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

Feminist daoism and Laozi’s mother

Reading Kristofer Schipper’s book The Taoist Body from 1982 in the park today (see picture) I was intrigued by the chapter on Laozi’s birth and its concluding remark: “We can now assert without any hesitation that in this world the body of the Tao is a woman’s body.” (Schipper, 1982: 129)

One of the oral myths on the birth of Laozi relates how an old woman becomes pregnant after drinking a drop of ‘sweet dew’ (gan lu甘露). She carries the baby for 80 years, but only during the day time, at night baby Laozi leaves the womb to study the Dao. When he is finally conceived (through his mother’s armpit some stories say) he already has a long white beard and is able to walk straight away. Seeing this strange ‘old child’ (Laozi 老子 literally means old child as well as old master) his mother takes fright and dies.

Many interpret from this story that Laozi was his own mother. Before his birth Laozi was Lao Jun (jun君 a term that, according to Schipper, is gender neutral but often used for female deities. It is however often used to designate lords or gentlemen, at least in a secular context) and chose to manifest him/her/itself as a woman because the female body is the only body capable of ‘transformation’ (pregnancy).

Thus in this genesis of Laozi, from gender neutral divine being to woman to child, there is no father. According to Schipper this is only one of the examples of how feminine qualities are seen as superior to masculine within Daoism. He also cites a Daodejing commentary which strain that “[man] must pattern his mind after that of the earth and that of woman.” (Schipper, 1982: 127)

The feminine powers (de 德) include ‘non-action’, gentleness, creativity and knowledge of the techniques of the body. Of course this is not feminism; it is just a positive valorisation of a gender specific construction of characteristics. The interesting thing is that not only women have to conform to the feminine ideals, but men as well. It is telling, though, that many of the cited commentaries address and center around men. Even though women and female principles are valued (and indeed there were and are female Daoist priests and divinities) we must not get carried away; the primary readership seems to have been men, and it must be remembered that men were still far above women in the general social hierarchy of pre-modern China.

Whether this story of Laozi’s birth was inspired by biographies of the Buddha or the other way around (there certainly are parallels) it can be said to be an important part of the understanding of Daoism today. No mythology is pure in origin, and neither is any reading of that mythology absolutely objective. Thus the fact that Schipper is an ordained Daoist priest as well as an academic of the 1970’s, has given him some rare insights into the scriptures and practices of Daoism, but it might also have influenced his ‘feminist’ reading of the Daoism and the story of Laozi’s mother.

Of course this doesnt change the fact that I found it interesting enough to write a (rather long) blog post about it!