BAI XIANYONG, A.K.A. PAI HSIEN-YUNG (1937— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

BAI XIANYONG, A.K.A. PAI HSIEN-YUNG (1937— ). Fiction writer. Bai Xianyong came from a prominent military family, one of 10 children of Bai Chongxi (1893—1966), a high-ranking general in the Nationalist army who served briefly as defense minister in the Nationalist government. Bai was born in 1937, in time to experience the Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War fought between the Nationalists and the Communists. In 1949, while his father was fighting the Communists on the front, his mother herded the large family first to Hankou, then to Guangzhou, and finally to Hong Kong, where Bai attended primary and middle schools for three years. In 1952, the family was reunited in Taipei with the father. Bai entered college as a civil engineering major but promptly switched to English at the National Taiwan University’s Foreign Languages Department.

The four undergraduate years he spent at National Taiwan University marked a crucial milestone for Bai and launched his writing career. In 1959, Bai and some of his classmates, all aspiring writers, founded the bimonthly literary journal Xiandai wenxue (Modern Literature), whose mission was twofold: to systematically introduce Western modernist writers including Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Thomas Mann; and to nurture a whole generation of Taiwan writers. As its editor and frequent contributor, Bai helped make the journal a trendsetter, leading Taiwan’s literature into an era of innovation and experimentation. The stories he wrote and published in Xiandai wenxue are often reminiscences of childhood and youth, based on and developed from his own life. The first-person narrator in “Yuqing Sao” (Yuqing’s Wife), for instance, is an observant little boy who is catapulted into the adult world of illicit passion when Yuqing Sao, an attractive young widow who is a servant of his family, kills her lover and herself after she discovers his affair with another woman.

In 1963, Bai went to the United States to study creative writing through the International Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Two years later with a master’s degree in hand, he accepted a teaching post at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. While in Iowa, he wrote a series of stories about Chinese expatriates, later collected in a book entitled Niuyueke (New Yorkers). The reality of life as an expatriate, with it the sense of dislocation, loss, and memory, is the predominant theme of Niuyueke. In 1973, Bai published Taipei ren (Taipei Characters), the most important work of his career, winning him a large following in the communities of the Chinese diaspora. The book has since been reprinted many times by several publishers, both in Taiwan and on the mainland. The main characters of Taipei ren are people who followed the Nationalist government to Taiwan. Many of them had enjoyed privileged lives on the mainland as society dames, generals, government officials, bankers, or industrialists. Bai examines how the past affects their lives by probing into their longings, regrets, aching passions, melancholy, and nostalgia. There is a constant undercurrent of irony in these stories. As he relentlessly scrutinizes the complex emotions of his characters, Bai maintains a cool narrative distance, which enhances the tragic consequences of their situations. With Taipei ren, Bai has perfected the art of short story telling and the book displays his unique artistic sensibilities, impeccable artistry, and a keen moral vision. Bai has written one novel, Niezi (Crystal Boys), which depicts the underground world of homosexuals in Taipei.

Since his retirement, Bai has been devoting his time to reviving and promoting Kunqu Opera. He travels frequently across the Pacific Ocean to deliver lectures and speeches in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China on literature, dramatic performances, and AIDS awareness. See also MODERNISTS.