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Modernism in the Eyes of Pai Hsien-yung

I started Crystal Boys (Sons of Sin 孽子 in original Chinese text) by Pai Hsien-yung, who is generally considered among the greatest living stylists of Chinese fiction and prose. Born in China in 1937, he studied in Taiwan and came to the U.S. in 1961. He became a professor of Chinese literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1965, and retired in 1994. The book paints a very poignant picture of the gay community in Taiwan during the 1970s, which is better known as buoliquan, literally glass community, where the individuals are known as glass boys. The novel follows a short period of the life of A-Qing, expelled from his family because he is gay, who begins the life as a hustler. I haven’t read an opening paragraph more dismayed and repressed than this:

There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation; we have no government and no constitution, we are neither recognized nor respected by anyone, our citizenry is little more than rabble. . . We prick up our ears like a herd of frightened antelope in a predator-infested forest, forever on guard against the slightest sign of danger. The wind gusts, the grasses stir; every sound carries a warning. We listen for the sound of the policemen’s hobnailed boots as they march past the green barrier that separates us; the minute we hear that they are invading our territory we scatter and flee as if on command . . . [17]

Social outcasts they are—unwanted by their families because of their being homosexual, the book exemplifies how modernism is principally concerned with order. Modernity (modernism) is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, in this case order is synonymous to morality defined by heterosexuality, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as “disorder,” which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between “order” and “disorder,” so that they can assert the superiority of “order.” But to do this, they have to have things that represent “disorder”–modern societies thus continually have to construct “disorder.” In the novel, in the society that doesn’t tolerate homosexuality, this disorder is the gay community and the individuals who live in it. Likewise in western culture, this disorder becomes “the other”–defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of “disorder,” and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society. This book is a testimony of how far the gay community has evolved over time. It draws the picture of what life was like for gay men in our recent but little-known past.

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