Curated by Ying Fenghuang, Professor, Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture, National Taipei University of Education
“Class in Literature” includes writing that deals with the life experiences of people at the lower strata of society. Realism is the predominant stylistic mode, but writing t... (Read more)
Curated by Ying Fenghuang, Professor, Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture, National Taipei University of Education
“Class in Literature” includes writing that deals with the life experiences of people at the lower strata of society. Realism is the predominant stylistic mode, but writing techniques also include liberal and modernist concepts.
In Taiwan, “class in literature” also encompasses other strategies and subject matter, such as “social realism,” “nativist literature,” “agricultural-laborer literature,” “working-class literature,” and what the academic world has lately termed “post-nativist literature.” Taiwanese literature has always been concerned with social realism, class theory, and political struggles between left and right; thus, in each period specific terms were coined. For example, the term “nativist literature” was common to both the Japanese colonial period and the 1970s, but carried different connotations in each of those eras; similarly, the term “agricultural-laborer literature” was used in both the Japanese and postwar periods, yet writing subsumed under that mantle was contextually different in the each of those eras.
“Class” is shorthand for “social class,” a complex sociological term. Put simply, class is the product of hierarchical social divisions, the result of “social stratification” or “social differentiation.” Social resources, such as power, wealth, and fame are distributed unevenly; gradually, people of similar status come together to form a social stratum or class. Societies without “strata” or “class” differentiations are rare: different groups come together to form higher or lower classes based on differences in family background, education, occupation, taste, and social status, hence the terms “upper class,” “middle class,” and “lower class.” People of the same class level possess roughly an equivalent share of economic resources; thus, each social class has its own class-consciousness – “lower-class” consciousness and literature are both a product of this phenomenon.
Since most societies have lower classes, will all produce excellent lower-class literature? The answer is “not necessarily.” Literary production is limited by a given era’s living environment and social context. Taiwan, for example, has a complex history of colonization, social stratification, and literary creation; thus its literature has necessarily been influenced by different systems of government, ethnic groups, genders, languages, and other cultural factors. For instance, from 1895 to 1945, the island was under Japanese colonial rule, and that period’s literature has a strong colonial flavor. If “colonial literature” is characterized by oppression or exploitation, then that too is a feature of Taiwanese “lower-class literature” of the Japanese colonial era, a time of both class and ethnic discrimination.
Surrounded by ocean, Taiwan evolved into a multiethnic and multicultural society of immigrants. The differing language policies of the island’s various rulers added to the difficulty and complexity of literary activity. Early in the postwar period Long Yingzong, Lü Heruo, Yang Kui, and others wrote in Japanese, recounting the sorrows of Taiwan’s economically and politically oppressed lower class. But after the Nationalist government instituted its Chinese-only language policy, many Taiwanese writers were unable to make the “linguistic crossover” and gradually lost the right to express themselves. In the late 1940s Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. Thus, nostalgic and anti-Communist writings dominated the literary mainstream in the 1950s and 60s, and Taiwanese of lower socioeconomic status were largely ignored, while the ban on Japanese had effectively silenced Taiwanese writers. Although most writers of the time hewed to the anti-Communist, pro-government line, there were exceptions – Jiang Gui’s novel Whirlwind, for instance, depicts life among the underclass in China, but such works were rare.
Nativist literature emerged in the 1970s. Young Taiwan-born writers who had been educated entirely in Chinese came onto the literary scene writing “nativist” or “social realist” literature. What should also be noted is that beginning in the 1970s and continuing on through the 1980s, Wei Tiancong, Chen Yingzhen, Li Nanheng, and others carried on critical discussions of nativist literature in Literature Quarterly and other literary venues. Writing from a leftist perspective, they detailed the plight of Taiwanese farming villages struggling for survival in the crack between capitalism and urban development. In 1985 Chen Yingzhen founded Renjian, a leftist magazine dedicated to reporting on the lower strata of Taiwanese society.
After the 1987 lifting of Martial Law and Taiwanese society’s subsequent social liberalization, there was a newfound freedom of expression in the arts, a development that owed much to past nativist literature controversies and the efforts of Literature Quarterly writers. Thus, many previously marginalized literary genres emerged: aboriginal literature, women’s writing, travel writing, Taiwanese-language (Holo) literature, Malaysian-Chinese literature, and lower-class literature. Taken together, these new literary endeavors were the product of a multicultural, multilingual, and multiethnic society.
“Lower-class literature” has always existed, though it would be difficult for it to enter the literary mainstream, especially in a society that has been so heavily influenced by colonialism – the “field of literary production” in an earlier period was dominated by politics, and in latter days by commerce. Nevertheless, representative works of lower-class literature have appeared in every era. In selecting notable works, in addition to the temporal period in which they were written, attention must also be paid to the variety of different literary forms and subjects. In fiction, both novels and short stories should be chosen; modern poetry and literary essays must be included as well. Broadly speaking, “theme” should take precedence over artistic technique, giving preference to realist works of lower-class literature, and not to literary experimentation or modernism.
The 1930s was Taiwan’s golden age of colonial literature, and one of the few periods in which left wing writing flourished on the island. Three representative works have been selected from this period, two short stories – Lü Heruo’s “The Oxcart” and Yang Kui’s “The Newspaper Carrier” – both of which are typical leftist literary writings. “The Oxcart” tells the story of Yang Tianding, whose transport business is rendered obsolete by the Japanese colonial bureaucracy and modern industrial advances; consequently, Yang is arrested for stealing and his wife is forced into prostitution. The story’s somber tone accurately reflects the tragic lot of the Taiwanese working class in the colonial era. “The Newspaper Carrier” is another example of proletarian literature. With great difficulty protagonist Yang Jun finds work as a Tokyo newspaper carrier, only to be cheated by his employer. Meanwhile, back in Taiwan Yang’s father falls ill and dies after Japanese confiscate his farmland, whereupon Yang realizes that those who exploit Japanese laborers and oppress Taiwanese farmers are one and the same: the capitalists. The story portrays characters in terms of class rather than ethnicity, calling on the oppressed to unite and demand their rights – a clear manifestation of the author’s class-consciousness.
The third work form this period is a vernacular poem, “Elegy for a Working Woman.” Written in the colloquial Taiwanese of the colonial era, the poem also portrays the bitter lives Taiwanese laborers under Japanese domination. The writing is simple and unadorned, the sentiment understated and mournful. If “The Newspaper Carrier” portrayed capitalist (the newspaper boss) and ethnic (Japanese colonizers) oppression, then “Elegy for a Workingwoman,” a song of sorrow for a workingwoman, reveals a third type of discrimination – gender.
As noted earlier, from 1945 through the 1950s Taiwan produced virtually no underclass literature. Chung Chao-cheng’s The Dull Ice Flower, a story that takes place on a remote Hakka tea plantation and in a rural elementary school, came out in the 1960s. A full-length novel, Dull Ice Flower displays greater thematic diversity – recounting the sad fate of a poor farm boy, the author reveals discriminatory treatment of lower-class Taiwanese in politics, education, and allocation of medical resources. In the 1960s and 70s Di Yi’s “The Rice Noodle Lady” and Wang Zhenhe’s “An Oxcart for a Dowry” dealt with lower-class love triangles. Although marital infidelity and protagonists’ economic status are interrelated, characters in the stories come to one another’s aid, concrete expressions of empathy.
Class oppression is the theme of Yang Qingchu’s 1971 short story “Promotion.” A writer long concerned with the plight of factory workers, male and female, Yang Qingchu highlights systematic discrimination against lower-class workers: the story’s male protagonist serves in a factory for sixteen years as a “temporary laborer,” his wages insufficient to provide for his family, yet is denied promotion to “official employee” in spite of his hard work and diligence. At the end of the 1970s Dong Fangbai published his short story “Slave,” in which a native Taiwanese narrator tells the story of A-Fu, a soldier who settled in to Taiwan after the war. In China, A-Fu had worked as an indentured servant – a so-called “slave.” On his deathbed A-Fu produces his life savings, hoping that someone will take the money to China and buy his freedom from his former employer, lest the old soldier suffer a slave’s fate in his next life. These two 1970s short stories highlight lower-class individuals’ urgent desire to better themselves and the difficulty of actually doing so.
Lastly, Xu Daran’s 1972 essay “North to South” and Yang Fumin’s 2009 short story “Bibi” are perhaps our two most extraordinary selections. Xu Daran studied in the US and Britain in the 1960s. “North to South” describes a short ride on an elevated commuter train in the city of Chicago. The writer observes both train passengers and the city and people outside the train, gazing down on lower-class neighborhoods from his vantage point high above the ground. Readers can intuit class divides in Xu’s descriptions of the metropolis and people who inhabit it – the superiority of the upper class and the sorrow of the lower class. Xu Daran is also noted for his stylistic mastery, employing techniques such double entendre and reiterative locution. Even though he is only a “passerby,” Xu observes clear class distinctions in the tall apartment buildings of the rich and the squat hovels of the poor, his record of what he sees a manifestation of his deep concern for humanity.
Yang Fumin’s “Bibi” (2009) has received a number of prestigious literary awards. Only 21 years old when the story was published, Yang had already thought deeply about a variety of complicated social issues, painting a complex and detailed portrait of twenty-first century Taiwanese society. Stylistically, the story is a linguistic mixture of standard Chinese, Taiwanese (Holo), and English, coupled with an alert and lively narrative voice. Grandma Shuiliang, the protagonist, is an itinerant worker who has been on the move her entire life – migrating workers were common in every era of Taiwan’s history, thus they are also a part of Taiwan’s lower-class literary history. Practically speaking, however, Grandma Shuiliang is not a member of the lower-class, and class conflict is not the gist of the story. Nonetheless, by illustrating the hardships and challenges the old woman faces, the story stimulates readers to reconsider the content and complexity of “lower-class literature,” highlighting its greater diversity and wider interpretative range in the twenty-first century.
These ten selections of highly class-conscious “lower-class literature” will provide readers with an understanding of the issues that they probe and the problems that they raise. Not only do the works present the thoughts and feelings of the lower classes – the oppressed, the insulted, and the injured – to a greater or lesser extent, they also reflect the histories and social environments of the eras in which they were written. Perhaps these writings break no new creative or aesthetic ground, but when viewed from a social and historical perspective, they are undeniable proof that “lower-class literature” occupies a significant place in Taiwan’s literary canon.
“The Slave,” the story of an old soldier, was published in The Commons Daily supplement in 1979. A long short story of approximately ten thousand Chin... (Read more)
According to Aristotle, tragedy imitates the lives of extraordinary individuals, thus most tragic protagonists are heroes. The characters in Wang Zhen... (Read more)
“Promotion,” a lengthy short story, is the tale of a machine-shop worker who works his way up from “temporary laborer” to “official employee” through ... (Read more)
“The Noodle Lady,” a short story first published in a newspaper literary supplement in 1975, also appeared in writer Di Yi’s first collection. Althoug... (Read more)
Finished in the spring of 1969, The Dull Ice Flower was immediately serialized in newspaper supplements. Chung Chao-cheng’s (1925- ) first published w... (Read more)
In the wake of Taiwan’s economic miracle, from the 1960s and 1970s onward, farming villages underwent a rapid transformation as much of the population... (Read more)
“The Oxcart” tells the story of Yang Tianding, whose oxcart hauling business cannot compete with modern automotive shipping methods. Published in Japa... (Read more)
“North to South” was published in Taipei’s Youth Literature magazine in 1972, the year that Xu Daran completed his history doctorate at the University... (Read more)
“Elegy for a Working Woman” Sparse stars, faint breeze A cold, bright moon shines down on her She scratches her cheek, rubs sleep from her eyes ... (Read more)
Chen Guanwen, MA, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University Evil’s Blessings (2013), Yang Suo’s second essay collection, again re... (Read more)
Chiu MaoChing, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Gu Yuling’s Our Stories: Moving and Laboring (2008) st... (Read more)
Chiang Kuoyu, MA, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Written and directed by Huang Chunming, the TV serial My Name I... (Read more)
Tsai Pojie, MA, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Ah-Chung (1998) is director Zhang Zuoji’s first film. Zhang was n... (Read more)
Jiang Binglun, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University The Rice Bomber (2014), written by Hong Hong and dire... (Read more)
Ma Yihang, PhD candidate, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Wang Zhenhe’s short story “An Oxcart for a Dowry” was p... (Read more)
Wang Liru, PhD student, Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University With nary a superfluous word or phr... (Read more)
Chung Chiwei, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University While reading Lü Heruo’s family’s recollections of the... (Read more)
Yang Fumin, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Co-written by Leon Dai and Chen Wenbin, and directed b... (Read more)