Taiwanese Literature as World Literature

Edited by Pei-yin Lin and Wen-chi Li

Reviewed by Lingchei Letty Chen

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2023)

Pei-yin Lin and Wen-chi Li, eds. Taiwanese Literature as World Literature London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. 232pp. ISBN 9781501381355 (cloth).

The consequences of WWII and the subsequent Cold War exacerbated Taiwan’s long-held peripheral position in the international community. Taiwanese literature, as a result, has stood on the margin of Chinese literature. But that was last century. Now in the twenty-first century, Taiwan has moved into a more prominent position in global geopolitical and economic conflicts, particularly between the US and China, and Taiwanese literature has gained higher visibility through international circulation. In the past few years, we have seen more and more conferences, symposiums, and workshops featuring Taiwan and Taiwanese literature. Thanks also to the controversial notion of Sinophone, which has generated a great number of productive discussions and debates in the last decade or so, Taiwanese literature has attracted unprecedented attention from scholars around the world. With publications such as The Making of Chinese-Sinophone Literatures as World Literature (Hong Kong UP, 2022) and Taiwanese Literature as World Literature, which is under review here, it is not difficult to foresee how “Sinophone,” “world literature,” and “Taiwanese literature” will continue to be entwined in more scholarly work to come.

The edited volume, Taiwanese Literature as World Literature, is published by Bloomsbury Academic under the series Literatures as World Literature. It is not often that we see an Asian/East Asian scholarly work published by Bloomsbury Academic, a niche academic publisher known primarily for its imprints in British and European studies; The Arden Shakespeare and Methuen Drama, for example, are two of its prestigious imprints. A quick browse of its website and we find it has an “Asia Studies” umbrella category. Searching more closely its sub-categories, under East Asia Studies one finds only six titles; but fifty-one results under China studies; and twelve results under Asian Literature. The Literatures as World Literature series has twenty-eight titles, among which Taiwanese Literature as World Literature and Pacific Literatures as World Literature are Asia/East Asia related. Apparently for a niche academic publisher such as Bloomsbury Academic to expand beyond its traditional coverage, tapping into Asian studies and world literature studies is a smart route to go. For Taiwanese literature to have its distinct title in this series is certainly a laudable effort by the two editors, Pei-yin Lin and Wen-chi Li.

The volume has a foreword by Karen Thornber, an introduction by the two editors, and twelve chapters grouped into three thematic parts. The three essays in Part I develop the collection’s theoretical framework for situating Taiwanese literature in world literature. The next three essays in Part II provide various case studies to demonstrate and argue that there is a transcultural dimension to Taiwanese literature and that “the world” has always existed in it. The remaining six essays in Part III discuss translations of Taiwanese literature into English, Japanese, and major European languages, and collectively illustrate Taiwanese literature’s broad circulation in the world.

Thornber’s foreword points out that the current discourse of world literature continues to favor Western literatures primarily because the scholars who dominate the conversation have no knowledge of, much less training in, Asian literatures. Scholarship on Asian literatures, for its part, continues to bear the Cold War legacy of being treated as “area studies.” The imbalanced recognition between Western and non-Western scholarship is indisputable. Almost always—and sadly so— the burden of proof of this imbalance rests on scholars of Asian studies. The authors of the Introduction and the three essays in Part I who lay the groundwork for this volume have done exactly that— putting forth persuasive and sophisticated arguments to defend why Taiwanese literature should be recognized as part of world literature.

The primary argument of the Introduction is based on the geopolitics of the West vs. the rest of the world. While “the West” is not hard to understand, “the rest of the world” is more amorphous and therefore difficult to conceptualize. Two primary notions are elaborated by the volume editors to illustrate a counterpart to the West: Global South and “an oceanic view,” or in the Fijian writer Hau`ofa’s words, “a sea of islands” (p. 8), that together can offer new paradigms in response to West-centrism. Both notions aptly capture Taiwan as a productive site for generating a new worldview. Effectively this argument also puts Taiwan at the center in the triad of “Sinophone,” “world literature,” and “Taiwanese literature.” The ensuing essay by Kuei-fen Chiu demonstrates exactly this point. By comparing side-by-side the “Sinophone” model and the “world literature” model for reading Taiwanese Literature and with the example of Yang Mu’s 楊牧 poetry which, in her view, transcends both Chinese and Western classical literatures, Chiu concludes that Taiwanese literature clearly belongs to world literature.

The following essay by Carlos Rojas immediately takes us to “worlding” Taiwanese literature. Instead of deploying a defensive tactic, Rojas offers a more nuanced and reflective perspective. He points out that global geopolitics’ imposition of restrictions on Taiwan necessarily generates creative energy that in turn ensures Taiwan’s continuous growth. This “dialectic of freedom and constraint” (p. 49) is oftentimes contingent upon historical and natural happenstance. With this observation, this reviewer cannot but ponder the following: Is defending Taiwanese literature’s place in world literature motivated by a general sense of justice and fairness, or by thinking that gaining membership into the club of world literature may pave the way for Taiwanese writers to win the Nobel Prize or at least the International Booker Prize— two highly coveted literary prizes Rojas mentions in the coda of his essay? Rojas’s closing remark reveals a refreshing sense of detachment in this volume’s otherwise energetic defense of Taiwanese literature’s place in the world (literature): “the disruptive forces . . . may simultaneously be a productive, and even necessary, precondition for literary creativity itself” (p. 50).

Following Rojas’s essay, Pei-yin Lin proposes a broad range of what she argues should constitute Taiwanese literature— to include not only literary works by Taiwan-based writers and published in Taiwan, but also works about Taiwan (emphasis in the original) in non-Sinitic languages and published elsewhere that, via translation, can circulate back to Taiwan and other Sinitic communities. Analyzing literary works by Shawna Yang Ryan 楊小娜 (Taiwanese American), Syaman Rapongan 夏曼•藍波安 (indigenous Tao), and Lien Ming-wei 連明偉 (Taiwanese), Lin offers three “’worlding’ modalities”—namely, family saga, autobiographical narrative, and bildungsroman—and three “modes of circulation” (p. 53) to demonstrate possibilities of reading a broadly defined Taiwanese literature as world literature. Essentially, the three “worldling modalities” are universal genres that can be found in all literatures of the world, which makes Lin’s central argument self-evident. The three chosen writers—a Taiwanese American writing in English whose works have been translated into Chinese, an indigenous Taiwanese writer who is recognized for his indigeneity in Japan, and a traveling Taiwanese writer whose best-known work is set in the Philippines— together, Lin argues, cover quite a wide geographical range of circulation, hence making Taiwanese literature “worldly.” By lifting necessary linguistic and geographical markers from the label “Taiwanese literature,” this reviewer wonders: Doesn’t it risk rendering “Taiwan” in Taiwanese literature a free-floating sign?

The following nine essays in Part II (by Yi-chen Liu, Darryl Sterk, and Nicholas Kaldis) and Part III (John Balcom, Gwennaël Gaffric, Frederica Passi, Ying-che Huang, Wen-chi Li, and Sheng-chi Hsu) demonstrate, from various aspects and through different case studies, Taiwanese literature’s connection with, imagination of, and participation in the world and world literature. Among these excellent studies, what stand out to this reviewer are the engagements with eco-criticism, gender and sexuality studies, and Indigenous studies. Darryl Sterk’s essay takes Wu Ming-yi’s 吳明益 The Man with the Compound Eyes (複眼人), which Sterk himself translated into English, to propose an “Indigenous-Themed Environmental World Literature” (p. 85). Although not an in-depth analysis of Wu’s novel, Sterk’s essay nevertheless opens up a new “world” space for Taiwanese writers to have a strong voice in addressing global issues.

As the world pays close attention to and is greatly invested in the environment and equitable representations of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, Taiwan has achieved a remarkable record in all these areas. Taiwanese people’s efforts in preserving the environment, promoting gender equality, and their respect for multiculturalism are duly reflected by writers in their creative work. Promoting Taiwan’s and Taiwanese literature’s achievements in these areas will undoubtedly gain them world recognition. This approach is proactive and entails an offense-oriented strategy. For far too long, Taiwan has had to “defend” its place in the world, a tactic that has not gained it much ground. At the same time, Taiwan and its people have contributed much to the world. Why not highlight and promote these accomplishments in the study of Taiwan and let the world come to the conclusion that Taiwan is an active participant in offering solutions to critical global concerns? Current studies of Taiwan and its literature need to step outside of the inherently problematic framework of thinking— of regarding the world as a whole and world literature as the ultimate manifestation of that coherent world— and engage with emerging new frameworks that can better reflect contemporary realities and thinking. Hau`ofa’s “a sea of islands,” mentioned in the Introduction, offers an island framework that is worth scholars’ continuous attention and further investment, and hopefully we will soon see a publication or two on Taiwan and Taiwanese literature in which (more) productive frameworks will serve as the main conceptualizing principle to reposition Taiwan/Taiwanese literature in a world that is full of disruptive relations.

Lingchei Letty Chen
Washington University in St. Louis