Pai studied in La Salle College, a Hong Kong Catholic boys high school, until he left for Taiwan with his family. In 1956, Pai enrolled at National Cheng Kung University as a hydraulic engineering major, because he wanted to participate in the Three Gorges Dam Project. The following year, he passed the entrance examination for the foreign literature department of National Taiwan University and transferred there to study English literature. In September 1958, after completing his freshman year of study, he published his first short story "Madame Ching" in the magazine Literature. Two years later, he collaborated with several NTU classmates — e.g., Chen Ruoxi, Wang Wenxing, Ouyang Tzu — to launch Modern Literature (Xiandai wenxue), in which many of his early works were published. He was also known to frequent the Cafe Astoria in Taipei.
Pai went abroad in 1963 to study literary theory and creative writing at the University of Iowa in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That same year, Pai's mother, the parent with whom Pai had the closest relationship, died, and it was this death to which Pai attributes the melancholy that pervades his work. After earning his M.A. from Iowa, he became a professor of Chinese literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has resided in Santa Barbara ever since. Pai retired from UCSB in 1994.
Pai's most famous work of fiction, Taipei People (1971), is a seminal work of Chinese modernism that mixes both literary Chinese and experimental modernist techniques. In terms of his choice of themes, Pai's work is also far ahead of its time. His novel, Crystal Boys (1983), tells the story of a group of homosexual youths living in 1960s Taipei largely from the viewpoint of a young, gay runaway who serves as its main protagonist. The novel's comparison of the dark corners of Taipei's New Park, the characters' main cruising area, with the cloistered society of Taiwan of that period proved quite unacceptable to Taipei's then KMT-dominated establishment, though Pai has generally remained a loyal KMT supporter.
Among other Taiwanese writers, Pai is appreciated for sophisticated narratives that introduce controversial and groundbreaking perspectives to Chinese literature. His major works, discussed above, have been widely influential.
Further, Pai's writings while in the US in the early 1960s have greatly contributed to an understanding of the Chinese experience in postwar America. "Death in Chicago" (1964) is a semi-autobiographical account of a young Chinese man who, on the eve of his graduation from the English Literature department of the University of Chicago, discovers that his mother has died back home. "Pleasantville" (1964) explores the depressed state of a Chinese mother in the upper-class New York suburbs who feels alienated by the "Americanization" of her Chinese husband and daughter. Both "Death in Chicago" and "Pleasantville" subtly criticize America as a superficial and materialistic culture that can cause immigrant Chinese to feel lonely and isolated.
In recent years, Pai has gained some acclaim in Mainland Chinese literary circles. He has held various lectures at Beijing Normal University, among others. In the Beijing University Selection of Modern Chinese Literature: 1949-1999 published in 2002, three of Pai's works are included under the time period 1958-1978. These stories reflect the decadence of Shanghai high society in the Republican era. This subject matter constitutes only a small segment of Pai's diverse work, yet it fits particularly well with orthodox renditions of pre-1949 history taught on the Mainland.
In April 2000, a series of five books representing Pai's lifework was published by Huacheng Publishing House in Guangzhou. This series is widely available in Mainland bookstores. It includes short stories, essays, diary entries, and the novel Niezi. A lengthy preface in Volume 1 was penned by Ou Yangzi, a fellow member of the group that founded the journal Xiandai Wenxue in Taiwan in the 1950s.
Pai was born Muslim, attended missionary Catholic schools and embraced Buddhist meditation practices in the United States.
Taipei People by Pai Hsien-yung
Paperback: 484 pages
Publisher: The Chinese University Press; Zhong Ying dui zhao ban edition (August 2, 2000)
Amazon: Taipei People
Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan by Hans Huang
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Hong Kong University Press (August 30, 2011)
Amazon: Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan
This book delineates the history and politics of gender and sexuality since postwar Taiwan. Tracking the interface between queerness and national culture, it underscores the imbrications of male homosexuality, prostitution and feminism within the modernizing process and offers a trenchant critique of the violence of sexual modernity.
Western Queers in China: Flight to the Land of Oz by D. E. Mungello
Hardcover: 212 pages
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (February 16, 2012)
Amazon: Western Queers in China: Flight to the Land of Oz
This unique work examines the role played by sexuality in the historical encounter between China and the West. Distinguished historian D. E. Mungello focuses especially on Western homosexuals who saw China as a place of escape from the homophobia of Europe and North America. His groundbreaking study traces the lives of two dozen men, many previously unknown to have same-sex desire, who fled to China and in the process influenced perceptions of Chinese culture to this day. Their individual stories encompass flight from homophobia in their home countries, the erotic attraction of Chinese boy-actors, friendships with Chinese men, intellectual connections with the Chinese, and the reorientation of Western aesthetics toward China.
Mungello explores historical attitudes and the atmosphere of oppression toward men with same-sex desire as he recounts the intensification of repression of queers in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth-century. He shows how China became a place of escape, a homosexual “land of Oz” where men could flee from the closets of their minds. Some traveled to China and lived there; others immersed themselves in Chinese culture at a distance. Most established long-term friendships and acted as cultural intermediaries who opened the aesthetic range of Western culture to a new sense of beauty and a fresh source of inspiration for poets, artists, and dramatists. Their “boys”—Chinese males whose services were available at low cost as messengers, rickshaw pullers, guides, cooks, entertainers, escorts, and prostitutes—were transformed into a universal metaphor of Chinese culture that lingers to this day. Indeed, outside men’s range of relationships, intellectual and physical, have had a profound impact in shaping the modern Western conception of China.
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