Li Ang’s Visionary Challenge to
Gender, Sex, and Politics

Edited by Yenna Wu

Reviewed by Chia-lan Sharon Wang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2016)

Yenna Wu, editor, Li Ang’s Visionary Challenges to Gender, Sex, and Politics. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. ix, 174 pp. ISBN: 978-0739177945 ($ 80.00)

Yenna Wu, editor, Li Ang’s Visionary Challenges to Gender, Sex, and Politics Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. ix, 174 pp. ISBN: 978-0739177945 ($ 80.00)

The collection of essays edited by Yenna Wu is a valuable contribution to the study of one of Taiwan’s most significant woman writers, Li Ang. Just as multi-faceted as Li’s corpus itself, the essays in this book critically examine her works from the perspectives of history, sociology, gender politics, and postcolonial studies. Although Li Ang’s works have been translated into numerous languages, Li Ang’s Visionary Challenges to Gender, Sex, and Politics is the first book in English dedicated to the study of the author’s works, her career both as a writer and an advocate for women’s rights, and the development of Taiwan’s feminist movements.

The book is comprised of nine chapters, four of which are by the editor, Yenna Wu. Although Wu makes no clear attempt to categorize the essays thematically, they can be roughly divided into two parts. Chapters 1 through 5 focus on the way Li Ang’s works serve as literary interventions into the social and cultural conventions that structure and regulate gender and class power dynamics in Taiwan. Chapters 6 through 9 look into the ways her works serve as national allegories that expose the violence and ethnic discrimination in Taiwan’s democratic development and its nativist discourse.

Chapter 1, by Yenna Wu, serves as an introduction. It provides an overview of Li Ang’s career, the issues her works deal with, and a brief summary of the other chapters in the book. Chapter 2, by Murray A. Rubinstein, traces Li Ang’s life, major works, and the history of her participation in Taiwan’s feminist movements from the mid-1960s through the early 2000s. In chapter 3, Chia-lin Pao Tao discusses Li Ang’s works as commentaries on Chinese cultural and social traditions, as well as Taiwan’s legal system, all of which dictate marital gender relations in Taiwan. Tao’s essay also delves into the issue of illicit affairs, focusing on Li Ang’s Extramarital Affairs (外遇, 1987) and Dark Night (暗夜, 1994). Chapter 4 discusses opposing scholarly approaches to Li Ang’s 1983 canonical novel, The Butcher’s Wife (殺夫). Yenna Wu identifies both laudatory and critical readings of Li’s work from the perspectives of “equity” feminism and radical “gender” feminism. She cautions, however, against a simplistic reading based only on the novel’s feminist leanings and calls for a broader examination of its other features. In chapter 5, Wu demonstrates that more nuanced reading of the novel’s multiple dimensions. Using biopower as a frame of reference to investigate the changing and multi-layered power relationship among the characters, Wu zooms in on the power of slanderous gossip and rumors, coupled with “sociocultural prejudice,” in the novel.

In chapter 6, Aubrey Tang delves into the notion of “localization” (本土化) in the Taiwanese context and uses Li’s The Labyrinthine Garden (迷園, 1990) as a case study to discuss the novel’s “extrinsic difference” and “intrinsic difference” when it comes to native discourse. Whereas the former is predicated on a potentially binary identity politics, the latter emphasizes a more complex, dynamic, and heterogeneous way of imagining the nation. Teasing out the two implications of localization manifested in this allegorical novel and examining the viability of the “postnational biogeography” it posits, Tang argues that the novel provides a nontotalizing and holistic way of imagining national sovereignty. In chapter 7, Fang-yu Li investigates Li Ang’s All Sticks Are Welcome in the Censer of Beigang (北港香爐人人插, 1997), a collection of four short stories. Li scrutinizes the novel’s ambivalence toward the nationalist movement led by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. By pointing out the way the stories in this collection shuttle between a tentative endorsement of Taiwan’s nativist movement and a criticism of the heteronormative and patriarchal underpinnings of its discourse, Fang-yu Li argues that the writer’s alliance with the opposition party is finally undermined by her ethical concerns for the silenced and marginalized. In chapter 8, Ping-hui Liao discusses Seven Prelives of Affective Affinity[1] (七世姻緣之台灣/中國情人 2009) and unpacks the complex and volatile political and cultural relationship between Taiwan and China portrayed in this romance novel. Liao proposes that the relationship between the Chinese man, Zhou Xiaodong, and the Taiwanese woman, Ho Fang, exemplifies both the soft and hard powers of China’s authoritarian stance toward Taiwan. Liao reads the fruitless affair between Zhou and Ho and its spiritual redemption at the end as an indication of the potentially hapless outcome of China’s coercive nationalistic posture while pointing toward a more promising cross-strait relationship built on empathy and acceptance. In the last chapter, Yenna Wu discusses how Li Ang’s 2004 collection of short stories, Visible Ghosts (看得見的鬼), configures national allegory via magical realism. Referencing Taiwan’s aboriginal history and retelling it with fictional and fantastic ghostly vengeance, Wu contends, Visible Ghosts gives voice to the subversive specters of oppressed, abused, and unjustly killed women. Wu focuses her discussion on the first of the five stories, examining how Bakhtin’s notions of the serio-comical and the carnivalesque play out in the story. Wu points out that, in foregrounding the tortured and mutilated female body, which signifies the colonization and discrimination experienced by Taiwan’s aborigine groups at the hands of Han Chinese, the story reveals the hidden history of Taiwan often suppressed in official historiography.

On the whole, the essays gathered in Li Ang’s Visionary Challenges to Gender, Sex, and Politics present compelling arguments about the way Li’s works probe into issues of history, politics, gender, class, sexuality, and nationhood in Taiwan. They also demonstrate a profound political and cultural understanding of the island. This book will be an important reference for anyone who intends to look into Li Ang’s most representative works and the controversial topics they encompass.

It is almost impossible for any book project to study exhaustively all the works of a writer as prolific as Li Ang. Therefore, to point out the absence of some significant and powerful works not treated in this book might appear as nitpicking. But precisely because of the nearly unrivaled impact and staying power of Li Ang’s corpus, her career, which spans more than four decades of Taiwan’s literary history, calls for more comprehensive treatment and perhaps a more cogent categorization of the different stages and genres of her literary production. For example, I would single out for mention three of Li’s works that deserve thorough and careful critical attention: Autobiography: A Novel (自傳の小說, 2000), Possession (附身, 2011),[2] and Lover’s Erotic Menus (鴛鴦春膳, 2007).

Employing the trope of the female body and shamanism, the first two works ambitiously and radically contest masculinist authority in history writing. In Autobiography: A Novel, Li moves radically beyond what she attempted in The Butcher’s Wife and All Sticks Are Welcome in the Censer of Beigang. Rather than simply presenting a passive, sexually abused female body or mocking moralizing objections to women exchanging sex for power, Li Ang goes to great lengths to boldly imagine a history that has been suppressed in mainstream and official historical accounts. Published in the same year as her travelogue, Drifting Voyageur (漂流之旅, 2000), Autobiography: A Novel constitutes part of an important breakthrough in Li’s artistic trajectory: it contentiously articulates female agency within the inextricable relationship between gender and politics. As a companion travelogue to Autobiography: A Novel, Drifting Voyageur documents Li Ang’s journey to Japan, Russia, and Shanghai as she followed the footsteps of the communist feminist, Xie Xuehong (謝雪紅), the protagonist of Autobiography: A Novel. Both works also explore the multivalent meanings and purposes of border-crossing in Xie’s political activism.

A keenness to foreground female subjectivity is echoed in Li’s 2011 Possession. A saga that traces the stories of three generations of women, Possession uses the trope of supernatural, out-of-body experiences to question Han-centric and masculinist hegemony. As eloquently as Yenna Wu discusses the “disembodied” voices in Visible Ghosts, an investigation into Li’s efforts to elaborate and complicate the trope of ghostly or oracular vision in Possession would appear all the more imperative in an examination of Li Ang’s “visionary challenge.”

Last but not least, in considering Li Ang’s influence as a social activist and a cultural agent, it would be necessary to explore an overlooked dimension of her written work and career as a public figure—namely, her interest in exploring the relationship between food and many of the topics she addresses. Based on years of research and fieldwork, in 2007 Li Ang produced yet another groundbreaking novel, Lover’s Erotic Menus (鴛鴦春膳). The work uses the trope of food to comb through the issues of political power, national discourse, sexual desire, and gender relationship. The topic of food has indeed constituted a sizable portion of Li Ang’s literary portfolio. For this reason alone, Li Ang’s Visionary Challenges to Gender, Sex, and Politics, with its goal of examining Li’s vanguard position, should arguably have included a chapter on Lover’s Erotic Menus. The novel is part of a series of “gourmand” prose works written by Li Ang between 2002 and 2014. In these works, Li’s traversing across high culture and popular culture speaks volumes of the writer’s influential position in Taiwan’s literary production.

Chialan Sharon Wang
Feng Chia University

[1] While Liao’s translation of the title brings out the Daoist notion of reincarnated relationships, it nonetheless omits the tension between Taiwan and China suggested in the original title in Chinese. A more accurate translation could be Taiwan/Chinese Lovers: Seven Generations of Matrimonial Bonds.

[2] Both are mentioned briefly in the book’s first chapter, by Yenna Wu.