By Lee Kuei-yun, Associate Professor, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
This short story centers on the life and loves of fashion model Mia. Mia begins modeling at age eighteen. At twenty, after becoming the lover of Lao Duan, a middle-age architect, she grows more mature and sober-minded. At twenty-five, when Mia realizes she is getting older and her looks are fading, she fills her house with dried flowers and herbs, planning to spend the rest of her life making paper flowers. The author intersperses the story with information on the fashions of various historical periods and details each fashion house logo and style in the tone of a professional fashion commentator, holding a fashion show on paper.
Mia’s profession is all about glamor, mirroring the first stage of her life: “A material girl. Why not? Fetishistic. Money worshipping. Young and good looking. She adores her own beautiful body.” Later, Mia turns into a nature-loving sibyl obsessed with colors and smells, constantly talking about flowers and herbs. In addition to fashion and plants, the short story also cites architecture, painting, music, contemporary singers, and ice cream and chocolate brand names. All these things are typical of late twentieth-century Taiwan, reflecting the materialistic indulgence and spiritual restiveness of a society that had just emerged from martial law.
The story’s narrative structure is fragmented, and the torrent of product names dizzying, but the work is regarded as a milestone in the Zhu’s career because she brings her fiction-writing talents into full play, creating a female protagonist who is at once decadent and materialistic, frugal and spiritual. This multifaceted portrayal enables the author to share her fin-de-siècle sentiments.
Mia looks at herself through the lens of fashion. She wears and controls material things (including her own body), and through her readers see the “splendor” of the age. The author deliberately dismantles logic, flinging clothes, color, odors, flowers and herbs into her story, allowing them to form the backbone of the text and flow where they will in an elliptical plot. The real world order is broken up and realigned through decadent bodies and things, creating an entirely new fictional world.
The term “fin de siècle”in the title connotes cyclicality: it is the end, but also a new beginning. Many elements of the story also echo this theme of cyclicality, ordering its fragmentary structure. Fashion trends too are cyclical: in a given period majestic glamor may be the order of the day; later on, with the rise of environmental consciousness, effortlessness and a loose look may be in vogue; still, a few years later, Byzantine exoticism and the Regency style make a comeback. The fashion world constantly looks back on itself in search of a new beginning. Another example is sexual politics. Towards the end of the story, Mia is shown making paper. She believes that “the bottomless blue of the deep lake tells her that one day, the world that was constructed by male theory and order will fall; through her sense of smell and memory of color she will survive and rebuild.”
The author resists the highly developed male civilization and seeks to replace reason with sensation; she also predicts that women will rebuild the world. The author obviously has a very strong feminist consciousness.
Although the author risks inundating the reader with fashion detail, her true intention should not be ignored. Mia makes paper in order to write on it, because only words are eternal and can be passed on – the spiritual trumps the material.
Zhu Tianwen (b. 1956) was born in Taipei to a Chinese father and Taiwanese mother (writers Zhu Xining and Liu Musha). She holds a degree in English from Tamkang University. In the late 1970s, with the support of her parents she co-founded the 3-3 Collection (1977−1981), also known as Sansan Journal – an allusion to Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People” and the Christian trinity – with her younger sister Zhu Tianxin and a group of like-minded friends. The kaleidoscopic works of the collection are unified by a romanticism and nostalgia for China, with many of them eulogizing nature and youth. Zhu Tianwen is a dedicated follower of writers Hu Lancheng and Zhang Ailing. She has inherited both their literary styles and their worldviews.
Zhu Tianwen’s early work centers on family and school life. Her novels New Prefect Qiao Stories (1977) and Legends (1981) and the essay “Life in Tamkang” (1979) mostly portray youthful innocence and rarely touch upon current events. In 1982, Zhu started to write film screenplays. She worked with prominent director Hou Hsiao-hsien on many films, and in the 1980s was an important screenwriter in Taiwan’s New Wave. In 2008 her screenplays were published in Three Times, a collection of over twenty of her works written between 1982 and 2006.
The publication of the novel City of Hot Summers in 1987 marked a turning point for Zhu Tianwen. This work of urban fiction focuses on the experience of growing up. Hereafter, Zhu’s writing style became increasingly elaborate and ornate. This style of urban writing culminated in Fin de Siècle Splendor (1990), a collection of short stories that reflect on urban life, generational differences, youth and complex emotions. The title story “Fin de Siècle Splendor” presents a vivid display of fashion and a unique feminist consciousness and worldview. It also acts as a response to her mentor Hu Lancheng’s unfinished work “On Women.”
Notes of a Desolate Man (1994) is a first-person story of a gay Taiwanese man. It presents the author’s own aesthetic and its release drew tremendous attention and spurred widespread discussion. The “desolate man” shies away from politics and reality, restrains his passions and is indifferent to material things. The only thing he indulges in is writing: he has profound knowledge of various cultural discourses and classical allusions and often laments the crumbling of culture and tradition. The novel puts in focus the beliefs that Zhu held when she was editor of 3-3 Collection and also contains a large amount of sensual detail and cultural symbolism. In homage to her mentor, the author cleverly weaves into the novel many of Hu Lancheng’s key theories.
In a 40,000-word preface to the novel Forerunner of Flowers (1996), Zhu Tianwen relates her literary encounter with Hu Lancheng, which provides an important insight into her views on literature.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2330
|Work(English)：||Fin de Siecle Splendor|
|Anthology：||City Women: Contemporary Taiwan Women Writers|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.ylib.com|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Yuan Liou Publishing Co., Ltd.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||https://www.cuhk.edu.hk/rct/renditions/order_form_encrypt.html|