——Variations Of the Overseas Chinese Diasporas
Along with the development of globalization, modern ethnic diasporas are increasing in both numbers and size. Consequently, diasporic studies have emerged as an important field of research, not only in social political science, but also in anthropological, economic, cultural and literary studies.
Diaspora, as a Greek word, “in its restrictive usage has been applied from Antiquity to Jewish, then also to Greek and Armenian, social formations” (Tölöyan 3). During the modern times, however, the term has been extended gradually “to designate the condition of a geographically dispersed people who had settled in different political organizations but who maintained, in spite of this dispersion, some form of unity and solidarity,” be they Greeks, or Armenians, or Chinese (Schnapper 225).
It is exactly in this broader sense that I use the term to write about overseas Chinese diasporas. As one group of the large family of diasporas, overseas Chinese also suffer “the omnipresent weight of pain of displacement from a land or society, of being an outsider in a new one” (Docker vii). They live in an alien land, but carry with them the collective memory about their far-away hometown. This preoccupation with their homeland makes them subjects of diasporic nostalgia. In this paper, I am going to employ “Broken Tumbleweeds” (1983), a novella written by Bao Zhen, a Taiwanese writer, as well as other literary works, to explore the physical dislocation and the spiritual wandering of the diasporic protagonists in the Chinese writing.
Wondering spirits—plight of three generations in “Broken Tumbleweeds”
Bao Zhen, originally named Jiang Baozhen, was born in Taiwan, with his ancestral home in Peking. He went abroad in 1979 and got his MA from the University of California at Berkeley and Ph. D from a university in Norway. “Broken Tumbleweeds” is one of his series of novellas, written from 1979 to 1983, with a common focus on the “wondering Chinese.” Before the tenth printing of the collection Lad of the Shing’s, in which “Broken Tumbleweeds” was included, Bao Zhen writes, “The reason I wrote this series is truly because I once experienced that days mixed with grief and joy, and tasted in person that kind of intricate feeling” (1).
The story opens with the encounter between the narrator “I,” a young graduate student from Taiwan with the family name of Tang, and Dr. Ji Haonian, an émigré from the Mainland China, who holds a position of biology professor at one Ivy League university.
Dr. Ji came to study in the US in 1945, at the end of the anti-Japanese War, and since then he has never returned to China. Superficially, Dr. Ji has been Americanized to the teeth. He speaks soft and fluent English in almost all public places, and takes to American way of self-glorification, as well as an addiction to French fried potatoes. Moreover, he seldom talks about China. Yet, subconsciously, he is deeply attached to the land. He keeps with him a copper seal in the shape of a lion, a gift from his professor before he left China, which reminds him from time to time of his teacher, and of the city of Peking. On the seal are two carven characters, “Duan peng (broken tumbleweed),” an extract from the verse “Shen shi renjian yi duan peng,” which literally means: man is but a piece of broken tumbleweed in the world. To a large extent, the image of broken tumbleweed is analogous to that of Dr. Ji, who became rootless after he left China and floated in the world without a place that could be taken as home.
He admits finally, “… although I wear western style clothing and teach in an American university, I’m still like the majority of the Chinese who are easily content with life. ... I’m still influenced by the old China (its value system), but I cannot go back now. … I’m not in the mood to be patriotic. It is too late…” (248-9). Obviously, as far as China is concerned, he is not as detached as he appears to be. His “obsession of China” has been hidden and internalized into his subconsciousness. It is exactly in this sense that he is entitled the status of a diasporic Chinese.
In addition to Dr. Ji, another important figure in the story is Dr. Cai Tianxi, who is filled with the patriotic enthusiasm and determined to serve his home country. In spit of his wife’s indirect dissuasion, Dr. Cai returned to Taiwan immediately upon his graduation from an American university. Yet, a year later, he came back to the US again. In his own words, the difficulty of hunting for a job was within expectation and acceptable, but the query from people around drove him crazy. He said, “I really cannot bear any longer. I went back home while my family asked me why I did so” (246).
He further concludes, “It matters little for China whether we, the so-called intellectuals, return or not. We are only a minute element among all the Chinese. Brain-drain is not a tragedy in China. It is, rather, drifting intellectuals like us who are playing tragic roles. …Those who have never walked out of the country won’t have any of this trouble” (246).
These words seem to suggest that Cai Tianxi has shaken off the frustration he had been preoccupied for a long time, yet in his car, the national anthem of Taiwan was played again and again because the same song had been duplicated successively on the whole tape. He still cannot get China out of his mind. This is typical of overseas Chinese diasporas. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you can never cut off completely the thread of nostalgia, either bitter or sweet, towards your homeland.
Besides Dr. Ji and Dr. Cai Tianxi, the narrator is also perplexed and troubled by other figures “within the small cultural ghettos of Chinese academics and professionals in America” (Yang 141), whom he met at the dinner parties at the Cai’s home: “They detest China, reject China. But they talk things incessantly about things of China (228).
Among them, Lin Jinnan is one of the most noticeable. He was funded by the government to study abroad, but chose to pay the money back than returning to work. In his words, “to stay here, you could serve the country better” (222). Compared to Dr. Cai Tianxi, he, as a businessman, must know more about how to make the biggest profit from an investment.
Another one who swears at the topic of returning is a young lady majoring in politics. She used to be frantic, especially during the campaign of protecting the sovereign over Diaoyu Islands, but she realized later that as an individual, she had to pursuit a degree first so that she could do something for the country later. She said she no longer wanted to act as a tragic role.
Despite the well-meaning suggestion of Lin Jinnan, as well as the noncommittal grunt of others, the narrator insists to returning to Taiwan after his graduation, with Dr. Ji’s reminder ringing in his ears, “young man, you may have to pay a price for your choice” (250).
Century’s epidemic & the “genetic load”
A Taiwanese scholar in the area of overseas Chinese literature writes, “The gloomy tone in the 1960s’ and 1970s’ overseas Chinese literature results from the internal struggle of the protagonists standing at a crossroad: to stay or to return” (Cai 83). The novel Again the Palm Trees (1967) by Yu Lihua, a de facto spokesperson for the “rootless generation,” can be taken as a perfect example.
In the novel, the young professor Mou Tianlei, a Ph. D of mass media, who teaches elementary Chinese at some obscure American college, makes a trip back to Taiwan, aiming to find “a haven to anchor his wandering spirit” (Bai 208). To his great despair, however, Tianlei feels “even more estranged among his own people” (Bai 208). In addition to his parents, his fiancée insists to that they go to America, and consequently, the hero is left “wavering between the coasts of the pacific, brooding over the question: To stay, or not to stay?” (Bai 208).
In addition to Again the Palm Trees, which depicts the perplexity of the rootless generation in the 1960s, Ping Lu’s “Death in a Cornfield” (1983) also focuses on the spiritual struggle over the issue, “to stay or to leave.”
Though the author spared no effort (and space) in constructing the bewitching plot and displaying her skills as an excellent novelist, the message she tries to convey is simple. After collecting the information offered by different personage—his wife, his colleague, his five-year-old daughter and finally his classmate in the senior middle school, it is easy to reach a conclusion as follows. When he was young, Chen Xishan, the central character, was an active participant of “Protecting Diaoyutai Movement,” who even dreamed of returning to serve the socialist motherland. He quitted his degree pursuit in the US and walked on a twisted road of living. As a father, he forced her daughter to learn Chinese characters and to learn to speak Taiwan local dialect. As he grew older, he longed to return to Taiwan, but, due to his bad record, he could not. He was attached so much to Taiwan that he displaced the cornfield in front of his house as the sugarcane field in his hometown, and that one day, at mid-night, he walked out of his house in great despair and committed suicide in the cornfield. Like the tragic protagonist in Yu Dafu’s Sinking, he was stifled to death by the endless helplessness.
Inspired by Chen’s death, the narrator, a middle-aged correspondent in the US, chose to give up his comfort in Washington D.C., including the dazzling halo round his head and his young wife who would rather live in America than in Taiwan, and return to Taipei, acting willingly and gladly as a real news report, fulfilling his obligation as a “crownless king.”
In an essay on the literary creation of the Chinese writers residing in America, Ping Lu points out correctly, “… whenever we think of overseas students novel, we will surely think of the theme of exile and nostalgia; whenever overseas Chinese literature is discussed, we would never miss the topic of struggle over the issue ‘to stay or to return’” (468). Considering her background—a former overseas Chinese writer, it is easy to conclude that she must have been preoccupied by that ambivalence when she produced her story “Death in a Cornfield.”
As a matter of fact, the wavering is only something superficial, the reasons behind their struggle are more worthy of notice. In “Broken Tumbleweeds,” the narrator, majoring in population biology, applies his biological jargon, “genetic load” or “the burden of heredity,” which literally means the genetic traits determining the present state of a species and the most suitable condition for it, to designate the past experience or traumatic memories that have left a brand on people and would certainly overshadow forever their personal journeys.
According to Dr. Ji, “… all Chinese intellectuals carry this load and it causes them to sigh with sadness that fate had been hard on them. Actually it is the Chinese intellectuals who bring it upon themselves. However, only a very few are not affected by this load” (229). The “genetic load” or “the burden of heredity” for Dr. Ji is his bitter memory about his home country and about his family. He told several stories about the Chinese he knows. One is about his uncle. In his hometown Shandong, his uncle once possessed an orchard of excellent pear trees, which was handed down as an ancestral estate for two generations. Yet one day he had to hire somebody to chop down all the trees because another warlord’s troop was coming. Whatever troop came, his uncle would be collected a round of tax because of the orchard he possessed. The orchard, which was supposed to bring fruits and profits, became the cause of his endless trouble. This traumatic impression of China haunts Dr. Ji since his boyhood, and serves to explain why he is reluctant to initiate and to involve in topics about China. For him, to avoid mentioning is the best way for him to prevent from disturbing his wounded heart.
Another story Dr. Ji told is about an old Chinese, the grandfather of his wife, to be specific, who came to the US and did laundry work day in and day out. Because of their illegal status, the only entertainment for him is to look at the outside world huring the break through the cracks in the windows. But he had never complained. This is actually an epitome of the old generation of overseas Chinese in the New York Chinatown of the late 1940s. What sustained them to stow away to America and to endure all the inhuman treatment was their strong will to survive. By working like silent machines, they at least had enough to eat; otherwise, they could have stayed in their home village begging or looting.
Though he publicly claims that he is not affected by this genetic load, Dr. Ji cannot get rid of his obsession about China. When he said that, “I don’t feel that I owe China anything,” he was actually querying the Chinese philosophy, “Heaven and Earth are not benevolent.” He asked, “Did Heaven or Earth make you fight?” (230). It was the endless wars, either national or civil, and the famine drove people out of their homeland, deprived of their nostalgia towards their homeland, and led to their deep dilemma: even patriotism becomes something twisted or even cursed because the country fails to offer the basic need for a living, not to speak of the long-lasting security and comfort.
As Dr. Ji said, “In those days none of the students who went overseas for further study intended to stay away and not return home to China” (237), he took his professor’s advice and went abroad in order to contribute after his graduation when the political situation quietened down. Unfortunately, he was stranded in America upon his graduation because he is a pious Catholic, which was a taboo in the newly established communist China. An intellectual who sincerely longed to rescue his own country, he was, ironically, deprived of the opportunity. Instead of “changing China,” he was turned into an exile by a change of regime in China. In this sense, to stay or to return is not a free choice, but a decision without alternatives, at least at Dr. Ji’s time.
The perplexing situation like that of Dr. Ji is not alone at all. In the early 1970s, a huge and grand campaign was initiated among overseas students to protest against Japanese and American government over the sovereign dispute of Diaoyu Islands. Yet, at the end, thousands of participants of the movement had to pay a heavy cost for their young patriotic enthusiasm. Their names appeared on the blacklist of Nationalist government in Taiwan, and hence they were not allowed return to Taiwan. These people constitute another group of rootless Chinese who have homeland but are unable to return. The above-mentioned protagonist, Chen Xishan, in “Death in a Cornfield” is a typical example. The transient figure Li Yongxin in Bai Xianyong’s “Ashes” is another example of this column.
As an activist of “Protecting Diaoyu Islands,” Li threw himself completely into the movement, and gave up his degree pursuit at Columbia University. As a result, he failed to find a decent job and could only live a dreadful life in America. Facing his awkward situation/plight, the narrator “I”, the former enthusiast but sober to extricate himself in time, can only sigh and keep silent. After all, in front of the hegemony of national states, individuals are trivial indeed.
The “genetic load,” which affected Dr. Ji and prolonged his obsession with China, caused a new wave of “coming out and not returning” among the Mainland Chinese after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like “frightened birds,” they chose to flee out of their homeland, which reminded them form time to time of the nightmares in the past, and would rather die in an alien land. If not because they feel extremely heart-broken, who would like to leave their homeland at an old age, especially for Chinese, who traditionally insist to die on the land of their own? Bai Xianyong records such figures as Lϋ Fang in his “Nocturne” and Long Dingli in his “Ashes.”
Lϋ Fang, born in a family of musicians, graduated from the piano major of Juilliard Music College, and returned to Shanghai in 1951 aiming to fulfilling her dream of popularizing music education—“to comfort souls of Chinese people with music” (Bai 770). Yet at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, she was forced to denounce herself as a “Foreigners’ Lackey” simply because she, a coffee addict, treated her students with coffee, a symbol of being Westernized. More than 200 phonographs were trampled into pieces and several boxes of music scores were burnt to ashes overnight. All of them were taken back by herself from the US. During the final stage of the Cultural Revolution, she was sent to weed thistles and thorns in a wild land bare-handedly. The thorn stuck in the nails caused her right hand to be swollen and fester. In the end, she had to get the fingernails pulled out in order to squeeze out all the pus. Hence her right hand was left with two fingers without nails, a forever scar on the flesh and a traumatic memory deep in her mind. After five years’ effort, she finally was granted the permit to get out of China so that she could share her more than two decades’ nightmare with her ex-boyfriend, who did not return to China but became a distinguished heart specialist and lived in an apartment of the Fontainebleau, facing Central Park in Manhattan, New York. The only wish for Lϋ Fang now is to spend her remaining years in peace in New York, a place far from political clamors.
Long Dingli, the initiator of the China Democratic League and the “Association of Rescuing China” in 1936, refused to retreat from the Mainland to Taiwan in 1949, but was branded as a Rightist in 1957 and silenced since then for twenty years. After the end of Cultural Revolution, around 1979, he came to the US. He asked the young narrator, an engineer who were born in the mainland and retreated to Taiwan and went abroad to the US—to help him find a burial ground in New York. If not because of the despair that drove him to death, what can enable him, a patriotic personage and democratic fighter, to discard his home country in old age?
In her short story “Nanqian and Her Maternal Grandfather” (2002), the young novelist Chen Danyan also writes about such an old couple, who chose to leave China and lead a lonely life in America. The old couple was from rich and influential families in Shanghai, which turned out to be the roots of their suffering in each political movement for more than three decades. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, they came out of Shanghai, following their daughter’s steps, and walked on the road of self-chosen exile. Grandma swore that she would not return even on her death day, and she lived up to her words. Grandpa continued to live helplessly in his daughter’s home until one day he died suddenly from cerebral haemorrhage. Like a soft sigh, a life passed away quietly with endless grievances.
Why a price?
In his letter to the narrator, Dr. Ji warned him, “young man, you may have to pay a price for your choice” (250). Though no proof was provided in the novella, readers could find evidence in many literary works. Undoubtedly, Lü Fang in Bai Xianyong’s “Nocturne” serves as one footnote. The painter Ling Chenguang in Bai Hua’s film script, “Bitter Love,” and Shen Taiying, as well as Jian Shixiong, in Cai Xiunü’s “Rice Spikes Fallen to Earth” can also serve as examples.
In “Bitter Love,” the hero Ling Chenguang (literally means the light of the dawn) fled out of China during the civil war of China and became a distinguished painter in the US. On the eve of the establishment of People’s Republic of China, he returned. Yet he suffered again and again in the succeeding movements, and finally died on the wild land. The film ends with the scene that Ling Chenguang dies in the snow, his body forming the point to a huge question mark that he has carved from the snow. The question, which his daughter addressed him, lingered in the mind of the audience, “You love your country, but does your country love you?” (57)
In “Rice Spikes Fallen to Earth,” Shen Taiying and Jian Shixiong parted company in Tokyo forty-four years ago. Taiying returned to Taiwan and Jian went to the Mainland, “motivated by the same ideals”—to rescue the country (71). Yet, “Forty-four years, all gone” with nothing left (71). Jian spent forty of forty-four years in prison because he was mistaken for a Japanese spy at first and accused of being one of the Kuomindang’s stooges later. In the meantime, Taiying was put into prison in 1947, probably during the Incident on Feb 28. Two years later, he was sent back home, half-dead, at the mid-night. Since then, he became silenced and indifferent to the outside world for over thirty years.
Perhaps Bai Hua is correct when he writes that, like the blackened Buddha by the smoky incense of its worshippers, “In this mortal world, the outcome of many things turn out contrary to people’s original intention” (18/44). The question is: why to return means a price?
The reasons can be various along with the change of the times. First, when “Americophilia” is the biggest vogue of the times, the returnee would surely encounter doubtful eyes from people around. The bitter experience of Cai Tianxi and Mou Tianlei has proved this point. Secondly, when the political air, especially the extreme nationalism, is surging, the returnee is more often than not the first target to be attacked. The experience of Lü Fang and her companions testified this rule.
Dilemma in contemporary times
In contemporary times, political air is not as thick as twenty or thirty or forty years ago though various problems continue to exist. Yet the returnee may still feel uncomfortable because of the rapid commercialization in both Taiwan and the Mainland. They find the hometown is not the same as what they have expected. Huang Chuan writes in her novella “Legend of Homeland,”
“The political environment is getting better, but the number of readers is declining. You know, most of people are busy making money, and the belief that “money is omnipotent” has devalued “scholarship” and “knowledge.”
“My writer friends all told me that literary works are no longer popular now.” (201)
Behind the economic prosperity and political improvement are dehumanized people, no matter in Taiwan or in the Mainland.
Schnapper writes that diaspora is often associated with the role of intermediaries, among which intellectuals are the most important category (226). On the one hand, the intellectuals are often dissidents and enthusiastic participants of political movements; whereas the government is eager to wipe out the roots of dissidents. On the other hand, intellectuals often pay more attention to the spiritual world and the purification of the soul. As a result, they turn out to be victims of various political movements and losers of the commercialized world.
Where is the idealized homeland, to which the overseas diaspora would like to return or to send off their either bitter or sweet nostalgia? Liu Zaifu, after several years’ exile, writes in his Notes from Drifting, “I have found in another world my hometown, which is the exiled homeland. … Hometown and the culture of my hometown has been saturated in my blood, and they exiled with me” (2).
To conclude, as an issue, to stay or to return is not only critical for characters in Bao Zhen’s novella, it is also relevant to overseas diasporas at the present time. Once they walk out of their homeland, they cannot help falling into a pit like this: to stay or to leave? That is a forever dilemma. However, different from the times of Dr. Ji, when people’s choice is determined most often by political issues, the question, to stay or to return, now is, to a great extent, an individual choice, but still a choice closely related to the attitude of the government towards democracy, human rights and intellectuals, etc.
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