Bai Xianyong

Bai Xianyong
(Pai Hsien-yung)
b. 1937, Guilin, Guangxi
Writer, professor
Widely regarded as ‘arguably the most accomplished contemporary writer of fiction in China’ and ‘a master of portraiture’, Bai Xianyong’s fiction has been appreciated by readers throughout the Chinese-speaking world. Some of his stories have been made into films and plays.
The son of Bai Chongxi, a general of the Nationalist Government, Bai moved to Taiwan with his family in 1952. With classmates from the National Taiwan University, he founded the magazine Modern Literature (Xiandai wenxue) in 1961 which played an important role in introducing Western writers and literary trends to Taiwan. Upon graduation, he went to study at the University of Iowa where he obtained an MFA and taught Chinese language and literature on the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California until his retirement in 1998.
The uncertainties of life and history are prominent in his fiction. Past glory and present decline are sensitively embodied in many memorable characters who escaped to Taiwan after the Communist takeover in 1949, as exemplified in the fourteen short stories collected in Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream: Tales of Taibei Characters (Taibei ren, 1971). Old KMT generals, poor professors, unhappy widows and faded prostitutes are delineated with keen pathos, occasional humour and highly allusive language. Bai’s novel Crystal Boys (Niezi, 1983) is the first modern Chinese fiction to focus on homosexuality (see homosexuality and tongzhi culture).
Bai, Xianyong (1990). Crystal Boys. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press.
——(1999). Taipei People (bilingual edition). Trans. Bai Xianyong and Patia Yasin. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.
Bai is the name of a Yunnan ethnic minority, with a population of nearly 1.6 million, according to the 1990 census. The Bai are focused on the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture (capital, Dali City) in central-western Yunnan. Set up in 1956, the prefecture had a population of about 3.3 million in 1999, of whom about half belonged to a minority, the Bai being far the most numerous. There are small Bai populations elsewhere, notably in other parts of Yunnan, Guizhou and Hunan.
The Bai spoken language belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family, but most Bai nowadays also speak Chinese. The Bai people are mainly agricultural, though urbanization has accelerated in the period of reform. Their main staple crops are rice and wheat. Their houses are two-storeyed, with the family living on top and livestock below. The style is characteristic, with mud bricks, graceful eaves and tiled roofs.
The main Bai religion is worship of local tutelary spirits. These include national heroes and ancestors, and natural phenomena like fish, conches, the sun and moon, rivers and mountains. Buddhism and Daoism have also penetrated Bai society. The Cultural Revolution saw widespread destruction of religious buildings, but many temples and other religious structures have been restored or built in the period of reform. Although socialism has produced a significant effect on Bai society, traditional religious thinking remains strong, especially in the country-side. Some people still associate sickness with offence to tutelary spirits, and, along with modern personnel, religious specialists can function as doctors. The most important Bai festival is the Third Month Fair, focused at the foot of a mountain near Dali City. Linked with the religious Guanyin Festival, the traditional ceremonies are still alive. Nowadays, the festival is most important for markets, performances, competitions and games.
The most famous remaining art objects among the Bai, and possibly created by them, are three pagodas outside the town of Dali, the largest of them being 60 metres high and over 1,000 years old. They are similar in style to the Great Gander Pagoda in Xi’an, built about the same time. These three pagodas are certainly Dali Prefecture’s main tourist attraction, and in 1998 contributed to bringing the number of foreign and domestic tourists to the prefecture past the three million mark for the first time.
There is also a tradition of Bai literature using Chinese characters. The Bai are among the minority nationalities with their own style of drama. In the period of reform, there have been attempts to ‘nationalize’ it by adapting it to traditional Bai stories, dances and song styles. Even when the CCP took control in 1949, the Bai were among the most acculturated with the Han of China’s minorities. Although the system of autonomy has allowed the growth of a distinct Bai identity, the process of acculturation has gathered momentum, despite the persistence of indigenous cultural characteristics.
Mackerras, C. (1988). ‘Aspects of Bai Culture: Change and Continuity in a Yunnan Nationality’. Modern China 14.1:51–84.
Wu, David H.Y. (1990). ‘Chinese Minority Policy and the Meaning of Minority Culture: The Example of the Bai in Yunnan, China’. Human Organization 49.1 (March):1–13.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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