At only 35 pages, Chinese author Eileen Chang’s 1979 short story ‘Lust, Caution’ is structured as a taut spy thriller. Set during the Japanese occupation of China during World War Two, Chang’s prose is direct and efficient, yet evokes well-springs of emotion, historical trauma, and shared cultural memory. In the story, the young Jiazhi is recruited by a group of Chinese students resisting the Japanese occupation. Her job is to pose as a well-to-do married woman (a taitai) to infiltrate the house of high-ranking Chinese official Yi, who is collaborating with the Japanese occupying force. From there, Jiazhi seduces him into an affair in order to draw him out into the open so that her comrades can assassinate him.
Though the narrative moves between the present and flashbacks, the plot of ‘Lust, Caution’ is quite straightforward, with the descriptions of Jiazhi’s companions’ conspicuous wealth, and the decor of Shanghai’s bourgeois cafés to take precedence. Moreover, Chang’s evocation of physical space give a directness to her story that helps to create a sense of dramatic and emotional depth that is never made explicit. Indeed, until the finale, the reader never sees Yi and Jiazhi together, and Jiazhi’s descriptions of their affair are limited to the practicalities of the conspiracy. They are rarely about her personal feelings towards Yi:
It was getting far too dangerous. If the job wasn’t done today, if the thing were to drag on any longer, [Yi’s wife] would surely find them out […] No: he had to be nailed – even if she had to keep his nose buried between her breasts to do it.
In the story’s final act, Jiazhi betrays her comrades (and herself) by allowing Yi to escape. This is ostensibly surprising given her apparent emotional detachment, yet it paradoxically feels inevitable, the result of an attachment hinted at beneath the surface but never fully exposed. The directness of the narrative in ‘Lust, Caution’, combined with Chang’s use of language to construct historical mood and a sense of place, creates a depth of emotion of which the reader is barely aware until it rushes to the surface.
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