Showing posts with label kmt_diaspora. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kmt_diaspora. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Book Review: Sanmao's Stories of the Sahara

 

I haven't done a book review in awhile. This was in part because of the dissertation (do you want a book review about intercultural communication in Taiwanese university language classes? Yeah, I thought not). But it was also partially because I read a series of novels, including Chiu Miaojin's Notes of a Crocodile and Last Testament from Montmartre and I had trouble getting started with reviewing those; I finally decided that I probably wasn't in a good position to do so. (If you're curious, I liked the former quite a bit, and the latter a great deal less.) 

But I was excited to pick up Stories of the Sahara, which is as far as I know the first English translation of a writer who is a major name in Chinese literary circles, yet hardly known in the West.

Reading her work, it becomes clear how unfair that is. 

The notes at the end say that Sanmao was asked to write about her experiences living in El Aaiún, the capital of the Spanish Sahara, toward the end of that era of colonial rule, and the first batch of writings made up Stories of the Sahara. As such, it somewhat non-chronologically covers her move to the area, her marriage to husband José, and toward the end, the end of Spanish rule of the area, civil unrest and claims by Morocco. Morocco claims it still, but the local Sahrawi wanted and continue to want sovereingty and it remains a disputed territory. It is a little hard to read, however, knowing that a few years after the events of these stories took place, José died in a car crash (a previous fiancé who had also died was not mentioned.) 

The first thing that struck me about her work wasn't just the 'confessional' tone some reviewers have noted, though I agree. It was how different it was to both Chinese and Taiwanese literature I have read, which tends to be darkly ambiguous, highly metaphorical, and to be honest, quite meandering. Contrasted against this tendency, Sanmao comes across as crisp and dry, a strong but fizzy prosecco among a sea of murky stout. Her prose isn't just confessional, it's straightforward and engaging. Sentences don't wander, allusions don't meander. Her references are clear and contemporary to her work. This tone strengthens the content of her work, giving one a first-person, street-level view of life in the Sahara that carries both Sanmao's unique voice as well as rich -- but never mushy or sappy -- description of her surroundings. Typically in short story anthologies, not every piece holds my attention, but I found Sanmao's pieces more or less equally engaging.

It's easy to see why readers in Taiwan, especially adventurous young women, would read her work and dream of traveling -- and being -- like her. I get the impression that the 1970s was a time when some women were free to travel the world, especially women with parents as supportive as Sanmao's clearly were, but constraints on them were greater than those for men. That must have also been true in Taiwan, if not especially so given not just gender roles mired in conservative nonsense, but also the general lack of freedom from the government. (If I seem like I'm coming down hard on Taiwan, remember that this was also the era of Roe vs. Wade and American women winning the right to, say, have credit lines in their own name.) If I were a young woman in 1970s America and read a book by a woman traveling the world written in her own clarion voice, I'd be bewitched as well. 

That's not to say I loved everything about the book. 

The translator's note that Sanmao might come across as condescending or racist towards her Sahrawi neighbors in today's world rings true, though it's tempered somewhat by the instances in the book where she befriended them rather than judging them, and to an extent far greater than many non-locals in El Aaiún at the time. Some of her actions might be seen now as blatant cultural appropriation, but I doubt they would have been seen that way in the 1970s.

It's also interesting to me that, for a woman who upended gender expectations to leave Taiwan and live in northern Africa, she bowed to some pretty retrograde gender norms, as well. When José insisted that he would be the breadwinner, she settled with little complaint into a housewife's life. This was how she managed to get to the Sahara in the first place (though I'm not sure how she would have done it otherwise). In the story My Great Mother-in-Law, she speaks of her husband's mother as a being to wage war against, but that war seems to consist mostly of her, the daughter-in-law, subjugating and exhausting herself until the elder woman is pleased, while her husband enjoys a relaxing family holiday.  To some extent, she relates this to Chinese cultural norms. 

That sounds horrible, regardless of culture. Big fat no thanks on that one, Sanmao. 

Although I had expected more day-to-day feminism from a feminist icon like her rather than some shockingly regressive ideas about how marriage works, I suppose uplifting women's voices doesn't always mean the things other women say are ideas everyone is going to agree with. I can't insist that Sanmao be the 70s bra-burner I want her to be (though bra burning was largely a myth) when the whole point is listening to her authentic voice, not my feelings about what she ought to say.

Finally, although I have absolutely no right to complain strongly about this, it was my hope that reading this book by a woman who grew up in Taiwan that international readers would, well, gain a deeper understanding of Taiwan as a distinct entity. 

They won't. Sections that mention Taiwan or Sanmao's background always bring it back to China. Someone who didn't know a lot about Taiwan reading this would assume, from her writing, that Taiwan was just a part of China and culturally Chinese, because Sanmao names her home as Taiwan and talks about herself as Chinese.

I'm aware that this is a tad unfair. Sanmao was indeed born in China, it was the 1970s when Taiwan had no way of expressing any desires they may have had not to be considered part of China, and much of her work was published in the KMT-backing United Daily News. Generally speaking she didn't seem particularly interested in politics, instead focusing her gaze on people, culture and daily life. Given the era and her family background, it's no surprise that she'd take these beliefs as implicit truths. Regardless, it's hard to see how this could be handled differently, if the aim is to preserve Sanmao's words as accurately as possible in translation. 

However, these are flaws worth overlooking for the curious reader. Stories of the Sahara is an engaging and worthwhile book with a prose style that diverges a great deal from other Taiwanese literature I have read. I do hope that Bloomsbury or another publisher put out more of her works in English in the future. 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Academia Sinica, Foreigners and KMT Lies

Untitled
From the Academia Sinica's history museum, I present:
A visualization of the KMT's beef with Fan Yun


Something really interesting popped up yesterday - well, interesting to me.

Back in March, some DPP lawmakers called for Academia Sinica's name to be changed, as "Sinica" means "Chinese" and, well, Taiwan is not a part of China - think "Academia Taiwanica". DPP party list legislator Fan Yun (范雲), formerly of the Social Democratic Party, has been one of the strongest voices calling for this change.

Considering Academia Sinica's very "Republic of China" roots (it was founded in Nanjing in the 1920s and moved to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War), this would be quite a statement indeed.

Notably, the institution's name in Mandarin (中央研究院) doesn't refer to China at all - it's just the "Central Research Institute", and Fan pointed out that 'Academia Sinica' would most accurately be translated as '中國科學院' in Mandarin. 


Fan Yun made the news again yesterday when she and two other legislators, Wu Lihua (伍麗華) and Lai Pinyu (賴品妤) introduced a motion that all elected academicians "must be ROC citizens", and that if foreigners are elected, they should be "honorary" or in some sort of other category. 

That sounds insane, if you don't know what an academician is in this context, or if you think by "foreigners" they mean "non-Chinese".

An "academician" isn't someone who works for Academia Sinica. It's not a job, it's an honorary lifetime title. There's no payment, and no research requirement. They can be asked by the government to carry out research (but never have), and they can make recommendations to the government on academic policy. That's it, really. As far as I am aware, no-one with no Chinese ethnic heritage has been elected to one of these positions (please correct me if I'm wrong). However, it is quite possible for foreigners of Chinese or Taiwanese heritage to be elected, meaning that Chinese nationals can also be elected.

Old academicians nominate new ones, and I am assured by a reliable source that these senior academicians often tend to be Chinese nationalists (that is, dark blue, pro-China), and nominate quite a few PRC nationals for the role. Because the nomination process doesn't ask about nationality, this has, until now, been an un-examined process.

Fan, Wu and Lai's proposal also stated that:



中研院組織法第四條明訂院士資格為「全國學術界成績卓著人士」,因此院士應該具中華民國國籍。 
Article 4 of the Basic Law of Academia Sinica clearly states that the qualifications of academicians should be "outstanding academicians from around the country", so academicians should have the nationality of the Republic of China.

It makes perfect sense that DPP lawmakers would want to do something about this. What does "from around the country" mean if PRC nationals are being elected to these positions? What country are we talking about?

Allowing non-Taiwanese nationals to be elected but "honorary" (meaning they can't advise the government on academic policy) isn't such a crazy or nationalistic proposition.

Well, here's how the KMT spun it. From their website which was clearly designed by someone's teenage nephew (don't forget to enter your e-mail address for a SUPSCRIPTION):

In addition, the Academia Sinica is slated to elect new academicians in July. As no regulations exist on the nationality of Academia Sinica academicians, many of them don’t possess ROC citizenship. In a meeting of the Legislative Education Committee yesterday, three legislators, including Fan Yun, introduced a motion demanding that in order to ensure that all academicians elected “must be ROC nationals” in the future, the Academia Sinica re-examine its election system for academicians to fully implement nationality checks, and that those without ROC nationality could only be elected as “honorary academicians.”
This motion elicited disputes, with several academicians describing the move as “national isolationism” yesterday. [Emphasis mine].

This makes it sound like Fan wants to bar foreigners from working at Academia Sinica, as it never explains what an academician (a specialized term requiring clarification) is, or does.

UDN's somewhat more informative report echoed this line of "isolationism":

中研院院士陳培哲表示,此一提案顯示台灣「鎖國心態愈來愈嚴重」。他指出,中研院身為台灣最高學術機構,應該「廣招天下英才」,連美國科學院院士也聘國外院士,「台灣人才有多少?」他質疑立委「想讓中研院當一個封閉的單位,還是開放的單位?」 
Chen Peizhe, an Academia Sinica academician, said that this proposal shows Taiwan's "isolationist mentality is getting more and more serious". He pointed out that as the highest academic institution in Taiwan, Academia Sinica should "recruit talent from all over the world." Even the American Academy of Sciences also elect foreign academicians. "How many talented people are there in Taiwan? Is it an open list?" [Emphasis mine].

That's not the only such quote.

The UDN article never once mentions that most of these "foreign" academicians are PRC citizens and "all around the world" means "ethnic Chinese who may hold other citizenships but are mostly from the PRC".

The position, as I understand it, was never meant to "recruit foreign talent". It was conceived of as an internal, national thing. It doesn't pay and it isn't a job, and isn't generally open to people without Chinese ancestry of some kind, so how would changing the process end a flow of foreign talent into Taiwan?

What's more, isn't the KMT bottom line that Taiwan is Chinese, that the ROC is the rightful government of China and that Taiwan is a part of the ROC? So, by that logic, wouldn't they think of PRC nationals as...not really foreigners? It seems that to the KMT, Chinese and Taiwanese are the same, but these PRC nationals suddenly become "foreign talent" from "all over the world" when it's convenient for the KMT to target the DPP.

Hmmm.

UDN also gets the crux of the problem wrong, stating there are no "confidential research" or "academic secrets" that these foreign academicians can "steal" - but of course, that was never the point. The point is, how much influence do academics from China have on Taiwan's top research institution and the recommendations it makes to the government?

Even more importantly, if this title is meant to honor members of this society, the question is, how do we define "this society"? As Greater China? As the ROC? As Taiwan? If the Academia Sinica was originally meant to be a "Chinese" institution, well, that is no longer possible in a Taiwanese context where "this society" no longer considers itself "Chinese" (or rather, is no longer forced to do so, and is no longer ruled by an elite class from China). It would make sense, then, that those named "academician" would be from Taiwan, or at least have a strong connection to it. The pan-blues clearly know they've already lost the battle to define "this society" as "all Chinese", so they're trying to ensure that PRC nationals remain eligible while calling them "foreigners", when they clearly don't really believe that. Again, the KMT is trying to have it both ways: Taiwan and China as one cohesive "Chinese society", and Chinese as "foreigners" for the sake of a convenient attack narrative against the DPP.


In short, it should strike you as odd that the KMT is accusing Fan Yun - and others, but they are clearly targeting Fan here - of "isolationism" under the false pretext that it is keeping out academics "from all over the world" and not "recruiting foreign talent" when the roles being discussed were never intended or even particularly suitable for "foreign talent", almost all of the foreigners in question are Chinese nationals (so, people whom the KMT doesn't generally think of as "foreign" at all) being nominated by their ideologically biased predecessors, and the honor is specifically meant to recognize achievement among the country's own citizens.

Although the UDN article explains this - whereas the KMT brief does not - the reporter never questions the academicians interviewed, nor put quotes like "national isolation" into any sort of context or clarification.


Nothing - truly nothing- about the way the pan-blue media and the KMT are portraying this issue is accurate. It's just another attempt to set up the DPP, and Fan Yun, to look like rabid, xenophobic ethno-nationalists.

I'm not even particularly interested in how Academia Sinica nominates academicians, a position I didn't even know existed until the KMT started ranting about Evil Fan Yun. I am interested in how the media portray these incidents to stir up divisions in Taiwanese society. UDN did a terrible job analyzing a news item, but a fantastic job sourcing a bunch of un-examined quotes with which to attack the DPP.

I'll leave you with this: try Google Translating that UDN article. Every time Academia Sinica comes up in the Mandarin, Google translates it as "the Chinese Academy of Sciences", and every time "national" (國人) comes up, it translates it as "Chinese".

So if you were wondering if these name games matter, they do. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Hau Pei-tsun is dead now


In this post, I will attempt to say things which are not
specifically negative, per se. I will make factual comments, but facts are facts, they are not negative for the sake of negativity.

Let’s see...

He was alive until recently.

I feel bad for his adult offspring, who did lose a father. That's always sad.

The Presidential Office was super classy about it and expressed their condolences. Regardless of my personal views, that was the right thing to do.

He was not notably ugly, at least in physical appearance. 

The New Party, which he had supported in the past, has not been popular in the past few years.

He opposed Taiwanese independence and identity. It was his right in a liberal democracy to have these views. It is my right in a liberal democracy to have an opinion about those views, and I do.

At some point in the past, he did in fact oppose the CCP. His support of the New Party (unificationists who are known to actively work with the CCP) calls that into question, but his previous dislike of that regime is well-documented.

Further to that, his opinions on Taiwan’s destiny being ultimately as part of China do not enjoy popular support and therefore he can be said to have been fairly harmless in his later years, mostly due to irrelevance.

This shift in Taiwanese identity came about naturally - or was able to emerge thanks to the efforts of activists that brought about democratization, and he was powerless to stop it. 

He was rich.

Stupid and terrible are not the same thing. He was not stupid.

He played a key role in modernizing the military.

He probably actually believed the things he said.

He wanted peace, of a sort. 

He was once expelled from the KMT for being too much of a hardliner (well, for supporting the New Party, which is basically the same thing). Then the KMT decided they were into hardliners and he was allowed back in. 

His son, whom he tried to maneuver into power, was not able to inflict significant damage on Taiwan because, while I have no opinion of his general personality, we can all agree he isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier. 

People I know who don’t follow politics had thought he was already dead. 

He never attempted to sing KTV-style and then release an embarrassing YouTube video announcing his lack of talent to the public, as far as I am aware. 

He was slightly more interesting as a person then Eric Chu.

He seems to have identified as male. 

I am reasonably sure he did not
personally murder any democracy or Taiwan independence activists with his own hands.

Although a friend of mine who knows him said he apologized to political prisoners and 228/White Terror victims, this source says otherwise, and he has tried to minimize the number of deaths that occurred due to 228.

He had black hair. Well, it was probably white toward the end.

His wife died a few years ago, also at a ripe old age.


He was very old.