Ta-wei Chi, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
Ling Yan’s novel The Silent Thrush (1990) depicts the lives of common people in southern Taiwan in the mid-1980s. To satisfy audience demand, a traveling Taiwanese opera troupe has added strip-shows to its outdoor engagements, and troupe members are no longer concerned with the quality of operatic performance – thus, the beautiful bird of the title – traditional Taiwanese opera – sings no more. Although the troupe’s men and women put in long work hours and earn only meager wages, they still find the time and energy to involve themselves in various heterosexual and homosexual relationships. The Silent Thrush gives equal play to each type of love, revealing alternatives to traditional marriage by exploring the sundry desires of those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
From its publication in 1990 to present, The Silent Thrush has triggered much controversy, all of it centered on the question of whether coquettish lesbian desires can coexist with Taiwan’s pure and wholesome nativist culture. One common interpretation is that the women of the troupe are involved in “situational” homosexual relationships similar to those that develop in women’s prisons and all-girls’ schools, and that they would opt for heterosexuality in a different setting. But the environment gives rise to more than one type of desire – in addition to lesbianism, there are various heterosexual relationships, as well as a friendship between an older and younger man with gay overtones. “Tua-khoo-e,” or “Biggie,” a minor character, is one of the troupe’s young male performers (although the women of the troupe interact with men on a daily basis, they don’t necessarily choose men as sexual partners.) Biggie often visits a local grocery, where he enjoys tea with the store’s middle-aged proprietor, the two appearing to be extraordinarily fond of each other.
The work’s importance can be summed up in the following points: First, novels dealing with lesbianism flourished in Taiwan in the 1970s, but receded in the 1980s; in the 1990s, Silent Thrush brought new life to the topic. Second, most Taiwanese novels that treat homosexuality are set in Taipei; The Silent Thrush depicts the rural south, where gambling is a favorite pastime. Third, characters portrayed in Taiwanese LGBT fiction are usually middle class; the characters in Silent Thrush are impoverished lower-class members of a down-at-the-heels opera troupe. Fourth, in the 1990s LGBT literature received a number of prestigious literary awards – in 1990 The Silent Thrush, with its frank portrayal of lesbianism, was the first LGBT novel to win the “Independence Evening News Novel Award,” with judges acclaiming the work’s treatment of sex-same love and desire.
Huang Yujie, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
Ling Yan is the penname of Zhuang Shuzhen. Born in Chiayi, the author is a Tainan resident. She is a graduate of Provincial Kaohsiung Vocational High School. Without her parents’ knowledge, she spent half a year traveling and performing with the Ming Guang Women’s Opera Troupe, an experience that served as the basis for her novel The Silent Thrush, a book that won the Independence News Million Dollar Author’s Prize. The award was significant because the novel portrayed both the art of traditional Taiwanese opera and lesbian love, the latter a subject rarely touched on in literature of the day. The writer Jiji, a contest judge, remarked: “[the novel’s] depictions of the women’s lesbianism – a product of living together and sharing meager resources in a closed environment – are meticulous, bold, and natural. This is the finest fictional portrayal of homosexuality I have ever read.” Subsequently, Ling Yan received the China Writers’ and Artists’ Association’s Medal, and the Kaohsiung City Literary Arts Award. After a long literary hiatus, the writer took first prize in the 2007 Kaohsiung Dagao Literary Awards with her novel Bamboo Chicken and A-qiu.
Ling Yan writes both fiction and essays. The bulk of her work deals with rural life, describing the struggles and sacrifices of the marginalized and impoverished as they try to scrape by. The most attention-getting and controversial aspect of her fiction is her portrayal of lesbianism among lower-class women. In Silent Thrush she tells the story of a traditional Taiwanese opera troupe that has sunken to putting on strip shows as a means of attracting audiences, depicting lesbianism and cross-dressing among the troupe’s female members, descriptions that have drawn fire from some critics. In Bamboo Chicken and A-qiu romantic love between two lower-class women – one a crooked gambler, the other a prostitute – is one of the novel’s main plot threads.
Most works of Taiwanese literature that portray lesbianism are set in urban areas and characters are middle-class; Ling Yan, on the other hand, sets her work in the countryside, writing about gay women from the lower socioeconomic strata. In The Costumed Thrush, a sequel to The Silent Thrush, she goes even further in depicting the emotional, marital, and other troubles such women face. In her writing Ling Yan expresses great concern for Taiwan’s native arts; moreover, she strongly empathizes with the plight of the lower classes, lesbians, and cross-dressers, speaking out in behalf of those marginalized communities.
|Work(English)：||A Silent Thrush|
|Anthology：||A Silent Thrush|
|Publisher：||Taipei : Independence Evening Post Press|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Out of print|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||No English Translation|