic family based in Shanghai, a city influenced by colonial powers, especially Britain and France. Chang, however, did experience distressing relationships with the men in her life, including her abusive, opium-addicted father, and her unfaithful first husband. She also encountered the brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). Chang was a literature student in Hong Kong when the Japanese army took the city in 1942, and she was forced to return to her mother and aunt in occupied Shanghai. Here, she met her first husband, Hu Lancheng, a Japanese sympathizer who worked for Wang Jingwei’s puppet government set up by Japanese occupiers. In “Lust, Caution,” Chang captures the atmosphere of living in an occupied country and the difficulty of romantic or sexual relations when the woman is an object of conquest and the man the conqueror. Lee’s film version uses symbolic rape to explore the vulnerabilities, shame, and fear of a very different Mr. Yee, made more tragic because he loves his victim, though in a sadistic manner.

Modern readings of Chang challenge Lee’s interpretation of “Lust, Caution.” Julia Lovell notes that, while Chang was “largely apolitical” as a writer, she had “an innate skepticism of the often overblown revolutionary rhetoric,” and this skepticism does not sit well with Lee’s melodrama (in Chang 2007, xii). When “Lust, Caution” was published in 1979, Chang was already well known for “sketching out plausibly complex, conflicted individuals—their confusions, disappointments, and selfishness” (Lovell in Chang 2007, xiv). The wartime context of the story, Lovell suggests, also posed as “a riposte . . . to those who dismissed her as a banal boudoir realist” (in Chang 2007, xv). Rather, however, than drawing on a particular traumatic event during the war like the Rape of Nanjing, Chang focuses on the everyday trauma of living under imperialist rule, and like The Lover, “Lust, Caution” slowly brings into focus a sense of insidious trauma as Chia-chih is displaced from any authentic feeling of self. Is she a spy playing a role, or has she become the very part that she has worked so hard to portray authentically? Hence the question, “Surely she hadn’t fallen in love?” and the consequent ambiguity of the title “Lust, Caution” (Chang 2007, 43).

Analyzing the original Chinese title of the story, Ang Lee notes that “the phrase has a weird reversibility,” so when read backwards “the inverted phrase becomes . . . more like an imperative command to give up or renounce desire” (in Chang 2007, 56). Based in part on Zheng Pingru’s 1940 assassination plot in Shanghai, Chang’s story, however, surpasses a simple cautionary tale. Haiyan Lee emphasizes the coexistence of desire and restraint in the title, as the “comma between the two characters of the compound” encourages each character to be [End Page 19] considered separately: se referring to “the seething realm of desires, attachments, and social relations”; and jie signaling “the metaphysical or religious overcoming of worldliness” (2010, 643). “Lust, Caution” questions where one might exist, and whether authentic feeling is to be found in the sexual and social, or the spiritual.

Frequently posing a sense of emptiness, Chia-chih’s story is dominated by the theme of acting, and has particular precision in mapping out the drama of social roles. The story begins and ends in a parlor where the wife of a collaborator, Yee Tai-tai plays mahjong with her cronies. The routines of the game take place in a room framed by “[f]alse french windows, and enormous drapes to cover them,” an image redolent of duplicity, fakery and subterfuge (Chang 2007, 8). Written in an omniscient narrative style, the authorial voice slides between viewpoints, beginning by examining Chia-chih as a beautiful cipher in the “harsh artificial light” even if the lines of her face are “laid bare” (Chang 2007, 3). The talk at the table is as much a game as the mahjong, as the women, “those great bejeweled cats” (Chang 2007, 14), and Mr. Yee, when he enters, struggle to control what is revealed and what is hidden. At the end of this scene, the narrative voice enters the thoughts of Chia-chih, which reveal the plot to kill Mr. Yee. The slow, fragmentary uncovering of Chia-chih’s journey is told in hints and asides as she waits for the meeting when the assassination will take place. In the ladies’ boudoir and on the city streets, acting is a part of life under occupation and, as Ang Lee suggests, Chang “understood playacting and mimicry as something by nature cruel and brutal” used to “evade . . . enemies and lure . . . prey” in both private and public contexts (in Chang 2007, 61).

This archive of feeling is expressed through a series of talismanic objects, each of which imbue aspects of the traumatic experience of the unequal relationship between Mr. Yee and Chia-chih, and the dominative structures of the Japanese occupation. One such image is the screen where images are projected, which becomes symbolic of acting or simulation. When Chia-chih reaches the jewelry store, she finds herself staring at the shop window, which, in an epiphanic moment, becomes a cinema screen. Chang describes how “the display windows downstairs and the glass door between them seemed to be broadening out, as if behind her were an enormous, two-story-high expanse of brilliant, fragile glass, ready to disintegrate at any moment” (39). Later Chiachih imagines that “the bright windows and door behind her were a cinema screen across which an action movie was being shown” (39). The intense vision emphasizes the unreality of the scene playing out; Chia-chih has no authentic sense of selfhood or her own motivations. Instead, she feels herself to be a projection in someone else’s story, directed perhaps by her mission or by Mr. Yee, but in neither case can she maintain her own autonomy.

The ring that Mr. Yee is buying for Chia-chih is another symbol of fakery and subterfuge. At the beginning of the story, Mr. Yee’s wife comments on the inflation and scarcity of pink diamonds, and at the mahjong table, “[t]he edges . . . glittered like a diamond exhibition . . . every pair of hands glinting [End Page 20] ostentatiously—except hers” (9). In contrast to the ostentatious and seductive show of diamonds, Chia-chih wears a simple jadeite ring, a material in Chinese traditions symbolic of kindness, fairness, bravery, and purity. When Chia-chih replaces her ring with the pink diamond offered by Mr. Yee at the jewelers, it is an ominous symbol of the simulated role she is expected to play in a conquered community. Chia-chih describes the pink diamond ring as “worthy, surely, of a tale from the Thousand and One Nights,” framing herself as a kind of Scheherazade, peddling fictions in order to survive execution for one more night (40). The entire transaction between Mr. Yee and the jeweler—“trading gold for diamonds”—is described as “another detail stolen from the Arabian Nights” (41). The bartering is redolent of a legend or myth, and the seductive intensity of the jewel is magical: “a star burning pink in dusk light” (40). The enchantment of the scene, however, is deflated when Chia-chih recalls with “a twinge of regret that [the diamond] was to be no more than a prop in the short, penultimate scene of the drama unfolding around it” (40). Mr. Yee with his power to barter for the most costly jewel in Shanghai is not a wronged Persian king, but a dubious collaborator. As the narrative voice shifts into Yee’s thoughts, it reveals that he views Chia-chih herself (not the diamond) as the prize. Mistakenly attributing Chia-chih’s affection as a product of “his power and position” which “were an inseparable part of him, ” Mr. Yee “had to permit himself a brief moment of euphoria at the prize that had fallen into his lap; otherwise, the entire exercise was meaningless” (45). Chia-chih is thought of in monetary terms, more a “prize” than a human being, and Yee revels in the power endowed on him as an agent of the puppet government; his public position gives him personal power, he believes.

Chia-chih is tempted by the diamond, which clearly represents imperialist power. Chia-chih can choose to be one of those “bejewelled cats,” the women of powerful collaborators who play their roles so carefully around the mahjong table and elsewhere. While the girl in The Lover found her relationship tainted and obstructed by money, the inauthentic transactions between Chia-chih and Mr. Yee are made seductive and decorous by the pink diamond, though she is always aware that such an appearance is a glittering illusion. Under Japanese occupation, the only solace is in dazzling objects: money, wealth, and fortune.

The power dynamics at work in occupied Shanghai are reflected in Chiachih’s view of gender relations. Chia-chih’s skepticism about romantic love is conveyed in her description of a teapot, a traditional symbol of fertility in Chinese iconographies. Chang’s teapot is far less positive:

The English say that power is an aphrodisiac. . . . They also say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; that a man will fall easy prey to a woman who can cook. Somewhere in the first decade or two of the twentieth century, a well-known Chinese scholar was supposed to have added that the way to a woman’s heart is through her vagina. . . . “A teapot is always surrounded by more than one cup.”

(42) [End Page 21]

Chang refers to the English in discussing sex and power. English imperialism in the nineteenth century precipitated the Opium Wars, and the English maintained enclaves in Hong Kong, Canton, and Shanghai. The English sayings mentioned reveal assumptions about sex and control (power as an aphrodisiac) and gender roles (women’s role of service to men in the domestic sphere). Recalling Fanon’s indictment of the reproduction of the colonial mindset, these questionable ideas from the English are recycled by the supposed Chinese scholar to create a new image of male power, potency, and virility, while women are merely weak accessories to the penetrative spout. The promiscuous image may also be a reference to the historical context, since in China from the beginning of the twentieth century, as Jaschok and Miers (1994, 19) explain, the mass migration of Chinese men to Southeast Asia, the Americas, and Africa had led to an “excess of women,” some of whom would be forced into prostitution and exported to serve the excess of single Chinese men abroad. The teapot represents a power dynamic informed by colonial values as “[t]he majority [of Chinese women] remained firmly enmeshed in the patriarchal system”; while many maintained a kind of power by becoming “respected matrons”—the wives from Chang’s opening scene—many ended up suffering the fate of struggling widows, concubines or spinsters (Jaschok and Miers 1994, 23). Chia-chih is one of these marginal women, asked to play a sacrificial role in nationalist politics, yet she chooses it freely because, as the maxim about the teapot reveals, she is already a victim. Renewing the mission and becoming Mr. Yee’s paramour at last makes Chia-chih feel “cleansed, as if by a scalding hot bath; for now everything she did was for the cause” (Chang 2007, 23).

Particularly unsettling, however, is the feeling that perhaps it is not a role at all, but a way of life in the gender relations in that particular society. It is this grueling existence from which Chia-chih longs to have what Haiyan Lee describes as “interruption or astonishment,” perhaps prompting her drastic decision at the end (2010, 642). In Chang’s story, Mr. Yee is not the primary site for sympathy: that privilege is allowed to Chia-chih even after her death. No hints are provided about Chia-chih’s feelings before she is executed, but Mr. Yee speculates: “She wouldn’t have loved him if he’d been the sentimental type” (Chang 2007, 53). Mr. Yee assumes that his power and position caused Chia-chih to love him, recalling the teapot motif with its associations of male domination and conquest. Chia-chih, however, would rather betray herself and die, than continue to be an instrument for the many patriarchal institutions that control her.

Considering Chia-chih’s betrayal of her mission and consequent death, Haiyan Lee notes that the plotter on whom Chia-chih was possibly based, Zheng Pingru, never betrayed her cause when she was caught, and Lee believes that this difference is telling. Similar to the dynamic of the symbolic rape, these women are, in Lee’s words, “absorbed into the archetypal national narrative that defers individual purposes and subsumes them into the totalizing ideology of national [End Page 22] liberation, a teleology that justifies the instrumentalization of the individual body, particularly the female body” (2010, 650). Chia-chih’s betrayal of her cause is a refusal of instrumentalization, and it “inserts a wedge between woman and nation and obstructs the latter’s righteous subsumption of the former” (H. Lee 2010, 651). Given Chang’s formulation of this refusal, it is difficult to imagine her approving of the inserted symbolic rape scenes in the film version. The violence in the film serves to raise questions about nationalism and the political, especially in questioning what it means to be a traitor, and how betrayal should be regarded. This message, however, is conveyed at the expense of using a symbolic rape that reiterates a view of women’s bodies as instrumental in narratives about violation and nationalism. In the story, Chia-chih is obliterated by patriarchal and imperialist values surrounding domination and conquest, but her desperate refusal to be used by nationalist instrumentality makes her a tragic but admirable figure.

The Power of the Archive

Annaud and Lee use symbolic rape to reveal the complexities of shame in their heroes, and their troubled relationships with the societies in which they live, but the original texts offer complex tales. Using motifs and objects that work as repositories of trauma, Chang and Duras reject the popular pseudo-psycho employment of rape as shorthand for the suffering in colonialism and conquest. Instead of posing an originary traumatic event, these writers slowly, inexorably uncover an archive of trauma that indicts the imperialist mindset and its equivalent dynamic that works in the brutal domination of women.

The impetus for this paper was the troubling representations of women in love with their abusers in the film versions, The Lover and Lust, Caution. Such portraits are extremely troubling when they show women loving men who abuse them, and men abusing the women they love. In returning to Duras and Chang, however, it is clear that their lament is for everyday, insidious trauma—the impossible histories—carried by women as a result of colonialism and war. Cvetkovich writes that “the interventionist potential of trauma histories” lies in its ability “to disrupt celebratory accounts of the nation that ignore or repress the violence and exclusion that is so often the foundation” (2003, 119). Writing about the colony of Indochina or the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, these writers look back to particular historical moments to create a sense of the trauma inherent for those living under specific types of imperialism. Such stories are not simply a lament, but bring into focus the problematic nature of cultural or gendered conquest and they suggest, in Cvetkovich’s words “the possibility that acknowledging traumatic loss can be a resource for creating new cultures” (2003, 122). [End Page 23]

Zoë Brigley Thompson

Zoë Brigley Thompson is visiting assistant professor at the Ohio State University. She edited Feminism, Literature, and Rape Narratives (2010), and she has published in the Journal of Gender Studies, Contemporary Women’s Writing, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. See


This work was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, Project “Bodies in Transit: Making Difference in Globalized Cultures” [grant number FFI2013-47789-C2-2-P]. Thanks are due to Sophie Mayer who first brought my attention to Ann Cvetkovich’s work on trauma and archives.


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