Physical exile certainly was a painful reality for Xu Xu. Restorative nostalgia might to some extent have informed his literary activity in those years. However, nostalgia in Xu Xu’s postwar fiction, I will argue in this paper, constitutes above all the expression of a quest for a purely aesthetic utopia that had already begun to take shape in his pre-war oeuvre and that came to full fruition in his post-war fiction. By analyzing a number of Xu Xu’s novellas from Hong Kong, such as Bird Talk, The Other Shore 彼岸 (1951), and The All-Souls Tree 百靈樹 (1954), I will show that nostalgia in Xu’s fiction is ultimately time and place unspecific, and that Xu himself was aware of the limits and fallacy of restorative nostalgia. Nostalgia, I will illustrate, was a way for Xu Xu to give expression both to a real sense of loss as well as a sense of metaphysical homelessness that did not directly result from his exile in Hong Kong, but that is bound up with the experience of modernity and the reality of China’s cultural post-war politics. Nostalgia thus becomes the expression of a literary aesthetic that connects Xu Xu to a number of other writers who are typically associated with a twentieth-century revival of romanticism, foremost Hermann Hesse (1877−1962). Like for Xu Xu, the expression of nostalgia was as much an aesthetic gesture for Hesse as it was a political gesture. My reading of Xu Xu’s use of nostalgia thus challenges conventional interpretations of the use of nostalgia in postwar Chinese literature and enhances our understanding of the interplay of aesthetics and politics in the work of Chinese writers in exile.
In my analysis of Xu’s work in the context of neo-romanticism, I will draw on the work of Michael Löwy who understands the romantic critique of modernity as bound up with an experience of loss. “The Romantic vision,” Löwy writes, “is characterized by the painful and melancholic conviction that in the modern reality something precious has been lost, at the level of both individuals and humanity at large; certain essential human values have been alienated. This alienation, keenly sensed, is often experienced as exile […]” (Löwy 2001, 21). Löwy quotes Friedrich Schlegel as speaking of the soul, the seat of humanness, as living “under the willows of exile (unter den Trauerweiden der Verbannung),” far removed from the true hearth of homeland (Löwy 2001, 21). It is precisely this sense of metaphysical homelessness, I will argue, that lies at the root of the nostalgic longing expressed by Xu Xu’s fictional protagonists. Yet Löwy’s study on romanticism informs this paper in another way. Löwy understands romanticism as a highly diverse movement the numerous strands of which can be found in genres and literatures not usually thought to be part of the romantic canon. By drawing on Xu’s own critical writing on the role of the artist in society and by illustrating his intellectual proximity to writers and thinkers of the romantic movement, I will argue that Xu Xu’s postwar fiction contributes to a transnational romantic canon and constitutes a creative engagement with romantic aesthetics that links modern Chinese literature to global literary modernity.
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Green, F. H. (2018). The torment of exile and the aesthetics of nostalgia: Transnational Chinese neo-romanticism in Xu Xu’s post-war fiction. Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese, 15(2), 73-98.