By Xu Xu
Translated with commentary by Frederik H. Green
Reviewed by Chris Song
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2023)
Despite immense popularity in Republican Shanghai and postwar Hong Kong, Xu Xu 徐訏 (1908–1980) remains an under-studied modern Chinese writer. Frederik H. Green’s research endeavor over the past two decades, however, has reminded the field of Xu Xu’s fiction, poetry, essays, and other literary activities. Green’s unrelenting efforts have been brought to fruition with the publication of Bird Talk and Other Stories. The book opens with Green’s introduction, which details Xu Xu’s life and works; collects five stories that Green selected and translated into English; and concludes with Green’s commentary on Xu Xu’s postwar fiction. The selection of stories reflects Green’s emphasis on the transformative (neo-)romantic sensibility that spanned Xu Xu’s entire literary career. The book not only reintroduces an ingenious author to the forgetful readership of modern Chinese literature but also makes an insightful contribution to the study of Hong Kong literature and other cultural productions during the Cold War. I shall refrain here from translation criticism and from reiterating Green’s able summary of each story. Instead, I discuss Green’s study of Xu Xu’s stories in the context of what he calls “transnational romanticism” (200), a concept that drove his selection and translation, and consider how Green’s illustration of this idea with Xu Xu’s stories might inspire new understandings of postwar Hong Kong literature.
Arranged chronologically, the five stories in the collection, “Ghost Love” 鬼戀 (1937), “The Jewish Comet” 猶太的彗星 (1937), “Bird Talk” 鳥語 (1950), “The All-Souls Tree” 百靈樹 (1951), and “When Ah Heung Came to Gousing Road” 來高升路的一個女人 (1965), represent Xu Xu’s prewar and postwar fiction. Green does not include any stories Xu Xu wrote during the war, but instead provides details in the introduction about Xu Xu’s wartime writing and activities, including his novel The Rustling Wind 風蕭蕭, which was serialized in Eradicator Daily 掃蕩報 and edited by Liu Yichang 劉以鬯, who later helped him published it as a book. Like many other Chinese romantics, Xu Xu faced severe criticism from leftist writers who “condemned the corrupting and degenerating effects Xu Xu’s work had on upright revolutionaries” (22). Green suspects such criticism “compelled Xu Xu to board a train to Hong Kong in May of 1950” (22). However, after his arrival, Xu Xu’s works were also attacked by leftists in the British crown colony. For example, The Rustling Wind was criticized as “poisonous erotica” 一本有毒的黃色小說 in a lengthy review published in the leftist newspaper Ta Kung Pao 大公報 in Hong Kong (Bai Yu 1950). Nonetheless, Xu Xu found relative freedom of writing in this new place of residence, where he regained recognition among the refugee population with “Bird Talk,” “The All-Souls Tree,” “When Ah Heung Came to Gousing Road” (1965), and many other stories not included in this book.
The five stories present a clear thread of Xu Xu’s romantic sensibility. Green cites Yan Jiayan’s and Leo Ou-fan Lee’s studies, which link the “fantastic plots in exoticized settings” of Xu Xu’s prewar stories with Chinese romantics of the 1920s who had been exposed to nineteenth-century romantic literature in Europe or through Japanese translations (198–199). Green points out that the term “neo-romanticism” suggests the revival of romanticism at the turn of the century in Europe and loosely unites the literary movements that reacted to naturalism (199). Although “neo-romanticism” was not an organized movement in Europe, the term exerted considerable influence on May Fourth writers in China, such as Mao Dun 茅盾, Tian Han 田漢, Tang Heyi 湯鶴逸, and others. Shu-mei Shih believes the May Fourth writers were then eager to introduce an ideology of linear temporality to the understanding of literary history. For these and other writers, Shih argues, neo-romanticism was a “proto-modernist discourse … [used] to criticize Chinese national character, to ascribe gender and age value to the Chinese self, and to serve as the destination of the literary teleology” (55–57). By countering naturalism, these May Fourth writers believed neo-romanticism signified the most progressive development of European literature, whose path of evolution they imagined for the young modern Chinese literature to follow. They were less concerned with what neo-romantic literature was really about in the West (Song 2020).
In contrast to some May Fourth writers’ instrumental, if not superficial, understanding of European neo-romanticism, Xu Xu’s postwar stories did, as Green illustrates with the title story, “Bird Talk,” show an affinity to European “neo-romantic sensitivity” that expresses “an individual’s search for a unique spiritual and physical identity amidst the backdrops of nature and modern civilization as well as the role of art in the formation of personal identity” (200).
By linking Xu Xu’s arrival in Hong Kong both to the Chinese romantics of the 1920s and to the inspiration Xu Xu drew from European neo-romanticism, Green’s study provides an alternative, transnational lens for understanding postwar Hong Kong literature. Much research on Hong Kong literature has been devoted to studying “south-bound writers” (南來作家), who escaped the newly founded People’s Republic for Hong Kong and who sought, through writing, to rebuild their lost homes. However, their situated literary practices were not always thematically related to the loss of their physical homes back north. Like Xu Xu, Liu Yichang and Ronald Mar 馬朗 were exposed to modernism through a mixture of Western and Chinese sources before 1949. They later situated and transformed their understandings of modernism in a new transnational sociopolitical context in Hong Kong. Instead of gazing to the past, their literary practices focused on responding to the present. As Green demonstrates in his analyses of “The All-Souls Trees” and “The Departed Soul” 離魂 (1964), Xu Xu’s postwar fiction builds “a world of beauty created by the imagination in the present” (214–215), which resonates with some south-bound writers’ concern, bordering on obsession, with survival in the present, in contrast to the majority of other writers, such as Li Kuang 力匡, Xiahou Wuji 夏侯無忌, and Huang Sicheng 黃思騁, whose nostalgic poetry only looks backward at the irretrievable Republican pasts. To a certain extent, Xu Xu’s postwar fiction explains why neo-romanticism was re-translated to postwar Hong Kong. It was no longer a May-Fourth-era “proto-modernist discourse” that emphasized an ideology of linear temporality in understanding the evolution of history, but precisely the opposite: along with other writers, Xu Xu’s postwar stories introduced a chaos of temporalities to disrupt the ideology that resulted in their exile in Cold War Hong Kong.
Bird Talk and Other Stories by Xu Xu is an interesting title for the general readership of modern Chinese literature and Hong Kong literature. Green’s introduction, translation, and commentary present Xu Xu’s works from the innovative lens of neo-romanticism, one of the least-visited topics in the study of modern Chinese fiction.
University of Toronto
 Although “The Jewish Comet” was published in The Eastern Miscellany 東方雜誌 in 1938, Green argues that it was completed in 1937 and therefore considers it part of Xu Xu’s prewar fiction (19).
Bai Yu 白瑜. “Pinglun yiben youdude huangse xiaoshuo Feng xiaoxiao” 評論一本有毒的黃色小說風蕭蕭 (On a poisonous work of erotica—The Rustling Wind). Ta Kung Pao 大公報 (Feb. 5, 1950), 7.
Shih, Shu-mei. The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
Song, Chris 宋子江. “Langman weihe? — Lun 1960 niandai xin langmanzhuyi zai Xianggangde pingjie” 浪漫何為？——論一九六○年代新浪漫主義在香港的評介 (Why neo-romanticism?—on the introduction of neo-romanticism in 1960s Hong Kong]. In Xianggang: 1960 niandai 香港：1960年代 (Hong Kong: the 1960s), ed. Mary Shuk-han Wong 黃淑嫻 (Taipei: Wenhsun, 2020), 37–57.