Chang is noted for her fiction writings that deal with the tensions between men and women in love, and are considered by some scholars to be among the best Chinese literature of the period. Chang's portrayal of life in 1940s Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong is remarkable in its focus on everyday life and the absence of the political subtext which characterised many other writers of the period. The Taiwanese author Yuan Chiung-chiung drew inspiration from Chang. The poet and University of Southern California professor Dominic Cheung commented "had it not been for the political division between the Nationalist and Communist Chinese, she would have almost certainly won a Nobel Prize".
Chang's enormous popularity and famed image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, tragedy, increasing reclusiveness, and ultimately her sudden death from cardiovascular disease at age 74.
Chang was born Zhang Ying (張煐) in Shanghai, China. She was the first child of Zhang Zhiyi (張志沂) (1896–1953) and Huang Suqiong (黃素瓊) (1893–1957). Chang's maternal great-grandfather, Huang Yisheng (黃翼升) (1818–1894), was a prominent naval commander. Chang's paternal grandfather, Zhang Peilun (張佩綸) (1848–1903), was son-in-law to Li Hongzhang (李鴻章) (1823–1901), who became an influential court official during the Qing Dynasty and married her paternal grandmother, Li Juou (李菊耦) (1866–1916). Her childhood had also been shared with paternal aunt Zhang Maoyuan (張茂淵) (1898–1991).
In 1922, when Chang was two years old, the family relocated to Tianjin, but in 1923, her mother left for the United Kingdom after her father took in a concubine and later became addicted to opium. Their marriage had been arranged, and despite having bound feet, Chang's mother managed to ski in the Swiss Alps. She returned in 1927, as her husband had promised to end the turmoil with drug usage and his personal affairs, and the family settled back to Shanghai in 1928. Her parents divorced in 1930. Chang and her younger brother Zhang Zijing (張子靜) (1921–1997) were raised by their father.
Upon graduation from high school, Chang had a fight with her stepmother and father. Eventually, she contracted dysentery. Instead of receiving treatment, her father beat her and forced her to stay in her bedroom for six months. Chang ran away to live with her mother shortly after her 18th birthday, where they remained in a new apartment for nearly two years, until she began to attend university and briefly lived in Hong Kong.
Chang started school at age 4. Besides her native Chinese, Chang studied and professed a high ability in English. Although she says her family was not religious, she graduated from an all-female Christian high school, St. Mary's Hall, Shanghai in 1937.
In 1939, Chang was accepted to the University of London on a full scholarship, but because of the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War, she was not able to attend. Instead, she studied English Literature at the University of Hong Kong, where she met her lifelong friend, Fatima Mohideen (炎櫻) (died 1995). When Chang was one semester short of earning her degree in December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Empire of Japan. Chang made the decision to return to China. Her original plan was to finish her bachelor's degree at Saint John's University, but she chose to drop out after several weeks due to financial issues.
At the age of 10, Chang's mother renamed her Ailing, a transliteration of Eileen, in preparation for her entrance into an English school. While in high school, Chang read Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, which would influence her work throughout her career. Chang already displayed great literary talent and her writings were published in the school magazine. The following year, she wrote her debut short novel at the age of 12.
In 1943, Chang was introduced to the prominent editor Zhou Shoujuan (周瘦鵑), and gave him a few pieces of her writing. With Zhou's backing, Chang soon became the most popular new writer in Shanghai. Within the next two years, she wrote some of her most acclaimed works, including Qing Cheng Zhi Lian (傾城之戀) and Jin Suo Ji (金鎖記). Her literary maturity was said to be beyond her age.
In the early days of her career, Chang was famously associated with this comment:
To be famous, I must hurry. If it comes too late, it will not bring me so much happiness ... Hurry, hurry, or it will be too late, too late!
Chang migrated back to Hong Kong in 1952, where she worked as a translator for the United States Information Service for three years. While in Hong Kong, she wrote The Rice Sprout Song, which was her first novel written entirely in English. She then left for the United States in 1955, never to return to mainland China again. Chang became a US citizen in 1960 and briefly headed to Taiwan for more opportunities, returning to the US in 1962.
In 1963, Chang finished her English semi-biographical novels, The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change. Both were believed to be her attempts to offer an alternative writing style to mainstream America; she did not succeed. The full-length novels were not published until 2010, 15 years after her death. In 1967, Chang held a short-term job at Radcliffe College and would later transfer to UC Berkeley in 1969 before leaving the university in 1972, when she relocated to Los Angeles. In 1975, she completed the English translation of Shanghai Flowers, a celebrated Qing novel written in Wu Chinese by Han Bangqing (韓邦慶). Among her papers retrieved from the University of Southern California, the manuscript for the translated English version was found after her death and published.
She has been listed as one of China's four women geniuses together with Lü Bicheng, Xiao Hong and Shi Pingmei.
Chang met her first husband Hu Lancheng in 1943, when she was 23 and he was 37. They were married the following year in a private ceremony. Fatima Mohideen was the sole attendee. In the few months that he courted Chang, Hu was still married to his third wife. Despite Hu being labelled a traitor for collaborating with the Japanese during the ongoing World War II, Chang continued to remain loyal to Hu. Shortly thereafter, Hu chose to move to Wuhan to work for a newspaper. While staying at a local hospital, he seduced a 17-year-old nurse, Zhou Xunde (周訓德), who soon moved in with him. When Japan was defeated in 1945, Hu used another identity and hid in the neighboring Wenzhou, where he married Fan Xiumei (范秀美). Chang and Hu divorced in 1947.
While in MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire, Chang met and became involved with the American screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher, a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the time they were briefly apart in New York (Chang in New York City, Reyher in Saratoga), Chang wrote to Reyher that she was pregnant with his child. Reyher wrote back to propose. Although Chang did not receive the letter, she telephoned the following morning to inform Reyher she was arriving in Saratoga. Reyher had a chance to propose to her in person, but insisted that he did not want the child. Chang had an abortion shortly after. On August 14, 1956, the couple married in New York City. After the wedding, the couple moved back to New Hampshire. After suffering a series of strokes, Reyher eventually became paralyzed before his death on October 8, 1967.
On September 8, 1995, Chang was found dead in her apartment on Rochester Avenue in Westwood, Los Angeles, by her landlord. That she was found days after her death testifies to her seclusion. Her death certificate states that she died from cardiovascular disease. According to Chang's will, she was cremated without any memorial services and her ashes were released into the Pacific Ocean.
Chang willed all her possessions to Stephen Soong (宋淇) and his wife Mae Fong Soong (鄺文美) in Hong Kong, but they later died. Their daughter Elaine and son Roland inherited the estate of Chang's works. Roland, who writes the influential EastSouthWestNorth blog in Hong Kong, has spoken about her works.
Chang's brother, Zijing, died in 1997. Neither he nor his sister had any children.Half a Lifelong Romance (1948, English: 2016; trans. by Karen S. Kingsbury)
Love in a Fallen City (1943, published in English in October 2006 by New York Review Books) Translated by Karen S. Kingsbury. ISBN 1-59017-178-0
"The Golden Cangue" (金鎖記) is found in Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas, 1919–1949 (ed. Joseph S M Lau et al.) HC ISBN 0-231-04202-7 PB ISBN 0-231-04203-5
Lust, Caution (色，戒) Translated by Julia Lovell. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-38744-8
Naked Earth (tr. of 赤地之戀) Hong Kong: Union Press, 1956.
The Rice Sprout Song: a Novel of Modern China (tr. of 秧歌 by the author) HC ISBN 0-520-21437-4, PB ISBN 0-520-21088-3
The Rouge of the North (tr. of 怨女) HC ISBN 0-520-21438-2 PB 0520210875
Traces of Love and Other Stories PB ISBN 962-7255-22-X
The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (Eileen Chang's tr. of Han Bangqing's novel) ISBN 0-231-12268-3
Written on Water (tr. of 流言 by Andrew Jones) ISBN 0-231-13138-0
Sealed Off (封鎖)
Jasmine Tea (茉莉香片)
Chang wrote several film scripts. Some of her works have been filmed and shown on the silver screen as well.
The following are the scripts that Eileen Chang wrote as a screenwriter:Bu Liao Qing (1947) (不了情, Unending Love, modified from novel 多少恨, published as movie script)
Tai Tai Wan Sui (1947) (太太萬歲, Long Live the Missus!)
Ai le zhongnian (1949) (哀樂中年, The Sorrows and Joys of Middle Age)
Jin Suo Ji (1950) (金鎖記, The Golden Cangue)
Qing Chang Ru Zhan Chang (1957) (情場如戰場, The Battle of Love, script written in 1956)
Ren Cai Liang De (unknown) (人財两得, script written in 1956)
Tao hua yun (1959) (桃花運, The Wayward Husband, script written in 1956)
Liu yue xin niang (1960) (六月新娘, The June Bride)
Wen Rou Xiang (1960) (溫柔鄉)
Nan Bei Yi Jia Qin (1962) (南北一家親)
Xiao er nu (1963) (小兒女, Father takes a Bride)
Nan Bei Xi Xiang Feng (1964) (南北喜相逢)
Yi qu nan wang (1964) (一曲難忘, a.k.a. 魂歸離恨天)
The following are films adapted from Eileen Chang's novels:Qing Cheng Zhi Lian (1984) (傾城之戀, Love in a Fallen City)
Yuan Nu (1988) (怨女)
Hong Meigui Yu Bai Meigui (1994) (紅玫瑰與白玫瑰, The Red Rose and the White Rose)
Ban Sheng Yuan (1997) (半生緣, Eighteen Springs)
Lust, Caution (2007) (色，戒)