Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier (1943?)
By Eileen Chang
Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier is a novella written by Eileen Chang.
In this novella, Weilong visits her estranged aunt, Madame Liang, who married an old wealthy man for his money. Her husband passed away and now Madame Liang inherited everything he owns and is living out the rest of her days by throwing parties and flirting with other rich men. Weilong visited her aunt because she wanted to stay in Hong Kong for her studies while her parents moved to Shanghai. Madame Liang allows Weilong to stay at her home in exchange for her body. Weilong is used as an asset for Madame Liang in which Weilong attracts suitors and acts as a “scapegoat” for Madame Liang.
One day, Weilong falls in love with George Qiao, a young gentleman of mixed heritage. George is disliked by his own father and has no inheritance; thus, he spends his days as a playboy. George warns Weilong that he doesn’t want to get married, but this doesn’t stop them from sleeping together. One night, Weilong discovers George sleeping with one of Madame Liang’s maids, Glint. This causes great distress on Weilong and she ends up confronting Glint about it. Weilong causes a scene in the house which results in Madame Liang finding out what happened.
Madame Liang lectures Weilong about her reputation because she now has no value or worth in the marriage market since she slept with a man out of wedlock. Yet, despite Madame Liang’s warnings, Weilong realizes that she loves George despite him not returning the same feelings for her, and with a broken reputation, Weilong decides that the only solution is to marry George. In order to keep George around, Weilong decides to work for Madame Liang. Thus, Weilong marries a man that doesn’t truly love her, but rather is only married to her since she is willing to spend her life supporting him financially and so, Weilong is stuck in a loveless marriage.
The opening of this story starts with the burning of aloeswood incense. The narrator is inviting readers to listen to the story. At the end of the story, though, the readers return back to the aloeswood incense. The incense finished burning which implies the ending of the story. The story is set in two different settings: the area where the readers are listening to the tale and the actual story taking place in Hong Kong. And so, we, as readers, are in two places at once listening to a story.
The overarching theme that is embedded in this novella is the concept of “love as a business deal.” Madame Liang sleeps with men in exchange for money to support her lavish lifestyle. Similarly, Weilong permits Madame Liang to use her as a “plaything” in exchange for room and board, and in the end, she works to financially support George in order for him to remain married to her.
This novella invites readers to think that love isn’t a free service but rather it’s a business deal or an exchange that sometimes isn’t really equivalent. At the end of the story, Weilong realizes that she is no different from a “playgirl” who sleeps with drunk sailors in exchange for money, and she ends up crying because she realizes what her life resorted into. Now I wouldn’t say that George is a horrible husband because he respects Weilong, but you can tell from their interaction that they can never be more than friends despite being married to one another. I believe Weilong was hoping that George would eventually fall in love with her, but he hasn’t and it most likely never will as hinted when George admits he will never say the words, “I love you” to her. Weilong states, “You know very well that a tiny little lie could make me very happy” (74). George responds to Weilong with, “You don’t need me to lie to you. You lead yourself on, all by yourself. Someday you’ll have to admit that I’m despicable. When that happens, you’ll regret having sacrificed so much for me” (75). Eileen Chang seems to be telling readers that when it comes to relationships and marriage, we look at it as a business exchange, contemplating what services and benefits we can get when committing to a specific person. Also, Chang emphasizes that money and wealth cannot buy love which is something that Weilong hoped would happen.
Aside from this overarching theme, I would also like to note of Eileen Chang’s vivid descriptions of the background and any materialistic objects. Eileen Chang is showing the contrast between western and eastern cultures when describing traditional objects, such as the bodhisattva, and western valuables like expensive, modern clothing. By describing these materialistic items and Madame Liang’s modern, western home, she is showing the divide of social classes and values. Furthermore, the background setting also conveys the mood and emotions within the characters. For example, when Weilong looked up at the purple-blue sky, she realizes the emptiness within herself: “…the clear desolation of sea and sky; endless emptiness, endless terror. Her future was like that…” (74). Overall, the vibrant descriptions about the setting as well as the materialistic objects function to show the contrast of western/eastern values, the division of social classes, and the personal emotions and moods of the characters.
Although this novella is a sad story, I really enjoyed it because it exposes the harsh reality of love if we approach it from a “business standpoint.”
Chang, Eileen. “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier.” Love in a Fallen City. Trans. Karen S. Kingsbury. New York Review Books, 2007, pp. 7-76.