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Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung: The Revolving Door of Life (Part 2)

Continued from Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung: The Revolving Door of Life (Part 1)

Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung gained fame when he published his first novel, Madame Chin, while he was still an undergraduate in 1958. Two years later, together with fellow students Ouyang Tzu, Chen Jo-hsi, Wang Wen-hsing, Leo Lee, and Lau Shiu-ming, founded the magazine Modern Literature which was in publication for 20 years with 73 issues published in all.

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Prof Eddie Kuo Chen-Yu (left), Director of Singapore’s UniSIM Centre for Chinese Studies, presenting a souvenir to Mr Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung. Prof Wong Yoon Wah (right), Senior Vice-President of the Southern University College, was the guest speaker at the dialogue session. (Source: SIM University)

The Toil of Literary Pursuit

There were not many magazines that pushed the boundary of the traditional literature’s solemn approach in the 1960s, and the contributors of Modern Literature went on to become the backbone of Taiwan’s modern Chinese literature. Recalling the lofty aspirations of his group of “new-born calves”, Pai conceded that the rebellious and melancholic tone of the Western modernists attracted many young people who have grown up in the post-war period and were craving for change while still feeling their way around. That rebellious streak was intrinsically present in Pai’s work from that period. Pai smilingly responded that “writers are all anti-establishment.” Popular classics like Water Margin, Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Golden Lotus, are all about the conflicts with the establishments.

Artists are seemingly born with non-conformity due to the desire to speak up. In contrast, many writers in this age place too much burden on themselves, fearing that their works may not be understood. “Writers must express their own views and never underestimate the readers.” Pai asserted that “ultimately, a writer writes about human nature” and elaborated that human nature is eternal. The most touching aspect of Dream of the Red Chamber is the love between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu; their handling of their personal feelings, emotions and marriage in an establishment of a feudal family in a patriarchal society back then. Though time has changed, we still have not freed ourselves of the societal restraints and that is what literature is trying to reflect. This is also why these stories can resonate with people from different backgrounds. “Why has Shakespeare been able to captivate so many people’s attention? He was writing about human nature.”

Building a Father’s Legacy

Writers should not be writing just for sales. “There should not be any hint of dishonesty, truth must be told.” Regardless of the topic – be it about love or other human emotions – the crucial factor of a well-written story is whether the writer has found the best presentation to touch the hearts of the readers.

“Put it this way, the tool to plead for the human emotions is literature.” His words are capable of resonating with the heart.

Literature reflects the times, it is the same with history. Pai believes that the former is the subjective projection of the emotions while the latter is the objective record of the rational. In 2012, Pai published his father’s biography, Father and the Republic: Impressions of General Pai Chung-hsi, and in 2014, working with young historian Liao Yen-po, he published Painkilling and Curing: General Pai Chung-hsi and the 228 Incident to set the record straight on the event that remains contentious to date with historical materials and oral interviews.

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Professor Pai Hsien-yung (right) sharing his views on literature, Kun Qu Opera and life with the author

What could have triggered the sudden change from Kun Qu Opera to writing his father’s biographies? “It was just something I had wanted to do all along,” Pai replied. It is not just Kun Qu Opera that requires reviving, his father’s time in Taiwan when handling the February 28 Incident requires clarity too. In this aspect, the two books that bridged the father’s military genius and the son’s literary flair are not just a lament of the time but a reflection of the deep bond between father and son.

Perhaps, this is why the director of Hsien-Yung Pai (《姹紫嫣红开遍》), Teng Yung-shing, had included a line of the female protagonist in Peony Pavilion at the end of his film to highlight the similarity that in spite of having to go through so much suffering, the characters in Pai’s story will always radiate the glory of human nature. Our strong emotions that are evoked by Pai’s literary works, linger with him through the revolving door of life, often finding it hard to make it pass the opening.