The Golden Cangue (1943)
By Eileen Chang
If you don’t know what a cangue is, it’s basically a piece of equipment used for punishment or public humiliation in East and Southeast Asia. However, the fact that it’s “golden” suggests that it’s a specific torture device for someone of wealth and status. In other words, it’s like a billionaire or celebrity who is in prison but gets treated at a high-class jail cell. In The Golden Cangue, Ch’i’ch’iao is the person entrapped in the golden cangue by the Chiang household. However, she also imprisoned her children in a golden cangue.
The story focuses on the life of a widower, Ch’i’ch’iao. She married the disabled Second Son of the Chiang family. She now waits for her inheritance after both her husband and mother-in-law passed away. She ends up getting the shorter end of the stick: she didn’t receive an inheritance due to the fact that her husband owes so much money. Later on, her brother-in-law, Third Master Chi-tse visits Ch’i’ch’iao and confesses his love for her. However, Chi-tse does this so that he can receive money from her through a property transaction. Ch’i’ch’iao was able to see through his lies and angrily declines his confession.
Ch’i’ch’iao holds great resentment towards the Chiang family, and so her anger causes a strain in her relationship with her children. Due to her obsession that someone is after her money, she ends up ruining her children’s relationships. For example, when Chang-pai gets married to Chih-sou, Ch’i’ch’iao gets jealous of their marriage and Chih-sou’s charming, feminine persona. As a result, Ch’i’ch’iao manipulates her son into revealing their secrets and shares those stories to the rest of the family. Also, Ch’i’ch’iao influences her son to smoke opium with her and encourages him to get a concubine. Chang-pai distances himself from his wife, Chih-sou, and he eventually ends up having a son with his concubine which leads Chih-sou to commit suicide.
As for her daughter, Chang-an, Ch’i’ch’iao forces Chang-an to attend private school, but Chang-an quits school due to feeling embarrassed over her mother’s public outbursts. Ch’i’ch’iao also intervenes in Chang-an’s marriage prospects. When Chang-an was engaged to T’uang Shih-fang, Chang-an called off the engagement because Ch’i’ch’iao guilt-tripped her into believing that she made so many sacrifices for Chang-an and now Chang-an is going to leave after getting married. Chang-an feels ashamed and embarrassed by her mother, and so, she realizes that she doesn’t want Shih-fang to get involved with her dysfunctional family. So she breaks off the engagement.
Ch’i’ch’iao is a controversial character. Her madness and obsession over money are due to the fact that she was forced into a marriage that she didn’t want to be in. It was either get married to a disabled man or become a concubine. Although she escaped the concubine lifestyle, she had limited freedom as a wife. Yet she refuses to remain compliant with her living situation and so, she criticizes and ridicules the Chiang family whenever she can. Yet, the patriarchy and traditional views of women remained strong throughout Ch’i’ch’iao’s life and has affected her physically and mentally.
In order to cope with the Chiang family, Ch’i’ch’iao resorted to smoking opium and also got her children hooked on it too. Her depression and addiction caused her to have an estranged relationship with her children. In fact, her lack of trust has led her to destroy her connections with her family and her children’s relationships. As a result, her children have great hostility towards her. However, it was revealed that Ch’i’ch’iao didn’t want to act this way, and the narrator suggests that if she had a different husband, she would be able to live a happier life: “To say that they liked her perhaps only means that they liked to fool around with her; but if she had chosen one of these, it was very likely that her man would have shown some real love as years went by and children were born” (234). If Ch’i’ch’iao was raised in a much more loving and supporting environment, she would have a different attitude about love and relationships. Yet, as a reader, you may feel that a sad past doesn’t justify her mistreatment towards her children. Ch’i’ch’iao was paranoid about someone stealing her property and money, talked ill about the Chiang family, and neglected to care for her children. Ch’i’ch’iao shows resilience against the environment she lived in, but her hostile actions and bitter attitude invite a reader to lack empathy for her.
Overall, The Golden Cangue focused on the drama of a wealthy family, particularly the life of Ch’i’ch’iao. She is filled with hatred and jealousy towards the Chiang family which leads to her having a sad life.
Chang, Eileen. “The Golden Cangue.” Love in a Fallen City. Trans. Karen S. Kingsbury. New York Review Books, 2007, pp. 171-234.