Antonio Chen on Taiwanese novelists in 2011

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

Taiwanese Fiction and Sinophone Studies

In the world of Chinese literature, there's a literary taste that's made in Taiwan: literature from Taiwan is stylistically the most recognizable, while remaining the most diverse in form and content. And that's just considering literature written in Mandarin. Add transliterated Hoklo, Hakka, or aboriginal languages (and perhaps in the near future Indonesian and Vietnamese) and you get an idea of the distinctive linguistic diversity of Taiwan literature. Indeed, a review of Chinese language fiction from Taiwan in 2011 gives a strong impression of distinctiveness, and it's worth asking what makes Taiwanese fiction so special.

Sinophone literary theory offers us a way of thinking about Taiwan fiction. According to UCLA's Shih Shu-mei (史書美), the Sinophone is an aspect of local cultures around the world. Moreover, as place-based or situated cultural practice, the Sinophone is inherently manifold and multilingual. As Shih puts it, Sinophone literature has none of "the narcissistic nostalgia for the motherland of exiles or diasporic subjects." I agree, but it seems to me that considering the curtailment of the freedom of expression in China and even Hong Kong - viz. Article 23 and the banning of Dream of Ding Village (丁莊夢) by Yan Lianke (閻連科) - as well as the difficulty of studying Chinese in places like Malaysia and Singapore, Taiwan appears to be an especially open space for situated Chinese literary practice. It's no wonder that writers from around the Sinophone world try to get the "full and uncensored" versions of their novels published in Taiwan.

It isn't possible in a modest article to provide comprehensive critiques of this year's works of fiction; all I hope to achieve here is a rough retrospective typology. Authors who go unmentioned should rest assured that this is not a report card, only the results of an annual checkup that shows that Taiwanese fiction is in excellent health indeed.

From Neo-Nativism (新鄉土) to "Pure" Literature (「純」文學)

Last year, the literary lioness Chi Chi (季季) accused the so called neo-nativist writers of producing clichéd, anemic "pseudo-nativist" works according to the letter, not the spirit, of the calls for submissions of Taiwan's many local literature competitions, resulting in works that lacked the authentic local color of nativist Taiwanese literature of the 1970s. Chi Chi's criticism was vociferously countered online by writers born in the 1980s and even the 1990s. But the fact is that neo-nativism has been on the ebb for several years now. There's at least one outstanding neo-nativist work this year, but major neo-nativists have now morphed into writers of "pure" literature who care about creating an individual style more than winning local literary prizes. Herein are lessons about the mechanics of literary debuts and career development.

Tales at the Funeral (喪禮上的故事, Aquarius) by Kan Yao-Ming (甘耀明) is one of this year's few neo-nativist novels. Kan introduces us to Granny Noodles, an old lady whose dying wish is for everyone who comes to her funeral to tell a tale or two. Some of the stories they share may seem like tall tales or even travesties; readers will laugh through their tears, at the ugly chickling, the naughty kid whose legs get tied in knots, the Giant Turd R&D Team. And then there's the liter of piss: that's piss me, not cry me, a river. Which reminds me of the story of the aborigine Aspulu, who takes three Taiwanese boys to see the haunted house behind his hut; wearing the skulls of the riverine deer accidentally shot by Aspulu's grandpa, they mistake a gaggle of geese for a crowd of ghosts, no surprise considering "aspulu" means "a total mixup" in Taiwanese.

Other neo-nativists have moved on. Last year, Egoyan Zheng (伊格言), best known for the collection The Man in the Urn (甕中人, Ink), published the sci-fi novel The Dream Devourer (噬夢人, Unitas), and Tung Wei-ko (童偉格) has taken a philosophical turn from My Late Father (王考, Ink) to Summer Downpour (西北雨, Ink). Kan Yao-Ming holds a big neo-nativist jamboree in Tales at the Funeral, but he's about the only neo-nativist left. How much longer will he go at it alone?

One former neo-nativist is Kao Yi-feng (高翊峰), who has a Hakka language novel to his credit. Kao sets Phantom Asylum (幻艙, Aquarius) in an absurd underground space, a sewer/disaster shelter. The word worker Dali, his old housekeeper, a magician, and the corpse of a sex worker named Daisy, whose withered flesh gradually rejuvenates in the course of the novel, are placed in a situation that induces existential inquiries. Are they in a peach blossom grove - a refuge from history? Are they dreaming? Or is the world above the real nightmare? 

The Woman From the Other Shore (彼岸的女人, Motif Press) is by Chang Yao-sheng (張耀升), another example of a neo-nativist who has turned over a new leaf. Chang's new novel handles themes of death and memory. A sculptor has a chance encounter and libidinous entanglement with a mysterious woman, to whom he tells his unbearable tale of bereavement: he's lost his wife and daughter. That the woman might be from the "other shore" (from hell) gives the novel a creepy vibe reminiscent of Seam (縫, Ecus), an earlier product of Chang's uncanny imagination. But, as an excavation of the depths of human nature, Chang's new novel lacks the local color of the earlier collection.

Award-winning novelists of a few years ago put a fresh face on nativism, but this year several former neo-nativists have published highly individualized works of art. The fictional worlds of these new works are fantastic rather than realistic. This is not to say that these writers have lost all sense of reality but instead that they have adopted highly intellectualized and allegorical ways of confronting the quotidian. It's debatable whether the turn they've taken should be described as modernist, characterized by elitist and individualized writing, or as postmodernist - fragmented / deconstructive. Writers seem to be tacking towards new and distant shores, and readers may not be able to keep up. It's also still too soon to judge literary achievement; this year marks the continuing ebb of neo-nativism, but time will tell who will make his mark on the canon.

Cross-Strait Fiction

Cross-Strait Fiction is a new item on the local literary menu. Politicians have been cooking up concoctions like "ECFA" and "ROC: Wonderful at 100!" China-Taiwan relations may be stranger than fiction, but local writers wouldn't dream of missing the chance of serving up a course or two. Their works range from the imaginative to the observational.

In Ping Lu's (平路) To the East And Beyond (東方之東, Unitas), a Taiwan expat businessman absconds to Macau with his mistress. His wife Minhui goes looking for him after he goes missing, only to discover that her husband had been planning his escape for some time. She continues to search for her husband's whereabouts while writing a story set in the 17th century about the pirate Cheng Chih-lung's (鄭芝龍) wanderlust and the Emperor Shunzhi's (順治皇帝) longing for liberty. With characters reflecting on the meaning of freedom in marriage and history, this is a philosophical novel concerned with (marital and national) politics and individual choices in politically charged contexts.

In Lü Tse-chih's (呂則之) Father's Route (父親的航道, Grassroots), it's the protagonist's father who's gone missing. The father became a smuggler in the 1980s during the era of economic reform. After his daughter Yueling is old enough she joins a friend of her father's and follows his smuggling route as a way of mourning him, unaware that she is being pursued by a Chinese Fisheries speedboat which has crossed illegally into Taiwanese waters. Like her father before her, Yueling heads east from the Pescadores and crosses the borderline down the middle of the Taiwan Strait. The experiences that ensue from these border crossings are, like the ultimate fate of the island of Taiwan itself, hard to foretell. Known for his masterful seafaring stories, Lü Tse-chih now has the Strait in his purview. He gives us a less than optimistic glimpse of cross-Strait exchange.

It Takes Two to Tango (雙人探戈, Unitas) by Belinda Chang (章緣) deals with the daily trials and tribulations of the wife of a Taiwan expatriate businessman based in Shanghai. She attends her husband's business functions while pursuing a social life of her own. As a group, China-based Taiwanese expatriates have achieved autonomy in schooling their children and feeding their families while remaining unable to avoid entanglements in an era of rapid change in China. Belinda Chang's stories of expat Taiwanese businessman and their dependents might prove to be a new genre of China-based or Shanghai-based "expat Taiwanese businessman literature," perhaps an outgrowth of "overseas student literature." Again, only time will tell.

Peach Blossom Well (桃花井, Ink) by Chiang Hsiau-yun (蔣曉雲) has a new angle on mainlander family reunions in the 1990s, when Taiwanese mainlanders had been separated from their families in China for four decades. Oh for a drink from the peach blossom well, the fountain of youth! When, in his twilight years, Li Jinzhou returns to his hometown in China, he faces filial estrangement and family complications caused by vast gaps in space and time. Chiang Hsiau-yun is in dialogue with writers like Chu Tien Hsin (朱天心) and Wang Wei-chung (王偉忠), who grew up in the protected environment of a military families village or juancun (眷村). Chiang's novel, by contrast, is about double exiles, exiled not just from China but also from a Chinese mainlander community in Taiwan. Chiang reminds us that the mainlanders are not a monolithic group, that mainlanders of non-military backgrounds have their own perspectives on the changing cross-Strait situation.

Imagined Communities: Local Chronicles, Family Sagas, Hoklo Novels

Wei Te-sheng's epic film Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow (賽德克.巴萊) must make 2011 the Year of the Aborigine (though some call it the Year of Giddens Ko (九把刀) and Shen Chiayi, heroine of Ko's novel and film You Are the Apple of My Eye) (那些年,我們一起追的女孩, Spring International). Everyone's been debating the one sided battle between the Seediq and the Japanese at Wushe (霧社) in 1930; like Wei Te-sheng, local writers have been invoking history in local chronicles, family sagas, and Taiwanese or Hoklo vernacular novels, all vehicles for what Benedict Anderson called "imagined community." In the past, in Taiwan, national narratives tended towards the traumatic, but writers seem more confident now, and less strident. Their irreverent, reflective works of historical fiction display the distinctive personality and vitality of contemporary Taiwan(ese) literature.

Several writers take us back to the Age of Exploration. To them, the 17th century was an axial age, a time when the pirate Cheng Chih-lung sailed the seas and when the Dutch colonized southwestern Taiwan. The area around modern day Tainan City soon became a site of conflict among plains aborigines, early Chinese immigrants, and their colonial masters, including, in the second half of the century, the Ming loyalist Koxinga (國姓爺,即鄭成功) and the Qing court.

The winner of a wuxia (or Chinese chivalry) fiction prize, Spindrift (浪花, Tomorrow) by Shih Dollar (施達樂, penname of Shi Bai-jun) is a treasure of popular genre fiction, one with an historical twist. It stars Spindrift - Flower of the Sea - a plains aboriginal princess who defends her tribe with kung fu, or wuxia combat. It puts the early history of southwestern Taiwan in the pot with wuxia to cook up what the author describes as "Taiwan-style wuxia" (台客武俠). True connoisseurs of wuxia fiction may find the combat descriptions lacking.

Chuang Hua-t'ang's (鄭華堂) Waterland (水鄉, Chiuko) takes us north at a time when the Taipei basin was still a lake traversed by trader's ships. Chuang has a thorough knowledge of the local history, showing that he's inherited the roman fleuve tradition of Chung Chao-cheng (鍾肇政) while finding a new setting for a local historical epic: Taipei. In the first volume of a projected quadrilogy, the mixed-race father Blond Leopard and his son Laya introduce Chinese traders to the Taipei area, bringing commerce and death to a beautiful and untamed wilderness.

Other writers take us to the 19th century, when Taiwan was drawn for the second time in its history into the international economy through the trade in camphor and tea. Taipei was by this time dry (land) and the old neighborhood of Monga (Báng-kah, 艋舺) was where it was at. Wang Hsiang-Chi's (王湘琦) Burying the Hatchet: In Memory of Those who Fought in Monga (俎鬥同榮, Unitas), Yang Liling's (楊麗玲) Monga, Oh Là Là, Cha Cha Cha (艋舺戀花恰恰恰, Chiuko) and the blockbuster film Monga (艋舺) take us from 1853 when riots broke out between the Ting and Hsia merchant associations, through the Japanese colonization (1895-1945) to the postwar era, when Monga was the site of turf wars between mafia bosses and their molls. Despite the drama, they give us a sense of daily life in Monga over the decades. Wang Hsiang-chi has always excelled in representing the absurdity in human affairs in exacting prose. His new historical novel is a pleasant surprise, an extra treat in this year's feast of fiction.

Li Ang (李昂) and Chung Wen-yin (鍾文音) find a setting way down south for a pair of family saga novels. Li Ang's Possession (附身, Chiuko), the latest of the author's acute interventions into national history, is about a priestess with the power of possession. A figure for Taiwan, a nation possessed by a succession of alien regimes, the priestess is Siraya, a member of a plains aboriginal population that has endured forced migration and Sinification since the 17th century. At the end of this long historical process, the shamaness arrives in Lugang (鹿港), Li Ang's hometown, or rather Lucheng (鹿城), Li Ang's haunted literary homeland. There, she founds Cloudbourn Hall (雲從堂) and sets up shop as a spirit medium. Through the auspices of an interpreter, to whose alternative family she provides a home for three generations, she communicates the wishes of the spirits so compellingly that one wonders: is there any difference between the medium and her message?

A mistress of the family saga genre, Chung Wen-yin completes her Carmen trilogy this year. The first volume, Carmen Amoris (艷歌行, Titan), was about a city girl living in an age of lust. The second volume, Carmen Breve (短歌行, Titan) was about the early death of a native son. This year's Carmen Doloris (傷歌行, Titan) is set in the author's own home county of Yunlin. The technique of having the female characters take turns telling stories seems to turn Carmen Triste into an journey without a destination. The narrative is freeform; for the author it's a chance to display her distinctive story-telling talent, but it requires a discerning and patient reader. Both reader and writer need staying power in the presence of this huge work of herstory, a resounding monument to women's historical writing.

There is also a noteworthy pair of Taiwanese language novels this year. Lin Yang-min's (林央敏) The Bodhisattva's Confession (菩提相思經, Grassroots) takes the Luku (鹿窟) Incident as the background for a sad history of love in a time of revolution. The main character Chen Han-ch'iu flees in the aftermath of the incident and eventually becomes a Buddhist monk. In his religious and philosophical language, he bears dignified witness to the tragedy of Taiwan's White Terror. Written in Hàn-lô, a mixed orthography of Chinese characters and Romanization, this novel is a landmark in Hoklo literature.

My Unspeakable Homesickness (我不可告人的鄉愁, Ink) by Lin Chün-ying (林俊穎) takes place in a ruined city, adopting elegant Hoklo as a strategy of resistance against the erosion of collective memory. To compare the two works, Lin Chünying, by writing partly in Taiwanese, partly in Mandarin is a "softcore nativist," while Lin Yang-min, in rewriting history entirely in his mother tongue, is hardcore. Yet they both write to revitalize vernacular literature by taking advantage of the aesthetic effects only Hoklo can achieve and by reconstructing a history imbued with cultural nostalgia. No matter what, these Hoklo language novels break new ground in Sinophone literature and even in Taiwan literature. We should cherish the unique mode of literary expression these authors have developed.

Angry Young Men: Taiwan's "Territorial" Writers

By a linguistic coincidence, the term in Mandarin for "endemic species" can also apply to an especially courageous person, someone who is gutsy or more literally ballsy. "Territorial" suggests these two meanings, if we understand it to mean both unique to a certain territory as well as fiercely protective of that territory. Taiwanese novelists are in both these senses territorial. This doesn't mean that they're determined to keep others out. In fact, they have created their own word-based world-orders in order to draw readers in. It means that when they roam around Taiwan's territory they are often pained by what they see; they find Taiwanese reality deeply dissatisfying. Yet in their writing, they expose the world's hypocrisy and let hope shine through the gaps in the text.

The Man With the Compound Eyes (複眼人, Summer Festival) by Wu Mingyi (吳明益) is a masterpiece of environmental literature about an apocalyptic aboriginal encounter with modernity. With limited natural resources, the Woenesian islanders customarily require second sons to row away from the island on a voyage of no return when they come of age. One such son, Atre, leaves Woenesia only to land on another island that has formed out of a trash vortex in the middle of the Pacific. When the trash island smashes into Taiwan's east coast, Atre has amazing adventures. The biggest surprise is for the reader: though initially shocked by the deluge, Taiwanese people are too interested in developing the east coast to clean it up. Trash, resource shortages, and the destruction of Taiwan's coastline as a result of the pursuit of unenlightened self-interest are unremarkable raw materials, but the author mashes them into art. Seen through his compound eyes, daily life is dramatized and fictionalized, and the reader inspired to feats of imagination and action.

The Magician on the Skywalk (天橋上的魔術師, Summer Festival), Wu Mingyi's latest work and a linked story collection, is both personal and historical. It's about the Chung Hwa Market (中華商場) in Taipei, from its construction in the 1960s to its initial demolition in the 1990s, and the kids in the local neighborhood. It's a story about growing up for the protagonist and his friends, for the Chung Hwa Market, and for the entire city. In his introduction, senior novelist Chang Ta-chun (張大春) writes, "I haven't been moved and shaken by such a sincere and gifted writer's work in a long time." Wu Mingyi has earnestly transmuted materials from his own experience, not just into a story but also into a profound yet lucid understanding of life.

Chang Ching-hung's (張經宏) Motel City (摩鐵路之城, Chiuko) is a ballsy anti-Bildungsroman. The protagonist, Wu Chi-lun, describes himself as afflicted with a bad case of angst. He dreams of buying a garden motel and turning it into a school of conversation, a kind of contemporary salon. Motel City is an anatomy of the city of Taichung seen through the eyes of a seventeen year old. Chang Ching-hung's novel is both plain and unruly. Its subject matter, urban experience, is plain, but it also displays a youthful rebelliousness against the routinization and institutionalization of crime and porn, a defiant attitude that reminds us that the world was not always thus.

The Way of Healing All Humanity (道濟群生錄, Rye Field) is by this year's dark horse, Chang Wan-kang (張萬康). A late bloomer, Chang's gotten endorsements from many famous writers; many are betting on him. Formally, The Way of Healing All Humanity resembles a traditional Chinese novel, but it tells a modern tale. This should be an explosive combination, and its antiquated tone is strangely apt as a vehicle for the absurdity of modern existence. A father spends his dying days in a modern hospital, at the interface between doctor and illness, father and son, and life and death. Chang switches registers and techniques to set off his various views about the world, but his overall intention couldn't be clearer: to satirize a medical culture that cannot cure, not even in the possession of The Way of Healing All Humanity, the gift to humanity of The Lord of Life (保生大帝).

Chang's new novel, Call Me (摳我, Rye Field), treats phone and internet dating in a caustic tone. Fortunately, far from indicating authorial indifference, the sarcasm is a pose, part of a strategy of intervention. Like The Way of Healing All Humanity, Call Me calls lost souls home. Chang Ching-hung and Chang Wan-kang are both deeply dissatisfied by the state of the cities in which they live. But it appears that the novels inspired by dissatisfaction are actually quite satisfying. The problem is why there are so many adolescents and middle aged novelists who can't get no satisfaction. Could this be where they find the motivation to keep up the fight, to continue their creative endeavors?

Conclusion: Combining the Classical and the Postmodern

In this article, I've undertaken a survey of Taiwan fiction in 2011. This year's literary harvest has yielded a diehard neo-nativist and former neo-nativists who have embraced an ideal of "pure" literature; cross-Strait fiction; local chronicles, family sagas, and Hoklo novels that imagine new kinds of national communities; and the "territorial" writing of angry boys and middle aged men who are deeply dissatisfied with the way we live now. It's an impressive variety, but what I've tried to show is that as Taiwan literature diversifies, each work retains a distinctive Taiwanese flavor. It's an achievement to be proud of in the world of Sinophone literature.

It's also often a dark achievement. That many of this year's major Taiwan novels are so disturbing reminds me of the Chinese language article "Forgotten by Postmodernism" by the late Yao Yi-Wei (姚一葦), in which Professor Yao expressed his concern about contemporary literature, especially the postmodernist kind, which he felt dug up the uglier side of human nature and called it the truth: "Are people really like this? Is there no basic goodness in humanity that ought to be cherished? Why have the people I've met not been like this? Or are my eyes blind?" Today, Professor Yao might sound overly traditional, or even old-fashioned; contemporary writers are extremely unwilling to seem naive about humanity, and when they represent history they must adopt a distanciated and deconstructive perspective. But is this kind of attitude necessarily progressive and avant-garde? I'm not sure. It seems to me that the classical writer and his postmodern counterpart perceive different sides of life: classical beauty and postmodern ugliness. It also seems that there are good and inferior artistic examples of both and that we don't have to choose one or the other. There are lots of fish in the sea, and sometimes, when you order assorted sashimi, you can take more than one. In next year's feast of Taiwan fiction, a classical/pomo combo might just be the tastiest item on the menu.

translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

The original Chinese is reprinted with permission of 聯合文學.