XI XI, PEN NAME OF ZHANG YAN (1938- ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

XI XI, PEN NAME OF ZHANG YAN (1938- ). Fiction writer, essayist, and poet. Born in Shanghai, Xi Xi moved with her family to Hong Kong in 1950. She made a living by teaching English in an elementary school and worked on her own writing on the side, until 1979, when she retired from her teaching job to focus on writing. Several of her works have won prestigious awards in Taiwan. Widely considered the most important literary figure in Hong Kong, Xi Xi was influenced by Western modernist and postmodernist literature. Known as a master of versatility, she enjoys experimenting with a variety of styles and subjects. Huzi you lian (Mustache Has a Face) is one of her most innovative stories, in which Xi Xi creates a character who does everything against the norm, often asking strange questions such as “why do wings have butterflies?” “Xiang wo zheyang de yige nüzi” (A Girl Like Me) is one of her better-known stories. It tells how the prejudices encountered in society create despondency and loneliness in the mind of a makeup artist who works in a funeral home. There is powerful psychological realism in the details of the character’s inner turmoil and her resignation to her fate. Xi Xi has the uncanny ability to convey her condemnation of the dark side of human behavior with a light touch. Other stories concern a host of problems faced in city life, such as the lack of space in crammed housing situations and the city’s relationship to the mainland.

Xi Xi has written several books featuring Hong Kong as the main character. Unique among these works is “Fu cheng zhi yi” (Marvels of a Floating City), an allegorical tale that deals with national identity and feelings of uncertainty, issues precipitated by the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. The image of the city hanging in the air without roots, without anchor, is an apt description of the state of the city in the 1980s as China and Great Britain negotiated over its future. The story is told as a fairy tale, aided by surrealist paintings to accentuate the sense of disorientation, insecurity, and trepidation felt by the residents. A more ambitious work is Fei zhan (Flying Carpet: A Tale of Fertilla), an epic about the century that took Hong Kong from a fishing village to an international metropolis. The central characters are two merchant families whose business and personal connections allow the novel to treat the city’s past and present, its multiracial and multicultural history, its politics, economy, wars, immigration, archeology, science, education, and so on. The novel is also a Hong Kong history from the female perspective, captured vividly in the words of maidservants, housewives, businesswomen, and professionals, about how women break gender barriers to achieve material success and social equality. Most noteworthy in this novel is the author’s narrative innovatition. The nonlinear narrative of the saga of the two families is interspersed with expositions on archeology, astronomy, botany, chemistry, musical instruments, and so forth. The fictional and nonfictional elements are interwoven into an allegorical novel, a medley of fables, chorography, scientific sketches, philosophical discussions, and other forms of discourse. Other works that focus on Hong Kong include Wo cheng (My City), a kaleidoscope of life in 1970s Hong Kong, Hou niao (Migratory Birds), about the transient lifestyle of some of the city’s residents and what it means to their psychological well-being, and most important, Xi Xi has also written poems, some of which are collected in Shi qing (Stone Chimes), as well as several screenplays.