Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai (born July 11, 1937) is a writer who has been described as a "melancholy pioneer." He was born in Guilin, Guangxi, China at the cusp of both the Second Sino-Japanese War and subsequent Chinese Civil War. Pai's father was the famous Kuomintang (KMT) general Bai Chongxi (Pai Chung-hsi), whom he later described as a "stern, Confucian father" with "some soft spots in his heart." Pai was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of seven, during which time he would have to live in a separate house from his siblings (of which he would have a total of nine). He lived with his family in Chongqing, Shanghai, and Nanjing before moving to the British-controlled Hong Kong in 1948 as CPC forces turned the tide of the Chinese Civil War. In 1952, Pai and his family resettled in Taiwan, where the KMT had relocated the Republic of China after Japan's defeat in 1945.
After graduating from high school in 1956, Pai enrolled at National Cheng Kung University as a hydraulic engineering major, because he wanted to participate in the Three Gorges Dam Project. The following year, he passed the entrance examination for the foreign literature department of National Taiwan University and transferred there to study English literature. In September 1958, after completing his freshman year of study, he published his first short story "Madame Ching" in the magazine Literature. Two years later, he collaborated with several NTU classmates — e.g., Chen Ruoxi, Wang Wenxing, Ouyang Tzu — to launch Modern Literature (Xiandai wenxue), in which many of his early works were published.
Pai went abroad in 1963 to study literary theory and creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. That same year, Pai's mother, the parent with whom Pai had the closest relationship, died, and it was this death to which Pai attributes the melancholy that pervades his work. After earning his M.A. from Iowa, he became a professor of Chinese literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has resided in Santa Barbara ever since. Pai retired from UCSB in 1994.
Bai's writings while in the US in the early 1960's have greatly contributed to an understanding of the Chinese experience in postwar America. "Death in Chicago" (1964) is a semi-autobiographical account of a young Chinese man who, on the eve of his graduation from the English Literature department of the University of Chicago, discovers that his mother has passed away back home. "Pleasantville" (1964) explores the depressed state of a Chinese mother in the upper-class New York suburbs who feels alienated by the "Americanization" of her Chinese husband and daughter. Both "Death in Chicago" and "Pleasantville" subtly criticize America as a superficial and materialistic culture that can cause immigrant Chinese to feel lonely and isolated.
In recent years, Bai has gained some acclaim in Mainland Chinese literary circles. He has held various lectures at Beijing Normal University, among others. In the Beijing University Selection of Modern Chinese Literature: 1949-1999 published in 2002, three of Bai's works are included under the time period 1958-1978. These stories reflect the decadence of Shanghai high society in the Republican era. This subject matter constitutes only a small segment of Bai's diverse work, yet it fits particularly well with orthodox renditions of pre-1949 history taught on the Mainland.
In April 2000, a series of five books representing Bai Xianyong's lifework was published by Huacheng Publishing House in Guangzhou. This series is widely available in Mainland bookstores. It includes short stories, essays, diary entries, and the novel Niezi. A lengthy preface in Volume 1 was penned by Ou Yangzi, a fellow member of the group that founded the journal Xiandai Wenxue in Taiwan in the 1950's.
Although he was born Muslim and attended missionary Catholic schools, Pai came to embrace Buddhism in America.