Writing Taiwan:
A New Literary History

Edited by David Der-Wei Wang and Carlos Rojas

Reviewed by Pei-Yin Lin
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November 2007)

David Der-Wei Wang and Carlos Rojas, eds. Writing Taiwan: A New Literary History. Durham, NC: Duke University  Press, 2006. 412 pp. ISBN 0-8223-3851-3 (cloth); ISBN 0-8223-3867-X (paperback)

David Der-Wei Wang and Carlos Rojas, eds. Writing Taiwan: A New Literary History. Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 2006. 412 pp. ISBN 0-8223-3851-3 (cloth); ISBN 0-8223-3867-X (paperback)

Writing Taiwan: A New Literary History is a welcome, albeit belated, volume generated from the 1998 conference “Writing Taiwan: Strategies of Representation,” held at Columbia University. It is an ambitious project covering different moments in the history of the literature of Taiwan. The topics tackled range from theoretical frameworks for the study of Taiwan literature, to concepts of Taiwan literature and modernist writings, to identity politics and historical representation in contemporary fiction. With such broad coverage, not to mention the diverse approaches of individual authors and the fact that some are translated from the original Chinese, the publication of this book by Western academia is a commendable achievement. With its exclusive emphasis on Chinese literature from Taiwan, particularly that written after 1945, this book nicely complements other literary anthologies edited by David Wang, for example Chinese Literature in the Second Half of A Modern Century: A Critical Survey (2000) and the more recent Taiwan Under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895-1945: History, Culture, Memory (2006).

The book is organized thematically into four inter-connected parts. Part 1 (“The Limits of Taiwan Literature”) demonstrates a holistic approach by addressing the economic, political, and academic factors that have shaped and reshaped the concept and position of Taiwan literature, as well as the interpretation of Taiwan’s literary history. It opens with Yvonne Chang’s essay, which traces the shifting analytic models that have been used over the past few decades in the field of Taiwan literature and thus serves as a nice introduction to the field. In his essay, Fangming Chen is more polemical and strives to construct a postcolonial Taiwan literary history. He proposes three periods–colonial, recolonial, and postcolonial–to refer to Taiwan literature during the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945), between 1945 and 1987, and post-1987 Taiwan, respectively. This periodization is useful in highlighting the two significant events (end of Japanese rule in 1945 and the abolition of martial law in 1987) in Taiwanese history, but in doing so it also suffers from oversimplification. The feasibility of considering Taiwan a decolonized society and the applicability of postcolonial theory to Taiwan[1] remain contentious issues. Nevertheless, Chen’s essay exemplifies a methodological tendency widely adopted by native Taiwanese scholars to view the KMT as a “foreign” cultural colonizer. Yet when moving on to the post-1987 period, Chen’s initial nativist stance is modified; it becomes an all-embracing attitude that considers the various writings emerging during the period as part of a monolithic “post-colonial literature.” Such a vision is in fact not much different from Liao Xianhao’s broad application of the term “postmodernity” of which Chen disapproves.

How to speak of Taiwan has been one of the most urgent and difficult questions raised in academia in recent years. I do not intend to evaluate the various frameworks used to interpret Taiwan’s post-martial law period. Instead, I would like to point out that the existing academic debates surrounding postcoloniality and Taiwaneseness are often carried out within the scholars’ political assumptions about Taiwan’s independence or unification with the mainland.[2] Thanks to Taiwan’s complex history, its native consciousness has been shaped by and negotiated through several “others,” such as China, Japan, and America. I am sympathetic to Fangming Chen’s argument for a postcolonial narration, yet the validity of such a discourse is built upon ignorance of power politics. In fact, what has made Taiwan’s history and literature so fascinating is the convergence of multilayered power relationships. The legacy of China, Japan, and America remains visible particularly in the realm of popular culture, suggesting that Taiwan should not be seen as completely “decolonized” from her “others.” Less concerned with Taiwan’s amalgam of cultural influences from Japan and America, native Taiwanese scholars have tried hard to forge their historical “authenticity” in the form of a radical desinification. Yet such claims to authenticity appear empty when set against the more authentic discourse of the island’s aborigines. Although in the past Taiwan suffered at the hands of various colonial powers, in recent decades it has itself emerged as a “neocolonial” power, both cultural and economic, in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, many of these layers and the full meaning of the concept of “hybridity,” which is often applied to Taiwan culture, have not been taken into proper consideration in the debates.

The last essay in Part 1 is by Xiaobing Tang and explores the discourse and debate surrounding the originality (zizhu xing) and subjectivity of Taiwan literature during the 1980s and 1990s. Tang’s argument that “Taiwan literature” is part of modern literature written in Chinese is balanced, and his proposal to study Taiwan literature as an ingredient of China’s ongoing venture into modernity is quite illuminating. His “inconclusive conclusion,” however, seems to suggest that the value of researching Taiwan literature lies not so much in its richness but in its potential for contributing to our understanding of China’s modernity as a “regional” phenomenon. Tang’s article compliments Chen’s, and readers are invited to compare the insights and limits of these two different but equally valid frameworks for understanding Taiwan literature–either as a constituent of Chinese-language literature or as a postcolonial literature. I agree with Tang that the viability of “Taiwan literature” as a national literature remains ambiguous and is likely to be subject to future political developments on the island, but whether Taiwan literature should be considered equivalent to the literatures of Hong Kong or Shanghai or Hunan requires further deliberation. Tang’s essay reminds us that it is vitally important to study Taiwan literature in both broad and specific contexts. If Taiwan, as Tang has suggested, is a constituent of the “Chinese project of modernity,” I would like to stress that the inspirations from China, together with Japan and America, can be seen as nutrition for Taiwan’s particular trajectory of modernization.

Writing Taiwan‘s second part (“Cultural Politics”) discusses selected writers and specific literary journals in order to highlight the tension and transformation in Taiwan’s literary field. There is an emphasis on the interrelation between similar literary movements in different sociopolitical contexts. Joyce Liu’s essay recuperates the previously marginalized avant-garde literary experiments embarked upon by the two poets Yang Chichang and Lin Hengtai. Michelle Yeh’s article applies Bourdieu’s sociological theories to investigate how the poets of Modern Poetry Quarterly strategically appropriated official cultural sources so as to gain for themselves a new form of symbolic capital and to introduce a new-style habitus to the 1950s literary field. Fenghuang Ying’s article reviews how Zhong Lihe’s works have been appropriated by various critics to legitimize their own promotion of a socially-engaged literature or a patriotic literature. Compared with the previouisly published Chinese version of this essay, the English version here appears incomplete. For example, the part on the application of postcolonial theory promised by the title is missing. Ying’s definition of the “postcolonial character” of Zhong’s work thus becomes nebulous. Only in the Chinese version is Zhong’s “double-colonial” characteristic (Japanese rule and Nationalist government’s anti-Communist hegemony) properly illustrated. The last chapter in this part is Yvonne Chang’s reading of Wang Wenxing’s two-volume Backed against the Sea. Adhering to her long-held penchant for modernist writing in Taiwan, Chang argues that modernist aesthetics itself can be seen as a cultural commentary on Taiwanese society.

The third part of the book (“History, Truth, and Textual Artifice”) consists of four essays that revolve around the question of the fictional representations of history, particularly the limits of historical retrieval through realist literature. David Wang’s essay bridges smoothly the gap between Parts 2 and 3, as it shares the comparative approach most essays in Part 2 adopt and probes into the collective concerns prevalent in Part 3 over the representation of history and reality. All four authors are strongly skeptical about the possibility of historical representation through literature. The historical evil (Chinese Communism) as the phantasmal simulacrum Taowu in David Wang’s article resonates with the violence (insanity or death) discussed in Yomi Braester’s essay. Continuing both Wang’s and Braester’s vision of history, in his study of Zhang Dachun’s metafiction Kim-chu Ng asks whether reality can be represented. Meanwhile, Gang Xu draws upon Artaud in his analysis of how body can be viewed as a performance to ponder the external world depicted in Su Weizhen’s novels. Even though Ng acknowledges Zhang Dachun’s recent stylistic experiments, he regards Zhang’s metafiction as a self-destructive apparatus that suggests the market-oriented print culture and the spiritual barrenness of urban civilization. By pointing out the limits of narration and interpretation in the works of Su Weizhen, Gang Xu confirms Ng’s apprehension about representability.

The five essays in the final part (“Spectral Topographies and Circuits of Desire”) of the volume offer different possibilities for imagining Taipei (or Taiwan) either as a global city, a postcolonial city, or somewhere in-between “modern” Japan and quaint China, showing that identity politics remains a favored theme in contemporary Taiwan literature. Ping-hui Liao’s article focuses on Wu Zhuoliu’s travelogue Nanjing Journals to examine how Wu’s travel to China helped forge his Taiwanese consciousness–an identity born out of the double negation “neither Chinese nor Japanese.” Liao’s reading of Wu’s travel experience is plausible, yet his evaluation of writers such as Akutagawa, Yokomitsu, Lu Xun, and Yu Dafu appears hasty and partial. Akutagawa, for instance, had a quite positive view of Beijing. Also, Yokomitsu’s Shanghai tale is not necessarily a critique of a backward China from the perspective of his “superior” Japanese vision. Nonetheless, Liao’s proposal for an “alternative modernity” is thought provoking because it offers a possibility for positioning Taiwan within an Asian/Pacific framework (Japan and China in this case). Extending the “who am I?” question dealt with in Liao’s essay, Letty Chen’s and Ban Wang’s essays generate a mutually complimentary analysis. The former argues that Zhu Tianxin’s “Ancient Capital” goes beyond the nativists’ “constructed authenticity” in Taipei, wheras the latter shows Zhu Tianwen’s fin-de-siècle Taipei as a ruin built on sensory language. Unlike Wu Zhuoliu’s Taiwanese identity, which emerges through double negation, Li Yongping’s literary mapping of Taipei, as argued by Carlos Rojas, is based on two parameters: the paternal parameter refers to Taiwan’s political rupture, while the maternal parameter refers to Taiwan’s cultural continuity with China. Chaoyang Liao’s Lacanian analysis, which views the gaze and object in Li Ang’s work as an effective means to engage with and resist the grand narrative is insightful, but would be more thematically-cogent if placed in the Part 3 of the book. While an individual’s psychological drive can go beyond social constraints, we should not overlook how much one’s subjectivity may be constrained by nationalist discourse.

There is a minor discrepancy between what the Preface asserts as the scope of the book (“the intricate network of this literature from 1945 to the present”) and the fact that two essays–those by Ping-hui Liao and Joyce Liu–deal with literature from Taiwan’s Japanese colonial period. A few errors and inconsistencies of romanization (especially with Japanese names) are found in the main text, endnotes, and appendix. For instance, Wu Zhuoliu’s Nanjing Journals should be Nanjing zagan. There are also several inaccurate translations (e.g., the journal Xiachao should be “China Tide”; “poluozhou” is more accurately “Borneo”; and “mahua wenxue” is better translated as “Malaysian Chinese literature” because “Sino-Malay literature” can refer to a form of popular literature in Indonesia). Some factual details require updating, for example Li Yongping’s most recent novel is Yuxue feifei. The footnotes are incomplete in places.

Though slightly different[3] from its Chinese version published by Maitian in 2000, Writing Taiwan: A New Literary History shares the same academic inquiry into the historiography and identity politics of Taiwan literature. This volume touches upon significant questions essential to the study of Taiwan literature, such as the debate surrounding postmodernism and the postcolonial condition. It proposes an alternative literary historiography by investigating the evolution of certain stylistic trends in contemporary writing, and the tension between narrating Taiwan and Taiwan’s political configuration and dynamics in the past two decades. It succeeds as a “new” literary history not only because the essays probe into some relatively overlooked areas of Taiwan literature, but also because of the innovative and diverse approaches taken.

I agree with Yvonne Chang, who in the opening essay reiterates that strategies of representation are not an innocent practice without any political dimension. How should we react to the “new literary history” projected by this volume? The title “Writing Taiwan” covers two extremely important areas. First, it raises the epistemological question of “what is Taiwan?” This anthology illustrates that “Taiwan” is not a fixed geographical term but a fluid concept that is constantly being constructed. As a consequence, the definition of “Taiwan literature” and the frameworks applied to the study of this literature vary greatly. Second, it probes into questions of how Taiwan can be narrated through the medium of literature–what is the relationship between story and Taiwan’s history? Juxtaposing this volume with Wang’s recent publications, such as The Monster That is History, and with similar anthologies published in Taiwan (such as Essays on Taiwan Literary History [Taiwan xiaoshuo shi lun] published by Maitian in 2007) we can sense Wang’s particular interest in reflecting on the conflicting or violent elements in (literary) history. We can also distinguish the scholars’ collective ongoing efforts toward encouraging a plural vision and version of Taiwan’s historiography. Together the sixteen essays emphasize that literature is not merely a means of historical representation but that it has the potential to actively define a nation’s self-image and shape its history. They also recover several previously repressed voices in our simplified and linear understanding of Taiwan’s literary history and modernity. Writing Taiwan in this perspective provides us one of the many creative ways of narrating Taiwan, reminding us that hybridity and difference are not a destination but a point of departure for our re-examination of the extremely rich heritage of Taiwan literature. In an era in which the borders of literature are being constantly redrawn and the legitimacy of literature renegotiated, this volume should be received more as a memento of a self-reflexive attitude toward literary history than an attempt to revise existing literary historiography.

Pei-Yin Lin
Cambridge University


[1] Emma Teng in the epilogue of her book Taiwan’s Imagined Geography (Harvard University Asia Center, 2006) has pointed out that the “lack of decolonisation (from Japan and China) precludes the possibility of Taiwan’s postcoloniality.”

[2] Examples can be drawn from the debates between Liao Chaoyang and Qiu Guifen in 1992 on whether “Mandarin with Taiwanese accent” (Taiwan guoyu) can be regarded as Taiwan’s indigenous language. Not much later, Liao Xianhao and Liao Chaoyang embarked on a debate during 1995 and 1996 on the “subjectivity” of Taiwan. More recent disputes can be found in Chen Fangming and Chen Yingzhen’s verbal battle over the interpretation of Taiwan’s history.

[3] The essays by Xiaobing Tang, David Der-wei Wang, and Ping-hui Liao compiled in Writing Taiwan for instance are different from those compiled in the Chinese version. Yvonne Chang has two articles in Writing Taiwan, but only has one article in the Chinese version. Letty Chen’s article on Zhu Tianxin’s Ancient Capital is only available in the English version. The Chinese version is entitled “Shuxie Taiwan: wenxue shi, hou zhimin yu hou xiandai” and its English translation retains the original title of the conference, “Writing Taiwan: Strategies of Representation.” It contains four essays, respectively by Walisi Nuogan, Lin Qiyang, Liao Xianhao, and Zhou Yingxiong, which are not found in the English version.