Chinese writer 白先勇: Literature is inseparable from history

by Maggie Tsai | Managing Editor

Chinese novelist Pai Hsien-yung gave a speech for his new book, My Father and the Republic of China, at the University of Washington on October 6th. Pai Hsien-yung is known as one of the most important writers in Chinese modern literature since the 1960s, and is famous for his sophisticated depictions of women and a down-to-earth tone that formed a literature beyond political and social stratification.

The Asian Studies department and Jackson School of International Study invited Pai Hsien-yung to share the rich historical background and stories of his father that themed his new book. Almost everyone who has grown up with Chinese education has read Pai’s work in a text-book; therefore, Pai’s speech attracted hundreds for an audience that even the auditorium was too small to fit.

Pai’s new book My Father and the Republic of China contains sensational political and historical issues which have never appeared in his novels before, and has aroused much attention. Pai explained: “Chinese literature has always related to history in some ways because we have five thousand years of history that is inherited so deeply in our culture and our blood. When I was younger, I focused on the emotions between people; now I have aged, I began to understand how history has shaped the way we feel enormously.” As the Homeric Epic was the origin of the Western history and literature, Chinese literature also began with the historical epic Shiji, the Records of the Grand Historian. “The feeling of nostalgia of your land, where everything looks the same yet already different in the context, is something Chinese would understand the best,” Pai said.

Born in 1937 during the 8-year war between the two different political parties – KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) and Communist – Pai intimately experienced one of the most crucial periods of governmental reform in China. Pai’s father was the first Vice President of the Republic of China: General Pai Chung-hsi, known as the best military strategist of the time and a hero against Japanese troops during World War II. After Mao’s Communist Party took over China, Pai’s father retreated to Taiwan with KMT and built the Republic of China, the first republic in Asia and a land of democrats. Pai Hsien-yung describes his new book as a biography of his father and a common memory for people in both China and Taiwan.

Pai Hsien-yung greets a former student from UCSB after his speech. Many attendees were eager to meet the author. Photograph by Maggie Tsai.
Pai Hsien-yung greets a former student from UCSB after his speech. Many attendees were eager to meet the author. Photograph by Maggie Tsai.

When asked about how he evaluates the tension between China and Taiwan, Pai said, “I believe time will come out with its solution; however, there should never be violence and war. We have already suffered from foreign intruders throughout history; Chinese cannot and should not hurt another Chinese.” The chair of Asian Studies, Madeline Yue Dong, said, “History can be a constraint or a fortune.” In order to move forward, one must understand the past. Pai’s story of his father and the revolution of the Republic of China wasn’t about politics or a war hero but simply a reminder to his people that once upon a time, some people fought with their lives for a country of their belief, and for hope for the future generation.


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