Freedom Where? The Theme of ‘Escape’ in the Novels of Diasporic Taiwanese Writer Hualing Nieh

Written by Fang Tang.

Image credit: International writers with Hualing Nieh Engle and Paul Engle, The University of Iowa, 1970s by Iowa Digital Library/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

In the early 1920s, many writers from mainland China migrated to Taiwan because of socio-political upheavals, thus began their unending diasporic ‘escape’ journey. One of these authors, Hualing Nieh, expresses the thoughts of a generation of diasporic writers, illustrating in her work with particular emphasis the theme of ‘escape.’ Born in 1925 in Wuhan, Hubei, China, Nieh experienced the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. Her family moved to Taiwan in 1949 with the Kuomintang administration, in which her father was an official. In Taiwan, she worked as literary editor for Free China, a liberal intellectual magazine, which wasforcibly suspended in 1960 after publishing statements critical of the leader, Chiang Kai-shek. As a result, her colleagues were imprisoned, and she was placed under strict surveillance. In 1964, Nieh emigrated to the USA and taught there at the University of Iowa. She successively published novels, collections of short stories and translations. Her best-known novel in the English-speaking world is Mulberry and Peach: Two Women of China (1976), which won an American Book Award in 1990. Many of her other works have gained a wide readership and won various awards, including The Lost Golden Bell (1960), Stories of Taiwan (1980), Far Away, A River (1984), Tales from the Deer Garden (1996), and Images of Three Lives (2004).

Nieh often uses the theme of ‘escape’ when describing figures in society’s margins, such as female characters, ethnic minorities, or diasporic people: all who had the experience of exile. She provides a woman’s perspective on the socio-political upheavals of modern China. Compassionately, she describes people’s suffering and the pain of cultural dislocation. In this article, I select her two novels Mulberry and Peach and Far Away, A River, to illustrate this ‘escape’ motif. In both novels, the protagonists – whether enforced or willingly – travel through different regions and countries to attain a sense of personal freedom and acquire the feeling: ‘This is where I belong.’ The setting of Mulberry and Peach occupies the period from the 1940s to the 1970s, starting in China. The protagonist Mulberry is a 16-year-old high-school student forced to flee across China, Taiwan, and the USA to escape wars, male violence, and political oppression. But being no longer ‘at home’ does not guarantee freedom or a better life. Instead, she encounters subjugation through racist violence abroad. Without a legal visa or passport, she must keep on running in the hope of eluding United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). However, she refuses to tie her identity to that of any nation riddled with violence. So, she is doomed to perpetual wandering and is trapped in threatening in-between space, where she belongs to neither side. This results in a loss of personal identity, and eventually, she develops a split personality: becoming both Mulberry and Peach.

In the novel Far Away, A River, the protagonist, Lian’er, undergoes similar experiences. She flees from her homeland in China to the US in times of wars and political turbulence. She is the daughter of an American journalist and a Chinese woman named Fenglian Liu. Her father, fascinated by Chinese culture and actively involved in students’ movements, was wounded in a student uprising, and died in hospital before marrying Liu. So, the little girl, Lian’er, grew up with a mixed-racial appearance. People called her ‘bastard,’ teased, mocked, and humiliated her. She suffered physical violence and was raped during the Cultural Revolution. Such traumas isolated her from her mothers and contributed to her sense of denial of her Chinese identity. When in 1978, the Chinese reform policy and opening-up were implemented, she escaped to Brown Village in the state of Iowa, USA. This was her father’s hometown, where she planned to search for her roots and her identity. However, her desire to embrace a part of her cultural identity was met with unexpected obstacles. Her grandmother, prejudiced against China and the Chinese, rejected her. And although other families made her feel welcome and treated her kindly, she found cultural differences challenging to understand. She discovered that – the very opposite of her expectations – her sense of Chinese identity grew stronger in the USA.

Despite a similar story of exile and escape experienced by the two protagonists in these novels, Nieh presents different attitudes towards the diasporic identity and ethnic hybridity. In Mulberry and Peach, the protagonist escapes to survive, dismantling the concepts of home and roots. She was forced into a neither/nor situation where each side (China and USA) fails to provide her with a home. Mulberry represents the experience of escape and exile shared by the early generation of Chinese diasporic settlers. Because of the wars, the national disruptions, and the intricate political situation, many Chinese diasporic people face a dichotomy: they have no homeland to return to, but neither do they feel settled in the new country. In comparison, Lian’er in Far Away, A River represents a more positive journey of searching for the roots of identity. Even though she encounters difficulties initially, she learns more about her family and her friends in the USA over time, companionship grows, and she is finally accepted. With her family’s love, she gradually adjusts to a new life in a new world. At the close of the novel, she can claim: ‘I am a Chinese, and I am Brown’s granddaughter.’ Her sense of being included by both sides gives her a dual identity: both Chinese and American. She defines her own diasporic identity: ‘We lived in-between two societies, in neither of which we are minority. However, as we can cross the boundaries of the two cultures, we can care for, involve in and understand both sides.’ Moreover, she becomes a connecting bridge between the two cultures, encouraging her American cousin to learn Chinese and understand Chinese culture, thereby breaking the stereotypical images of China that some people have, and sharing her intelligence, honesty, and love.

In both novels, Nieh focuses on the theme of the individual’s exile and escape experience. In so doing, she disrupts the rigid notions of an essential homeland or ‘authentic cultural roots.’ Confronted by many forms of violence, wars, patriarchy, political oppression and racial discrimination, the female protagonists can never cease their flight. Exile and escape are portrayed as processes of identity formation, contributing to a psychological sense of belonging. Even though in these two novels we read about the transformation from being ‘neither/nor’ to ‘both/and’ and the construction of cultural identity, both also present a break with the either/or distinctions (East/West, traditional/modern, and old/new). By refusing to remain fixed on any one side, Nieh celebrates freedom from home and nation as the ultimate goal of cultural diversity. She continually relocates her protagonists across geographical and ethnic boundaries – something closely related to her own life experience. Travelling from mainland China to Taiwan and the USA, Nieh experienced from early on exclusion from both sides. In an interview with Yuhui Liao in 2003, Nieh claims that she was running in her entire life, and her writing aims to express a dilemma of unending escape.

When recalling the reason for writing Mulberry and Peach, Nieh explains that there were many years after emigrating from Taiwan to Iowa in 1964. During this time, she was unable to produce a single word in any language. She was confused about where her roots lay and where her home was. But afterwards, she realised that ‘China is my home where I am from and Iowa is my home where I live.’ She has also become involved with cultural communication. In 1967, she co-founded the Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) with the American poet Paul Engles, whom she married in 1971. IWP has so far invited thousands of poets, writers, and scholars from more than 70 countries and regions to collaborate. It has become a bridge of cultural communication for scholars from many different countries. Because of her contribution to cultural exchange, Nieh was honoured with the title: ‘Mother of the World Literature Organization.’ And because of her contribution to worldwide cultural communication, 300 writers advanced put forward her name – and that of her husband- for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

Fang Tang is an Associate professor in the School of Humanities, Yangtze University, PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Nottingham, UK. Main research areas include: Diasporic Chinese literature, Comparative literature, Asian American literature, Gender studies. Main publications: Literary Fantasy in Chinese Diasporic Women’s Literature (New York and London: Lexington Books, 2020); ‘Traumatic Memory and Narrative Healing in Contemporary Diasporic Chinese British Women’s Writing’ (2021); ‘Features and Functions of Paratexts in Series of Western Translation Studies in China’ (2019); ‘Reconstruction of History and Cultural Memory in Contemporary Chinese Diasporic Women’s Life Writing’ (2018).

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