Ta-wei Chi, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
Qiu Miaojin’s definitive works are Notes of a Crocodile (1997) and Letters from Montmarte (1995). Before the publication of those books, however, Qiu issued her short story “Platonic Hair” (1990), in which she has already begun to address the question of lesbian survival in mainstream society. The story’s protagonist is a thirty year-old writer (all the leading characters in Qiu’s works are writers). To gather material for her work she sets out to explore the nightlife, signing a contract to live with a twenty-something female sex-worker. The writer hopes that cohabiting with the prostitute will give her a greater understanding of the nightlife economy. As time passes the two become increasingly fond of each another, but are afraid to engage in sexual activity. At night the prostitute goes out to do business with male clients, while the writer remains at home, alone and jealous. Not until the end of the story does the reader learn that the writer too is a woman. Both she and the prostitute feel that lesbianism is a great taboo.
Before LGBT literature began to come out in great volume, some works deliberately attempted to shock readers; these stories seemed to portray heterosexual couples, but at the stories climactic moments the lovers are revealed to be of the same sex. “Platonic Hair” also employs this strategy, an old trick that no longer works.
The story ends in despair: the writer can face up to neither her passionate desire for women nor her own alternately male/female personality. Qiu Miaojin participated in the student movements that arose after the lifting of martial law, but had yet to take part in in the LGBT rights movement, which came somewhat later. Perhaps because of this, although Qiu’s works portray lesbians, her characters never achieve self-affirmation and are unable to envision a future for lesbianism.
The “hair” of the title is significant in three ways: first, hair is a typical keepsake or sexual fetish; second, hair length is a mark of gender – men wear their hair short, while women wear theirs long; third, in Qiu’s story hair is a symbol of carnal desire, the opposite of reason or intellect. Although the protagonist intellectually suppresses her desire for the prostitute, her hair refuses to listen to reason’s commands, standing on end and fluttering in the prostitute’s direction.
“Plato” is another key term in the story, possibly alluding to “platonic love,” that is, spiritual as opposed to carnal love. In Taiwan, however, the term has become a code word for homosexuality. “Platonic” can also be read as “the philosopher Plato’s standpoint” – Plato felt that outer appearances and forms are inferior and illusory, yet widely accepted nonetheless; truth and value, he posited, lie beneath the surface of these forms, in abstract concepts or ideas cherished by only the wise few. Qiu Miaojin’s work cherishes truth, constantly exposing and denouncing false forms and appearances.
Qiu Miaojin (1969-1995) graduated from National Taiwan University’s Department of Psychology. In 1992 she travelled to France to continue her studies and in 1994 entered the clinical psychology group at Université de Paris VIII. In June of the following year she committed suicide in Paris at age 26.
Qiu Miaojin’s writing gained attention in Taiwan’s literary circles while she was an undergraduate. Her “Prisoner” won the Central Daily News Short-Story Award, and “The Lonely Crowd” was honored with the Unitas Best Novella by a New Writer prize. However, Notes of a Crocodile, a classic of contemporary Taiwanese queer literature, was not widely discussed until after Qiu’s death in 1996, winning the China Times Recommended Reading Prize that same year. Significantly, certain terms in the book – lazi (“lezzy”) and “crocodile” – were adopted by members of Taiwan’s lesbian community as ways of referring to themselves. Qiu’s writing was an extension of her life – critic Zhu Weicheng said of her, “From her life and work a legend was created.” Moreover, in 1997, Qiu Miaojin was voted Taiwan’s number-one lesbian “dream lover,” confirming lesbian readers’ identification with the writer. Qiu’s protagonists have become role models for lesbians in Taiwan, resulting in a lesbian subculture that is uniquely Taiwanese.
Qiu Miaojin’s fiction explores both the “butch” (“T” in Taiwanese slang) and “femme” styles that exist within the lesbian subculture, her characters searching for a fixed identity, constantly vacillating between the two roles. For example, in the story “Platonic Hair” “those scattered, masculine particles” that have been sleeping within the body of a female novelist “come together;” in Notes of a Crocodile a lesbian “reveals a masculine body,” which she uses to resist rigid definitions of gender and sexuality, until in the end she tragically feels she “doesn’t have the right” to love other women. Qiu carried on this dialectal investigation in her final work, the posthumously published Last Words from Montmartre, which documents the identity crisis that ended with her death. Twelve years later, Qiu’s friend Lai Xiangyin published the writer’s diaries, written during her university days and her time in Paris. According to Lai, these intimate documents offer a glimpse of Qiu Miaojin’s writing in its formative period and provide an understanding of her “volcanic inner world.”
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=4650
|Anthology：||Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan (《天使翅膀：來自台灣的當代酷兒小說》)|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://unitas.udngroup.com.tw|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|UNITAS Publishing Co., Ltd.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/p-2702-9780824826529.aspx|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press|