Showing posts with label taiwanese_books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taiwanese_books. 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, May 23, 2020

Ten Great Books About Taiwan: or, how to start your Taiwan library

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Yes, I know I can write about Tsai's inauguration. I can write about how Johnny Chiang's promises of KMT reform are disingenuous. I could write about Hong Kong - and re-iterate that this was inevitable, as what Hong Kong wants for itself will never align with China's plans - but I've already cried once over it.

In fact, with my dissertation looming, please don't expect much from me this summer. I do have to get it done, and can't give Lao Ren Cha as much attention as I'd like until it is. On the upside, I have a lot to say about education in Taiwan as a result of my research.

So instead, let's do this.

Brendan has made the very astute point that people who espouse pro-China views (or anti-Taiwan views) tend to want you to unquestioningly accept their bottom lines - whether that's "Taiwan must be the ROC", "Taiwan is a part of China" or "the ROC is the real China and Taiwan is a part of it". The only book recommendation I've actually seen from one of these types is The Generalissimo, a ridiculous hagiography of Chiang Kai-shek.

Whereas if you spend any time with your average pro-Taiwan politics junkie, they'll throw so many book recommendations at you that you won't know where to begin. They'll tear each other's arguments apart, and then rebuild them to be better. They'll swipe at, say, the Hoklo chauvinism or the bad history of a purely Marxist perspective, of previous generations of activists and create something better. All the while, they'll want you to read, read, read. Read things that contradict other things! Talk about the contradictions! Discuss! Read! Learn more! 

Even if I weren't already strongly pro-Taiwan, it seems clear to me that the side that is excited for you to learn more is probably the right one.

With that in mind, it's occurred to me that people who want to learn more may not know where to start. I also have this list in a public Facebook album, and you are cordially invited to join Books About Taiwan: Discussion and Nerdiness.

I aimed for a wide variety of reading material: three memoirs, three works of fiction, three era- or social-issue specific histories and one general history - the one I recommend out of all of the "histories of Taiwan" out there.

If you want to know more about Taiwan but don't know where to start...well, here is where you start:


1.) Green Island 
Shawna Yang Ryan

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Why I love this book: it’s a highly engaging novel that takes the reader through Taiwanese history, starting on 228 (if you don’t know what “228” is, all the more reason to read it) and ending at the SARS outbreak of 2003. The family is fictional but they could easily be an everyday Taiwanese family - and it’s unpretentiously written. It’s highly realistic and was written from a place of deep knowledge, quoting Chinese poetry and taking a cue from Midnight's Children when it comes to the birth of the unnamed protagonist. And, because Taiwanese history can be so heartbreaking, it made me cry a few times.

Why you should read this book: Taiwanese history is complex and often sad, and non-fiction books usually fail to capture the ‘feel’ of it. This is a novel, so there’s a plot that keeps it moving. If you ever wondered what ‘Taiwan’ is really like, as a mood, a palette, an atmosphere - this is the book for you. While the characters are fictional, the historical events they experienced are not, and the experiences they have are quite typical. 21st century Taiwan differs somewhat from the mid-century depictions in this novel - in part because Taiwan is more developed now than it was then - but honestly, the ‘atmosphere’ is still here.
Doris T. Chang 

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Why I love this book: despite weird references to the ‘mainland’ (Taiwan has no mainland) and other quirks of language, this book really clarified for me how Western-style feminism is related to, but not the same as, feminist movements as manifested in different parts of Asia. Unlike many authors, Chang keeps her narrative in Taiwan for the entire 20th century, and discusses women’s movements in Japanese colonial Taiwan (some would start such a narrative in China, and talk only about the Republic of China, which is problematic in light of established Taiwanese identity).

Why you should read this book: this book clarifies that feminism isn’t some new imported idea in Asia or Taiwan. It’s been around  for awhile and been developed by local activists. Taiwanese culture has undergone several phases of women's movements and survived - patriarchy and sexism aren't facets of a culture, they are an external framework of injustice imposed upon cultures. Women’s equality is a human issue, not a Western one.

Also, while academic, it's a slim volume and highly readable. 


3.) Notes of a Crocodile 
Qiu Miaojin

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Why I love this book: the atmosphere of student life in 1990s Taipei, the crocodile allegories (which I liked more than the main story) illustrating what life was like for gay people being both objects of fear and obsessive curiosity if not imitation, the refusing to stereotype any LGBT characters, the description of love as the act of ultimate vulnerability. College kids of different orientations figuring out who they are and what that means against the backdrop of a country figuring out who it is and what it wants. This book explores identity, otherness and finding your way in your early adulthood, as well as the excruciating vulnerability of love, and how some people simply cannot open themselves up for that long.

I didn’t always understand the main character’s motivations, so I never properly reviewed this book as I felt unqualified to do so.

Why you should read this book: for all those reasons. Also, it’s short but impactful. As a straight white foreign resident in Taiwan, it was an appreciated window into the voice (and presumably fictionalized inner life) of a gay Taiwanese woman. I might not know how to review this book properly, but I am grateful for the opportunity to have read it. 


4.) Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683 to 1895 
Emma Jinhua Teng

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Why I love this book: it’s an engaging non-fiction read from a unique angle: not a straight history of Taiwan but looking at it as seen though the eyes of Chinese colonial writing about it. That word ‘colonial’ is key: the way Taiwan was depicted by these writers - “a ball of mud beyond civilization”, an “island of women”, a frontier barrier wilderness kept more for defense of ‘China’ than any real interest in Taiwan as a place - show how not Chinese Taiwan really was, even when it ‘belonged’ to China.

It brings to mind Chinese attitudes to Taiwan now - and I believe Teng wants us to make that connection.

Why you should read this book: non-fiction this engaging is rare. Also, it offers, through the eyes of Taiwan's Chinese colonizers, a conceptual basis for why a Taiwan is the way it is today. Chinese colonial attitudes have not gone away.




5.) My Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman's Journey from Prison to Power
Lu Hsiu-lien (Annette) and Ashley Esarey

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This choice narrowly beat out the classic Formosa Betrayed. So why this autobiography of a polarizing political figure rather than a recounting of the 228 Incident so well-known it was made into a movie? Not only because, like her or not, Lu is a Taiwanese voice, but also because 228 is pretty well-covered in other books on this list, and women's experiences tend to get the short shrift overall. Also, George Kerr described what he saw, but Annette Lu changed Taiwan.

Annette Hsiu-lien Lu is a controversial figure in Taiwan politics, and I can't say she is someone who is suited to a leadership role in 21st century Taiwan (among other things, she has outdated views on LGBT issues and marriage, and...well...it would take a long time to explain why she's seen as such a headache. That view of her is not entirely undeserved.)

However, she deserves credit for being a leader of Taiwan's nascent non-party-affiliated feminist movement in the 1970s. Gender equality in Taiwan would not be where it is today without her work then, and she deserves credit for that. She also paved the way for women in political leadership by serving as Chen Shui-bian's vice president. She is one of the few feminist activists in Taiwan to 'take sides' politically and stand against the KMT.

Her autobiography is engagingly written and compulsively readable. Just keep in mind that as an autobiography, it is also something of a hagiography, and does not depict the 21st century complexity of Lu as a person or politician. It is fascinating, however, when she talks about her formative years and her awakening interest in feminism and activism.

You may not like her (I don’t, really) but Taiwan would not be what it is without her.




6.) A New Illustrated History of Taiwan
Wan-yao Chou

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To be honest, in order to choose the best general history of Taiwan, I skimmed all the ones we own. The most concise may be Forbidden Nation, but it focuses too much pn foreign notables in Taiwan and not enough on local efforts. Taiwan: A New History is a bit dry.

Other books - by Taiwanese and more focused on Taiwanese people (such as Taiwan: A History of Agonies and Taiwan's 400 Year History) were written as much as political manifestos as actual histories. They either neglect Indigenous history, are openly offensive towards it, or portray Indigenous-Hoklo relations through a distorted ideological lens that simply isn’t accurate.

Chou is the only writer who centers the Taiwanese in their own history and is most inclusive of Indigenous history.

If you are going to read a general history of Taiwan, I think this is the best choice.
Janet B. Montgomery McGovern

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I can't do this book justice in a short blurb - instead, go read my original review, linked above. Progressive for her time, McGovern was one of the few Westerners invited to live in Taiwan during the early/mid-Japanese colonial era, as a teacher. A trained anthropologist, she spent her free time becoming familiar with - and forming connections with - Indigenous groups that Hoklo and Japanese alike thought were ‘dangerous’ or ‘savage’ (though when one treats Indigenous people as badly as those two groups did, what could one expect?). Despite the name of the book, she describes the people she met with more respect and equanimity than almost anyone of her era.

Plus, she was funny, and a good writer, and an intrepid feminist.


Ed Lin

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I wanted to include at least one fiction novel set in more or less contemporary times (the other two fiction choices were either written in the 1990s, or are mostly about the 20th century) which is a light, easy, fun read that still captures the vibe of Taiwan. 

Ghost Month is that book - there are other great novels out there in English (like Bu San Bu Si, which was also a strong contender as it's quite possibly the best fiction novel about Taiwan written by a non-Taiwanese, but calling that book "a downer" is a massive understatement), but sometimes it’s fun to read an action/mystery in a Taiwanese setting and call it a day. Highly engaging and not as dark or overly metaphorical as a lot of Taiwanese fiction, I think it’s highly accessible to Western audiences, too.

Do you want to know what life in the city I call home is basically like, in the 21st century? It's...kind of like this, with less murder.


Hsiao-ting Lin

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Another historical look at a specific time period, Accidental State looks at the dynamics of the US, China and Taiwan to unravel the threads of why Taiwan has the status it does vis-a-vis nationhood, pointing out that nobody wanted or intended for things to turn out this way, and that Taiwan-as-ROC (or any form of ‘China’) was not a foregone conclusion at the time. It is a lie to say that Taiwanese identity and the independence movement was born in the 1970s - it wasn't. There were home rule movements far, far earlier than that. It is also a lie to say that there was no chance, historically speaking, of a post-war independent Taiwan. It was one of the options on the table, at least briefly.

This is the one to read if you know deep down the KMT is full of trash but aren’t sure of the historical specifics of why, or if you’re confused about the tumultuous decades around WWII. Or if you’re a good-hearted person who is wrong in thinking Taiwan’s destiny must be Chinese, but are willing to read and revisit those beliefs. Or, if you're curious where this whole "Taiwan is eternally Chinese" idea came from (mostly Chiang himself, who managed to convince the Allies that accepting this was in their strategic interest). 

Most of the arguments I’ve had with numpties online could have been avoided if they’d read this book.

It’s not the only source on the era but it is the clearest.



10.) Stories of the Sahara
Sanmao 

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I’ve just started reading this, so don't expect a long review (yet). That said, I feel comfortable recommending it - Sanmao (三毛) is one of the great writers of the 20th century, inspiring a generation of adventurous women in Taiwan and China. But until recently was ignored by English-language publishers. This new translation of her most famous masterwork is compulsively readable. 

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Now I want to hear from you - what would you add to this list if you could? Was I unfair in choosing Annette Lu over George Kerr? What niche era of history or social change have I overlooked? Which novel did I snub? You tell me!
 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Review: My Enemy’s Cherry Tree

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My Enemy's Cherry Tree
By Wang Ting-kuo


I’m still not sure if I liked My Enemy's Cherry Tree or not. Taiwanese literature, rather like some Taiwanese cultural norms, is very good at making a point so subtly and in a way that is so open to interpretation that you can never be sure if you’ve quite got it. I suppose that’s true of a great deal of ‘great literature’, but it feels especially true of writing from this country. 

My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is a little less abstruse than some other Taiwanese writing I’ve read (see: The Stolen Bicycle, which I’m still not sure I really understand). The plot itself is fairly straightforward: a young, struggling couple in love are trying to make a go at life despite having very little material wealth. The unnamed protagonist comes from poverty and Qiuzi, his wife, comes from a farming village famous for bamboo (the name of which I believe is 孟宗竹 in Chinese, 孟宗 sounding a little bit like 夢中, meaning 'in the middle of a dream'). 

They build a life together until she suddenly disappears and he opens a coffeeshop in the spot she said she'd wait for him "every day" if he ever left her. The circumstances around her disappearance are made clear(-ish) in the following pages, as Baixiu, the  daughter of Luo Yi-ming, the wealthy old man implicated in her disappearance. visits the coffeeshop over successive days. She's a reminder, a ghost, a foil. 

The key to the story, or its underlying point, can be found in The Old Man and the Sea, a work which is explicitly referenced midway through the novel. This novel has an old man, and it has a young man who lives near the sea. The old man is wealthy and respected. He has a station in life, and a rich inheritance. The young man is energetic and persistent. He has nothing and comes from nothing, but will fight for everything he has or wants, including a better life, a place to call home, and the wife he loves (or, as I took it, is lustfully obsessed with). They lock in battle as adversaries - not so much knight and dragon, or man and great fish, but yin and yang. 

Neither is defeated; both are destroyed. Of course, you only know for sure that’s happening to the old man when you learn what happens to the gorgeous cherry tree in the backyard of his Japanese-style mansion.

What bothered me about this book, however, is that it’s perfectly clear what destroys the protagonist. But it’s not at all clear what destroys the old man except whatever demons are in his own head. These potential demons are not defined or examined in any depth.

In fact, it’s not even made clear that Mr. Luo did what everyone, including the protagonist, believes he did; it’s all based on extremely circumstantial evidence. There’s an implied comparison between Mr. Luo’s cherry tree and a lonely pine tree struggling to survive on a cliff (another allegory for our protagonist, I suppose), a scene at a bank, a few scenes with Mr. Luo's daughter, Baixiu, and that’s it. We’re just supposed to know that what he says happened, happened (to be fair, Mr. Luo acts as though it did). 

This isn’t just a story of adversaries going (symbolically) head-to-head over a woman who has disappeared. There is a lot being said here about wealth and social class, the ongoing duel between a young generation struggling to put a roof over their heads, while the old is awash in privilege. You might also read it less as a generational struggle and more as a wealth gap between the landed rich and toiling laborers - whom our character dupes into buying overpriced homes, selling that piece of a dream - or urban-rural one. So many old men you might name to one category. So many seas that could stand in for the other. 

Perhaps the battle also takes place between the aging Mr. Luo and his desire to sexually possess a younger woman, and metaphorically regain lost youth and vigor himself. It's not clear, and not meant to be.

Mr. Luo seems to have inherited everything refined, cultured and moneyed about Taiwan’s history, dating back to the Japanese era. Even his given name (Yi-ming) calls to mind the notion that he’s a top name, at the top of the list, the elite. The protagonist was born into all of Taiwan’s struggles - the constant fight for survival of a working-class father supporting an ill wife and young son. Growing loofahs and cooking sweet potatoes in a hand-built brick kiln in a scraggly yard are powerful, ekphrastic visuals of ‘country life’ in Taiwan. Reading this novel, I know exactly what cultural ‘space’ I’m in within Taiwan. The rough-hewn, betel-nut-chewing rich-bumpkin boss with delusions of grandeur is also described perfectly. If you've spent any time in Taiwan, you know exactly what kind of person he is.

You might think from this review that I overall liked the book. In fact, I have a few complaints.

I can’t let this review go without mentioning that the protagonist is, to be honest, kind of a sexist ugh-burger. All the reasons he lists for why he loves Qiuzi come down to some sort of weird fetish for adorable, sweet, youthful naïveté. He likes her frankness, but doesn’t seem to care if she possesses any passion, or talent, or ambition, or even intelligence (though she’s not stupid). For this reason, he’s the exact kind of guy I would avoid, even socially.

I have no idea if the author intended for his character to have this flaw, or if he thinks it’s quite a normal personality trait for a man and didn’t even notice that he’d written a kind of gross character. Even the age difference made me raise my eyebrows - the story has the couple meeting soon after he finishes military service - that should put him in his early-to-mid twenties. She's a waitress in a French restaurant. And yet, later on it says they're ten years apart. Either the author wasn't thinking, or that restaurant employs child labor and the protagonist is a pedophile.

There are scenes later on where he exhibits some rapey tendencies, too - in one scene they’re making love and she tries to climb on top, and he overpowers her with strength he hadn't known he'd possessed. YIKES. The exact words aren't "baby, I don't know my own strength", but they're close enough. The last night they are together, he sexually assaults her. 

And yet he’s surprised and saddened that she left? He doesn’t know why? When he says earlier in the book that she left "for no reason", are we supposed to buy that?

Come on dude. You came *thisclose* to raping your wife. She’s probably better off without you.  

The only question is whether Wang Ting-kuo purposely wrote the character that way, or whether he actually finds his own hero's actions acceptable. Perhaps we're meant to see that he's spinning off insane theories about what his wife did in his own head, when in fact the only reason she left was that she realized her husband was abusive.

Personally, I can't imagine writing a character like that and thinking his actions were normal or acceptable. But so many people take men acting as he did as 'normal male behavior' that I really can't be sure.

The Asia Review of Books says Wang's book has echoes of Murakami. Yes, and Murakami is terrible at creating realistic, grounded women and men who treat women well. Every male Murakami character is a bit of a douche, and every woman a mere foil for the be-penised hero. Do I see echoes of that here? You betcha.

Overall, I enjoyed the meandering, somewhat removed style of writing - some might call it sterile, I call it dream-like. But it is a bit too short, a bit too unclear, and the protagonist a bit too much of a jerk.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Su Beng has passed away, and the rain pours down

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Su Beng (史明), a true hero of the Taiwan independence movement, passed away late last night at the age of 103 (101 by Western age counting).

He's most famous for writing Taiwan's 400-Year History (available in English in Gongguan bookstores 台灣ㄟ店 and 南天書局 - the English version is much abridged from the massive tome in Chinese), but also for being forced into exile in Japan in 1952 due to his leading role in the Taiwan Independence Armed Corps (they really were armed, and had a plan to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek in the early years of the White Terror). Perhaps you've heard of his noodle shop in Japan, where he'd also gone to university. I believe the shop still exists - more than one of my friends and students in Taiwan have brought their children there while on vacation in Tokyo, so that the younger generation might understand something about Taiwan's history. Before 1949, he'd also 'worked undercover' in China; I don't know what he did there, but it could probably fill a whole new book of stories. He wasn't one for peaceful resistance, after all.

Enough with the bio - I met Su Beng once.

I was a young, silly Taiwan neophyte - in Taiwan for perhaps a year, perhaps two, but still just a flighty English teacher and not much more than that. I kind of knew who he was, but not really. Not really really. I didn't get a picture, and I still regret that - I can't join the friends of mine who are putting their photos with Su Beng online to mourn his passing. If I believed in anything like a conscious force behind the universe, I'd wonder why it put me in the presence of greatness before I was ready to truly appreciate that fact; as an atheist, I know it was just bad timing.

It feels odd to be so glum about the passing of such an ancient man, who lived a long and meaningful life and made a real contribution to Taiwan. Death is natural, it's part of life, and he was over a century old. But he was also a living legend, so it feels like a piece - a quarter or so of those 400 years - of Taiwan's history has also gone from present to past. If there's one thing all of us who fight for Taiwan - beyond all the infighting and personal fallouts, beyond all the attacks and power jockeying, beyond the far lefties and the ethnic chauvinists and the idealistic students - can agree on, it's that he was one of the greats. Perhaps even the greatest.

The rain poured down last night as we heard about Su Beng's passing. The land felt quieter; perhaps Taiwan was crying. This morning, it's intangible and indescribable, but the air feels...bereft


Rest in peace, Su Beng. You made Taiwan's history a little clearer and brighter for all of us, including that dumb white girl you met back in 2007.

And the fight - your fight - continues. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Like a Zen koan: a review of The Stolen Bicycle

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Qing-era map of Taiwan, coastal view. From Jerome Keating's The Mapping of Taiwan
(I literally just took a photo of the page)


I'm not sure what to make of The Stolen Bicycle, and I suspect that's exactly how Wu Ming-yi intended it.

I mean, I'm not even sure if the story follows linear time or not. The basic plot - the unnamed youngest son of a family whose father disappeared thinks he might be able to find his father if he can find the bicycle that went missing with him - does have something of a timeline. Nothing else does, nor is it meant to: because memories both individual and collective simply don't do that. That's what they are - scattered memories of scattered people, sometimes sharing with each other. To call them flashbacks would be reductive.

The thing is, not only does he find the bicycle fairly early on in the narrative - meaning that the story put forward in the synopsis is not the story at all, but the bicycle hadn't been stolen. His father had taken it when he left. And he had known that when he set out. Of course, that's the point. There are other stories: break-ups that lovers never quite get over, the story of elephants at the old Japanese zoo near Yuanshan and their march from Burma, a war photographer's ride down the Malayan peninsula on an old Japanese military bike. Past stories of stolen bicycles, at least one of which returned. Some stories conclude, some don't. People die or are damaged, some beyond repair. Others can be refurbished. The characters trudge on.

So what is the point? I don't think Wu intends to tell us: we are meant to meditate on this almost scrap-book like collection of memories, like journal entries, interspersed with notes on the history of bicycling and zoo animals and World War II in Taiwan, along with the occasional diagram. Like Shizuko's three-dimensional side-perspective map of the Taipei Zoo, you're not meant to see it as a treasure map to X or as a plot from a bird's eye view, but as though you are flying past it on a helicopter (or maybe approaching it from the Maokong gondola, which is explicitly referenced as not having been built yet when the map in question was drawn).

Or like those old maps of the Taiwan coast, that show the shore from the perspective they'd have approached it, from the beach back to the mountains which create the spiky horizon past which nothing can be seen.

I don't mean to imply that the book has no themes - although I've just spent several paragraphs waffling about without saying what they are. There is discussion of how lives, just like bicycles (or elephants) wear out with use: and those bicycles are like our beasts of burden. Some parts get rusty, others jammed, others fall apart, some parts need replacing. Some bicycles - like lives - completely crap out and are scrapped. Others, with tender care, can be refurbished. In Taiwan, the local bicycle industry started out by importing from Japan, then imitating it, then creating its own models.

There are butterflies - a fictionalized memory within a memory - linked to Taiwan's handicraft history (though I have never seen a "butterfly wing collage" myself). The more butterfly lives that are sacrificed, the more beautiful the result.

And there is World War II: a lot of lives were sacrificed in that. Was the result, when it comes to Taiwan, beautiful?



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I don't know how else to describe The Stolen Bicycle except in these scraps of thought, and I'm leaving a lot out (I still don't understand the scene that was either in a flooded basement or the bottom of a river, nor the relationship between fine craftsmanship and wild jungle animals - though I am sure there is one). I can't imagine it was meant to be any other way.

So if this review is a bit weird, forgive me. The book is a bit weird too.

I liked it, though. It rattles around in your head after reading, like a very long Zen koan. It's not meant to make perfect logical sense, I guess. It's Taiwan from a littoral view. It seems intent on pushing you to think in paradoxes, to reach a point where you can intuitively grasp an answer that is logically impossible.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A review of Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream: Tales of Taipei Characters

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Every Saturday I tutor the younger daughter in a family I've known for many years. We get along well and I mostly facilitate extensive reading and writing, so not a lot of traditional grammar exercises (though in her own time she works through a huge grammar book and I'll check her work - her idea, not mine.) But, I noticed one day that she was struggling with use of various passive and past perfect forms, so I said I was going to check her knowledge of Taiwanese history using passive-heavy questions.

I wrote down a few questions along these lines, for her to render correctly before answering. Things like this:

Who __________ (live) in Taiwan when it ____________ (colonize) by the Dutch?
Who had been living in Taiwan when it was colonized by the Dutch?

She looked at them and back and me and said, "Can we change the topic to the history of China?"

"Why?" I asked. "Is that what you're learning in school?"

"Yes! So I know that! I don't know Taiwan's history so well!"

"Well...no. No we can't. That's another country - "

"Mm!" she agreed.

" - and while it's useful to know about the history of other countries, especially ones with some relationship to your country, it's also important to know your own history. So we're doing Taiwan."

Despite her protests, she basically got the questions right. Even the one about how 鄭成功 managed to sneak past the Dutch patrols and fortifications.

* * *

I took the bus home - it takes longer but it's direct. I realized I'd never listened to Timeless Sentence, Chthonic's acoustic album in its entirety, and it has occurred to me after meeting Chthonic frontman and super-cute legislator Freddy Lim recently that I should, so I thought that'd be a good way to pass the time riding through the streets of Xinbei and Taipei.

 
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Super Cute Legislator Freddy Lim and *me*

Every song on that album - culled from their black metal work and arranged acoustically - explores some aspect of Taiwanese history. Freddy, and the band as a whole, are unapologetic Taiwan independence advocates. Some of the historical issues they sing (well, scream) about are obvious ("Republic born of PAIN!") and some are less so ("Who now stands before me like a ghost within a dream? When did come the day when things became not what they seem?")

As these songs played, the bus crossed Fuhe bridge into Taipei. The sun was out; I leaned against the window and watched as the green median spokes were overtaken - some half-eclipsed, some fully - by the shadow of the bus. I was sitting at the back, so just as the darkened green pillars reached me, sunlight broke out again and drove out the dark.

As I watched this, I thought to myself that when I got home, before I started work on a paper that was coming due, I should read one more story in Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream. I'd been reading one a day as a break from academic work, and figured I could finish the whole collection fairly quickly.

I wasn't sure how I felt about it, though.

My main issue with Timeless Sentence is that Freddy is at heart a black metal singer. He is clearly going to some effort to re-modulate his 'voice' and 'style', and the layouts of the songs themselves, to fit an acoustic format. Sometimes it translates beautifully, sometimes less so.

I too felt I was having to reconfigure my mentality to read Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream. I am used to reading about Taiwanese history from a Taiwanese perspective. I had to reformulate and remodulate in order to read without judgement stories of fictional members of the Nationalist diaspora in the 1940s.

* * *

The foreword makes it clear: although the original title of this anthology of character studies was Taipei People (台北人), the people in it are not from Taipei. They live there, but every last one was a refugee from China in the Nationalist diaspora of the 1940s. Most of them didn't seem to really consider Taipei home and every last one identified with China, not Taiwan. The newer translation, then, is perhaps more accurate: Taipei Characters. 

Each of them confronts - or refuses to confront - memories of their life in China and squares them with their new lives in Taiwan. Some do better (Verdancy Chu in "A Touch of Green"), some worse (Yu Chin-lei in "Winter Night"). Some describe the pleasant, idyllic, even luxurious lives these characters led in China (Yin Hsue-yen in "The Eternal Snow Beauty"), others discuss the horrors they encountered in the Chinese Civil War (Lai Ming-sheng in New Year's Eve ). Each one is searching for their own version of peace. Although it is not directly stated, few find it.

The foreword also makes clear that these character studies are meant to do just that: study characters. Think of it as the ROC version of Dubliners (which I haven't read - I struggle a bit with Joyce). Not draw conclusions about the good or evil of the Republic of China or its effect on Taiwan. It makes these refugees human and shows them trying to rebuild some semblance of a normal life in their new home.

The arrangement of the stories is important: it starts with young (or young-seeming) beauties, one of whom seems hardly to age, who is associated with the color white (a white sun on a blue field perhaps?). As the tales continue, the characters grow older, grayer. They get weaker. They grasp at what they've lost, making the same noodles except "not as good", coloring their hair or losing everything trying to bring back loved ones (the proprietress and Mr. Lu in "Glory's by Blossom Bridge"). They start dying, some sooner than others. The first three and last three stories drive it home: starting with imagery of fresh bright snow and then spring green, followed by tales of great battles fought by people who are now older and weaker, and ending with autumnal scenes of faded glory propped up by wealth, the onset of a cold, cruel winter and finally, a funeral, they echo both the rise and fall of the Republic of China and the creeping realization that the Nationalists' current, dilapidated state is permanent and will only further decay. This also echoes Dubliners, or so I am told.

I have a deep well of empathy for such situations: my own family was driven out of Turkey and then Greece - refugees twice over. For most of my life, these experiences were recounted by ancestors who held them living memory. Everyone has the right to leave dangerous, even life-threatening conditions and seek a safe existence elsewhere, to prosper and, if they wish, come to identify with their new home, as my grandfather came to identify as American. Similarly, although these characters are not real, their pain very much is.

And yet, I note that almost every time these characters interact with someone Taiwanese, they are snobbish and dismissive. Everything about Taiwan is inferior - the silks are coarser, the people more provincial, the weather worse, the food never quite as good. They treat Taiwan like a pigsty that they, high and low-class both, are forced to live in. They don't seem to realize that the people who are already here are people too, no less worthy of respect, and this island (this country) is their home, and it is beautiful if you'll just look. They don't see it, and they don't seem to be aware of exactly how their beloved Nationalist government treats the locals (as well as some of their own, although this is not mentioned in the book).

For every shadow cast on their lives, some of these "Taipei characters" cast shadows on the lives of others, and they don't even realize it. They keep to their own communities, denigrating Taiwan and yet acting as if they own the place - I can't help but wonder, if you hate this beautiful island so much, why do you insist it's a part of your country? - and as someone who loves Taiwan, it is hard to read.

This snotty condescension, this dismissiveness of Taiwan - I have trouble with this. My empathy shrivels a little, although not entirely. If the Nationalist diaspora wonders why it is not always fully welcomed in Taiwan, perhaps this attitude - which I have no doubt was very much real - is a part of why.

There are exceptions: the narrator in "Love's Lone Flower", who spends much of her time with two Taiwanese characters, Peach Blossom (with whom it is implied she has a relationship) and Third-son Lin, and does not appear to judge them in this way. In fact, the most empathetic of the Taipei characters are the lower-class ones: the taxi dancers (although Taipan Chin in "The Last Night of Taipan Chin" is dismissive of Taiwanese taxi dancer Phoenix, in the end she helps her as best she can), the winehouse girls. They seem to make local connections that the former high-and-mighty do not. I can't expect they would have necessarily known about the white terror their white sun government was inflicting on Taiwan. They're just doing the best they can, and they too have scars. My empathy grows.

The army veterans, the generals, though, perhaps the wives of those generals - they must have known. Some of them, if they were real people, would have been a part of it. My empathy shrivels. Let them break down and die. They consider themselves Chinese, so why should we let them have governance of Taiwan? Why should the Taiwanese have to live under a foreign government they never consented to? Don't we call that "colonialism"?

That said, every last one came to Taiwan's shores and built a life here, some more successfully than others. Although my circumstances were different - I'm no refugee - I did this as well. How can I - someone who would like to be the newest of the New Taiwanese - make any sort of judgements about who is and is not Taiwanese? This beautiful country has made it possible for me to call it home, and Taiwan is a settler state - who am I to say which settlers get to call themselves local? As far as I'm concerned, if you live here and identify with Taiwan, you are Taiwanese. These Taipei characters did not consider themselves Taiwanese, but many if not most of their descendants would. Maybe their grandparents weren't really "Taipei People", but they are.

That said, how many of the real-life people these characters are inspired by turned away when they knew what was happening? How many reported a neighbor or disavowed a friend? How many to this day remain pro-authoritarian, stalling Taiwan's reckoning with its history?

But then, how many might themselves have been victims of that same regime's purges of "Communists" in their own ranks? How many would have grandchildren who grew up supporting movements like the Wild Strawberries and the Sunflowers?

The key difference between my ancestors and the "Taipei characters" is that the latter dream about their lives in China lost, and are often disdainful of the island they now call home. My ancestors missed the home they lost, but never used that as an excuse to denigrate their new country.

* * *
I say all this, but I haven't even gotten into the historical and literary allusions strewn liberally throughout these stories. I have avoided writing about this, because I don't understand every reference. I write this review as a layperson.

In order to give this book the best review I could, I read as much about the book as I could find (unfortunately, the best source is incomplete - and the complete book is obscenely expensive). There is a lot to say about the title story, Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream, in which the narrator, after literally wandering in a garden, watches her old acquaintances enjoy a party in a mansion decorated with luxuries old and new, some having aged and faded and some seeming young and growing more vivacious, but still clinging, like a dream, to their lives in China. The narrator, a widowed general's wife whose stage name as an opera singer had been Bluefield Jade, is as faded as her dark jade-green qipao. The host's little sister, who helps trigger a drunken memory to her own younger sister, is more vigorous than ever. There are young lovers torn asunder by beautiful younger sisters, a snow-cave like dining room trimmed with vermilion table decorations (the ice-box where the KMT's dreams lie frozen in time, splashed with blood?) and allusions to three separate operas: The Nymph of the River Luo, The Drunken Concubine and Peony Pavilion (especially Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream from that story).

I don't know if I can even begin to break all of this down, and am not sure I should in what is meant to be a book review, so here are three quick takes:

The Nymph of the River Luo alludes to a young man's tryst not just with a goddess, but, by extension, the wife of the Emperor of China. There is also a strong implication that Madame Qian, the narrator and general's wife, either had an affair with one of her husband's subordinates, or wanted to (personally, I think they did), until her younger sister stole him away. Something similar also happens at the party taking place in the story's present.

The Drunken Concubine is about how favored concubine Yang Guifei prepared a feast for the emperor, only to find he'd visited another concubine instead. In jealousy she drinks herself into a stupor. Madame Qian, jealous, is also drunk - but feels it is her younger sister in the past (and her party friends in the present) who are responsible.

Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream involves a young woman falling asleep in a beautiful garden and dreaming of a sexual romantic encounter with a young imperial examination candidate. Waking up suddenly, she is so overcome with sadness that it was a dream that she dies (but is later resurrected...well, there's a lot going on here regarding old traditions and new thinking and the sadness of realizing the evanescence of life that I won't get into). Madame Qian literally wanders in a garden before being put in a dreamlike drunken state that invokes her own dream lover, and then "waking" to the reality of life wasted and happiness lost. The dream in the original opera takes place in spring - and Madame Qian's affair took place when she was young - but the party where she remembers it is in autumn, when she is much older. Her awakening echoes the awakening of the old Republic of China guard to their new, and rapidly declining, situation.

All of this is quite fascinating, and I read this particular story several times.

But what really struck me was what Andrew Stuckley, in the link above, said about a story earlier in the collection, The Dirge of Liang Fu. 

The two couplets in the study of General Pu seem innocuous enough, but call to mind an ancient story in which a leader needed to dispose of three great warriors who posed a threat to him. To do that, he offered two peaches, to be taken by the two best of them (there is an allusion there to the peaches of immortality). Of course, to take a peace was to show impertinence, but to not take a peach was also a great shame. All three killed themselves and the scheme worked.

In The Dirge of Liang Fu, the "peaches" are - according to Stuckley - communism (in China) and Westernization (from America). Each promises immortality, but each ends up killing you. To not take a peach is to fade into irrelevance, as General Pu has done.

"Hm," I thought as I read this. "I hadn't known that and I hadn't paid that much attention to the story the first time around. I definitely need to deepen my knowledge of Chinese history and literature."
But...

I live in Taiwan, not China. I spend my free time learning about Taiwan - Taiwanese history, Taiwanese literature. China is a different country. And yet, Taipei Characters is a work of Taiwanese literature.

I considered the Taiwanese students who regularly protest the "Sinicization" of history classes in Taiwan, prioritizing Chinese history - and implying that Taiwanese and Chinese history are the same - and demanding that more of Taiwan's own local history be included...

...oh.

In that moment, I realized how difficult everything really is.

How many of these Taipei characters - if they were real and you could ask them - would think Taiwanese history is Chinese history and would insist that the dichotomy my student and I perceive is false? How many would listen to Chthonic's Takao or Broken Jade, songs about the Takasago Volunteers (one small aspect of Taiwan's Japanese history which is not at all Chinese), and insist that it was the same history as that of a Republic that fought Japan as a mortal enemy? A Republic that still insists that it fought with the Allies to defeat Japan while governing an island that, right or wrong, fought on the other side? Who among them would insist that everything Chthonic sings about is both Chinese history and not as important as Chinese history, all in one ignorant breath?

* * *

Then, I thought back to one of the lyrics crooned in English on Timeless Sentence:

Let me stand up like a Taiwanese, only justice will bring you peace.

The Taipei characters were not at peace in part because there was no justice, in the end, for the wrongs done to them. But they seem blind to the injustices, like shadows, that their own government inflicted on the Taiwanese, as well.

I then recalled a minor sub-plot in Green Island, where the protagonist's father, after ten years' of brutal incarceration at the hands of the KMT for something that wasn't a crime in even the pettiest sense, can't help but suspect that his older daughter's husband - an ROC veteran from China - was reporting on him to the government. He wasn't - the spy in his home was his own son, and Dr. Tsai's son-in-law from China has suffered his own injustices and was just trying to do the best he could.

I know this story in my history too: the person who reported on my great grandfather to the Turkish government was another Armenian. The leader of the group sent to apprehend him saw who he was ordered to take into custody, recognized my great grandfather as his old schoolmate and they embraced as friends. He was never arrested - the captain was Turkish. Things are not always so cut-and-dried, the good or evil of a group is not so easily transferred to individuals.

Of course, Pai Hsien-yung understood all of this - and he was not uncritical of the "dreaming backwards" of his Taipei characters, their ignorance of Taiwan and their slow decay under a veneer of wealth. I mean, the collection ends with a winter night passed by two threadbare academics, and then a funeral. He took his own stabs at the white sun on a blue field. He knew that they not only were dreaming, but that it was time to wake up. I can't believe he wasn't also aware of the way their isolated, dream-like state affected the island they had fled to.

I didn't feel entirely comfortable reading Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream, but I will say this: it is excellent, a masterpiece, and I am happy I read it.