Spiritual & Traumatic Love: Thoughts on Love in a Fallen City
Love in a Fallen City (1943)
By Eileen Chang
If I were to describe this story in a song, it would be Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” featuring Calvin Harris. When Rihanna sings, “We found love in a hopeless place,” that’s exactly what happened between the two protagonists in this story. In Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, Bai Liusu and Fan Liuyuan are brought together due to a war bombing in Hong Kong.
In the first part of the story, Bai Liusu learns that her ex-husband, an abusive gambler, passed away. Her family expects her to pay respects to him, but she doesn’t. As a result, her family starts cursing her and blames her for their misfortune. This leads Liusu into having a strong desire to leave her family, but in order to truly escape them, she needs to remarry.
When Mrs. Xu arrives at the Bai household with news of a possible suitor for Baolu, Liusu asks Mrs. Xu if she can find a suitor for her too. What unexpectedly happens is that Baolu’s potential suitor, Fan Liuyuan, becomes interested in Liusu after dancing with her at the dance hall. Soon after, Mrs. Xu asks Liusu if she’s interested in going to Hong Kong with her and her husband. Liusu agrees and discovers that it was Liuyuan’s plan all along.
While in Hong Kong, Liuyuan takes Liusu on dates and they slowly start to get to know one another. Liusu is unsure about Liuyuan’s feelings towards her and so she questions his intentions. One night, Liusu got a phone call from Liuyuan who declares his love for her, but he states that their definitions of love are different. Liusu gets upset and avoids Liuyuan for a while. She later sees Liuyuan spending time with Princess Saheiyini which causes her to feel isolated and depressed.
As a result, Liusu decides to move back to Shanghai but later on, Liuyuan writes a letter asking her to return. Liusu returns to Hong Kong and the two reunite. They declare their love for one another, but Liuyuan has to return to England for a year. Liusu accepts the role of being his “mistress” and is given a private home in Hong Kong.
The next day, though, there’s a bombing in Hong Kong. Liuyuan doesn’t leave for England since the boat didn’t take off. Instead, he goes back home to find Liusu. He reunites with Liusu and they survive the bombing. They restart their life together; in which Liuyuan decides to take Liusu as a wife as opposed to a mistress.
In this story, I focused on two thematic elements: trauma and spiritual love. Trauma is what unites the two lovers together. The trauma that Liuyuan and Liusu experienced is being civilians caught up in a warzone. Prior to this bombing, their relationship was slowly progressing. Yet, there’s a shift in their relationship, though, once the bombing happens. Liusu and Liuyuan realize that nothing in this world is a guarantee and that they only have each other for support: “Here in this uncertain world, money, property, the permanent things—they’re all unreliable. The only thing she could rely on was the breath of her lungs and this person who lay sleeping beside her…It was a mere moment of deep understanding, but it was enough to keep them happy together for a decade or so” (164). Liusu and Liuyuan were too focused on materialistic things. Liusu wanted the marriage certificate and financial security while Liuyuan just wanted to enjoy his life and luxuries. Yet, when all of that disappeared, the two realize that what’s permanent is their love for each other, and so you see the two reuniting and solidifying their love once the bombing occurs.
I would also like to note Chang’s use of symbolism in regards to certain objects and colors. The example I would like to use is the gray bricked wall. While taking a walk together, Liuyuan notices a wall and the two decide to linger around it: “Liuyuan leaned against the wall, and Liusu leaned too, looking upward at its great height, the wall so high that the upper edge faded out of sight. The wall was cool and rough, the color of death. Pressed against that wall, her face bloomed with the opposite hues: red lips, shining eyes—a face of flesh blood, alive with thought and feeling” (139). Chang compares the dark and lifeless wall to the liveliness and redness of Liusu’s face which was “alive with thought and feeling.” Chang is highlighting the intimacy and passion between Liuyuan and Liusu by contrasting their love to a dark and mundane wall. Also, the wall represents the strength of Liuyuan and Liusu’s love since it has withstood destruction over the years; thus, it hints that Liuyuan and Liusu’s love can withstand any challenge in life.
Out of all the stories I’ve read so far by Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City is my favorite one. I think one of the reasons why is that it has this “Gatsbyesque” vibe to it. In all of Chang’s short stories, she takes time into crafting the perfect scenery that best represents the essence of the characters’ emotions or social status.
Chang, Eileen. Love in a Fallen City. Trans. Karen S. Kingsbury. New York Review Books, 2007, pp. 111-167.
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Liusu and Liuyuan – my brain reels at the similarity. I know I’d get them confused.
The only thing she could rely on was the breath of her lungs and this person who lay sleeping beside her… – That phrase just hits me with feels. If you have that much you have more than many and need little else.
I had that once, long ago, but unlike this story, it didn’t last.
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This is a Chinese story translated in English. So the Chinese characters in their names could be significant.
And that line is really good. It’s a pretty powerful phrase filled with emotions.
I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you.