Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond

By Chia-rong Wu

Reviewed by Alvin K. Wong
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2018)

Chia-rong Wu. Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2016. vii-viii + 230 pp. ISBN: 9781604979213. (Hardcover: $ 109.99).

Chia-rong Wu’s Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond is a most welcome addition to the burgeoning field of Sinophone studies. Sinophone, in its inaugural definition by Shu-mei Shih, refers to “a network of places of cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness, where a historical process of heterogenizing and localizing of continental Chinese culture has been taking place for several centuries.”[1] Wu’s book makes three important contributions to the field of Sinophone studies. First, in connecting the zhiguai (志怪) tradition from the large canvas of premodern Chinese literature to contemporary Sinophone literature in Taiwan, Wu argues that “the ancient Chinese tradition of strange writing is still undead and further transforms in the literary production of Sinophone Taiwan” (8). Second, while it highlights manifestations of traditional strange writing in terms of issues of ethnicity, race, gender, and localism in the context of modern Taiwan history, the book also contributes to trans-spatial and trans-historical studies of both Chinese and Sinophone literature. This becomes apparent when Wu traces how figurations of the strange, the supernatural, and the spectral are linked to often traumatic narratives of border-crossing from the rich and painful history of Taiwan’s colonial past and postcolonial present. Finally, the “Introduction” demonstrates how strange narratives exemplify “an act of writing back” to dominant discourses of Chineseness, patriarchy, utilitarianism, and various forms of Sinocentrism (15).

Building on the introduction, chapter 1, “Tales of the Ghost Island,” explores how Taiwan itself is often mediated by its discursive figuration as a “ghost island (gui dao 鬼島) . . . a popular phrase to describe Taiwan’s marginality in the past few years” (23). It provides a historical overview of Taiwan’s early characterization as a “barbarian territory” in travel expedition writings of the Three Kingdoms period (ca. 220-265 AD), to its colonization by both Ming loyalists and the Dutch in the seventeenth century, through its brutal political repression and occupation by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces in the late 1940s, and finally to its current state of international marginalization by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United Nations (beginning in the 1970s). Wu suggests that “ghost island” provides a fitting description of this complex genealogy of marginality. Further expanding on David Der-wei Wang’s work on the repressed modernities of Chinese literature,[2] Wu shows how the framework of ghost-island literature enables productive interpretations of Taiwan literature from the 1970s through the present. For example, in exploring how “ghost-island literature involves personal mourning and collective trauma vis-à-vis delicate historical sensibility,” Wu reads works by Pai Hsien-yung and Chu T’ien-hsin through Cathy Caruth’s theory of trauma, revealing the ways in which people are “implicated in each other’s traumas”[3] (51).

Chapter 2, “A Gendered Discourse of Trauma: Li Ang,” explores the feminist writing of one of Taiwan’s most influential Sinophone writers, Li Ang (李昂). Wu discusses in particular Li Ang’s 2004 collection Visible Ghost (看得見的鬼).[4] Analyzing the Visible Ghost story “South of the Country: The Mangrove Ghost,” Wu describes the protagonist, Sister Lintou, as a powerful signifier of “all the female ghosts of Taiwan” (64). Sister Lintou travels across time and space in the town of Lucheng, from the early Qing period up to the Japanese colonial era, clearly manifesting what Wu aptly describes as Li Ang’s conflation of “the sexually violated, physically tortured female body and the colonial history of Taiwan” (59). In yet another story in the collection, “North of the Country: The Bamboo-blowing Ghost,” a homicidal Chinese doctor sexually violates his pregnant neighbor and kills both her and the unborn baby. The violated body of the woman later returns as a female ghost haunting Lucheng residents. Speaking mockingly through a spiritual medium, the ghost talks back to her male assailant: “Your rotten dick was inserted into the baby in my womb. You felt good? Did the eyes of your dick see that the eyes of the baby in my womb were looking carefully at your rotten dick!” (65). Through trenchant analysis that combines Lacanian theory with Fredric Jameson’s notion of the Real as history’s ultimate non-representational force, Wu concludes that in Li Ang’s writings we can locate the possibility of “feminist (ghost)writing in Sinophone Taiwan and Sinophone literature as a whole” (84).

Chapter 3,“Spatial Politics and Cultural Landscapes,” continues to employ a thoughtful combination of psychoanalysis and Marxism. Focusing on the body of experimental literary works by Wu He, a Sinophone writer who pens exquisite and sensual stories about regional landscapes of Taiwan in relation to queer sexuality, Wu argues that Wu He’s work serves as a productive platform to revisit debates on modernism and nativism in Taiwan literature. In particular, contributing to the debate between David Der-wei Wang and Liu Chih-chun on postloyalism and indigeneity, the author defines Wu He’s work as writing that “uses heterogeneous landscape narrative to mount performances of inner conflicts, social turmoil, and even sexual politics” (93). Critically dissecting fiction such as “Excavating Bones” (拾骨, 1993), Ruminating on Ah Bang-Kalusi (思索阿邦.卡露斯, 2002), Wu He Danshui (舞鶴淡水, 2002), and Remains of Life (餘生, 2000), this chapter shows how “Wu He deconstructs Taiwanese homosexual fiction by queering the queerness in localized, spectralized, and heterogeneous spaces” (108).

Chapter 4,“Magical Nativism in Sinophone Taiwan,” focuses more on literary aesthetics by demonstrating the extent to which Taiwan Sinophone literature engages with the global aesthetics of magical realism through a turn to “magical nativism” (魔幻鄉土主義) which Wu likens to “magical localism” (魔幻在地主義) (118). Drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “the absolute space,” Wu argues that magical nativism and localism critique the authoritarian boundedness of political space through the ways that they “resort[s] to uncanny narratives as a whole, including the bizarre, the ghostly, and the fantastic” (118). Examining the literary works of Hsu Jung-che (許榮哲) like Hide-and-Seek (迷藏, 2002), Fable (寓言, 2004), and Gan Yao Ming’s (甘耀明) Mystery Train (神秘列車, 2003) and Waterghost School and the Otter That Lost Its Mama (水鬼學校和失去媽媽的水獺, 2005), among others, Wu demonstrates how magical nativism “represents postcolonial geography and polyphonic practices in the local context” (139).

Chapter 5,“Magical Translocalism in Sinophone Malaysian Literature,” continues the previous chapter’s discussion of magical nativism and localism. Here, issues of displacement, migration, diaspora, and translocalism take center stage as Wu explores how Sinophone Malaysian writers negotiate the tensions between racialized exclusion and marginalization in Malaysia, and their gradual assumption of a localized Taiwan identity.[5] Wu approaches the rich body of literature by two of the most prolific Sinophone Malaysian writers—Chang Kuei-hsing (Zhang Guixing 張貴興) and the late Li Yung-p’ing (Li Yongping 李永平)—from a refreshing angle–through the concept of “magical translocalism.” Wu writes that “the border-crossing tendency of Sinophone Malaysian literature in Taiwan is the major reason for my adding the prefix trans to the term localism here” (153). Through a critical analysis of Chang’s representative literary works like The Naughty Family (頑皮家族, 1996), Monkey Cup (猴杯, 2000), and My South Seas Sleeping Beauty (我思念的長眠中的南國公主, 2001), Wu rightly observes that Chang’s rainforest narratives “channel[s] an assemblage of diverse cultural packages” and represent “colonial plantation histories” in the South Seas (160). In the case of Li  Yung-p’ing, his novels The Jiling Chronicles (吉陵春秋, 1986), Haidong Qing: A Fable of Taipei (海東青:台北的一則寓言, 1992), and The End of the River (大河盡頭, 2008, 2010) deal with cultural ambiguity, detachment from one’s homeland, and rootless diasporas. These concerns also relate to Li Yung-p’ing’s own identity as a writer/drifter, a langzi (浪子). This multi-layered reading of ethnicity, migration, diaspora, and rootlessness and their relation to the dense compression of histories in Sinophone Malaysian literature provides a most fitting conclusion to the book. Wu concludes that these “narratives help readers explore how the strange cultures of China, Taiwan, and Borneo intersect, thereby revealing the strange spectacles of the homeland in the age of global diaspora and postcoloniality” (181).

Through a meticulous delineation of the literary aesthetic trajectory, reformulation, and deformation of the zhiguai genre from traditional Chinese culture to modern and contemporary Sinophone Taiwan, Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond succeeds in advancing the field of Sinophone studies in several critical directions. First, it demonstrates the spectral and supernatural genre’s stylistic diversification into the terrains of magical realism, nativism, and translocalism. Second, it reveals the complex histories and narratives of migration, displacement, and global diasporas in both contextual and textual literary production. Furthermore, the emphasis on the literary form and expressive potential of the supernatural and the strange reconfirms the critical value of literature itself, which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called the value of “unverifiability.”[6] Finally, engaging with voices and figures that dwell in the shadows of mainstream historicism, nationalist historiography, China-centrism, and patriarchal violence, the book gestures alternatively toward the marginal, the feminist, the racially marked, and the queer. In so doing, Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond charts a new direction at the intersections of Sinophone studies, Chinese literary studies, Taiwan studies, and gender studies.

Alvin K. Wong
Yonsei University


[1] Shu-mei Shih, Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 4.

[2] David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-Siecle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[3] Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 24.

[4] According to Yenna Wu, the five stories in the collection were written separately and “can be read independently” although they are “thematically coherent and structurally connected” enough to also warrant calling the collection a novel. Yenna Wu, “(Dis)embodied Subversion: The Mountain-pass Ghost in Li Ang’s Visible Ghosts (Kandejian de gui).” In Yenna Wu, ed., Li Ang’s Visionary Challenges to Gender, Sex, and Politics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), 145.

[5] For the existing body of scholarly work on Sinophone Malaysian literature, see Alison M. Groppe, Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2013), E. K. Tan, Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2013), and Brian Bernards, Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

[6] Spivak writes, “A training in literary reading is a training to learn from the singular and the unverifiable.” See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Righting Wrongs.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103, nos. 2/3 (Summer 2004): 532.