CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


Mu Xin and Pai Hsien-yung | China Heritage Quarterly

I Lived, I Lost, I Remembered:
Individual Responses to National Memory
in Mu Xin 木心 and Pai Hsien-yung 白先勇

Wu Meng 鄔蒙
The University of British Columbia

Two Writers

An Empty Room, a collection of stories by Mu Xin (木心, 1927-2011) translated by Toming Jun Liu and published by New Directions in April 2011 introduces a subdued yet stirring voice from the Chinese diaspora. It is the first collection of Mu Xin's work to appear in English, a coda to a remarkable artistic and literary career that ended with his passing in December 2011. If Mu Xin's name is unfamiliar to English-language readers, the recurrent themes in his work related to memory, time and exile are strongly evocative of Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇, b.1937), the Chinese-American writer long celebrated for his masterful narratives about mainland people living in Taiwan and America.

Fig.1 Mu Xin

Born a decade apart, these two writers had different, if comparable, life trajectories. Pai Hsien-yung, the son of the prominent general Pai Ch'ung-hsi (白崇禧, 1893-1966), spent his early childhood in mainland China and moved to Taipei at fifteen as part of the Nationalist retreat to at the end of the Civil War. In the early 1960s, after having studied foreign languages and literatures at National Taiwan University, Pai arrived in the United States to attend the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. He received his Master's degree in 1965 and soon distinguished himself as one of the most talented stylists writing in Chinese.[1]

Mu Xin's path to a writing career was more circuitous. Raised in a privileged family in Wuzhen 烏鎮, Zhejiang, he received his early education in the Chinese literati tradition. As a child he was a frequent visitor to Mao Dun's (1896-1981) private library, an intellectual blessing resulting from the proximity of the two families. In the late 1940s, he studied art under Lin Fengmian (林風眠, 1900-1991), a pioneering figure in modern painting. Mu Xin began creative writing as a teenager, but most of his manuscripts were destroyed in various social, political catastrophes, including the Japanese invasion, the Civil War and the political campaigns of the Mao era. Between the 1950s and the 1980s he had an on-and-off career as a designer, but during the Cultural Revolution he was officially banned from pursuing his creative activities. Even during the most volatile years, he nevertheless managed to write and paint in secret. It was not, however, until he moved to New York in 1982 that he was finally able to focus on his artistic and literary work. His essays and short stories made their first appearance in literary journals and newspapers in Taiwan in 1984, and his first book was published in mainland China in 2006.[2] From that year until his passing five years later, Mu Xin published more than twenty books with Guangxi Normal University Press.

Two Muses

This essay discusses the shared concerns of these two writers through a comparative reading of two short stories: Mu Xin's 'Fong Fong No. 4' (芳芳No. 4, 2006; hereafter, 'Fong Fong'[3]), and Pai Hsien-yung's 'Li T'ung: A Chinese Girl in New York' 謫仙記, 1965, hereafter, 'Li T'ung'[4]). 'Fong Fong', one of thirteen pieces in An Empty Room,unfolds as a musician's recollection of his nebulous relationship with a woman named Fong Fong. Four periods of their relationship witness four successive changes in Fong Fong's physical appearance and personality as she transforms from plain child to nubile and sentimental student, heartless seductress, and finally into vulgar countrywoman. The story is strongly evocative of Pai Hsien-yung's 'Li T'ung' not only in its melancholic mood but also in its narrative perspective and trajectory. In Pai's story, a man named Chen Yin recalls episodes from the tragic story of a girl stranded in New York.[5] Brimming with sympathy and repressed desire, Chen tells of Li T'ung's extraordinary beauty, her haughty pride, her solitude, her playfulness and her eventual self-destruction. Both stories subtly integrate national memory into a narrative of the lives of the individuals they discuss, revealing the meaning of the personal in the context of the destructive agency of history.

Fig.2 Pai Hsien-yung

The lives of both heroines are marked by movement and loss. Li T'ung, a girl from an aristocratic Shanghai family, flies with three girlfriends to the United States to attend Wellesley College in 1946, the year after the end of the Sino-Japanese War. Neither Li nor her three friends anticipate this to be a farewell to their homeland. Li T'ung, in particular, makes a light-hearted joke by assigning each girl a nickname based on one of the four world powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, the Great Britain and China—reserving the role of China for herself. What was supposed to be a brief separation proves to be an eternal parting when, in 1949, Li's whole family perishes in a shipwreck as the flee to Taiwan from the mainland. Following their death, Li T'ung's outgoing personality and behavior becomes increasingly erratic, often scandalizing her Chinese friends.

After graduation, Li T'ung establishes herself, at least in her expatriate Chinese friends' eyes, as a most Americanized girl: she works as a well-paid designer in the fashion industry; lives in an apartment on the Fifth Avenue; dances and drinks wildly; changes boyfriends (some Caucasian) frequently; and, takes solo trips to Europe. Chen Yin, however, sees that Li T'ung also clings to her Chineseness, constantly referring to herself as 'China'—a lighthearted joke that has become a lifelong curse. Decades after moving to America she travels to Italy by herself, where she drowns herself. The news reaches her friends during a party, prompting one to produce a postcard she had mailed earlier. In it, she signs herself 'China'. With this gesture, she blends her personal story into the memory of Republican China, a civilization whose disappearance preceded her own destruction.

The protagonists of Mu Xin's 'Fong Fong' are contemporaries of Li T'ung and Chen Yin, but, living in China, they inhabit a different space and time of national memory. The story opens in an unspecified year with the unnamed narrator, a professional musician, and Fong Fong happily sharing their youth, friendship and art. Later, we learn that Fong Fong has to leave Shanghai to work on a farm in Anhui, suggesting a setting in the late 1960s, when urban youths were sent to the countryside to 'learn from the peasants' during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). On one of her visits back home, Fong Fong initiates a night of passion with the musician, and leaves again for Anhui the next day. The musician later alludes in passing to his own persecution during the Cultural Revolution, and mentions that he has not seen Fong Fong for fourteen years. When the Catastrophe (as the Cultural Revolution is often called) ends, they meet for what turns out to be the last time. Their relationship is no longer about love, but about the lingering echo of a dream never realized, the compelling desire for affirmation of youth, and, ultimately, the memory of one's past self.

Set against a backdrop of national historical trauma, 'Li T'ung' and 'Fong Fong' approach memories of the past in different ways. In 'Li T'ung' every character is a victim of the Civil War. Their current lives as middle-class residents in the United States can never compensate for their loss. Among them, Li T'ung is financially the most successful. As her friends suggest, she has the best job and makes the most money. She nevertheless suffers loss most acutely, thus symbolizing in intensified form the existential sorrow of the Chinese diasporic community with which she finds herself at odds—all her friends suffering to some degree 'reverses on account of the war' (222).

Fig.3 Cover of An Empty Room, Mu Xin's short story collection in English, published by New Directions in 2011.

We do not know whether or not Chen Yin is from the same privileged class that Li T'ung and his own wife, Huang Hui-fen, represent, but he apparently respects their culture and laments its demise in present-day China. Living in America, he pities his wife, someone who was the beloved child of an aristocratic family, now having to do household chores. Like his fellow Chinese, he tries to find substitutes for home to assuage his nostalgia. Many are obsessed with New York City, Hui-fen insisting on making New York her 'permanent' home, for 'only in New York could she forget she was in a foreign country' (223). Her pretext for moving there is that all her friends are in New York; an important but unvoiced reason is that its metropolitan features resemble that of Shanghai. After Li T'ung's death, another of her friends, Chang Chia-hsing, claims that Li would never have committed suicide had she remained in New York, because they would have kept her busy with social activities such as mahjong. Chang connects Li T'ung's tragedy with dislocation: on the surface, it is her dislocation from New York, but New York is their substitute for Shanghai, so the dislocation is ultimately from that of a lost homeland.

Li T'ung's death anticipates the death of a whole generation of Chinese expatriates, for whom her death is an ominous portent. She eternalizes a poignant past that others do not want to remember: a once-glamorous China severed from its past, tossed into a space-time without memory, and withering in foreign hands. Li T'ung never talks about her past. She is China's past stumbling into present-day America, clumsily trying to sustain her dignity. Just as she refers to their old Big Four joke in her last lines on the postcard, for Chen Yin, Huang Hui-fen, Chang Chia-hsing and their generation, Li T'ung is the willful muse of memory, persistently reminding them of both the glory and the trauma of the past.

The musician in Mu Xin's 'Fong Fong' is in need of a Li T'ung-like muse to develop a narrative of his own. Like Li T'ung and Chen Yin, he feels alienated from the past, and is suffering a crisis of memory. He tries to make Fong Fong his muse, but becomes disillusioned. In their last meeting, he is dismayed not only by Fong Fong's haggard appearance but also by her lack of interest in the remembrance of the past . The voluptuous student of art has aged into a blunt Northern labourer. Her youthful talents in music, calligraphy and speech have faded like her gray, thinning hair. The musician desperately tries to rekindle the previous Fong Fong in this fidgeting, wordy woman. He takes time to calm her down and tries to draw out her memories; he shows her musical scores and old photos, hoping that 'her thoughts would connect to the Fong Fong of the past, and thus to my own past self' (45). She is nevertheless indifferent to the memories he shows her, immersed instead in her verbose description of her mundane family life and work.

Between Li T'ung the willful muse of memory and Fong Fong the failed muse lies a fundamental difference in the continuity of the individual. Li T'ung, despite her outrageous behavior, preserves, in her own way, her integrity. She seeks strong stimuli from the external world in order to feel her inner self. Her efforts to sustain that essence in its unchanged form is expressed visually via the narrator's description of her appearance. A spider-shaped hairpin made of small diamonds becomes her defining motif. The object debuts on Chen Yin's wedding day, his first encounter with Li T'ung, and accompanies her in every scene. The portentous image of a spider matches men's initial impression of Li T'ung as a femme fatale, but Chen notices her fragility. In her moments of weakness, it seems to Chen, Li T'ung is about to fall prey to the 'fierce' looking spider (233). Li T'ung's identity is also symbolized visually by the fiery red clothes. In every memory Chen has of her, Li is dressed in red, a color that also appears in her given name T'ung 彤, which literally means 'red'. Both motifs symbolize Li T'ung's desire to be herself at all times. As the spider needs its web, so Li T'ung is in want of something to attach herself to. In the postcard she sends back from Italy, the spider is missing, and she is dressed in black. This is the moment when Li T'ung can no longer maintain her essence, and she decides to eliminate that discontinuity by killing herself. The desire for attachment eventually swallows her up. She is devoured by the spider.

Fig.4 Cover of Mu Xin's short story collection The Windsor Cemetery Diary, including the Chinese version of 'Fong Fong No. 4', published by Guangxi Normal University in 2006.

The continuity Chen Yin observes in Li T'ung is absent in Fong Fong, who is a more fragmented character. Even before the Catastrophe, the musician is perplexed by her changes; at each reunion, he is surprised by a different Fong Fong. In the first few years of their relationship, she impresses him as a 'shy' and 'frail' child (33). Years later he meets her again, back from working on the farm in Anhui, and he is struck by her beauty in full bloom: 'I was astonished—it was as if she had changed into another person… . This was without a doubt a very attractive woman. I began to feel a different kind of harmony between us' (38). His last meeting with a jaded Fong Fong astonishes him as much as did previously seeing her in her prime.

He nevertheless detects a vague sense of continuity in her last letter, in which she describes her emotional response to their last meeting, and expresses regret at abandoning him fourteen years earlier. The musician is, again, astonished: '[S]he who had become so worn and chatty could still write a letter like that' (47). The sentimental tone of the letter, however, makes him wonder whether Fong Fong would 'secretly congratulate herself' for having abandoned him if he had been ruined in the Catastrophe and never restored his good name. The continuity hinted at in Fong Fong's last letter is consequently weakened.

Both stories show individuals making different choices in response to the personal disruptions wrought by national turmoil. While Chen Yin and others try to reconcile themselves to the discontinuity and live in the present, Li T'ung struggles to maintain her integrity. Li also lives at a much faster tempo, an accelerated version of the story of her generation. The weight of this temporal relationship hits home in the reaction of Li T'ung's friends to the news of her death, which C.T. Hsia has called 'one of the best' scenes 'in modern Chinese fiction for its firm, concrete realization of pathos unaccompanied by a trace of sentimentality.'[6] In this finale, they play mahjong hysterically, as Li T'ung used to do, adopting her former pace of life to shield themselves from the pain, solitude and loss that she experienced before them. Li T'ung's destiny is their own, and in her anxious fight against time, she outpaced them all, dooming them to repeat her suffering in slow motion.

In 'Fong Fong', the process is reversed. Fong Fong, unlike Li T'ung, lives at the same pace as her generation. Like many young people, she is sent to a faraway province to work on a farm, and during the Cultural Revolution she is relocated again to the remote northeastern province of Heilongjiang where she starts a family, is allocated a banal job and bears children. From the narrator's perspective, the discontinuity between who she is and who she was is unbearable, but her response is apathetic; she accepts her reality and allows it to transform her. Notably, Fong Fong first strikes the musician as an object of sexual desire during the time she works on the farm. Far from destroying the delicate art student, farm work brings out her womanly beauty and sexual energy. The supposed 'bad' time has resulted in a joyous and desirable change in her. In their last meeting after the Catastrophe, the garrulous, old Fong Fong tells her saga in an impassive manner, her self-narrative and appearance conforming to the class stereotype. Once again, she lives at peace with the 'bad' time; indeed, no time is 'good' or 'bad' for her. Fong Fong's discontinuous identity troubles the musician, but she is in accord with the community, and with her time.

The musician presents himself, in sharp contrast to Fong Fong, as a stable subject through time. He summarizes his misfortune in the Catastrophe in a brief paragraph, presenting only a minimal narrative of his sufferings: 'Two fingers on my right hand and one finger on my left hand were broken, and the Catastrophe finally ended' (43). We learn that he not only regained his former social status, but has won distinction. In spite of his suffering and subsequent unexpected fame, the musician/narrator emphasizes his continuity of self, claiming that he has sustained his selfhood despite the chaos: 'Yet my home was the same place; I was still my same single self' (43). His self-impression is confirmed by Fong Fong, who is shocked that that the musician is still alive and still looks young: '… you don't look old at all, you look the same, strange you don't even have white hair' (46).

However, this continuity is not something the musician takes delight in. The utopian vision of 'New Men' and a 'New Nation' celebrated by the Communist regime has made rupture a prevailing factor both in the national narrative and in individual life, as those who are 'still' their 'same single selves' are now the ones marginalized. The musician's appearance strikes Fong Fong as unreal. Fong Fong, like many in her generation, lives in a fast, protean carnival; in preserving his own continuity, the musician becomes alienated from his community. He realizes that he has been left behind, and he projects his desire onto Fong Fong, trying to find some continuity between him and his one-time lover.

Two Visions

Pai Hsien-yung and Mu Xin thus present divergent visions of the temporal nature of history, memory and individual existence. Pai posits a high moment in history, on both the national and the personal level, a time when the individual lives more harmoniously with their community, and with time itself. As Hsia puts it, Pai's stories have a 'comprehensive awareness of China from its past grandeur to its present helplessness'.[7] Many of Pai's stories about diaspora, including those in the story collections Taipei People (臺北人,1971) and Li T'ung: A Chinese Girl in New York 謫仙記, present a space-time similar to the aristocratic Shanghai of Li T'ung's memory, the old Nanjing of 'Ode to Bygone Days' 思舊賦[8] and 'Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream' 遊園驚夢 being two prominent examples.[9] Characters in all these stories constantly look back to an original time-space that contrasts sharply with their present. The Chinese title of 'Li T'ung' itself is heavily nostalgic. Hsia points out that a direct translation of the title should be 'A Celestial in Mundane Exile', the Tang poet Li Bo being the most famous 'exiled immortal'. He and the author nevertheless decided to use an English title more accessible to Western readers.[10] Li T'ung is a celestial being fallen from the heavenly pre-Civil War Shanghai to mid-century New York, her life story one of continuous decline from that high point. This downward movement is reflected in her spider hairpin's gradual slide from 'above her ear' (223) to 'the end of the flowing mane' (227), and finally to 'squatting on her left cheek, fierce, shimmering' (233). Her decline is also reflected subtly as the color of her clothes changes from a 'flaming red' (221) to a dingy dark red (233), and finally to the black topcoat (236).

Unlike in Pai's stories, in Mu Xin's there is no high point in the past for the characters to return to; there is no privileged time, much less a corresponding privileged space. While Chen Yin can capture Li T'ung's continuity in scenes from memory, the musician cannot capture Fong Fong in the same way. Fong Fong is constantly in a process of becoming something else. The story's Chinese title, '芳芳No. 4', itself conveys a strong sense of alienation, consisting of the Chinese characters for the woman's name, an English abbreviation, and an Arabic numeral. This linguistic incongruence corresponds to the narrative fragmentation of Fong Fong the remembered object, of the musician the remembering subject, and of the age in which they live.

Fig.5 Cover of the 2010 version of Pai's short story collection New Yorker, including the Chinese version of 'Li T'ung: A Chinese Girl in New York.'

In a 1988 article about his experience with literary creation, Pai states: 'We are the generation grew up after the war… . We are not responsible for the achievements and failures in mainland history, for we were children then. Nevertheless, we are obliged to share with our fathers the tragic consequences of the retreat from the mainland'.[11] 'Li T'ung' conveys in artistic terms these tragic and painful consequences for Pai's generation.

Whereas Pai projects a compassionate gaze on the rebellious individual victimized by time, Mu Xin casts a skeptical glance at the human impulse of nostalgia for home in a specific context. In his appraisal of Mu Xin's art, the academic critic Wu Hung concludes that Mu Xin is an artist in exile 'without a past' whose artistic vision of the self is 'highly individualistic' and 'ahistorical'.[12] In 'Fong Fong', Mu Xin offers such an 'ahistorical' vision even when he uses national history as its material. In a discussion of his life and literature with Toming Jun Liu in 2000, Mu Xin responds to the question of homesickness by citing André Gide's story: 'The Return of the Prodigal Son':

In [the story], the prodigal has a younger brother who watches his return in cold indifference. When the lavish welcoming dinner party finally ends, the younger brother prepares to leave home, even before daybreak. The prodigal, worthy of his name and experience after all, quietly holds the door open for his brother and advises: 'It's your turn to leave home; try not to return'.[13]

For Mu Xin, one cannot help feeling nostalgic, just as the musician cannot help resorting to Fong Fong to recollect his own past. And yet, Mu Xin believes that an artist's homesickness should not supersede his interest in humanity. In 'Fong Fong', Mu Xin denies the musician a visit to the past, but allows him to preserve continuity through the musical arts. At the end of the story, the musician voluntarily exiles himself to Europe. Separated in time and space from his home, he reaches a more profound continuity with himself in his memory of Fong Fong, telling her story to a fellow artist friend and recreating her as an imaginary love object. Exile is his way to break free from the confinement of time.

In these two stories, Pai Hsien-yung and Mu Xin represent the paths of two individuals who are burdened by memory and who rebel against the tyranny of time. For one the solution is to eliminate the bodily self and triumph over time by preserving one's integrity; for the other it is to transcend time by embarking on an aesthetic exile. Together, these choices encapsulate a central dilemma faced by members of the Chinese diaspora throughout the vicissitudes of the twentieth century.

Wu Meng received her Master's Degree in Comparative Literature at The University of Western Ontario and is currently a doctoral student in Modern Chinese Literature at The University of British Columbia.—The Editor


[1] Biographical information on Pai Hsien-yung is drawn from C.T. Hsia's 'Pai Hsien-yung', Twentieth-Century Chinese Stories, edited by Hsia Chih-tsing, New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1971, p.218; and, from Li-hua Ying's Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature, Lanham, MD: Scarescrow Press, 2010, p.8.

[2] Biographical information on Mu Xin is drawn from the following sources: Alexandra Monroe, 'Palimpsest: Nearby Mu Xin', The Art of Mu Xin: Landscape Paintings and Prison Notes, Alexandra Munroe, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, pp.9-15; Kimerly Rorschach and Jock Reynolds, 'Foreword and Acknowledgements', in The Art of Mu Xin, p.6; and Wu Hung, 'Reading Mu Xin: An Exile without a Past', in The Art of Mu Xin, 2001, pp.40-45.

[3] Mu Xin, 'Fong Fong No. 4', in An Empty Room, translated by Toming Jun Liu, New York: New Directions, 2011, pp.33-50. In-text pagination is from this translation.

[4] Pai Hsien-yung, 'Li T'ung: A Chinese Girl in New York', Twentieth-Century Chinese Stories, pp.220-239. In-text pagination is from this translation.

[5] Hsia Chi-tsing, 'Pai Hsien-yung', Twentieth-Century Chinese Stories, p.219.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Op.cit., p.218.

[8] Pai Hsien-yung, 'Ode to Bygone Days', Taipei People, translated by Pai Hsien-yung and Patia Yasin, George Kao, ed., Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2000.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] '我們都是戰後成長的一代 [¡­ ¡­] 大陸上的曆史功過,我們不負任何責任,因爲我們都尚在童年,而退出大陸的悲劇後果,我們卻必須與我們的父兄輩共同承擔。' From Pai Hsien-yung, 'The Postwar Generation—Remembering of the Rugged Road to Literature' 戰後成長的一代——憶崎岖的文學之路, Lien Ho Pao 聯合報, 5 September 1998, p.21.

[12] Wu Hung, 'Reading Mu Xin: An Exile without a Past', The Art of Mu Xin, p.40.

[13] Toming Jun Liu, 'A Dialogue with Mu Xin', The Art of Mu Xin, p.142.