Just a quick update on what I’ve been reading and what I plan to read over the coming months.
I bought a book called 《斷代》 by Taiwanese author Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生) after the salesperson recommended it at the GinGin Bookstore and have just begun to read it. I suspect the title is a piece of wordplay, as it can mean “to divide between distinct periods of history” and by extension hints that the book goes into the division between the older and younger generation of gay men in Taipei and the driving ideologies behind their attitudes (this certainly seems to be the case from what I’ve read so far); in addition to this, however, 「斷」 also means “cut” and 「代」can mean “successor” – which suggests the title also points to the gay experience as the final generation of a family (in that they cannot reproduce). This put me in mind of a passage from Chu Tien-wen’s (朱天文) brilliant Notes of a Desolate Man(《荒人手記》):
This novel is set in a dystopian society where people are encouraged to be sewn together, although it’s a little unclear why exactly this is. There are hints that it’s got to do with some sort of disease which threatens people’s health if they are not joined to others, but it’s never really definitively set down. The changes to infrastructure necessary as a result are said to have stimulated the economy, but this is not why they are being sown together.
Even after resolving to suspend my disbelief by accepting this premise, I still found the novel a little scattered and the protagonist a bit one note – a depressed insomniac who is bereft of any humor Continue reading →
Roan Ching-yue is an architecture professor in Taiwan and has written several stories featuring gay themes, including ‘The Pretty Boy from Hanoi‘ and ‘The Con Man‘ (click through for my translation), both featured in the short story collection City of Tears (《哭泣哭泣城》), this was his first long-form novel and it was published in 2002.
We meet the protagonist of this novel at a time of crisis. An only child, he meets a man resembling his dad who claims to be his brother by the same mother and father. Despite the questions that surround the man’s sudden appearance in his life, he accepts him as a brother pending further inquiry. It’s at this time that he finds out that his company is moving the majority of its employees to China, so he quits and fails to find another job, so has a larger amount of free time. Over this period he discovers that his “brother” is gay and then we are introduced to the brother’s perspective, with a chronicle of his childhood growing up in Australia and his wild sex life.
The glimpses we get of the brother’s life, show him to be a lot more carefree than the protagonist, however, one of the main stories he recounts involved an attempt to shame him:
[My translation] I was once at a motel in Los Angeles and, bored, so I decided to pleasure myself. I stuffed the cap of a bottle of shaving cream into my ass. As I was unable to get it out again, I had to go three days without moving my bowels. I gradually lost my appetite and my face turned a shade of reddish purple. The doctor at the emergency room knew, of course, what I’d done, but he insisted on forcing me to recount all the gory details of what I’d gotten up to that night in the motel room in front of a group of strangers comprised of interns and nurses. He made me lie squatting on the bed like a dog, while he and his female assistant tried in vain to take it out, threatening that if I didn’t cooperate as best I could, he would have to cut my anus open with a knife. I calmly asked him: How long would the wound take to heal if you cut it open? He said: Maybe a lifetime, maybe you’d never be able to use it again for anything but shitting.
I accepted him shaming me through the entire process and at the moment when he finally retrieved the plastic cap, I sprayed the shit I had accumulated over several days out of my elevated ass all over him and his assistant just as the cap slid out.
This was shame’s parasitic twin, revenge. [pg. 138]
A Dictionary of Maqiao is a really considered and philosophical book, whilst managing to retain an earthiness and wit throughout. I liked the way the narrator poses the book as an effort to deconstruct traditional story-telling. He sees the traditional novel as directing its gaze selectively – focusing in on those things that relate to the central narrative, while ignoring the things that are on the periphery of this:
Things that can’t be put in the traditional novel are normally “insignificant.” However, when your focus is theocracy, science is insignificant; when it is humanity, nature is insignificant; when it is politics, then love is insignificant; when it is money, then aesthetics are insignificant. I suspect that everything in the world has the same level of significance, however, and that the reason that some things appear insignificant at times, is because they are filtered out by the author’s framework of meaning and are resisted by the reader’s framework of meaning, as they are not exciting enough. Clearly, these frameworks are not innate and unchanging, but rather the contrary, they are reformed by fads, habit and cultural tendencies – this mould is then set in the form of the novel. [My translation]
This is Li Ang’s much anticipated follow up to her 1997 book Everybody sticks it in the Beigang Incense Burner (《北港香爐人人插》), which I’ve yet to read. At first glance it is an irreverent look at the misogynistic self-aggrandizement that characterizes the generation of democracy campaigners who rose to fame after being imprisoned in the martial law era in Taiwan, some of whom later formed the Democratic Progressive Party and went into government under former president Chen Shui-bian. The book also deals with the symptomatic nature of the way the February 28 incident and the White Terror continue to manifest themselves in the political arena. Although this might seem a rather obscure or outdated theme, it can give us an insight into the background of the political mindset in today’s Taiwan, particularly in light of the recent Sunflower Movement and the problems in governance that it has highlighted. The attempt to smear the participants of the Sunflower Movement in March and April as violent rioters, for example, is reminiscent of the Kuomintang’s rhetoric against democracy protesters during the 1980s and 1990s that features in the book.
The book centres around the life of Chen Junying (陳俊英) from his youth as a dissident during the Martial Law era, to his slow drift into irrelevance as a retired politician living in the US in his later years. Li Ang goes to great pains in the introduction, stating several times that the character isn’t based on any one person in particular – her protestations are so frequent however that it’s almost as if she’s prompting us to take this denial with a pinch of salt.
Chen feels owed by Taiwanese society and Taiwanese women in particular and he has a mantra that recurs throughout the book which rationalizes his misogynistic behavior:
(My translation) He was forever the one being let down, it wasn’t just the Taiwanese people who owed him, didn’t Taiwanese women owe him too‽ So it was natural for him to sleep with a good number of women when he came out of jail.
The book can be read as a satire up to a point and parts of it are quite funny, recalling the satirical bite of Wang Chen-ho’s Rose, Rose, I Love You /《玫瑰玫瑰我愛你》, like the protagonist’s assumption that he will ejaculate more than other men because of the years he spent in prison, and because he thinks so much of his own masculinity:
(My Translation) She discovered that Chen Junying was excessively liberal with toilet paper after making love. When he climaxed, he didn’t leave that much ejaculate in her (his sperm wasn’t particularly greater in volume than other men, nor did it smell fishier), and not much of it would drip out of her vagina after they’d finished, so one or two sheets of toilet paper would have been enough to absorb it all. He would grab a handful of tissue from the box, however, and pass her a pile, watching her as she meticulously wiped herself clean of any trace until all of the tissue was used up.
In the same vein, Chen takes a very chauvinistic attitude during sex, as, despite being reviled as a dissident by many women in his youth, he still finds time to grumble about the only girl who is willing to get together with him, and treats her with scorn, viewing her status as the product of a “mixed marriage” between a mainland soldier and an aborigine as below his – with a lot of his fellow dissidents using the phrase 「無魚蝦也好」 (bô hî, hê mā ho – If there’s no fish, you can make do with shrimp) to tease him Continue reading →
When I was still a student at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, an American professor came to visit one of my professors and, as one of the two resident foreigners in the department, I was enlisted to see what it was he wanted over dinner. The professor was Maurice A. Lee (see picture second left) and he was hoping to organize a conference in Taiwan, unfortunately our research institute didn’t have the funds to make it happen, but we had a nice chat.
Some years later, Taiwanese author Wu I-Wei (吳億偉) asked me to translate a short story for him called ‘The Face Changer’ (〈換照者〉), which it turns out has been published in a new anthology edited by Maurice A. Lee called Unbraiding the Short Story, which includes short stories from all around the world. Looks like an interesting read, here’s a quick sample of Wu’s story:
The face changer had been born without a face. His mother said that he’d wanted it that way. Back when he was in his mother’s womb, she was unable to make him whole, and he had to face the world lacking. The only favor his mother granted him was helping him decide which part of his body to go without. Floating in his mother’s amniotic fluids like a corpse, he saw his arms, his two feet, and his body, he felt reluctant to part with the bits he’d already seen, but that only left his face, the only thing he couldn’t see, after his tacit response to his mother’s question, he cried out, and then came into the world.
He scared the doctors and nurses in the room when he was born, each of them guessing as to what the child would look like when he grew up. This would be the reason that he would later change his face so much, but it wasn’t because he wanted to shock everyone, with a face that could never be pinned down, but rather that he wanted all their guesses to come true, to satisfy all of their imaginings. Before his face-changing days, back when he was young, he faced a lot of challenges. His mother was worried that he’d scare people, so she drew a face for him. Lacking in imagination as she was, however, the eyes, nose and mouth she drew were those from your average picture book, his features all curved in shape, with eyes like rainbows, and a mouth like an upturned rainbow. If his mother had remembered, she would have drawn a little dot for his nose too.
What a splendid face she had drawn him, it always looked so happy that whenever his teacher saw him, she would pinch his cheeks, asking him why he smiled all day long. He couldn’t open his mouth to say anything, so he could only smile in response. As his expression was dictated beforehand, he became the nice guy in his class, and gave the impression of having a particularly good temper. If people hit or cursed at him, he’d still smile away. Sometimes a teacher would intervene, then seeing that the look on his face hadn’t changed a fraction, they would say how innocent he seemed, like an angel…
Wu has won numerous awards including the United Daily Press Literary Award for Fiction, the China Times Literary Award for Fiction and Essays, the United Literature Monthly Literary Award for Fiction, and the Liberty Times Lin Rungsan Literary Award for Short Essays. He published his new collection of essays, Motorbike Days (《機車生活》), in 2014 and is now a PhD candidate at the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and regularly reports the latest German literature news for Taiwanese magazines and newspapers.
Still working on reviews, not given up on the blog, expect more content soon.
Went to an enjoyable book launch today. The book is called 《臺中一姊遇到法國小王子》(The woman from Taichung meets the little French prince). I read the first few chapters when I was waiting to meet the author. The book seems like a charming, light read, on the development of the romance of the author and her French boyfriend (now husband). If you’re asking “why do I care?” right now, the answer is perhaps that Taiwan is still very conservative about what it calls “cross-cultural” relationships, and this book has an important task in offering an alternative representation of foreign male/Taiwanese female relationships to the one that Apple Daily most revels in, ie a nasty foreign guy who is unemployable in his own country, comes to Taiwan, and uses a combination of drink and foreign tricks to sleep with her, robbing Taiwanese men of their birthright (I think Li Ang’s book is having an effect on me). The couple are very charming, and the vocabulary is definitely very accessible for foreign learners looking to pick up their first Chinese-language novel. Of what I gleaned of the tone of the book, it’s not about foreigner worship, or doing down Taiwan, but is rather a comic but sincere look at how relationships like these function long term, which is what Professor Fongming Yang was asking for in this article.
Thanks to my skills with the camera, most of the footage is a little fuzzy along with the pictures, but had an interesting chat with the author (above), and will write a review after I’ve read it, incorporating some of the footage I shot.
I have been jumping from book to book lately, so going to post what I’m reviewing next in the hope that this will put a little pressure on me to stick with one all the way through. I started I Am China by Xiaolu Guo, but not overly impressed by what I’ve read so far – a tired story about a Chinese dissident rocker who is seeking asylum in the UK that right now is seeming a little bit pretentious, somewhere between an Amy Tan novel and Ma Jian’s Red Dust, except not as edgy, equipped with dullish references to the Beat generation (((((Kerouac’s overrated))))) and China’s misty poets – but going to give it a chance, because I completely misjudged Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and ended up loving it – so going to put it on the back-burner, and I am currently nose-deep in the long-awaited counterpart to Li Ang’s (李昂) 1997 work 《北港香爐人人插》 (Everyone sticks it in the Beigang incense burner) called 《路邊甘蔗眾人啃》 (Everybody nibbles on the sugar cane at the side of the road). The new book, published this year deals with men and power, whereas the previous book dealt with women and power. I haven’t read the previous book, but have heard interesting things about the author. I’m also interested to see if the “restricted to ages 18 and over” label stuck on the front is actually warranted, or is just a marketing technique.
The other books I’m lining up are 《馬橋詞典》 (A Dictionary of Maqiao in English) by Han Shaogong (韓少功), recommended to me by Chris Peacock, so looking forward to it.
I’m also going to give Yu Hua a second chance after the average but disappointing 《活著》 (To Live).
Got any recommendations? Reading any books that you are enjoying? Or read these books and want to have your say, comment below and I’ll get back to you.
I’ve also got a review of A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke in the pipeline, it’s a great film.
This is a great, accessible read, that offers a map for those interested in picking their way through the minefield of press reports on China, ranging from the “China threat” myth perpetuated by some of the Western press and the “China is the best thing since sliced bread” line served up by China’s state media.
On my first read I felt a little uncomfortable with the same old rhetoric trotted out about China at the start of this book, which set out the argument that China is traditionally a “collective” society in contrast to the “individualist” Western society. The logic seemed slightly confused for me, as the timeline jumped around a bit, citing Liang Qichao’s invocation of Cromwell to illustrate China’s collectivism, and contrasting this to the ideals of Greek society – despite the fact that Cromwell is also “Western”. This became a lot clearer, however, when I heard a Sinica podcast on the subject, which makes the division between wheat growing cultures, herding cultures and rice-growing cultures, and explains that this division is not so necessarily East/West, but also divides different places in China. It also clarified what is actually meant by “individualist” and “collectivist” societies, which may sometimes be slightly counter-intuitive:
Listen to it here:
This also reminded me of an interview that I had subtitled on the differences between Western art and Chinese art that had sparked a long discussion between me and a Taiwanese friend, when she revealed that she thought there was inherent differences between Western and (ethnically or culturally) Chinese people, whereas I’ve always been in the “people are essentially the same” camp – it’s just about relative conservatism. The interview was with Tim Yip, the art director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who was talking about differences between Western and Chinese art:
I thought that it was a little inappropriate to contrast Chinese traditional art or furniture to Andy Warhol and concept art, as if that’s representative of Western tradition, but it sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and Yip raises some interesting points on the role of the artist and of religion in traditional Western art and how perceived individualism and collectivism impinges on artistic expression, although I felt his idea of Eastern tradition sounded a lot like Plato’s plane of ideal forms, despite my friend’s protestations that I just wasn’t understanding spacial dimensions of the Chinese word “境界” – which I think I translated as “aura” but could easily have been “paradigm”.
I’ve regularly engaged Taiwanese friends on the cultural exceptionalism they often use to define themselves, but am yet to find a difference that is greater than the cultural divide between me and my maternal grandmother, although in China I thought that the culture gap was a lot larger. I thought Osnos made an effort throughout the book to undermine this cultural relativism later in the book, however, by presenting a wide range of interesting and diverse individuals throughout the book, and I even suspected that this was a deliberate attempt by the author to undermine this kind of generalization. He actively debunks many of the prevalent ideas about Chinese cultural differences, particularly with the common stories featured in the news about accidents or attacks in China which include a heartless onlooker trope, like in the story about a woman attacked and killed in a McDonald’s across the street from a police station by members of a pseudo-religious organization while other patrons just looked on, or this story about a man in Yunnan who was jeered at and told to get on with it, when he was threatening to jump to his death in Yunnan. This is often attributed to a difference in cultural norms, and I’ve even heard some ex-pats insist that China has too many people for individual life to be of any value. Osnos does a good job of undercutting this trope, with reference to the case of a young girl who was killed in a hit-and-run killing, and whose body was passed over by several people before a trash collector found her and tried to get her help. By fleshing out the story and letting us see that the “heartless onlookers” in the eye-grabbing headline are more human than we’d like them to be portrayed, when he visits them and asked them why they failed to help her:
They were conscripted into a parable, but the morality play did not do justice to the layers of their lives.
Indeed, it’s in his descriptions of people, that Osnos gives us some of the most well-crafted lines in the book, like, when describing a dating site founder, he says of her:
… she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China’s industrial id.
Osnos is very insightful and sensitive in his portrayal of all the people that he presents to us in his book, and they appear completely unvarnished, giving readers an insight into how high-profile figures in the West, like Ai Weiwei are viewed in China. He knows a lot of key figures in China’s art and media scene, which allows him to pepper the book with comments from figures from China’s literary and arts scene, like Wang Shuo and Jia Zhangke, while he still gives equal weight to the Chinese everyman and those whose ambitions were never realized.
There’s an incredible range of facts in the book and lots of interesting detail, which give us the context to decisions announced dryly by the state press, and allow for a more rounded interpretation of the logic and aims of the Communist Party and what dilemmas they face as China continues to develop, along with the ideological impact of the choices they make, like the decision in 2002 to change references to the party from “revolutionary party” to “party in power,” for example.
I was also fascinated to solve a question that I still remember from my third year course in Chinese at Leeds in the UK, when we translated a text with the term “bobozu” (波波族) and there had been a debate as to where the term came from, with one of my coursemates informing us that it was an acronym for “burnt out but opulent,” which didn’t seem very relevant to the China we had left the previous year. Osnos reveals that a satirical sociological book by David Brooks had been translated into Chinese a few years earlier called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and had become a bestseller, “bourgeious bohemians” being the “bobo” or “bubo” in question, although I still like my classmate’s explanation better.
Osnos’ book is also very funny, with little tidbits of information that will have you chuckling, such as night schools teaching Chinese to spit liquor into their tea to avoid getting drunk when out with their bosses and the state-media accusing a Chinese nationalist blogger of being a fifty-center (paid by government to keep the public internet debate in line amongst other funny tales.
There’s also a real insight into the power of nationalism in the book, captured by the author in the words of Lu Xun on foreigners:
We either look up to them as gods or down on them as animals.
The way tools, such as patriotism, xenophobia and nationalism, are deployed in China, by the state, the media and individuals is highlighted by the author throughout the book, as well as how the state censorship machine really functions on the ground.
A worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in China who wants to understand what China is really all about, and the people that constitute its citizenry. The book is divided into the three sections that are the three things most discussed in references to China by outsiders – “fortune” referring to is now the cliched “meteoric rise” of China’s economy, “truth” dealing with the media in China and censorship, and finally faith, dealing with what people often refer to as the spiritual poverty of China, and how this is rapidly changing as China opens up and people look for something beyond the physical.
I was first asked to translate an excerpt from this book by author Egoyan Zheng for eRenlai, and it was only later that I realized that it was in fact an excerpt from a full-length novel – somewhat of a rarity in Chinese language fiction. A lot of Taiwanese fiction focuses on the contrast between modernity and tradition or queer themes, which meant this intercontinental science fiction spy romp set in the future, with a serious psychological edge to it, came as a bit of a bolt from the blue for me. The book still touches on the identity issues of the “Taiwanese condition,” but in a way that can be applied to global issues.
The book is set against the background of an eerie new world order (for the Taiwanese reader this may be a not-so-subtle imaginary of expanded Chinese power, although for Western readers it finds more resonance in the NSA prism spying scandal.) The book employs the science fiction trope of an enslaved and persecuted sub-race of “biosynthetics”. This has been seen a lot in science fiction movies, but instead of a robot race, or artificial intelligence, the subjects are clones educated and emotionally stunted through the use of dreams. The author’s brief stint as a student of psychology at National Taiwan University, before he dropped out and read Chinese Literature at Tamkang University stands out here, as Lacan and Freud remain popular among university professors in Taiwan and psychoanalytic theory features heavily in their literary graduate courses. The race of biosynthetics are emotionally stunted as a result of a complicated dream process with which they are educated to obey mankind.
What stands out about this book is the world built for the audience in the various footnotes – some of which extend for several pages – in a more lively fashion than Tolkien, Zheng explores everything from performance artists who genetically engineer a real life Hello Kitty, with no mouth that has to be fed through a nose tube, to a race of blind dwarfs that has seemingly been isolated from mankind for thousands of years, but suspiciously speaks a tongue remarkably similar to English, and the future of the porn industry, with porn stars becoming obsolete with heightened virtual reality. All of them relate to the story-line, however, and are not just random interruptions to the main text, and provide vital clues in the protagonist’s struggle for the “truth”.
The protagonist, K, is a double – some would say triple – agent. The world through K’s eyes is emotionally stunted, as the life of a biosynthetic should be, as dictated by the dreams that raised them. He struggles with pseudo-schizophrenic hallucinations and personality disorders however, and embarks on a major turning point in his life, when he is confronted with the mysterious Godel, and when he realizes that he is going to be discovered as a biosynthetic posing as a human, thanks to a surprise check on his agency, and a test that he is unable to cheat successfully.
K has aspects of a film noir hero, which in combination with his “shallow” emotional range, gives him an almost autistic character which leaves him disconnected from everyone. We see him struggle to rediscover the secret that lies behind his schizophrenic episodes with a hope that some depth lies behind his robotic facade. Alongside the protagonist, we begin to question his drive to become human, and cheer him on as he begins to work with the Biosynthetic Liberation Front, in their struggle against human hegemony.
Love also plays a role in the book, a key building block in K’s construction of a “normal human life”, something he has desired since he found himself abandoned in a derelict building, and later a major factor in his questioning of this drive within himself. The book’s puzzling denouement will leaves you with two conflicting opinions of what exactly has been going on and will have you thinking about it for days.
To elaborate on what I described as the Taiwanese issues brought up in the book, they include nuclear power issues, animal rights issues, identity issues and intelligence concerns.
The book includes a scene where K hallucinates that he sees a child being consumed by the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima in 1945 – a theme which he develops in his new book, Ground Zero, set in the wake of a modern nuclear holocaust. The issue of nuclear power, and specifically the opening of a fourth nuclear power plant on Taiwan, which has been pushed for by the ruling KMT, has been a hot button topic in Taiwan, with large-scale protests occurring in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, including the participation of prominent scholars and activists. The stop-start progress of the fourth nuclear plant is summarized here, although the referendum has still failed to materialize. An alternative look at the nuclear issue can be seen at eRenlai, in their No Nuke No Future focus.
Another issue which features prominently in the book is animal rights. This pertains not only to cruelty to animals, but also to genetic manipulation and the murky line between animals and humans. Animal rights are an important issue for many Taiwanese people, as Huang Zong-hui states in an interview she did with me for eRenlai:
The anti-China tendency of the recent protests against the KMT’s attempt to force a cross-strait trade-in-services pact through the legislature is representative of a general fear of the Communist Party leadership of China, which takes shape in the novel as a new world order government, shrouded in mystery. Outside of the cross-strait context, the espionage resonates with the revelations of Edward Snowden about the US’s NSA spying program.
Overall, this book is a thrilling read, and running through it is a conspiracy that will keep you turning pages, and thumbing through footnotes.