Son of one of the military leaders of the Nationalist Revolution and high government defense official during the war against Japan, Pai spent much of his youth in wartime Kweilin in southwest China, which has provided much of the material for his subsequent fiction. After the war ended, he resided for a time in Shanghai, and then resettled with his parents in Taiwan when he was of middle-school age. He attended the prestigious National Taiwan University. He published his first short story in September 1958, having just completed his freshman year. Pai came to the United States in 1963 and since 1965 has taught Chinese at the University of California at Santa Barbara while continuing to publish fiction. His style is among the most polished of any modern writer in Chinese. He depicts his characters with vivid realism, and often chooses themes that describe the pain of exile, showing the once powerful reduced to humble or humiliating circumstances. Such themes are particularly evident in his highly acclaimed collection of stories, Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream: Tales of Taipei Characters (1971) which he dedicates to his parents and "the tumultuous age in which they lived." With his novel Crystal Boys (1990), he has become the first modern Chinese writer to explore the theme of homosexuality in a story about gay life in the city of Taipei.