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Yu Lihua, 90, Dies; Writer Spoke to ‘Rootless’ Chinese Émigrés

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Yu Lihua, a writer whose nuanced portraits of overseas Chinese students and intellectuals in America captured the cultural displacement and identity crisis felt by many in the Chinese diaspora, died on April 30 at her home in Gaithersburg, Md. She was 90.

The cause was respiratory failure brought on by Covid-19, said her daughter Lena Sun, a reporter for The Washington Post who has been covering the coronavirus pandemic since January.

Ms. Yu produced more than two dozen novels and short story collections over five decades, drawing on her experience as a Chinese émigré in postwar America. She was celebrated in the diaspora for giving voice to what she called the “rootless generation” — émigrés who had left for a better life but remained nostalgic for their homeland.

Her 1967 breakout novel, “Again the Palm Trees,” for example, tells the story of a Chinese man who graduates from a Taiwan university and goes to the United States for graduate school, where he struggles with loneliness and disillusionment. But when he goes back to Taiwan to rediscover his “Chineseness,” his sense of alienation is only intensified by his family’s glorification of life in the West, particularly in America.

It was a theme that resonated among Taiwan-educated Chinese émigrés at the time. Many had already been uprooted once before, compelled to flee to Taiwan in 1949 after Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War.

Having experienced both the highs and lows of immigrant life in America, Ms. Yu remained wary of what she saw as a tendency among Chinese to worship the West blindly. When students from mainland China began arriving in the United States in waves after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, she wrote an open letter to them that was published in The People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Come here,” she wrote, “bring the wisdom of China that is by no means inferior, bring our unique diligence and resilience, and do not forget to bring self-respect for yourself and your nation. Stand up and come with your head held high.”

Lee-hwa Yu was born on Nov. 28, 1929, in Shanghai, though she gave 1931 as her birth year from an early age. As an adult she mostly used the first name Lihua.

The second of eight children, she grew up in the eastern city of Ningbo. Later, as China became mired in the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), the family moved around the country, and Ms. Yu attended school irregularly. In 1947, her father, Yu Sheng-feng, moved the family to Taiwan to take a job as a senior manager at a state-run sugar company there. Her mother, Liu Hsing Ch’ing, was a homemaker.

After graduating from National Taiwan University in 1953 with a degree in history, Ms. Yu moved to California and attended journalism school at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1956, the year she graduated, she won the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Award for her English-language short story “Sorrow at the End of the Yangtze River,” about a young woman’s journey to find her lost father.

Ms. Yu’s later attempts to publish stories in English, however, were rejected by American publishers. “They were only interested in stories that fit the pattern of Oriental exoticism — the feet-binding of women and the addiction of opium-smoking men,” she once recalled in an interview. “I didn’t want to write that stuff, I wanted to write about the struggle of Chinese immigrants in American society.” She went on to write mostly in Chinese for Chinese-language publishers.

Ms. Yu taught Chinese language and literature at what is now the University at Albany, the State University of New York, and was instrumental in starting exchange programs that brought many Chinese students to the campus. She retired from teaching in 1993.

In 2006, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Middlebury College in Vermont. The citation called her “one of the five most influential Chinese-born women writers in the postwar era and the progenitor of the Chinese students’ overseas genre.”

Her first marriage, to Chih-Ree Sun, ended in divorce. In 1982 she married Vincent O’Leary, president of SUNY Albany. He died in 2011.

In addition to her daughter Ms. Sun, her survivors include a son, Eugene Sun; another daughter, Anna Sun; two stepdaughters, Beth O’Leary and Cathy Goldwyn; a sister, Meihua Yu; four brothers, Jack, Ben, Henry and Eddie Yu; 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Over the decades, Ms. Yu embraced the culture of her adopted home. She translated stories by Edith Wharton and Katherine Anne Porter into Chinese and developed a special passion for football and Broadway theater. But her devotion to China never faltered. She was adamant that her American-born children learn Chinese.

Though her work was sometimes politicized, and even briefly banned in Taiwan, Ms. Yu continued to visit mainland China. On one visit, in 1975, she was reunited with her sister, Meihua, who had stayed behind on the mainland when the family moved to Taiwan.

In a 2013 interview, Ms. Yu explained her relationship with her homeland by referring to the traditional Chinese idiom “fallen leaves return to their roots.”

“In the United States, my leaves may fall but they won’t return to their roots,” she said. “My roots are in China.”



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