Pai Hsien-Yung is one of the first writers among Taiwanese literati to come out as gay, and many of his works explore intersectional issues in the LGBTQ+ community in the Taiwanese society that is dominated by Confucian ideology. The author is best known for his short story collection Taipei People and his depiction of the dilemma of gay Taiwanese people in the US in New York Guests.
Crystal Boys (or Nei Zhi, meaning rebellious sons in Chinese) is Pai’s only novel and also his more overt presentation of the gay community compared to his subtle attempts in early short stories. Being a long expatriate in the US, his stories often focus on Chinese-Taiwanese immigrants’ cultural displacement in the country, especially on the struggles between ‘performing’ Chinese values and assimilating into American society. Also, he has a unique sensitivity and sensibility to the sufferings of marginalized groups in Taiwanese society in the mid- and late- 20th century.
First published in Taiwan in 1983, Crystal Boys challenges traditional Confucian values, heteronormativity, and patriarchy. Surrounding a group of outcasts in society, the story explores their unapproved sexuality, father-son relationships, and the imitation of this pattern in the boys’ stray life, regret, and grief. The protagonist, A-Ching, is being expelled from a prestigious high school and turned away from his father for his homosexuality. He wanders to Taipei New Park (now 228 Memorial Park) and finds some boys in a similar situation. He strays around Taipei City with this group and tries to survive in the underworld while searching for his identity.
Unlike Pai’s earlier works that concentrate on Chinese Mainland immigrants and their descendants’ displacement in Taipei and America, Crystal Boys returns to the life, customs, and ethics of local Taiwanese people who are of Ming-Nan and indigenous descent and second-generation Mainlanders. The choice authentically presents the struggles between sexuality and the realities of different communities in Taiwan. The critical presentation of each character’s class background based on their respective social and ethnic backgrounds was rare at the time in Taiwanese society.
Pai subverts and transforms established tradition in both the real world and the literary arena.
As a compassionate and versatile writer, Pai also embellishes the tragic romance of a gay couple with the traditional Chinese myth of dragon and phoenix. These images are rarely associated with homosexuality in traditional Chinese literature. Thus, in many ways, Pai subverts and transforms established tradition in both the real world and the literary arena.
Zhen Xiu-Ping comments in Lone Courtiers, Rebellious Sons, and Taipei People that Pai’s writing in Crystal Boys pioneered and revolutionized queer literature in the Chinese-speaking world. He incorporates metropolitan struggles with Confucian patriarchal values which dictates heteronormative family order. Further, the nuances of the father-son relationship in this specific context was very much under-addressed at the time.
If not for Pai’s literary accomplishment and reputation among modernist writers in Taiwan, the genre of queer literature may not have been introduced to the island at all.
The Taiwanese society was conservative and ignorant to issues of the LGBTQ+ communities at the time of publication. If not for Pai’s literary accomplishment and reputation among modernist writers in Taiwan, the genre of queer literature may not have been introduced to the island at all.
Renowned feminist scholar Chang Xiao-Hung was one of the first to identify the ‘queerness’ and transgression of norms in Pai’s writing (see Lone Courtier, Rebellious Son, and Taipei People). Before her critical connection informed by Western literary theories between modernist and postmodernist movements in the English-speaking world and Pai’s transgressions of traditional Chinese patriarchal order, few critics in Taiwan or the wider Chinese-speaking world identified Pai’s attempts to bring attention to the unseen world of runaway young gay boys. Almost forty years on, Pai’s works have been canonized into the high school curriculum in Taiwan, and his advocacy for the gay community has seen the fruits of same-sex marriage legalized in Taiwan in 2019.
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