Consciousness of China and the Individual’s Destiny in the Story of the Banished Immortal: Critical Essay

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When I first read the story of the Banished Immortal written by Bai Xianyong, the figure of the protagonist Li Tong, who dressed in red cheongsam dancing in the bar, was ingrained in my mind. She was the queen of the beauties. She had always been living so proudly and so willfully. Li Tong seemed to live the kind of free life she wanted to live, but in fact, there was always deep-seated loneliness around her. Li Tong’s sense of homesickness and loss struck a deeply sympathetic chord in my heart, because I also left my hometown for studying, living in the place where both the language and culture were different. Furthermore, she is also my ideal personality because she never yield to the trivial life and the changeable destiny. Because of my special affection for Li Tong, I went to see Xie Jin’s film ‘The Last Aristocrat’, which was adapted from this novel. When Li Tong, acted by Pan Hong, stood among a flock of pigeons by the water of Venice in a black robe, I knew that she was about to leave in the most decisive way, just as her unyielding soul. Then she would return to her parents and no longer be homesick, leaving just 'a kind of deep and hollow sorrow'. Through the analysis of metaphors in the novel, this paper intends to reveal this kind of deep and hollow sorrow under the falling destiny of China and the impermanence of individual destiny.

The Metaphor for the Destiny of China

In order to analyze the destiny of China in the novel, we must first take the background of the era and the life experience of the author into consideration. Bai Xianyong is the son of the prominent general Bai Chongxi. When Bai Xianyong was a child, China ruined in dire straits, and his family fortunes also declined. He had gone through a good deal chaos of war with his family. In the mid-1940s, he left his hometown for historical and political reasons. Firstly, he went to Shanghai and Hong Kong, then to Taiwan. It was the first time Bai was forced to leave his place of origin and native culture. Finally, Bai went to the United States in the early 1960s and emigrated, completing the second active separation from his hometown.

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In the story of the Banished Immortal, it is worth noting the following years. In 1946, Li Tong left Shanghai for the United States. This year is exactly the time when Bai arrived in Shanghai. Shanghai is the last stop for both Bai and Li before they left China and deviated from their native culture forever. That is, since then they become so-called 'the lonely strangers'. 1949 was the turning point of Li Tong’s destiny: Li Tong’s parents both sank in the Taiping shipwreck in the process from Shanghai to Taiwan together with their family property. This is indeed a great event in Chinese history. As for Bai, it was the time when his father became a completely defeated general. His family was faced with great challenges. Li Tong’s life ended in 1960 by jumping into a river in Venice, when Bai also began his journey from Taiwan to the United States, and finally finished immigration. Thus, it can be seen that the track of the protagonist in the novel coincided with Bai’s personal experience. When Bai left his motherland completely, Li Tong’s life was also desolated. It could be seen that Bai found it hard to part with his complex of China. All these important years in Li Tong’s life were metaphors for Bai’s wish to go back to his native land. This may be the common mentality of drifting Chinese at that time.

In the novel, it can be easily found that Li Tong is a metaphor of China. First of all, from her name, 'Tong' stands for the color 'red', and the author also described her as a sudden jump of the sun from the sea, “the light all around her body pierced people’s eyes”. She was so dazzling, just like the brilliant civilization of traditional China during thousands of years’ history. On the day she went abroad, Li Tong said they four girls were like the top four countries in the world. She regarded herself as China, because her red cheongsam was the brightest. Red is precisely the symbol of China and a king of resistance to Western culture. Although her parents had died with the whole property, she did not give up the struggle. She still lived as freely and willfully as she used to be, and even more wantonly than she used to be. She is the director of the clothing department of a large company. She has a high salary and a large number of suitors, but she did not seem to like anyone. She trampled on the butterfly orchid that Zhou Daqing gave her while dancing. When she gambled on horses, she deliberately refused to accept the advice from horse betting expert Deng Maochang, having a partiality for unexpected horses. She liked to drink the strongest liquor Manhattan and spend a lot of money playing cards. She danced the chic dance like a dazzling wind, and changed her foreign boyfriends frequently...All things showed as if she would never want to settle down. Is this just like senseless struggle and resistance made by China in the face of the Western world, where China had gradually lost its power of discourse? We cannot find any sense of embarrassment, as well as the trace of time in Li Tong’s appearance. Although her life brimmed with vitality just like a 'fairy', she is a 'banished fairy' with a human’s body, which was doomed that she could never get rid of the shackles of the reality and the tiredness of mankind.

There are many metaphors in the novel. Firstly, the color of Li Tong’s clothing. It was 'bright red', 'fire red' at first, gradually it changed to 'dark red', 'purple red', and finally it faded to black and white. Color’s changes implied the process of Li Tong’s life energy from burning to extinguishing as the ashes of death. There is also such description in the novel: “After the meal celebrating the couple’s moving back to New York, Chen Yin found that Li Tong was not playing cards in the noisy crowd, but fell asleep in a rattan chair in the hallway. Her hands hung on the armrest softly and tiredly. Her slender fingers seemed to have fallen off from the bone joint. Her crimson skirt, whose color was dark in the light, almost fell to the ground, as if she was wrapped in a faded old velvet blanket...I have never seen Li Tong so tired, no matter in what occasion, she always gave me the impression of being so frivolous, so untame, as if she would never sleep down”. It turned out that behind the mask of her attitude to treat life merely as games was a great deal of unimaginable solitude and tiredness. Li Tong left her motherland in an early age, so she was bound to have an invisible spiritual depression due to her yearning for the motherland.

What's worse, she suffered the death of his parents, since then she had lost her all emotional foundation. Li Tong could neither go back to the past nor adapt to the present, because if there is no root in one’s life, he will become a solitary wanderer. With the grinding of life, her friends were all becoming numb and practical, so she had no one to share her pain. As a symbol of a weak China, Li Tong lost her voice in the Western world, the only thing she can do was regarding her own life as games to relieve her pain. However, a life without hope was destined to dry up all her strength. So finally, in a state of utter exhaustion, Li Tong chose to commit suicide to return to the embrace of the motherland and the good memories in the past.

Bai Xianyong himself once had a deep understanding of this shocking feeling: “I was sitting in the dark corner of the cinema, and I could not help myself with a creepy excitement. Then I went out. Times Square was still full of vehicles, and neon lights were piercing people’s eyes. I wandered around the streets of New York, wondering where I was for a moment. It was the first time since I arrived in the United States that I deeply felt the loss of my country”. This kind of hesitation, that is, one cannot find the source of his beliefs, is the common spiritual dilemma of all overseas Chinese.

The Metaphor for the Individual Destiny

The banished immortal Li Tong has always reminded me of the ‘poet-immortal’ Li Bai, as well as Lin Daiyu. The three immortals all lived in a free and natural style. They became a beam of light. Compared with them, the stable but monotonous life of the ordinary appeared more boring. But light is a so fleeting thing. So, the three immortals were doomed to live only for the short period of shining, but not for the permanent in general. They are lonely at the top, that is, if one wants to get rid of trivial life and enjoy individualism, he should bear the pressure of destiny, endure emptiness and loneliness, as well as give up happiness from the ordinary life. As for Li Tong, without the support of her country and home, her personal power was not strong enough to resist the reality, but she still refused to compromise, which reflected her tragic character.

Li Tong’s spider hair ornament was frequently mentioned in the novel. It is rare to use spider image as an ornament, because it gives people the association of mysterious and evil power. Spider here was actually metaphor of pressure from the reality which Li Tong suffered. Individual destiny was like a spider, wrapped tightly in Li Tong with the inextricable cobwebs. The more she struggled, the tighter she was tied up: at the wedding banquet, the spider “pressed tightly on her side hair” and its body was also sticking up highly. Although Li Tong was very much in the limelight, the pressure oppressed by destiny was still conspicuous. When she danced madly in the dance hall, “she looks like a cobra controlled by Pied Piper, dancing painfully as if her body were about to break up”. Her tail spider flew up thrillingly, but it was not thrown off all the time. It implied that Li Tong was extremely painful by the control of destiny. Although she tried to resist her destiny by every means, she was unable to get rid of it. When she finally lay tired and fell asleep on the rattan chair, the silver light of the spider was still ‘very fierce’. The mysterious and evil destiny seemed to be more powerful. Ouyang Zi once explained the power of destiny: “The Buddhist thought of ‘everything is empty’ deeply influenced Bai Xianyong. Life is nothingness. A dream, a memory, or all great achievements can only stay for a while and does not leave any traces in the end, because life is so limited”. Bai Xianyong’s novels are full of this sense of nothingness. He wrote many stories of death: Li Tong died, Wu Hanhunl died, and Mr. Lu died...Bai Xianyong suddenly realized that people seemed to be unable to escape a supernatural mysterious force. That is, the changeable destiny.

Another metaphor was the game of cards. As a traditional way of entertainment for Chinese, on the one hand, it was the spiritual anesthetic for 'the top four' to help them forget the mediocre life occupied with daily chores for a moment. On the other hand, the game of cards is also their spiritual sustenance for their motherland. The game of cards in the end of the novel had a strong symbolic significance. When the news of Li Tong’s death came, everyone was shocked. They did not understand her suicide. Then everyone’s bets were getting bigger and bigger. They were almost crazy. In fact, this is not only the other three girls’ deep memory of Li Tong and their lost youth, but also their sadness for seeking but failing to get: they did not have the courage to make up their minds like Li Tong, so they had to continue to commit themselves to life. Li Tong finally lived in everyone’s desire with an elegant style. I do not know whether she was lucky or not to have such an ending, but at least it was the purest and the most respectable way for a banished immortal to leave.


In summary, when the destinies of a country and a person are intertwined, Bai Xianyong put forward a question of how human beings should live. Should we look for the root of emotion, or just move forward step by step without thinking because of the limitation and nothingness of life? From this view, the story of the Banished Immortal is not only a tragedy of a country and an era, but also a tragedy of idealism and individualism, which is exactly the kind of deep and hollow sorrow.

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Consciousness of China and the Individual’s Destiny in the Story of the Banished Immortal: Critical Essay. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
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