Trauma and the Politics of Identity: Form and Function
in Fictional Narratives of the February 28th Incident

By Margaret Hillenbrand

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 49-89

The cultural commemoration of the February 28 th Incident has long been dominated by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s landmark film Beiqing chengshi (City of Sadness, 1989). This paper explores those literary representations of Taiwan’s trauma that began to breach the embargo on public memory some time before Hou’s film, and which have so far escaped sustained attention in the West. The magnitude of so-called “limit events” – their capacity to defeat the imagination and thereby thwart the cathartic powers of representation – has traditionally made the task of those who wish to write trauma a fraught one. In many ways, these difficulties are redoubled in the case of Taiwan, where the 40-year-long KMT injunction to forget has given writers a role that transcends the purely creative. The result, this paper argues, is a fictional practice whose form and function are a specific response to the needs of belated commemoration.

Narratives of the February 28 th Incident are self-consciously hybrid pieces, which fuse history and politics, mode and genre, realism and anti-realism as they strive to find a form that can do Taiwan’s “forgotten” trauma justice. And if hybridity is the chosen form of these texts, then memory – its recovery and restitution – is their shared function. Ultimately, this preoccupation with memory is driven by an awareness of the role that the remembered past plays in the forging of present identity; and thus it is perhaps inevitable that representations of the Incident become a powerful means towards articulating what it means to be Taiwanese. Finally, the paper moves on to illustrate these points through a close focus on two key texts: Song Zelai’s novella Kangbao de Damaoshi (The City of Damao in Revolt) and Li Qiao’s short story “Taimushan ji” (The Tale of Mount Taimu).