Intimate Stories from Taiwan

Review of “Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers: An Anthology”, edited by Jonathan Stalling, Lin Tai-man and Yanwing Leung.

In his foreword to this anthology, Jonathan Stalling eloquently describes how “Taiwan literature, like its complex writing systems, exists as a palimpsest of the cultural contact points, overlapping languages, peoples, and histories that have paved the way for one of the most vibrant literary scenes in the Sinosphere and the world beyond.” The aptness of this delightful description is borne out by what follows, namely 11 diverse, yet eminently readable, short stories and essays written between 1976 and 2013.

If any single thing connects all these stories, it is intimacy. Each of these very different narratives (some are simple and anecdotal, others elaborately literary and still others read like personal reminiscences or diary entries) circles around human relationships. The array of intimate relationships include the emancipation of a meek young woman from her egocentric husband; the invention of a much longed for imaginary son by a single woman tired of playing the field; the extremely brief but life-changing mentor-student liaison between a successful fake socialite and an up-coming rich-husband hunter, as well as the parasitic mother daughter bond presented in sensuous and colorful prose—almost like a revolting yet fascinating surrealist painting.

These stories also possess a kind of sensuality, which begets a different type of intimacy—between reader and text this time—that is deeply satisfying and engaging: interior and private smellscapes in “A Place of One’s Own” share the protagonist’s sensation of how “body odor from Liang-ch’i floated up toward her, the faint smell of cigarette smoke and perspiration. She had never had a male in this room before.”

In “Taipei Train Station”, the mind’s eye of the reader is called upon visualize the public and exterior space of a city where “buses dashed over streets, their metallic sides aglow in the light. The shine and swish they left in their wake enveloped the city as if with fish scales that flashed with every move.”

These stories describe Taiwanese society from 1980s to 2010s (with the notable exception of the final story “The Fish”, which—dating from 1976 and dealing with the Cultural Revolution in mainland China—hangs on like an out of place appendix) and thus also touch on the tremendous changes in economy, politics and lifestyle that took place during those years.

A literary showcase of life in such transitional times is displayed by the generational conflict at the heart of Chung Wenyin’s “The Travels and Lover of a Junior High Girl”. Here, the protagonist’s mother, who was born in poverty and has finally risen to a life of wealth and luxury, refuses let go of her Gucci purse to go swim with her children. Her daughter, on the other hand, who has grown up in relative affluence and financial security, longs for untraditional love affairs and a simple life closer to nature: “I truly wished that my mother would come and see the fates of other women — take off her expensive shoes, tread barefoot on the earth, and feel the chill or heat.”

The cultural and linguistic amalgamation, which Stalling describes as characteristic of Taiwan literature, is exemplified in several of the stories: in “The Story of Hsiao-Pi” the Taiwanese Mrs Pi struggles to speak Mandarin with her Guomindang husband; in “Seed of the Rape Plant” the protagonist’s Japanese housewife schooling proves redundant in modern-day Taiwan; and the narrator in “The Party Girl” comes to realize that a knowledge of foreign languages is essential in order to crash and successfully shine at fashionable gatherings.

But why a separatist anthology of only female authors? Dr Olga Castro wrote last year in in The Conversation that “in an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s.”

Our world, however, especially when it comes to translated works, is far from ideal. According to Castro (who cites the VIDA Count of women in the literary arts), “generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies…”

This anthology therefore does its bit to redress the balance. And from a Sinophone perspective, it bears witness to the remarkably rich literary scene in Taiwan as well as to the fact that a not insignificant number of the island’s best authors happen to be female.

Fortunately, these stories have more in common than the fact that they are written by Taiwanese women. They are short and delicious samples of human curiosity, humor, suffering, politics and love. They are very well translated and well mixed as if for a literary buffet. The editors have thoughtfully provided bibliographical information on each story’s original publication so that the hungry reader can easily sample more of new discovered favorites.

First published for asianreviewofbooks.com

High Kicks All the Way: Review of Jin Yong’s A Hero Born

Thirteenth-century China is a time of mayhem, when wandering heroes and martial masters must choose their side in a conflict between the Jurchen Jin invaders from the North and the dispersed and submissive remains of the Song dynasty.

The protagonist of A Hero Born, Guo Jing, is stirring in his mother’s womb when, during a snowstorm, a Daoist called Qiu Chuji arrives at the village of his father Skyfury Guo. During his brief visit, this martial monk manages to name and bless the Guo offspring in utero, thus acting as the catalyst for the legend about to begin, while killing off the entire Jin search party chasing him:

“Before he had landed on the horse’s back, he had already slices his sword straight through the officer’s back to the base of his spine. Qiu Chuji threw the body from the horse, grabbed hold of the reins, and started to chase the others, his blade dancing silver against the grey-white of the storm.”

After the monk leaves, another military search party arrives, the families of Guo and his sworn brother Yang are scattered, the men presumed dead, and the pregnant women flee into the frozen night. This snowy scene, with its hints of legends to come and its effortless and terse account of breathtaking bravery and consummate violence is typical of the entire novel, which chronicles the birth and early boyhood of Guo Jing, the son of Skyfury Guo, as he grows up, exiled with his mother to Mongolia.

Decorative screen, Jin Yong Gallery, Hong Kong Heritage Museum (photo: Wpcpey)

In these post-postmodern times where nothing is simple and even the superheroes of our childhood struggle with emotional traumas (Spiderman—and indeed any man—has the right to a god cry now and then), it is refreshing to meet literary characters that are so completely and uncomplicatedly heroic. This does not mean that there is no romance: A Hero Born contains several examples of pacts made in love and death as well as martial couples such as Zhang Asheng and Jade Han of the Seven Freaks of the South, or Copper and Iron Corpse—also known as Hurricane Chen and Cyclone Mei—the two evil masters of necromantic Nine Yin Skeleton Claw kung fu:

“‘My dear harpy, are you alright?’ Hurricane Chen called over. ‘They blinded me!’ Cyclone Mei growled back from where she was slumped against a tree. ‘Bastard husband of mine, if you even let one of these scoundrels go, I will kill you myself.’”

What could be more romantic than that?

While Jin Yong (pen name of Louis Cha) remains one of the best-selling authors on the Chinese language market, he has yet to reach the same fame in an anglophone context, despite the translation into English of several of his works (The Book and the Sword, The Deer and the Cauldron, Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain). There are instances, however, where parts of Jin Yong’s fictional universe have already entered global popular culture. One such example is the technique of qinggong or lightness kung fu:

“Sabre, spear, ship and axe; Guo Jing’s eyes darted between them. His only weapon was his lightness kung fu as he danced between the blades.”

Through the medium of Hong Kong martial art films, for which Jin Yong and other wuxia (martial heroes) writers were a major source of inspiration, the concept of qinggong has entered the global visual arts sphere, and has most recently appeared in the Hollywood production of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where Legolas the elf uses it to jump between falling rocks. The Hero Born has in turn been compared to Tolkien’s novels, and while there are of course no direct inspiration either way, brilliant and much-loved works like these can be said to engage in a kind of post-publication dialogue through their readers and their reception in global popular culture.

Illustration from The Water Margin

Jin Yong situates his epic in a context of classic Chinese vernacular fiction, referring to his protagonist Guo Jing as “a descendant of Prosperity Guo, one of the heroes of the Marshes of Mount Liang,” thus designating his own novel a literary descendant of the Ming dynasty novel The Water Margin (shuihuzhuan), one of the four great literary masterpieces (sidamingzhu ).

Despite the simple plot and the inconsistency of some of the characters, this read fascinates and delights the reader with the complexity and variety of martial techniques as well as the piled on awesomeness of weird and amazingly accomplished shifus (masters), each with their own strange and almost unbeatable style of kung fu.

Holmwood has elected to use transliteration and translation of many wuxia terms interchangeably: “Woodcutter Nan was more practised in neigong inner strength, however, and Jade Han looked as if she still had some energy.” This is a thoroughly good thing as some readers will be already familiar with Jin Yong’s universe and those who aren’t will be only too keen to immerse themselves in the land of knight errant fantasy and learn the local lingo.

This smooth and highly readable translation of a wuxia classic is a cornucopia of Chinese martial arts and Mongolian equestrian archery that will satisfy and charm the nerd as well as the newbie.

Jin Yong (2018): A Hero Born. Translated by Anna Holmwood. MacLehose Press.

(This review was first published on Asian Review of Books)

The Last Human Tiger: Review of Fang Qi’s Elegy of a River Shaman

In a fantastic blend of folk song, ecocriticism and historical fiction, the novel Elegy of a River Shaman chronicles four generations of the Tribe of the Tiger and their Tima (shaman) in the Three Gorges (san xia 三峡) region along he Yangzi River. It opens with the clan patriarch Li Diezhu’s decision to build a pioneer settlement in the fertile Lihaku ridge and moves on to relate how macro-historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of 1937 and the civil war between communists and nationalists, affected the lives and traditions of this local community.

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After trailing the fates and misfortunes of the dwindling tribe, the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Diezhu’s ageing widow assuring their great-grandson of the continued survival of his people and their totem animal: “when a tiger turns five hundred years old, its fur turn white. They can live a thousand years” (467).

In terms of genre, this almost 500-page long work is indebted to at least three Chinese literary traditions: root-searching literature (xungen wenxue 寻根文学), nature writing (ziran xiezuo 自然写作) and new historical fiction (lishi xiaoshuo 历史小说).

Firstly, Fang Qi, like the father of root-searching literature, Han Shaogong and Shen Congwen before him (Kinkley 1993), is concerned with the folkloristic remains of ancient Chinese civilization: “The first vestiges of human civilization can be traced to the banks of the Three Gorges” (vi). However, where Shen and Han were fascinated by the cultural and linguistic residue of Chu culture in Hunan, Fang focuses on Hubei, where, according to her narrator, “in ancient times, the mountain chain formed the boundary of the Ba State” (11).

forsideTrue to this literary tradition, delightful folk songs and shamanic chants weave in and out of the narrative, a pattern of poetic myths linking humans and nature through verse: “The wind so crisp, the sun co bright, / Tang of ginger pairs with hot peppers’ bite. / Crisp wind augurs a clear, fine day, / Come back, my love, and take me away” (81). It likewise shares the root-searchers’ tendency for ecological naiveté and sexualized exoticism: “In this desolate primitive wilderness, husband and wife nightly waged fierce sexual battles” (24), running the risk of romanticizing a society where women are primarily seen as baby-making machines: “A girl of eighteen commits suicide: fertile soil, abandoned land” (110) and endangered species are hunted and killed (37).

tiger-nature-zoo-wild-162306Secondly, it offers a kind of literary ecocriticism concerned with the destruction of the natural cohesion between human beings and environment as expressed by clan matriarch Tao Jiuxiang: “Earth swallows man, yet man depends upon the earth for his livelihood. Buried under the ground, man’s death is eternal, yet eating the fruits of the earth men have subsisted for countless centuries” (560). Just as famous writers like Ah Cheng, Jiang Rong and others lamented deforestation and disregard for wildlife (Thornber 2017). Fang Qi’s work is an elegy for the last shaman of Three Gorges, the loss of whom brings the land itself into demise: “With Xia Qifa’s [the shaman] nurture and solicitude, the fir tree on the dragon’s brow had gradually turned from yellow to green, coming back to life. But now, the tree’s needles had turned a brittle yellowish-red” (452).

The novel playfully accepts the animistic paradigm of shamanism, making use of allegorical wildlife scenes to hint at future events: thus, when the matchmaker Third Auntie, after having been turned away in disdain by the wealthy Xiang family, sees a pack of small but vicious dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) attacking and bringing down a moon bear, she (correctly as it turns out) interprets the episode as a good omen: “She, too, would claw back her honor like the fierce dhole” (35).

Thirdly, the novel employs the temporal scope and narrative perspective of the New Historical trend in contemporary Chinese fiction as represented most famously by Mo Yan (Lin 2005), which, with a postmodern wariness of grand narratives, retells famous historical events from the perspective of the individual and its influences on her or his emotions, fantasies and daily life. One example of this kind of micro-history is the conflict between regional and national loyalty experienced by Diezhu’s son Mawu: “Motherfucking Japanese devils! […] He wished he could head straight to the front to take revenge, but he couldn’t: Huangshui, this ancient town, needed him” (150).

Another conflict, brought into focus by the novels cross-generational timespan, is between tradition and progress: Diezhu wishes for his sons to be educated and knowledgeable, yet he is exasperated when their expanded horizon makes them want to leave home.

P1040074With its numerous and somewhat flat characters, the novel initially requires some perseverance on the part of the reader, yet as it unfolds its detailed and sensuous universe of sweet wine, cloud filled gorges and spiritual chants there is no turning back. Based on ten years of anthropological field work, Elegy of a River Shaman is a lush and generous (but also violent and tragic) tale of the last tiger and the last shaman of Three Gorges. It uses fictional narrative to celebrate the rich folk customs of this area of China and preserve them for the future.

Fang, Qi. 2016. Elegy of a River Shaman. Translated by Norman Harry Rothschild and Meng Fanjun. Portland, ME: Merwin Asia.

References
Kinkley, Jeffrey. 1993. “Shen Congwen’s Legacy in Chinese Literature of the 1980s.” In Ellen Widmer, and Der-wei Wang, eds., From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lin, Qingxin. 2005. Brushing History Against the Grain: Reading the Chinese New Historical Fiction (1986-1999). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Thornber, Karen Laura. 2017. “Wolf Totem and Nature Writing.” In David Der-wei Wang, ed., A New Literary History of Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Harvard.

Archipelagic Literature: Review of Brian Bernards’ Writing the South Seas

The following is my review for newbooks.asia of Brian Bernards (2015): Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Archipelagic Literature: Beyond a Concentric Conception of Culture (Review)

In his recent study, Brian Bernards analyses the motif of the Nanyang (the South Seas) in postcolonial fiction from Malaysia, Thailand, Borneo, Singapore and Taiwan. Through a focus on the integration, assimilation and confrontation between (descendants of) Chinese settlers and the local populations, Bernards’s analyses reveal the internal heterogeneity of each perceived group. This book reminds us, through concrete examples, that any ethnic group, national culture or language is always already ‘contaminated’ – a term he uses in a fittingly positive sense; after all it is contamination not sterility that brings life.

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Sidelong glances
Bernards begins his book with two chapters that present the Nanyang motif as an integral, if not major, part of modern Chinese literature. He writes: “Not to be written off as New Literature’s detour into exoticism, the impressionistic South Seas color in the short fiction of Xu Zhimo and Xu Dishan … suggests a broader conception of and enquiry into ‘the world’ than typically attributed to the New Culture movement” (p. 30). The positive effects of structuring the book in this way, is that the early chapters provide a historical context for the Nanyang motif and thus set the scene for the later postcolonial analysis. Just as importantly, they bring to light lesser known aspects of the New Literature movement as well as non-canonized works of famous Chinese writers such as Lao She. On the downside, rooting the whole study in the context of modern Chinese literature does not further Bernards’s bold and otherwise successful project of shifting analytical focus from a cultural centre to a network of cultural connections.

Thus situating his innovative analytic focus in the well-known context of modern Chinese literature, he goes on to provide a short literary history of the Nanyang motif as an expression of the combined pride and despair felt by Chinese writers of the 1920s and 1930s towards their own culture: Bernards’s description of how Yu Dafu championed Sinophone Malayan literature as a literature in its own right, only to go on telling the Malayan writers how best to develop this genre (p. 77), calls to mind the strange mix of arrogance and fascination that characterised the ‘primitivism’ popular among European painters from the late 19th and early 20th, who sought artistic (and sometimes sexual) liberation from so-called ‘primitive’ cultures in the colonies.

Though I find Bernards’s translation of baihua as ‘pure speech’ (p. 33) rather than for instance ‘plain speech’ somewhat misleading, his argument that the enlightenment project of the New Literature movement was not simply a vernacular liberation, but also led to cultural homogenisation, is an important and often neglected one.

No margins no centre
The single greatest contribution this book makes is, in my opinion, that it turns our way of thinking about and analysing literature away from a supposed centre by creating a kind of empty centre (the sea) from the vantage point of which every literature, culture and language is an island in an archipelago of other interconnected islands. This is a brilliant and a much-needed step in literary studies. While I fully recognise the debt to Shu Mei-shih’s work on Sinophone fiction, Bernards’s book adds a new archipelagic focus and, as most pioneering studies, it suffers from a few weak points. Firstly, the very structure that allows multiple geographic points of departure also proves quite challenging to a reader less familiar with the mosaic of southeast Asian colonial and national histories. Bernards does his best to remedy this in the text, but a timeline or some other visual historic overview (such as the very helpful map provided in the introduction) might help the reader navigate between chapters.

Another issue is how the term Nanyang itself simultaneously makes possible and defeats the aim of the book to move beyond national or linguistic literary boundaries. The term ‘the South Seas’ presupposes a point that one is south of; in this case, that point is inescapably China. I do not see how Bernards could have done otherwise, but this dilemma helps to remind us that we are still struggling to get beyond notion of centre-periphery.

While generally thrilled with the works and authors presented, I could wish for more methodical congruity in the literary analyses. Some chapters provide biographical interpretations, other offer sociopolitical readings and one gives a comprehensive narrative analysis. Personally, I find this last instance – which includes a diagram of the author Pan Yutong’s ‘concentric narratology’ – absolutely fascinating, and I can’t help feeling that a consistent comparison of either narrative patterns, character development or literary reception of fiction dealing with postcolonial Nanyang identities might be a highly interesting continuation of the project.

Archipelagic literature
Brian Bernards’s enjoyable and illuminating book successfully diversifies the way we think about national literatures as well as about Sinophone literature as essentially a diaspora phenomenon, for, as Bernards excellently puts it, “rarely (if ever) are the terms ‘British diaspora,’ ‘French diaspora,’ ‘Spanish diaspora,’ and ‘Portuguese diaspora’ applied to communities in the New World of the Americas” (p. 198). Bernards’s study shows that not only are such concepts challenged by hybrids and misfits at the margins, but the so-called margins themselves reach the centre and affect/hybridise it to a degree that renders such concentric vision impractical. With an unswerving eye for the role language plays in creating literatures as well as for the innovate power of fiction in creolising language (and with due attention to original terms available in an extensive glossary), this book will prove an eye-opening read, not only for scholars and enthusiasts of Sinophone and southeast Asian literatures, but for linguists and literary scholars everywhere

Memory and Imagination: Meeting Ge Fei and Bi Feiyu

Last week, distinguished authors Ge Fei 格非, Bi Feiyu 毕飞宇, Yang Hongying 杨红樱 and Dong Xi 东西 visited the University of Copenhagen – for sinologists, students and literary enthusiast alike, it was a must go! The event was organised by the Danish Cultural Institute in cooperation with the Chinese Writers Association, the University of Copenhagen, Asian Dynamics Initiative and ThinkChina and was hosted by Mai Corlin.I had been reading Ge Fei’s novella 褐色的鸟群 (A Flock of Brown Birds), in which constant snow and rainfalls act like curtains on the world (or between worlds), through which persons from the narrator’s past as well as from his fantasies, materialise and vanish. At the event in Copenhagen, I seized the opportunity to ask him on his view of the relationship between memory and imagination, which I saw as a theme in the story.According to Ge Fei then, memory and imagination are deeply interconnected – in fact, much of what we think we remember, we partially make up (an observation he shares with cognitive psychologists). Furthermore, for him, the most important aspect of memory is not conscious recollection, but the sediment of unintentional memories that each individual carry.

Bi Feiyu extrapolated on Ge Fei’s point by underlining the role social expectations play in our remembrance and narration of the past. He told an anecdote (inspired by H. C. Anderson’s fable of how one feather, after passing through the grape-vine of gossip, becomes five hens) about losing a fist fight as a young boy, and retelling the defeat as a victory so many times, that he ended up believing his own false representation. The fiction became intertwined with memory and ended up reshaping it completely.

Outside the lecture room, the continuous Scandinavian rain made me feel like I was still inside Ge Fei’s story. I walked on, trying to remember the fictional narrative of the novella, while adding to it new memories from our recent conversation about it, as well as imagining what kind of persons from fictional or long past worlds might be waiting for me out there. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.