Beauty, Tradition, and Shame in Exile: A comparison of Pai Hsien-Yung’s Crystal Boys and Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile
The Taiwanese coming-of-age novel, Notes of a Crocodile details the love affair of anonymous lesbian Lazi, and her “beautiful” classmate Shui Ling through a disconnected series of letters, diary entries, and ramblings. Intensely intelligent yet profoundly depressed, a lot of Lazi’s disillusionment manifests not just with her turbulent understanding of gender, or her relationships with women, but instead with how all these frustrations come together in her inability to possess the beautiful.
Ten years earlier, in 1983, Pai Hsien-Yung published Crystal Boys, the first exposure modern Chinese audiences had to LGBTQ literature. The son of a prominent Kuomintang general, Pai expressed only confusion when asked about the location of his homeland: “It is not anywhere geographical. It is traditional Chinese culture.” Nostalgic and melancholic in his prose, Pai not only celebrates the past and tradition, but ties his associations with the past with that of beauty.
This thesis asks what beauty means to exile — by comparing two seminal works of LGBTQ literature, Notes of a Crocodile and Crystal Boys, I trace how beauty informs the exile’s relationship to home. Through my analysis of these two texts, I notice how beauty, with its mythicism, reverence, and physicality, stresses the distance the exile has to their home. More importantly, I examine how this distance is emphasized by the exile’s shame. Beauty, in both Notes of a Crocodile and Crystal Boys, is constantly opposed by the deep shame and monstrosity these characters feel in their nonconformity — so the question is what existence is created in a life lived so intensely in contrasts and distance?
Ultimately, my thesis argues that this distance between shame and beauty creates a space of fantasy for the exile, a fantasy that, in contrast to the deep tragedy of their real lives, often borderlines on the absurd, the exaggerated, and the cartoonish. Through caricature, theater, drama, and more importantly performance, the queer exile is able to pantomime the ownership of the beautiful, using the cartoon and bastardization of this beautiful form to express the alienness the exile permanently struggles with. I borrow the critical frameworks of C.T. Hsia, Eve Sedgewick, and Susan Sontag to further my argument.