Reading Xi Xi’s I City through Heidegger

by Ping Zhu

Reading Xi Xi’s I City through Heidegger1

Abstract: This essay uses Heidegger’s philosophy of being to interpret Xi Xi’s novel I City (Wocheng 我城, 1975). It shows that I City is not merely a Hong Kong story but is a canonical work of world literature that engages in a dialogue with continental European philosophy. By comparing the literary ideas and language in I City to Heidegger’s philosophical ideas and language, this essay not only brings out the underlying philosophy of being in the novel, but also explains how the novel, as a whole, rejects and repairs the alienation caused by industrial civilization and technological rationality. Additionally, the simple and natural language used in I City provides a lively commentary on Heidegger’s complex philosophical language.

Key words: Xi Xi, I City, Heidegger, Hong Kong, world literature, philosophy, language, technological rationality

The Teddy Bear Chronicles

From January 30 to June 30, 1975, Xi Xi’s2 novel I City was serialised in the supplement section of Express (kuaibao) in Hong Kong.3 In the following decades, the novel has been celebrated as an exemplary work of Hong Kong urban literature, as “a model of Hong Kong ‘self-writing’ and incorporated into a developmental narrative of Hong Kong identity,”4 a textual practice of the scattered flânerie experience,5 or the beginning of a heightened local consciousness.6

One year after I City was published, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) died in Freiburg. Heidegger was born almost half a century earlier than Xi Xi, but each experienced and reflected on the seismic changes of the twentieth century and each faced a post-industrial world where poetry seemed to be disappearing. Xi Xi had not read Heidegger when she was writing I City, but both writers were influenced by Taoist philosophy, leading to a distant dialogue between them. Xi Xi referenced Chuang Tzu’s butterfly fable in I City; Heidegger, far away in Europe, often quoted the allegories in Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu when he discussed being, thought, and language.7 Xi Xi and Heidegger both embraced the Taoist philosophy of returning to simplicity as a means of addressing the myriad issues associated with modern existence.

This essay uses Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of being to interpret Xi Xi’s I City, so as to demonstrate that the novel is not just a story about Hong Kong, but rather a classic work of world literature that engages in a dialogue with continental philosophy. Here, I quote the new definition of “world literature” proposed by the postcolonial theorist Pheng Cheah, who sees it as “an important aspect of cosmopolitanism because it is a type of world-making activity that enables us to imagine a world”.8 Cheah believes that the basic function of world literature is to exchange and share ideas on a global scale, thus enabling different peoples to transcend particularity and attain universality. In other words, “world literature” is not only literature that represents the world, but also literature that creates the world. Highlighting the distant dialogue between Xi Xi’s I City and Heidegger’s philosophy is simultaneously highlighting the contribution of Hong Kong literature in world literature.

By comparing the literary ideas and language in I City with Martin Heidegger’s philosophical ideas and language, this essay not only reveals the philosophy of being embedded within Xi Xi’s novel, but it also explains how I City as a whole structurally rejects and amends the adverse effects of alienation wrought by modern industrialisation and technological thinking. Simultaneously, the simple and natural language employed in I City offers a vivid commentary on Heidegger’s complex and enigmatic philosophical language.

“An age-old event”

I City represents a point of transformation in Xi Xi’s literary career. In her own words: “I City is a watershed. I used to write existentialist stories like Story of the Eastern City, Ah Xiang Is an Idiot, and Sketch, and they were all quite grey…This novel [I City] is different, it looks at things with a different attitude, a more cheerful attitude, and its ending is also full of hope…Of course, there is still a sense of existentialism, but this ‘existence’ is quite different.” 9

The “very different” existentialism that Xi Xi mentions is clearly reflected in the beginning and ending of I City. The first and final chapters (Chapter 1 and Chapter 18) of I City both contain explicit references to death, parting, and extraterrestrial life. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, a boy named Ah Guo, is witnessing “an age-old event”—he is attending his father’s funeral. Ah Guo does not quite understand the grief and tears of his family members, thinking “many people have caught a cold”.10 When the funeral ends, Ah Guo just keeps saying “well, goodbye then,” not knowing who he is saying goodbye to. This Ah Guo is like the young protagonist Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger (L’Étranger, 1942), who could not shed tears at his mother’s funeral, only feel confusion and detachment.

At the end of Chapter 1, the novel shifts the focus to many Hong Kong citizens on a park lawn on a Sunday. Someone has found a piece of yellowed newspaper, and on it there are the following words: “They saw a bright blue object with three light bands around it, intermittently visible for up to three hours while flying over the east coast of Australia.”11 This extraterrestrial occurrence not only provides a transcendental ending to the first chapter that starts with the funeral, but it also foreshadows Ah Guo’s bizarre encounters in the later parts of the novel.

In the final chapter of the novel, Ah Guo has become a telephone wire worker. While working on the outskirts of the city one day, he witnesses a scene in which a group of people collectively commit suicide in a park. These people first sleep on some colourful plastic chairs, and then a helicopter arrives, its crew spraying foam liberally onto the people sleeping below, so “every one of them suddenly turns into a giant colourful soft ice cream”. Finally, all of them have turned into soap bubbles, rising into the sky, “like a strange sculpture, bright and brilliant, floating in the air”.12 As the wind blows them away, the soap bubbles float to the other side of the mountain and disappeared behind it.

This serene death scene evokes neither sadness, disgust, nor fear. Instead, this form of passing appears as a transcendent experience in which life floats gracefully between heaven and earth. At the end of the novel, when Ah Guo has connected the telephone wire, he hears a strange distant voice in the receiver. The voice says that the earth is undergoing a metamorphosis, a pristine new planet will be born, and humans can go to this new planet to start a beautiful new world. These words make Ah Guo happy. When it is time for him to go home, he bids farewell to the world around him once again, but this time his goodbyes has clear addressees: “Well, goodbye then, goodbye to the sun, goodbye to the grassland.”13 At this point, Ah Guo has established a connection with the world (i.e., the sun and the grassland) and no longer feels alienated or detached.

In the novel, Ah Guo’s growth is intricately linked to his evolving perspectives on death. Whether it be the serene and ethereal collective suicide in the park or the eerie voice in the receiver predicting the death and rebirth of the Earth, these encounters signify that death is not merely an ending, but rather a transformative new beginning. The passing of an individual or a planet is an age-old and inevitable event. Rather than succumbing to feelings of sadness or anxiety, it is thus wise to embrace the present world, revelling in the moment-to-moment beauty of life, such as the warm glow of the sun and the vibrant green of the grass.

The opening and ending of I City, therefore, highlight the existentialist theme of the novel. I City could be considered a tale concerning death, encapsulating the individual’s quest to fathom the fundamental nature of being when confronted with mortality. Xi Xi’s literary ruminations about death in I City coincide with Heidegger’s reflections on death. Heidegger argues that death is one of the most thought-provoking phenomena, which is characterised by a lack of thought: “We call thought-provoking what is dark, threatening, and gloomy, and generally what is adverse.”14 However, death “is the ownmost possibility of being-there”,15 because people are inherently moving towards death from the moment of birth, and that only an existence characterised by “being-toward-death” is an essential and complete way of being. “Being-toward-death” does not mean living a life consumed by the fear of death. Though it is an inescapable inevitability, death does not preclude individuals from grasping the essence of existence by progressing towards boundless potentials for self-actualisation during their lifetime.

“Being-toward-death” means actively living in every present moment to feel the ecstasy of being. The word “ecstasy” originates from the ancient Greek word “ex-stasis” (ἔξ-στασις), which means “standing outside of oneself”, indicating an altered state of consciousness. Heidegger interprets it as “standing out into the truth of being”.16 As an out-of-body experience, “ecstasy” is both an emotion and a primitive structure of existence. The Chinese words such as “喜不自禁” (literally, joyful to the point of not being able to control oneself) and “開心” (literally, opening the heart) can also visually express this existential structure of “ecstasy”: transcending the self, stepping outside of the body, a state in which the individual opens up to the world.

“I am happy”

I City exudes an air of ecstasy. As Ho Fuk Yan writes, the novel embodies “the beautiful qualities of young people: openness, optimism, enterprising, constant development, and full of possibilities”.17 Such a portrayal of young people appears in Chapter 2 of I City: “Today at the entrance of the Harbour Building, several young people with dishevelled hair were laughing and didn’t plan to stop laughing. They were distributing flyers to passers-by.”18 The characters in I City, be it the always cheerful protagonist Ah Guo and his friends, or Big Mouth’s mother who likes to laugh, or the “laughing eyes and noses on the outskirts”,19 all exist in such a state of joyful openness to the world.

In Chapter 2 of I City, Ah Guo’s aunt, Yoyo, saw a bunch of outlandish sentences on a leaflet distributed by the laughing young people.

The sun is white is the sun
White is the sun is white
I am happy if I wake up in a sunny morning
I am happy if I wake up in a sunny morning, the cows are grazing and you’re drinking milk
I am happy if I wake up in a sunny morning, the cows are grazing, you’re drinking milk, and we’re all sitting together and reading a poem
I am happy if I wake up in a sunny morning, the cows are grazing, you’re drinking milk, and we’re all sitting together and reading a poem about a couple and nineteen kids riding on a big smiling hippopotamus
Happy am I am happy
I am happy am I20

These sentences may appear nonsensical or babble-like at first glance. However, upon closer inspection, this short poem reveals a profound depth of existential philosophy. It begins and ends with a palindrome, challenging the linear, one-way rational thinking modern society has become accustomed to, while suggesting a cyclical mode of life. The bright sunshine at the beginning and the subject’s joyful emotions at the end create a parallel between the opening and ending of the poem, reflecting the open structure of being in Heidegger’s philosophy. The four sentences in the middle, led by “I am happy if…,” depict the process of the subject expanding outwards to the world, showing a fluid and open state of being. In the palindrome at the end, “happy” blends with “I”, symbolising the merging of the subject with the joy and excitement of being. This is a moment when the subject stands outside of itself into the openness of being.

In the second lecture of What Is Called Thinking (1952), Heidegger cited German poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s verses “Who has most deeply thought, loves what is most alive” to demonstrate how even love must be based on thinking.21 Viewed in this light, “I am happy” is not a mere expression of emotions that excludes reason, but a comprehension of the world through an alternative way of thinking. This alternative thinking leaps into the previously obscured world in a transcendental way.

In Chapter 17 of I City, there is a talking piece of paper named “Nonsense” who serves as the author’s alter ego. “Nonsense” always speaks in a way by claiming “everything is fine”, and it sings: “As long as the old sun shines on your head, nothing else matters”.22 This song once again echoes the “I Am Happy” poem in Chapter 2, with the warm sunlight shining on the joy of the now liberated thinking. This open mode of being has a healing effect on human beings in the post-industrial era: after subjectively imposed factors such as value, utility, and expiration date are brushed aside, the world will reveal itself to us in an entirely new way. This would enable us to release ourselves from subjective emotions such as anxiety, disappointment, and fear.

Xi Xi seems eager to demonstrate that individuals possess an inherent capacity to open themselves up to the world. In I City, she goes so far as to deconstruct the human body to make this point. In Chapter 3, when Xi Xi describes the moving of Ah Guo’s family, the limbs of humans seem to become independent individuals possessing their own thoughts and actions. For example, Xi Xi writes: “Moving is like watching others perform acrobatics, with two chimpanzee-like arms moving a wardrobe, and a tiger-like back and shoulders carrying a refrigerator.”23 Here is another example: “After they [the movers] have left, one of my legs says to me, ‘Look over there, there’s a comfortable sofa.’”24

The best example can be found in Chapter 16, where Ah Guo imagines the human body as a machine that can be disassembled:

When I am disassembling and assembling a telephone, it suddenly occurs to me that a human being is also a strange and interesting talking machine. They say that a person weighing 150 pounds has 3,500 cubic feet of gas, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. The 22-pound and10-ounce carbon in the human’s body can make the lead for 9,000 pencils. The blood in the human’s body contains 50 grams of iron (one grain equals 0.0648 grams), which, combined with other iron in the body, is enough to make a large nail that can support the weight of the body and hang it on the wall.

The 50 ounces of phosphorus in the human body can make 800,000 match heads. There are also 60 sugar cubes, 20 teaspoons of salt, 38 quarts of water and 2 ounces of lime in the human body. There is also iodine, sulphur, hydrogen, magnesium, and hydrochloric acid. All of these combined make a human being a strange talking machine.

The uniqueness of the above passage lies in its complete disregard for the subjective unity of the human body. Xi Xi presents the human body as a collection of material elements that can be separated and treated individually. Through this kind of literary imaginations, the boundary between the subjective and the objective is thoroughly eliminated, as the subject disappears into the objective world and enters a state of complete openness to the world.

“I got to know the wall”

Xi Xi uses a playful language in I City to reflect on the relationship between humans and objects in modern society, delving into subjective modes of thinking and the essence of humanity. For example, in Chapter 2, the narrative language constantly jumps between subject and object, allowing the previously silent world of objects to converse with the subject. The following sentences from Chapter 2 are vivid examples:

They like turning on the TV for entertainment, but it’s not the TV’s fault. (15)

It’s just a 300-square-foot room, but it is not the fault of the 300 square feet. (15)

Because the picture is behind the door, but it is not the fault of the picture. (6)

Only three heavy and extremely hard wooden beds sit against the wall like rulers, but it is not the fault of the beds. (16)

Two of the four people have to stand in the kitchen as a punishment, but it is not the fault of the kitchen. (16)

The electric oil heater is hungry, but it is not the fault of the electric oil heater. (17)

The faucet is thirsty, but it is not the fault of the faucet. (17-18)

The grass is all black, but it is not the fault of the grass. (2)

The feeling of eating vitamin biscuits is not the same as eating a sweet orange, but it is not the fault of the vitamin biscuits. (22)

[Yoyo] standing in the small space left by the wet clothes, but it is not the fault of the wet clothes. (22)

It seems that the leaves are covered in dust, but it is not the fault of the dust. (23)

The plane replies with a sky of loud noise, but it not the fault of the noise. (23)

When the narrative language shifts to the perspective of the object, the subject steps out of itself and is re-examining the world from the object’s point of view. The object has its tendencies, voices, and ways of being, and the interaction between the subject and the object transforms the one-track subjective perspective into a multi-dimensional perspective that can reveal the essence of being. Through the thinking that jumps between the subject and the object, Xi Xi’s writing liberates itself from the confinement of subjective logic and attains a transcendent perspective.

This transcendental perspective can also completely change one’s evaluations of the world. Heidegger tells us: “by the assessment of something as a value what is valued is admitted only as an object for human estimation…Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivising.”25 When people no longer treat the external things as the objects of their intentional actions, things can truly be. In I City, Yoyo is one character who possesses this transcendent perspective, thus her values are radically different from the others:

There is a person who views all kinds of things in the world like this:
Those that can be used for decoration and viewing, such as orchids and carved objects, five points.
Those that can fill the stomach and satisfy hunger, such as steak and snails, thirty points.
Those that can be worn to make others feel envious on the streets, such as fur coats and diamonds, thirty points.
Those that can be hung up as a shining sign, such as famous books and paintings, one hundred points.
Those that can be exchanged for a medal, such as charity and high official position, one thousand points.
Those that can be sold at a high price, such as houses and stocks, three thousand points.
Everything in Yoyo’s apple box is worth zero points. Therefore, Yoyo’s apple box is nothing more than a waste bin.26

Although the things collected in Yoyo’s apple box are worth zero points, they are unique beings in her eyes. These collections all have their own stories and can be related to her in various ways.

In Heidegger’s philosophy, the ideas of “letting things be” and “understanding the being as being” are crucial. In his lectures What Is Called Thinking?, Heidegger writes that “a true cabinetmaker . . . makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature”.27 Heidegger believes that the philosophy and technology of the modern world are both detrimental to this spirit of letting things be, so that the truth of being is obscured by instrumental rationality. As a result, people are becoming increasingly alienated from being, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.”28

Heidegger’s idea is similar to the Daoist concept of rejecting “the machinery heart” (jixin 机心).29 In the same spirit, I City also strongly advocates the idea of following the way of things themselves while opposing instrumental rationality. In Chapter 4, Xi Xi questions the alienation of humans by civilisation and technology through Ah Guo’s inner dialogue: “With the telephone, do you still write letters? Machinery makes people lazy. With writing, humans no longer need to remember; with books, humans no longer want to think. Perhaps humans, like the universe, are different after they expand.”30 In Chapter 8, Xi Xi again expresses this Daoist idea through Ah Guo:

I got to know the wall. Because I had to put the nails in the wall, I must get to know the wall. Some walls are soft, and when I hit the nails in them, they say: “Let’s smoke a cigarette, everyone.” Because they like to smoke, they bite the nails with their mouths. Some walls are hard, and they look fierce. When the nails see them, they are afraid and bow down. The most difficult wall to deal with is the rammed earth walls, they do not like to be friends with nails. Because of the attitude of this small clique of three-combined soil walls, some people have come up with many ways to break the clique, hoping that it will become more open and inclusive. As a result, a three-combined soil wall nail was created. But one day, when an engineer was using a nail gun to hit a three-combined-soil-wall-nail into the wall, the wall hit back hard and the nail rebounded into the engineer’s heart, causing him to fall. Many people still shake their heads and sigh at the persistence and seclusion of the three-combined soil walls.

This passage is reminiscent of Heidegger’s discussion of the cabinetmaker, as it tells us, in an allegorical way, the importance of getting rid of technological thinking and following the way of the being. Forcing one’s subjective will upon things can cause serious consequences, as represented in the engineer’s tragedy in the above story. Only when the subject goes with the way of being and respect the being of things themselves can they understand which walls will obediently hold nails and which walls will seclude themselves. The right way to connect with the world, therefore, is to “bring the clearing of the truth of being before thinking, as against subjectivising beings into mere objects”.31

“Do more and you will learn”

The concept of the subject that opens to the world challenges the subject prescribed by Descartes’s famous proposition “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), because the former is premised on the belief that thought is not prior to being. One of Heidegger’s important contributions to philosophy is to reunite thought and practice. In What Is Called Thinking? Heidegger calls thinking “the handicraft par excellence” because “thinking guides and sustains every gesture of the hand”.32 For example, the key to carpentry is not “the mere manipulation of tools”, but the carpenter’s “relatedness to wood”.33 This kind of relationship requires reflection on the being of wood. Therefore, thought and practice are not two separate domains, but rather mutually intertwined and mutually constitutive of the subject’s being.

There is a surprisingly large number of manual laborers in I City. In Chapter 8, Mai Kuaile, a fellow worker who teaches Ah Guo how to put nails in the wall, always says, “Do more and you will learn” and sure enough, Ah Guo learns as he practises more.34 In Chapter 7, the carpentry apprentice Ah Bei always pays close attention to his master’s craftsmanship and continues to make carpentry by hand after completing his apprenticeship, “It’s as if the chair is a work of art, to be exhibited in a museum”.35 Ah Bei’s senior fellow disciple urges him to use machines to make tables and chairs, claiming that it would be a faster and more profitable method; but Ah Bei still decided to use make tables and chairs by hand because it “makes people feel more intimate, like making a hand-knitted sweater”.36

In the process of using one’s manual labour to make things, the subject and object are merged, the brain and hands are highly coordinated. Each table and chair produced by hand carries the emotions and knowledge of the maker and is a unique work of art. To borrow Walter Benjamin’s insights, mechanical reproduction withers “the aura of the work of art” in the age of mass production, because “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition”.37 Ah Bei’s insistence on making the doors and chairs manually, therefore, is a commitment to preserving the aura of his craft.

Interestingly, Ah Bei’s master had an apprentice who was unique in that he aspired to become a poet instead of a carpenter. For this apprentice, doing carpentry was a way to learn the art of writing poetry:

At first, he swept the floor, took out the garbage, and went with his master to buy materials. This was about gaining more experience and reading more books. Then, he filed, sawed, and chiselled, which was about practising the writing skills. Finally, he made tables, chairs, and drawers, which was about trying to write more. 38

This poetic apprentice is Ah Bei’s kindred spirit. He enjoys seeing the handmade doors crafted by Ah Bei. The relationship between writing poetry and doing carpentry is not just a simple analogy but embodies the essential connection between thought and practice. Only in practice can the subject not be confined by abstract thought and enter into a connection with the external world. Through practice, the subject can break through the closed subjective domain and truly unfold in history, achieving an open mode of being.

Practice is an important concept in Marxist theory, and I City was written during the time when Marxism was thriving in mainland China. But Xi Xi’s concept of practice is closer to Heidegger’s concept of being. When criticising Hegel and Marx’s discourse on the essence of technology, Heidegger writes: “Neither Hegel nor Marx could know it yet, nor could they ask why their thinking, too, must move to the shadow of the essential nature of technology; and so they never achieved the freedom to grasp and adequately think about this nature.”39 The shadow of technology is by nature the shadow of instrumental rationality, which treats beings merely as objects of action. Heidegger and Xi Xi, however, contemplated being as being, and their thinking reached beyond the shadow of technology to shed light on the domain of being.

The unity of thinking and practice reveals the connections and transformations of all things in the world. Conversely, the separation of thinking and practice leads to the separation and closure of all things, obscuring the essence of being. Xi Xi creates a fable about the modern world in Chapter 10 of I City. When the unnamed character “you” wakes up from a park bench, he discovers that everything in the city, including the park benches, bus stops, ice cream trucks, tunnels, crosswalks, traffic lights, police booths, phones, newsstands, newspaper-selling children, buildings, airports, runways, and ferry terminals, have been wrapped in plastic, as if they have all been turned into parcels. This is a closed world utterly incapable of communication or connection; it is desolate and lifeless. Later, “you” meets a person who is dancing with a sword alone: “He saw the man thrusting his sword around him again and again, and slashing hard at the sky above his head.”40 The sword dancer hands “you” his sword and a piece of plastic, giving “you” two options: either enter the plastic and wrap yourself up, or use the sword to cut through other parcels and the sky. The latter would be more difficult because, as the sword dancer puts it, “there are so many parcels, and the ropes and cloth are specially made new products. The strangest thing is that when you cut them apart, they immediately sew themselves back together. Therefore, cutting apart the parcels will be a task you can never complete.”41 These words by the sword dancer seem to be a metaphor for the fate of modern humans who are faced with two options: they are either closed off like parcels by technological rationality, or they can strive to establish an open connection with the world through continuous practice. Modern technology will always generate new ways to enclose and control lives, so if modern human beings want to reject the closed way of being, they must exert a continuous effort like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up the hill.

 “The voice makes me happy”

What is the nature of the thinking after it is combined with practice? Heidegger gives the answer in the conclusion of “Letter on Humanism”: “The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysic—a name identical to philosophy. [….] Thinking gathers language into simple saying. In this way language is the language of being, as clouds are the clouds of the sky.”42

Heidegger gave language a very high status, believing that language is the expression of the essence of human existence and is isomorphic with being: “We think of the phoneme and written character as a verbal body for language, of melody and rhythm as its soul, and whatever has to do with meaning as its spirit.”43 In “Traditional Language and Technological Language,” he points out that “every language is a world view… Language is the between-world between the human being’s spirit and objects.”44

However, in the context of modern technology’s dominance, language is often understood unilaterally as a means of transmitting information. This informational language deviates from the essence of being, becoming a concealment of the truth of being rather than its manifestation. Heidegger therefore advocates a “natural” and “traditional” language, which is a “non-technologised everyday language;” only in this way can people “say the world anew from the language that is preserved and thus to bring what is not-yet-seen into appearance”.45

For this reason, compared to the metaphysical language of philosophy, literary language can be more of a home for being. Literary language is a language with flesh, soul, and spirit, which is capable of revealing the essence of being in simplicity. The linguistic innovation in I City is remarkable. Ling Yu describes Xi Xi’s language style in I City as “smart child’s style (huitongti慧童體)”, which combines the thinking of sophistication and simplicity and helps “remove prejudice and re-understand the world”. 46

Xi Xi’s literary language is fresh, natural, and pure, and she uses simple poetic language to reveal the essence of the hidden world of being. The parallel structure of the perspectives jumping between the subject and the object in the poem “I Am Happy”, and the paragraphs that deconstruct the human body are both designed to reveal the simple yet concealed truth of being, and to bring people back from the state of “homelessness” to the home of being. “Homelessness” metaphorically represents alienation, or the separation from one’s own essence of being. Karl Marx has also talked about alienation in the context of labour under capitalism, and Heidegger further points out, “The essence of materialism is concealed in the essence of technology”, both of which have to do with “the objectification of the actual through the human being, experienced as subjectivity”.47 Therefore, only by getting rid of subjective thinking and subjective language can we overcome alienation. Xi Xi’s poetic language has the function of rebuilding the connection between the subject and the object and healing the adverse effects of alienation.

As mentioned earlier, at the end of I City, Ah Guo receives a mysterious phone call, and a strange voice says over the phone “I am doing well”, followed by a series of words about the metabolism of the earth. Ah Guo doesn’t know whose voice it is on the other end of the phone, but the voice nonetheless makes him happy. Here, language is no longer a means of transmitting information. Instead, it symbolises the subject’s connection with other beings in the world (“I heard a voice, someone is talking to me”), and connection indicates an open state of being, so Ah Guo is happy. For Ah Guo, the voice coming from the phone represents the excitement and joy of being, just like the joy and excitement in the simple song “Nonsense” sings: “The old sun is shining on my head, and nothing else matters.”48

Since the essential quality of language lies in its ability to reveal the truth of being, the singing by “Nonsense” is a typical form of such language. Many characters in I City use singing to express the joy of existence. Drawing is also a language. After Yoyo saw the poem “I Am Happy” on the flyer, she “drew a tall person with curly hair, a short person with two red cheeks, and nineteen children with ponytails, braids, straight hair, and curly hair, all riding a laughing hippopotamus”.49 The novel also implies that being and language in a child’s simple mind are one and the same. For example, on her way to school, Ah Guo’s sister Ah Fa sees a cigarette ad on the wall with a window above it, she worries that “the person inside the window must be coughing all day because of the smoke”. On another wall, there is an ad for cooking oil with a smoking pot, and she thinks: “The person inside the window must have been already cooked by pot.”50 Because children do not separate being from language, they can more easily see the simple but direct truth of existence.

It is noteworthy that during the five months when I City was serialised in the supplement of Express, Xi Xi wrote one thousand words and drew an illustration every day. Therefore, I City was composed in a language based on the interplay of text and image. Ling Yu has already elaborated on the interplay between text and image in I City, so I will not dwell on this topic here. 51 In summary, we can say that Xi Xi’s efforts in I City to construct a home for modern human beings using the multi-dimensional language (textual, visual, auditory, emotional) exemplifies the traditional language untouched by technology in Heidegger’s imagination.

 “I City”

The title of Xi Xi’s novel can refer to the physical city (Hong Kong), as well as a home for being constructed through language. I City is not a city that belongs to “me”, because both the isolated subject “I” and the subjective possessive pronoun “my” are products of technological rationality that the novel strives to break through. Ho Fuk Yan points out that the individual subject in I City can become a collective subject, in this way, “my city” is also a city of the other.52 David De-wei Wang writes: “At first, the subject and the city seem to be separate, but gradually they merge into one.”53 Chan Kit-yee asserts that the novel is not just about “my city”, but also about the whole world and outer space as viewed from the perspective from above the city.54 Hye Joon Kim’s view is that “the city itself is the protagonist, the city itself is the story”.55

Since we have already discussed how I City can be seen as a home built through language, we can take a look at the relationship between the subject and the city in light of Heidegger’s concept of “being-in-the-world”. “Being-in-the-world” is an important concept in Heidegger’s philosophy. In Being and Time, he explains that the meaning of “I am” means “I dwell, or reside, near… the world considered as something or other that is familiar, trusted”.56 “Being-in-the-world” expresses the spatiality of existence in existentialism, which Heidegger uses to counter the pure spiritual concepts of metaphysics. “Dwelling” does not mean placing objects together. Heidegger used “dwelling” to mean “dispersing.” For him, being-in-world “has in each instance already dispersed or even disintegrated itself in determinate manner of being-in”.57

Accordingly, we can view the relationship between the subject and the city in the following way: the subject is surrounded spatially by the city, so it resides and dwells within the space of the city, experiencing the city as this being in space. There is no pre-existing relationship between the subject and the city, nor is their relationship a subject-object relationship; rather, it is a symbiotic relationship. The subject is represented as a progress in which the individual opens up and dissolves into the city, its space of being. Heidegger says, “even in this ‘being-outside’ near the object, being-there is (in the correctly understood sense) ‘inside’”.58 By expressing the essence of thought in simple and poetic language, Xi Xi’s I City demonstrates this kind of “being-outside near the object” that is interconnected with the space of the city. The subject exists within the city, the city exists within the world, and the world exists within the universe. Such an open structure of being illuminates the fundamental truth obscured by instrumental rationality, and it can sweep away the shadow of alienation in modern civilisation.

By employing Heidegger’s philosophy of being to read Xi Xi’s I City, this essay showcases a cross-cultural fusion of philosophy and literature. Xi Xi’s literary language provides a poetic avatar for Heidegger’s philosophy, and Heidegger’s philosophy functions as a literary theory, allowing for a productive reading of I City.

Xi Xi died in 2022, and her I City was created nearly half a century ago, but to this day, its poetic language continues to build a home of being for modern humans. Human beings will always need a poetic dwelling, yet they have to continuously work to earn it, much like the metaphorical act of cutting through the plastic wrappings described in the novel. It is this never-ending effort to establish a home of being that solidifies the canonical status of I City in world literature.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Translated by Harry Zohn. In Benjamin, Illuminations, 217-251. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Chan Kit-Yee 陳潔儀. “An Analysis of the Sci-Fi Elements and Modernity in Xi Xi’s I City” (Xi Xi Wocheng de kehuanyuansu yu xiandaixing 西西《我城》的科幻元素與現代性). In Xi Xi Research Materials (Xi Xi yanjiu ziliao 西西研究資料), vol. 2, 71-89. Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018.

Cheah, Pheng. “What is a World? On World Literature as World-Making Activity.” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (2008): 26-38.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Cyril Welch. Berkeley, CA: Atcost Press, 2001.

Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” Translated by Frank A. Capuzzi. In Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, 239-276. Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Heidegger, Martin. “Traditional Language and Technological Language.” Journal of Philosophical Research 23 (1998): 129-145.

Heidegger, Martin. What Is Called Thinking? Translated by Fred D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Ho Fuk Yan何福仁. “A Reading of I City” (Wocheng de yizhong dufa〈我城〉的一種讀法). In Xi Xi Research Materials, vol. 2, 39-54. Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Books, 2018.

Hung, Dorothy Tse Hiu. “The Flâneur/Flâneuse and the Multiple ‘I’s of the ‘Local’ in Xi Xi’s I City.” Translated by Natascha Bruce. Chinese Literature Today 8, no. 1 (2019): 50-57.

Kim, Hye Joon. “Space-centred Imagination and Approach of Hong Kong in Xi Xi’s I City”(Xi Xi Wocheng zhong yi kongjian wei zhongxin de xianggang xiangxiang yu fangshi 西西〈我城〉中以空間為中心的香港想像與方式). In Xi Xi Research Materials, vol. 2, 152-177. Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018.

Ling Yu淩逾. “Postmodern Transmedial Narrative: Xi Xi’s I City as an Example” (Houxiandai de kuameijia xushi: yi Xi Xi xiaoshuo Wocheng weili後現代的跨媒介敘事:以西西小說〈我城〉為例). In Xi Xi Research Materials, vol. 2, 90-102. Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018.

Ma, Lin and Jaap van Brakel. “Out of the ‘Ge-Stell?’ The Role of The East in Heidegger’s ‘Das Andere Denken.’” Philosophy East and West 64, no. 3 (2014): 527-562.

Ng, Daisy S. Y. “Xi Xi and Tales of Hong Kong.” In Joshua S. Mostow, ed., The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature, 578-583 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

Shen, Shuang. “Hong Kong Literary History and the Construction of the Local in Xi Xi’s I City.” Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 4 (2012): 569-595.

Wang, David Der-wei王德威. “Hong Kong: The Story of a City” (Xianggang: yizuo chengshi de gushi香港:一座城市的故事). In Xi Xi Research Materials, vol. 1, 164-167 (Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018.

Xi Xi. I City (Wocheng 我城). Taipei: Hongfan Bookstore, 1999.

Xi Xi and Ho Fuk Yan. Topics on Time (Shijian de huati 時間的話題). Taipei: Hongfan Bookstore, 1995.

1 An earlier Chinese version of this essay was published in O-Square, no. 6 (2020): 147-168. I would like to express my gratitude here to Mr Ho Fuk Yan for sending me the complete set of Xi Xi Research Materials after the 2019 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature festival and encouraging me to turn my 2020 conference paper presented at the “Floating City Stories: International Symposium on Xi Xi” into a full paper.

2 Xi Xi is the pen name of Zhang Yan 張彥 (1937-2022). For an interesting discussion of this penname, see Daisy S. Y. Ng, “Xi Xi and Tales of Hong Kong,” in Joshua S. Mostow, ed., The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 579.

3 There are four versions of I City: Hong Kong: Suye, 1979; Taipei: Yunchun, 1989; Hong Kong: Suye (revised edition), 1996; Taipei: Hongfan, 1999. This essay uses the most complete 1999 version published by Hongfan Bookstore in Taipei.

4 Shuang Shen, “Hong Kong Literary History and the Construction of the Local in Xi Xi’s I City,” Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 4 (2012): 579.

5 Dorothy Tse Hiu Hung, “The Flâneur/Flâneuse and the Multiple ‘I’s of the ‘Local’ in Xi Xi’s I City,” translated by Natascha Bruce, Chinese Literature Today 8, no. 1 (2019): 50-57.

6 Chan Kit-Yee 陳潔儀, “An Analysis of the Sci-Fi Elements and Modernity in Xi Xi’s I City” (Xi Xi Wocheng de kehuanyuansu yu xiandaixing 西西《我城》的科幻元素與現代性), in Xi Xi Research Materials (Xi Xi yanjiu ziliao 西西研究資料), vol. 2, (Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018), 71-89.

7 See Lin Ma and Jaap van Brakel, “Out of the ‘Ge-Stell?’ The Role of The East in Heidegger’s ‘Das Andere Denken,’” Philosophy East and West 64, no. 3 (2014): 527-562.

8 Pheng Cheah, “What is a World? On World Literature as World-Making Activity,” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (2008): 26.

9 Xi Xi and Ho Fuk Yan, Topics on Time (Shijian de huati時間的話題) (Taipei: Hongfan Bookstore, 1995), 19.

10 Xi Xi, I City (Taipei: Hongfan Bookstore, 1995), 6.

11 Xi Xi, I City, 14.

12 Xi Xi, I City, 230-231.

13 Xi Xi, I City, 235.

14 Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, translated by Fred D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 28-29.

15 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Cyril Welch (Berkeley, CA.: Atcost Press, 2001). 337.

16 Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” translated by Frank A. Capuzzi, in Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks (Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 249.

17 Ho Fuk Yan何福仁, “A Reading of I City” (Wocheng de yizhong dufa〈我城〉的一種讀法), in Xi Xi Research Materials, vol 2, 39-54 (Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018) , 43.

18 Xi Xi, I City, 18.

19 Xi Xi, I City, 144.

20 Xi Xi, I City, 19.

21 Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 20.

22 Xi Xi, I City, 223.

23 Xi Xi, I City, 26.

24 Xi Xi, I City, 28.

25 Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” 265.

26 Xi Xi, I City, 20-21.

27 Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 14.

28 Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” 258.

29 Chuang Tzu repudiated the “machinery heart” for destroying the simple human nature in the outer-chapter of “Heaven and Earth” (Tiandi 天地) in Chuang Tzu.

30 Xi Xi, I City, 43-44.

31 Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” 265.

32 Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 23.

33 Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 23.

34 Xi Xi, I City, 109.

35 Xi Xi, I City, 79.

36 Xi Xi, I City, 79.

37 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, translated by Harry Zohn, in Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 221.

38 Xi Xi, I City, 80.

39 Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, 24.

40 Xi Xi, I City, 126.

41 Xi Xi, I City, 127.

42 Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” 276.

43 Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” 254.

44 Martin Heidegger, “Traditional Language and Technological Language,” Journal of Philosophical Research 23 (1998): 139.

45 Heidegger, “Traditional Language and Technological Language,” 142.

46 Ling Yu淩逾, “Postmodern Transmedial Narrative: Xi Xi’s I City as an Example” (Houxiandai de kuameijia xushi: yi Xi Xi xiaoshuo Wocheng weili後現代的跨媒介敘事:以西西小說〈我城〉為例), in Xi Xi Research Materials, vol. 2 (Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018), 98.

47 Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” 259.

48 Xi Xi, I City, 223.

49 Xi Xi, I City, 19-20.

50 Xi Xi, I City, 58.

51 Ling Yu,“Postmodern Transmedial Narrative,” 91-96.

52 Ho Fuk Yan, “A Reading of I City,” 44.

53 David Der-wei Wang王德威, “Hong Kong: The Story of a City” (Xianggang: yizuo chengshi de gushi香港:一座城市的故事), in Xi Xi Research Materials, vol. 1 (Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018), 165.

54 Chan Kit-yee, “An Analysis of the Sci-Fi Elements and Modernity in Xi Xi’s I City,” 77.

55 Hye Joon Kim, “Space-centered Imagination and Approach of Hong Kong in Xi Xi’s I City” (Xi Xi Wocheng zhong yi kongjian wei zhongxin de xianggang xiangxiang yu fangshi 西西〈我城〉中以空間為中心的香港想像與方式), in Xi Xi Research Materials vol. 2 (Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2018), 157.

56 Heidegger, Being and Time, 69.

57 Heidegger, Being and Time, 72.

58 Heidegger, Being and Time, 79.

Published: Sunday 30 July 2023


Ping Zhu is Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oklahoma and serves as the acting editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature and Thought Today. She is the author of Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-century Chinese Literature and Culture (Palgrave, 2015), the co-editor (with Zhuoyi Wang and Jason McGrath) of Maoist Laughter (Hong Kong University Press, 2019), which won Choice’s Outstanding Academic Title in 2020, and the co-editor (with Hui Faye Xiao) of Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics (Syracuse University Press, 2021). She is currently working on a monograph titled The Cult of Labor in Modern China.

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