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Short Stories from Taiwan

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Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sabina Knight

Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction
by Sabina Knight

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With careful literary crafting, Taiwan's writers have told the complex story of their country since World War II. Sabina Knight, a professor at Smith College and author of Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction, recommends five of her favourite short story collections.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sabina Knight

Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction
by Sabina Knight

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Can you start by telling me what’s distinctive about writing from Taiwan and why short stories are a good way into it?

A high degree of literary crafting might be what’s most distinctive about writing from Taiwan. The short stories in particular often have a precision, an exquisite attention to form and language. Writers from Taiwan have also produced powerful novels, but I’ve been most struck by the economy of these masterful short stories.

Short stories are especially apt for conveying a sense of Taiwan’s colliding cultures and aspirations. The stories reveal the precarity of war and dislocation, the oppression of women, the wages of materialism, the reclaiming of Taiwanese identities, and changing norms of gender and sexuality. With considerable artistry, the stories offer microcosms of these complex histories.

When I proposed an interview on “Taiwanese short stories,” you asked to call it “Short Stories from Taiwan.” Can you explain the difference?

For many, the term “Taiwanese” literature would refer to the local Taiwanese language and to authors fluent in that language. Taiwanese is distinct from Mandarin Chinese, the language now spoken by the vast majority of Chinese globally. The stories I’ve chosen are all written in Mandarin, though a few include lines of Taiwanese dialect. Many but not all of these authors would consider themselves Taiwanese.

Reading these stories, I ended up thinking a lot about Taiwan’s history over the last century. For those who don’t know it, could you fill us in very briefly on what was happening during the period these stories cover?

That’s a huge question. Taiwan was a colony of Japan from 1895 until the end of World War II (1945), when Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China (R.O.C.). By then the civil war had resumed between the Nationalists and the Communists. As the Communists advanced, many Nationalists fled to Taiwan. As these mainlanders arrived, they took over the reins of power, and brutally suppressed dissent. A massacre in 1947 (by some accounts 18,000 were killed) soon led to the White Terror, including martial law from 1949 until 1987, with further executions and 140,000 imprisoned.

The Nationalists (the KMT, for Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party) saw the R.O.C. on Taiwan as the rightful rulers of all of China. Their aspiration to defeat the Communists and retake the mainland made Taiwan a key ally of the American anti-communist crusade. For 15 years during the Cold War the U.S. gave Taiwan $100 million a year. That aid fueled Taiwan’s enormous economic boom.

From their arrival up until the 1990s, the mainlanders and their descendants became the island’s ruling elite. Because of the Nationalists’ commitment to preserving traditional Chinese culture, and their dream of reunification, they disparaged movements to reclaim local Taiwanese culture.

The “Great Divide” came with the end of martial law in 1987. (It was announced in 1986 when I was studying there.) The KMT softened their authoritarianism, revived legislative institutions, and began to meet popular demands for democracy. Taiwan steadily liberalized, and oppositional political parties formed. The first democratic elections were held in 1995-1996, first for the Legislature, and then for the Presidency. I was there then too, and I was amazed by the rise of social movements, of feminists, LGBT activists, environmental activists, and of new political parties, in particular the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in support of Taiwanese identity, nationalism, and culture.

Let’s explore this in more detail as we look at the short stories you’ve chosen. First up is Taipei People, a collection of 14 short stories written by Pai Hsien-yung and first published together in 1971. Tell me more.

Many consider Taipei People not only Pai Hsien-yung’s finest work but among the most exquisite stories of all of modern Chinese literature. Pai combines highly literate semi-classical Chinese with techniques of modernism, especially interior monologue. The narratives also pay intricate attention to symbolism, particularly of light and color.

The collection centers on the decadent world of Taipei’s Shanghainese exiles. In many of the stories, the mainland émigrés’ attempts to recapture the past reveal the power and dangers of nostalgia. Whereas most of the tales present an image of leisure, comfort, and gentility, the narrators’ accounts often subtly undermine the splendor of the émigrés’ world. The reader is often left with a sad vision of moral decay. Or at least with a sense of lost glory and forsaken dreams.

Can you give an example?

I’ll talk about one of the best examples. In “The Eternal Snow Beauty” a sense of mystery is associated with the title character, Snow Beauty. The narrator details her ethereal image, her silvery and white wardrobe, her zephyr movements, and her icy demeanor. Her elegant residence offers a venue for the émigrés to forget their troubles. She represents their collective past. As she strokes her guests’ egos, they relive a sense of their former beauty, glamor, status, and power back in Shanghai. The story also tells of influential men who lost everything after winning her as a partner.

Yet the accounts about Snow Beauty ultimately neglect her humanity. The story allows her a shard of feeling only at the end when she dares to pay her respects at the funeral of a man whose downfall others blame on her evil influence. In a way, it’s a modern-day version of the “fox fairy” legends and other classical Chinese tales that demonize beautiful women, and women’s sexual power more generally.

So Pai Hsien-yung was born in 1937 in mainland China. He was the son of a general and ended up fleeing to Taiwan after the Nationalists lost the civil war. To what extent are the stories autobiographical, do you think?

Pai’s stories do contain strong autobiographical elements. As the son of an illustrious general, he was able to observe people from disparate social and socioeconomic groups. Many of his works mourn his father’s generation.

Pai is also a double exile. First his family fled mainland China through Hong Kong to Taipei. Later he moved to the United States to pursue an MFA and became a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Even though Pai wrote most of the stories when he was already in California, his Taipei characters may well reflect acquaintances and friends, as well as his own experience both there and abroad.

Is there a story that’s especially autobiographical?

The most autobiographical story might be “Winter Night.” Like many stories in the collection, the narrative present takes place in a single evening. A famous historian returns to Taipei and visits his old friend, a Byron specialist. The story is intricately crafted to convey the long arc of the two friends’ lives. In their youth, the two men were leaders in the 1919 May Fourth demonstrations against imperialism. Now, at the end of their careers as professors, they share nostalgia for their youthful ideals, and their disappointments with their subsequent lives. The Berkeley professor admits that he would never have written his books had he not faced “publish or perish,” and that abroad he feels like a deserter. The Byron scholar laments that he never finished his translation of Byron’s poems and hasn’t translated anything in years. He frets that his translations would have few readers in any event.

The story can serve as a meta statement about the Taipei people still living in the past. The historian tells of his Berkeley students excited by anti-Vietnam protests, and how he proudly recounted his group’s bolder actions during the May Fourth demonstrations. He also tells of his shame when a young American upstart from Harvard calls the May Fourth Movement “an aborted renaissance.” Also ashamed, the Byron scholar asks his friend if he could find him a teaching position in the States. Rebuffed, he enters a reverie of meeting his long-deceased wife, then a beautiful student supporting the May Fourth protests. He recalls a passionate poem he wrote for her, published in a revolutionary journal. The story ends with the sound of icy rain falling on Taipei.

Let’s move on to Bamboo Shoots After the Rain: Contemporary Stories by Women Writers of Taiwan. This is an anthology of 14 stories by Taiwanese women writers, covering the postwar era through to the 1980s. What’s notable about this book?

The collection offers an extraordinarily broad range of stories by 14 major women writers. A few are émigrés from the mainland; others the daughters of émigrés. Some would identify as Taiwanese, and two, Eileen Chang and Hsi Hsi, never lived in Taiwan but profoundly influenced women’s writing there.

The stories address a great breadth of topics, and they employ a rich array of storytelling forms. The narratives span the early twentieth century through the 1980s. Major themes include the predicaments of wives and concubines, new responses to women’s sexuality, the horror of the Cultural Revolution on the mainland, women’s changing social roles, and the alienation of youth. One story highlights the clash of Western colonial privilege with Chinese poverty in Shanghai. Another gives a nuanced portrait of a male character, the husband, who forgives his disgraced wife in the face of his family’s rejection. Several works explore the challenges of ageing, retirement, and intergenerational households—both pre-revolutionary and during Taiwan’s modernization. Whereas most depict the difficulties of isolation, “Journey to Mount Bliss” celebrates an elderly widower who finds love and then his family’s blessing in remarrying.

The collection also showcases diverse storytelling techniques. Many of the stories use straightforward realism, at times structured around shifts in point of view, or by the use of front frames or end frames. Several employ high modernist techniques. Ou-yang Tzu’s “Vase” uses interior monologue that emphasizes psychoanalytic insights into projection and aggression. Li Ang’s “Flower Season” uses double-voiced narration to switch between the young protagonist’s real life and her fantasy of being ravished. Hsiao Sa’s “The Aftermath of the Death of a Junior High Coed” is told like a detective story.

Do you have a favorite story in the collection?

Lin Haiyin’s “Candle” is among the most psychologically probing stories. It’s about Grandma, the matriarch of a wealthy family whose loneliness has left her bedridden for three decades. In the backstory, shortly after the birth of her fifth child, her husband had begun an affair with their temporary nanny. She allows the younger woman to stay and loses her husband’s affections. As she overhears their nightly laughter across the hall, she longs for her husband’s touch. After she faints and comes to in her husband’s arms, she regularly feigns illness, her sole means to solicit attention. This defense mechanism leads progressively to her self-erasure. Over years her emotional desolation turns into physical paralysis.

The story underscores the context of the two women’s circumscribed options. Given their social class, Grandma had expected to choose her husband’s concubine; she feels abandoned when he makes the choice himself. Although she acquiesces to the young woman’s pleas to stay, this loss of face leaves her denigrated and powerless. By performing illness she paints herself into a corner, and the story becomes a parable about the costs of despair. While evoking empathy for Grandma, the story challenges the reader to confront her own potential self-constraints.

How is the Cultural Revolution addressed? 

Ch’en Jo-shi’s “Chairman Mao Is a Rotten Egg” is well-known and directly describes a family in the midst of fear and repression. Having read many of her stories and similar ones in other volumes, though, I found most memorable Pan Renmu’s “A Pair of Socks with Love.” The story is unlike other fiction I’ve read about the Cultural Revolution. The tale testifies to the power of tenderness to transcend political and societal norms. For most of the story, the narrator recalls her privileged childhood as the daughter of an honest judge. She describes her parents’ tenderness, her father’s merciful jurisprudence, and her family’s beloved servant. The end of the story jumps from the 1940s to 1980 as the narrator reads a letter informing her of her father’s vilification in 1976. Following her father’s murder at the hands of Red Guards, the servant, by then an old man, risked his life to honor her father’s bloodied corpse with a clean pair of imported socks. In portraying the father’s compassion and his faith in China’s legal development, the story condemns the fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution and reasserts hope for measured reform.

Let’s move on to Exiles at Home: Stories by Ch’en Ying-chen. He was born in 1937, but in Taiwan. He spent 5 years in prison during Taiwan’s military dictatorship, and the book is dedicated to “political prisoners wherever they may be.” Tell us about the significance of this book.

Eight of the nine stories in this collection were published in the sixties, before Ch’en’s incarceration from 1968 to 1975. Yet his sympathy with socialist ideals already comes through.  At the very least, the stories evince his conviction that fiction should be based in social conscience. Several are highly critical of the perils of intellectualism, capitalism, materialism, and U.S. influence on Taiwan. One directly denounces the American-Vietnam War. Some critics see some of Ch’en’s earliest stories as overly preoccupied with romantic nihilists, but I read them as a rebuke to the leisure classes. What’s powerful is the character development in certain stories, as when a sister struggles after her anarchist-nihilist brother’s suicide. One story, “A Couple of Generals,” brings together an older mainlander and a Taiwanese woman, a subject Ch’en treated elsewhere as well.

Ch’en directly confronts the dictatorial KMT rule and the White Terror in later, post-incarceration works, such as “Bell Flower,” Zhao Nandong, and “Night Mist.”

Some of these stories are absolutely brutal, aren’t they? (e.g. the school teacher who fought in Borneo and ate dead bodies). I just can’t get away from this feeling of terrible trauma in Taiwan’s not-too-distant past. 

Ch’en’s stories capture trauma in ways that connect the dots between oppressive systems and the particulars of personal and historical traumas. Several stories also connect the traumas on Taiwan with the mainland, other parts of Asia, and the United States.

The collection’s most powerful story, “Roses in June,” explores at least three layers of trauma suffered by a black G.I. Destabilized by killing innocent civilians in Vietnam, Barney goes to Taiwan on R&R. He quickly gets involved with a bar girl named Emmy. Having been sold as a young girl, Emmy was a slave like Barney’s ancestors. He realizes he loves her, but she also reminds him of a little girl he murdered in Vietnam, and his PTSD from the war lands him in a psychiatric hospital.

Talking with his doctor, he recounts his PTSD from Vietnam, but also childhood trauma, and the trauma of the racism he endured in the United States. Serving as a soldier, he explains, made him feel equal to white folks. In addition to his internalized racism, we see his own racism toward Asians when he says that he couldn’t tell one from another. His childhood trauma emerges when he recalls his mother working as a prostitute serving white men, as Emmy does, and his father’s beating her when they would return home after a John left.

Still, despite all the trauma, the story is also a love story. Barney and Emmy are both misfits, and their love heals them. When Barney is in the hospital, Emmy brings him a rose every day. And when he gets out, he marries her.

Americans and the U.S. military feature in quite a few stories. I found that quite notable. How much has the U.S. influenced Taiwanese culture?

Between 1951 and 1965 the United States gave $1.4 billion to Taiwan. So with “Roses in June,” Ch’en was part of a tiny minority in Taiwan who dared to question the American-Vietnam War.

Ch’en also uses parody to mock U.S. influence. One story’s protagonist blindly follows Western intellectual trends through her lovers, each one representing a particular “ism,” existentialism, positivism, materialism, and finally research physics.

In addition to U.S. military and economic aid to Taiwan, U.S. culture exerted a deep influence through literature, music, and consumer goods. In terms of literature, many writers also studied in America, often at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

On the one hand, there are stories about terrible poverty and girls being sold by their parents to get by. But when Ch’en addresses the economic boom, he’s not very cheery either. Like the story about the white-collar worker supporting his corrupt boss in the Taiwanese-American joint venture: “To a white-collar worker . . . home was like a hotel, someplace you went back to in order to sleep.” 

“One Day in the Life of a White-Collar Worker” exemplifies Ch’en’s critique of capitalism and the Americanization of values in Taiwan.

What triggers the story is the protagonist’s fury at being passed over for a promotion. The narrative present begins the day after he has quit in anger because the position has gone to the nephew of his company’s head. Thinking that he’s lost everything he’s worked for, he rues his years of dedication to the rat race.

But the protagonist is no workaholic. He covets a cushier, higher-paid position because he has other aspirations and wants to work less. Back in college he longed to become a filmmaker, and an unfinished experimental film still sits in his closet.

He is exploited by the American capitalist system, but he also craves the fruits of capitalism for his own comfort. After paying his dues in other companies, he has risen through the ranks at a prestigious American-controlled company. As a prosperous middle manager (the head of the credit division), he has moved his family to a large comfortable apartment, takes cabs everywhere, and charges this and other costs to his expense account. There’s also a minor sidestory about his affair with a prostitute.

Underlying the story is the implication that America has the capital and business savvy to control Taiwan’s economic development. At the same time, the whole company is corrupt, including the protagonist. He processes his own and his bosses’ receipts as if they were business expenses. He then expunges all the records so that the American parent company won’t see them.

The story deftly portrays the protagonist and his predicament. In a surprise ending, when the boss’s nephew declines the position, the protagonist rescinds his resignation. His rejection of the rat race was purely circumstantial. Like “Roses in June,” this story humanely portrays a person stuck as a cog in a machine, a ready accomplice to American capitalism.

Let’s go on to The Taste of Apples by Huang Chun-ming. These stories are set in rural Taiwan, I think. Can you tell me more about who he was and why these stories are significant?

Huang Chun-ming’s stories are early masterpieces of nativist literature. Nativist writers sought to represent the daily lives of ordinary Taiwanese, particularly the underclasses in rural Taiwan. These writers were dedicated to depicting social injustices and to building up a Taiwanese identity. In these ways the Nativists were pushing back against the KMT’s strict control over culture.

The Nationalists decried the Nativists’ focus on class issues as sympathetic to communism. They were also threatened by Nativist literature’s attention to Taiwanese culture. The KMT championed writers who focused on the culture of Greater China. Given U.S. influence, they also supported writers who adopted Western-style modernism.

Huang Chun-ming may be the best of the Nativist writers. His shorter stories, such as “The Fish” and “Ringworms” (just 10 pages each) stand out for their economy of focus on impoverished Taiwanese families. In each, the narrative present recounts a single day or a single evening. Other stories, most of which cover a larger sweep of time, explicitly connect the characters’ hardships to globalization, modernization, and capitalism.

Can you give an example of his focus on Taiwanese culture?

Huang thematizes the gulf between locals who speak only Taiwanese and the elite who speak Mandarin Chinese. From the 1950s on, the Nationalists mandated the use of Mandarin Chinese, which put Taiwanese writers at a disadvantage. Huang often uses Taiwanese expressions. My Chinese edition includes footnotes in Mandarin explaining certain expressions.

A good example is “The Taste of Apples,” when a nurse in an American-style hospital surprises an injured laborer’s family by speaking Taiwanese to them. The collision of modern U.S. values and Taiwanese life drives the plot. An auto accident devastates a Taiwanese family until, in a surprise ending, the American company responsible gives generous financial restitution.

What do you like most about Huang’s stories? 

The stories stand out because of Huang’s skillful narrative techniques. Most of the stories interweave third-person narration, direct dialogue, and interior monologue. These layers convey the complexity of the characters’ feelings.

In many of the stories, Huang also adroitly uses frequent shifts in point of view. This technique often helps the reader understand the characters as rounded people. In other cases shifts in point of view convey the characters’ differing experiences of Taiwan’s rapid changes.

In “His Son’s Big Doll” the shifts in narrative mode humanize the protagonist, a laborer compelled to work a dehumanizing job to support his family. When his wife gets pregnant, K’un-shu resorts to working as an “adman,” a costumed actor sandwiched between advertising boards. The point of view also shifts between the adman and his wife, sometimes in the middle of a single paragraph, or even conveying two points of view simultaneously.

Again, there’s that brutality. In one of the stories, Huang sees the teacher who inspired him on a dissecting table: she’d been executed for being a secret agent. It’s mentioned almost in passing.  

Yes, in the author’s preface Huang tells of the teacher who encouraged him to become a creative writer. Before the book bannings, she had given him two books of short stories that she had brought from the mainland. She was executed during the White Terror, arrested for her Communist sympathies and accused as a “secret agent,” though Huang has his doubts. Huang’s schoolmates tell him of seeing the body on the dissecting table.

Clearly that brutality haunts Huang, but I don’t see explicit brutality in his stories. The characters are mostly downtrodden, but that’s a very slow-motion brutality. The stories are terribly sad, but they’re full of humanity.

Your final selection of Taiwanese short stories is Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan translated by Fran Martin. This was published in 2003 but the introduction starts in 1999, with the opening of the first dedicated gay and lesbian bookstore. What’s the significance of this book?

This collection bore testimony to the courage and sophistication of queer fiction in Taiwan during the 1990s. Taiwan has for decades been on the forefront of LGBTQ rights in Asia. (Taiwan legalized gay marriage in 2019, the first Asian country to do so.) In Angelwings, Martin collected and translated ten stark stories published from 1989 through 1998.

The stories’ significance also lies in their formal control of stormy psychological conflicts.  Trauma threads through many of these stories. Two of the most powerful stories focus on troubled mother-daughter relationships. In Chen Xue’s “Searching for the Lost Wings of the Angel,” the protagonist struggles with hostile ambivalence after her widowed mother turns to prostitution. Through a lesbian affair, the protagonist learns that she could be worth loving, that she loved her mother, and that she can reunite with herself as her lover encourages her to finish the story we are reading. Then she awakes to realize that her lover was a dream.

More brutal than Chen Xue’s story, Hong Ling’s “Poem from a Glass Womb” directly eroticizes the mother-daughter relationship. Water imagery pervades the text: swamps, lakes, pools, with the mother named Shelly, her lesbian lover Sandy, and their daughter Aquaria. The story careens between the mother’s and the daughter’s interior monologues as they struggle in the aftermath of Sandy’s suicide. The overlap between the end of each section and the start of the next suggests their shared fixations and fantasies, as well as their final reconciliation.

It’s a collection of ten stories. Do you have a favorite?

I have three favorites, the two stories I just mentioned, and “Rose Is the Past Tense of Rise.”

The collection’s most sensual writing may be passages in this story, an excerpt from Wu Jiwen’s novel Galaxies in Ecstasies. The story tells of Seikei, a young man in Taiwan who from childhood identifies as a girl, and by high school feels convinced that the woman inside him is his real self. After his schooling and military service, Seikei works as a transvestite performer in Japan. There he learns of a doctor in Morocco who does gender reassignment surgery.

When Seikei arrives in Casablanca, he is acutely aware of the exotic sights, sounds and smells of the city around him. Here the story’s sensuality betokens his bittersweet farewell to his old life. As he wanders the unfamiliar streets, he greedily breathes in the wind, the scent of roasting coffee and bread baking at the bazaar, and the proud voices of women. The next day after “he” goes into surgery, “she” wakes up in the recovery ward. After a month’s recovery, she again wanders the city and glimpses a man bathing. Her physical arousal deepens her admiration for her surgeon’s skills and her hope for her own future pleasures.

Five interwoven passages from a travelog reinforce the main narrative’s explicit archetypes of femininity and masculinity. Seikei’s life story is intercut with excerpts from a Swedish explorer’s journal. Sven Hedin, a real-life archeologist, was searching for an ancient lost city, sited on an elusive “wandering lake.” Rivers flowing into the desert formed this seasonal lake that moved from year to year (and then disappeared).  The explorer’s search for this wet cavity could be an allegory of a search for elusive femininity. By contrast, the place the explorers reached, Lop Nor, later became China’s nuclear testing site in Xinjiang. Lop Nor could signify modernization, masculinity, power, and force (explosions and obliteration).

Thank you, Sabina. I hope our readers will enjoy these books you’ve recommended.

It’s been my pleasure, Sophie. Thank you.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

January 15, 2024

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Sabina Knight

Sabina Knight

Sabina Knight (桑稟華)  is author of Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2012, translated into three languages) and The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (2006). She is Professor of Chinese and World Literatures at Smith College. Her current projects consider the politics of translation, non-Han literatures, and media of dissent.

Sabina Knight

Sabina Knight

Sabina Knight (桑稟華)  is author of Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2012, translated into three languages) and The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (2006). She is Professor of Chinese and World Literatures at Smith College. Her current projects consider the politics of translation, non-Han literatures, and media of dissent.