For some men, getting to know a woman isn’t quite what it seems. In this quirky collection of stories by Xu Xu, we can read about a man who dates a would-be ghost, another takes up with a supposedly mentally-challenged girl who has conversations with birds and eventually becomes a Buddhist nun, a third hooks up in a pro forma marriage (which later becomes real) with a mysterious Jewish woman whom a new acquaintance has asked him to help get to Europe, and a fourth falls in love with a strange girl who eventually kills herself after telling her tragic personal story to the narrator.
The fifth, most hopeful story actually features a woman who is perfectly ordinary, Ah Heung, a girl from Guangdong who moves to Hong Kong after the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1958-62) and becomes a success, sharing her good fortune with her friends.
Xu Xu isn’t exactly who he says he is either, as the name is a nom de plume for Xu Boyu (1908-1980). Xu made a name for himself as a Shanghai-based writer in the 1930s and 1940s, but eventually found himself at odds with the communists, and in 1950, the year after Mao’s revolution, left China for Hong Kong, at which point his works were promptly banned in China. He kept writing, of course; his books were published in Taiwan and he also worked as a literary editor and professor, ending his academic career at Hong Kong Baptist University. Xu’s extensive output includes poetry, spy thrillers, ghost stories and what critics call “romantic” fiction; indeed, this translation features “Modern Tales of a Chinese Romantic” as a subtitle, which suggests the underlying theme of the collection.
What, then, is a “Chinese Romantic?” In the case of Xu Xu, the phrase has quite a lot to do with the writer’s education, background, and general outlook on life. He studied philosophy at what was then called Peking University, where he first discovered the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and in 1933 he moved to Shanghai to study and work with Lin Yutang, perhaps the best-known Chinese writer of his time and the intellectual centre of a group of liberal-minded, cosmopolitan intellectuals. His study of Bergson resulted in a shift of artistic vision, the idea that time was fluid and that sometimes illusion and reality are difficult to separate; as Frederik Green puts it in his introduction, “no longer did his protagonists venture on exotic journeys to foreign lands; instead, they embarked on quests to recapture irretrievably lost love or beauty they had known in bygone days.” This theme appears in four out of the five stories. In “The All-Souls Tree”, the protagonist goes to the temple to see the burial urn of his lost love, a small yellow vase which has “a little red paper slip pasted on top.” The vase metamorphoses into “a face with a slightly protruding forehead … and delicate eyebrows.” He writes on a leaf from the all-souls tree branch she had once given him,
Oh love, oh sorrow! It is in moments of great sorrow that we grasp the meaning of deep love. Yet it is also when love is at its deepest that we experience true sorrow.
At the outset of his career, Xu had exhibited what Green calls “a distinctly cosmopolitan liberalism … exploring quasi-existentialist themes.” He was also interested in “individualism,” which, after some initial sympathy with Mao’s cause, eventually caused his alienation from communism and the move to Hong Kong. Xu was well-versed in Western literature, too; Green compares Xu to writers like Hermann Hesse and other 20th-century neo-romantics, which led to him being attacked by left-leaning critics as “escapist”, because he avoided overtly polemical or political writing, often employing nostalgia and melancholy in his love-stories, although he was very well-aware of the political turmoil in China.
It was, however, these “romantic” leanings, not his realism, which eventually guaranteed Xu’s literary success with ordinary readers, not least because his writing offered them an alternative to more political fiction. While political events certainly influenced Xu’s life and career, they appear rather as the backdrop to his work, which is much more centered in the personal than the broadly political. This is not to say that Xu was operating in some kind of wholly fictional universe; in this collection, for example, his heroine in “The Jewish Comet” is a Jewish woman fighting against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigade. Xu would have known Jews in Shanghai, where they had come to escape Nazi persecution. And of course, after a trip to Europe in 1936, Xu came back to Shanghai to find it occupied by the Japanese, at which point he moved to Chongqing, the Nationalist capital, returning to Shanghai in 1946.
Xu’s departure for Hong Kong marked a watershed in his life; he had left his family behind, and assumed that his self-imposed exile would be temporary. Xu’s artistic life was affected by the move. His stories reflect his feelings of loneliness and displacement, and of course nostalgia became one way of dealing with them. Some of the content of all the stories, as Green tells us, is likely autobiographical, which was perhaps why he employs the first-person narrative in four out of the five stories presented here, the exception being the relatively optimistic “When Ah Heung Came to Gousing Road”. In “Bird Talk”, the narrator receives a copy of the Diamond Sutra, followed by a letter which tells him that someone called Sister Juening had died. This leads the narrator to reflect on his past as he looks into a mirror on his desk:
… when I saw myself in its reflection, it seemed as if my life of the past many years unfolded in front of me. It was a round mirror, and, through my tear-stained eyes, its surface rippled, momentarily turning into a small pond. I was sitting on a white rock next to the pond. Staring at my tired face in the water’s reflection, I said to myself:
“What is gone is gone, errors cannot be undone, what is lost is lost, what has vanished cannot be brought back.”
The name “Juening” means “Peaceful Awareness”, something the narrator badly needs, and which comes to him at the end of the story after he has “meditated” on how the nun Juening, formerly Yunquian, “the dimwit” who communicated with birds, had once been a significant part of his life, and how the Diamond Sutra which she once owned has become a catalyst for his self-reflection. He confesses that his life has been wasted since she was no longer in it:
I wandered aimlessly. I indulged in wine and women … I threw myself into frivolous affairs and participated in noisy brawls. I married, got divorced, raised kids, went to America, Europe and Africa. I sold my songs and stories and everything else to make ends meet. And in the end, I drifted to Hong Kong.
This passage mirrors Xu Xu’s own life, which perhaps adds to the poignancy of his memories. It’s memory, in the end, the healing evocation of the past, which will eventually redeem him. As Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra,
all sentient beings … will eventually be led by me to enter Nirvana, where all their anguish will be extinguished.
Just as Yunquian had changed into Juening, so, in “The Jewish Comet” does the formal marriage of true strangers become transformed; from “the semblance of intimacy and familiarity” they display at the outset, by the end the narrator says,
Yes, she was light, she was fire; she was a star that gave its luster and warmth for mankind, a comet that perished in a sea of clouds.
There’s always hope in these stories, more often than not precipitated by recollection of the past, or at least what the past can mean in hindsight. Xu’s stories have a tinge of melancholy, but remembrance of things past (pace Proust) often does; as Shakespeare’s friend and collaborator John Fletcher wrote,
Weep no more, nor sigh, nor groan;
Sorrow calls no time that’s gone.
In Xu Xu’s stories, the narrators can recall the time that’s gone, and through their sorrow find “luster and warmth”. As Green says in his introduction, “nostalgia for the absolute” is perhaps what