Nostalgia and Exile in the Diasporic Literature of Mainland-born Taiwanese

Written by Fang Tang.

Image Credit: Nostalgia by Miss Meow /Flicker, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The word ‘diaspora’ is derived from a combination of the Greek dia, ‘through’, and speirein, ‘to scatter’, and was used to refer to the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland, the historic Israel. William Safran extended this concept in modern society to encompass migrant’s feelings of alienation, a nostalgic longing for one’s homeland and the self-consciousness act of defining one’s ethnicity. Over the past several decades, Chinese diasporic literature has generally been concerned with the motifs of nostalgia, homesickness, cultural identity and a sense of belonging. When a new generation of Chinese intellectuals began settling in Europe and the US after travelling there to further their education during the 1960’s and 1970’s, a number of writers emerged whose works on these themes attracted considerable attention. Such authors include Nieh Hualing (1925- ), Yu Guangzhong (1928-2017), Yu Lihua (1931- ), Xianyong Bai (1937- ), Pai Hsien-yung (1937- ), Luo Fu (1928-2018) and Li Yu (1944-2014). This group’s stood out from other diasporic Chinese American writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin, and Amy Tan in that they presented an image of homesickness which combines nostalgia with a strong sense of self-exile, and reflected the changing historical, culture and political backdrop that has come to motivate Chinese diaspora.

If we follow Safran’s categorization to judge whether the migration of Chinese-born authors that lived in Taiwan qualifies as diaspora, the category of nostalgic longing for the homeland becomes problematic. This is because what they signified to be their ‘homeland’ was not always unitary. Most of them were born and spent their childhood in mainland China, then moved to Taiwan around the year 1949 at around the time the Kuomintang was expelled from China to Taiwan by the Communist Party. Many later emigrated abroad, and only a small number returned to either Taiwan or mainland China. Some suffered a form of dual-exile in that they maintained strong emotional attachments to mainland China and Taiwan, both of which became inextricable elements in their cultural memories. Thus in terms of the notion of belonging, their writings often transcended the more conventional East-West binary. We see this, for instance, in the writings of some mainland-born Taiwanese living in North America. Their varied social and political backgrounds produced a complex set of relationships with Taiwan, mainland China, and their countries of residence which situated the dynamics of their cultural identity. Harking back to their initial departure from the country of origin, their nostalgia about their ‘homeland’ was thus first revealed through the expression of a painful longing for mainland China – a place to which they were unable to return. A famous example can be found in Yu Guangzhong’s well-known poem ‘Nostalgia’ (1972):

When I was young,

Nostalgia was a tiny, tiny stamp,

Me on this side,

Mother on the other side,

When I grew up,

Nostalgia was a narrow boat ticket,

Me on this side,

Bride on the other side.

But later on,

Nostalgia was a lowly grave,

Me on the outside,

Mother on the inside.

And at present,

Nostalgia becomes a shallow strait,

Me on this side,

Mainland on the other side.

Mainland China aroused a deep nostalgic emotion in Yu, which he expressed in his poetry. His life for him resembled a pendulum, swinging back and forth the across the narrow strait separating China and Taiwan, and between past and future. Like Yu, this generation of Chinese authors moved to Taiwan where they soon bore the burden of confronting social and political uncertainties. Their conflicting emotions, prompted by the unique situation which drove their exile, speaks of a deep cultural rupture with the mainland. Later, after settling in other countries, this conflicted homesickness became transformed through literary imagination to become redefined as a longing for cultural connection as opposed to being defined merely in geographic or ethnographic terms. For example, Luo Fu’s poem Snow in Hunan (1985) stated: ‘You asked me when I would come home / The date of return has been written in the rain of the late Tang Dynasty / In the rain of Bashan / And takes me through my rain / It took two thousand years to condense the snow’. Here we see a strong desire for a cultural and historical reconnection.

The famous mainland-born Taiwanese writer Bai Xianyong, whose works also expressed a sense of disconnectedness and a loss of cultural heritage, also claimed himself to be ‘a cultural orphan’. He recounts how, somewhat like Ulysses, he, like other members of his generation of writers, had to undertake a despairing and seemingly endless exodus as ‘an eternal traveler’. Many of his works manifested an attempt to reconstruct his cultural identity by reconnecting with both mainland China and Taiwan while living among the diaspora of the US. In his short story titled ‘Death in Chicago’, the opening narrative of the series New York Visitors (2007), the protagonist Wu Hanhun traveled to the US to pursue doctoral studies, leaving his aging mother and fiancée in Taipei. He struggled for six years, living in almost complete social isolation in a basement, as he was unable to integrate into the local culture. While living in Chicago he was inflicted with a constant feeling of rootlessness. He described this by saying: ‘Chicago is purely a geographical term’. During these years, his mother died and his fiancée married another man. Even though he eventually attained his PhD and found a decent job, he experienced an identity crisis and was drained of his spiritual strength. He had nowhere to go or return to. Standing at the crossroads of Monroe Street and Clark, he realised that ‘he lost the direction of deciding what path to follow, the idea, he lost the centering force’. Finally, overcome by this sense of rootlessness and homelessness, he committed suicide by drowning himself in a lake.

Like the experiences of Bai’s protagonist, the aforementioned generation of Chinese-born Taiwanese living in the US encountered similar circumstances and sentiments of ‘self-exile’. Confronting racism, ethnic discrimination and cultural conflicts, their hope of building a better life in the new country began to crumble. In vain they strove to be truly accepted and respected in their new land. Yet at the same time, it become impossible for them to return to either mainland China or Taiwan. Yu Lihua, the famous mainland-born writer who emigrated from Taiwan to America, defined this particular group of exiled people as a ‘rootless generation’ who lived in a ‘grey land’ and whose cultural roots had been all but severed. Yu’s novel Seeing the Palm Once More (1965) described the protagonist’s ten-year life in the US as if he was ‘an island, which is surrounded by sands, each of them is lonely’. However, whenever he returned to Taiwan, he realised that there too he was an outsider; he couldn’t adjust to the environment and lifestyle that he found there. The novel posed his question: ‘Without a root, where is my home?’.

The feeling of being doubly in exile transversed national and cultural boundaries, in this case, mainland China, Taiwan and the new countries of residence. The notions of ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ appears to have been dismantled for this generation of writers. Thus, the question as to how they can reconstruct their identity in the backdrop of geographical and cultural dislocation became a common motif. Nieh Hualing’s Mulberry and Peach (1998) described a female immigrant’s attempt to reconstruct her identity through fluid movements across temporal, geographic, and cultural boundaries. ‘Territory’ as a concept that denotes geographic unity becomes shattered and came to encompass multiple settings: from mainland China to Taiwan and the US. However, away from home, loneliness and nostalgic feelings became much stronger. Li Yu’s prose essay To New York (2002) revealed a similar experience when she said that, ‘I was born in Chongqing city, grew up in Taipei, educated in Berkeley, live in New York. They are all my homelands.’ She had different emotional attachments to all four of these cities, all of which were her home, yet she did not really belong to any of them. The juxtaposition of multiple locations created complicated cultural memories and a rich diasporic experience, and these challenge conventional understandings of identity and homeland.

The Chinese literature of that generation of mainland-born Taiwanese diasporic writers reveals a particular aesthetic and literary significance that other diasporic texts lack. A core motif was a longing for both mainland China and Taiwan. However, this homesickness also represented a deep desire for cultural roots; it grew into a literary endeavour to reimagine historical connections between Taiwan and mainland China. At the same time, we can also find in their writings signs of both an instinctive sentimentalism as well as a conflict between their success in exile and a desire to return home. The authors crossed national and cultural boundaries, but they never stopped asking where they belong. For them, the concept of ‘homeland’ functioned as a powerful tool: it defines the desire for a home which is not just a geo-political entity. Homi Bhabha (1990) puts this succinctly when he talks of ‘the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force’. Nation, he suggests, ‘like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye.’ 

Fang Tang is an Associate Professor at Yangtze University, China. She attained her PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Nottingham. Her main publications include: ‘Literary fantasy in contemporary Chinese diasporic women’s literature’ (2019) ‘Reconstruction of history and cultural memory in contemporary Chinese diasporic women’s life writing’ (2018) and ‘Beyond the Borders: the Construction of Home in Chinese Diasporic Women’s Writing’ (2017).


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