Curated by Liao Shufang, Associate Professor, Department of Taiwanese Literature, National Cheng Kung University
“Modernism” is a general term for late-nineteenth century to early-twentieth century trends in Western art and literature. With the technological advancements ushered in by the... (Read more)
Curated by Liao Shufang, Associate Professor, Department of Taiwanese Literature, National Cheng Kung University
“Modernism” is a general term for late-nineteenth century to early-twentieth century trends in Western art and literature. With the technological advancements ushered in by the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality, mechanization supplanted all that had come before, often leading to war and atrocity. Thus, artistic and literary movements – Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Dada – posed a challenge to hyper-rational modern industrial civilization and its military conflicts, constantly seeking innovation in order to establish literary arts that would more closely correspond to the imagination of the truth of life.
Most consider the postwar 1950s and 60s to be the initial stage in the development of Taiwanese modernist literature. By closely examining Taiwan’s literary history, however, traces of modernism can be seen in the works of Japanese colonial-era writers, such as 1930s’ fiction writers Weng Nao, Long Yingzong, and poet Yang Zhichang. As a Japanese colony, Taiwan was exposed to Western modernism; influenced by the Japanese New Sensation School, in the 1920s and 30s writers of “new Taiwanese literature” gradually began to produce meticulous depictions of emotional states and psychological characterizations. Regretfully, these developments were cut short by Japan’s march toward war and postwar KMT language policies, which not only cut off Taiwanese writers from the new literature of the Japanese colonial period, but isolated them from the literary tradition of China’s May Fourth Movement as well.
In light of these circumstances, the 1950s and 60s can be said to be a period of unprecedented time-perception complexity for the Taiwanese people. The KMT’s nonstop propagandizing and anti-Communist catchphrases – “A year to prepare, two years to counterattack, three years to succeed” – gradually began to ring hollow. As writer Yang Zhao put it, “At least this period had the model of official government rule as a spatial standard, and the Western ‘Common Era’ as temporal yardstick, as opposed to the Japanese custom of numbering years according to the reign of an emperor.” This also led to discrepancies in evaluating the past, the present, and the future. Some people affirmed hard work in the present, while others fondly recalled a past “golden age” – for some that meant pre-revolutionary China, for others the Japanese colonial era – and still others looked constantly to the future as a means of escaping unhappy present realities. Under the government’s heavy-handed literature policies, anti-Communist and nostalgic writings became the official mainstream, gradually stagnating literary development.
Meanwhile, Taiwan had become a player in the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, giving rise to the tragic bloodshed, violence, and repression of the 228 Incident (1947) and the White Terror (1949-1992). Unable to express opinions on Taiwanese realities or dissatisfaction with the government’s authoritarian rule, writers distanced themselves from politics. Taiwanese literati of the time opted for modernism as an alternative to anti-Communist literature, not only as a result of postwar American influence, but also as a consequence of their helplessness in the face of bitter social and political realities; thus Taiwanese writers had no choice but to transform – i.e. “localize” – modernism, distinguishing it from the purely “avant-garde” modernism of the West. Thus, from the Japanese colonial period to the present, the political environment has always been a factor in the development of Taiwanese modernism, a background entirely different from that of Western modernism, which arose in reaction to urbanization and industrialization.
Hence, the 1950s and 60s became an “era of exploration,” a pursuit of overall innovation and change, not just in literature, which sought complete renewal, calling for “horizontal transplantation,” but culturally as well, as the 1960s gradually witnessed total modernization (or “Westernization”). In the literary world, this exploration took place not only in Literature Magazine and Modern Literature, Taiwan’s two most representative modernist periodicals, but in official publications as well. For example, Literary Creation, a government publication that promoted the “literature of struggle” – writing intended inspire the populace to overcome adversity – also introduced Western modernist literary works in translation. Moreover, acceptance of Western literary modernism and translation of modernist literature was clearly not at odds with the aims of the “literature of struggle,” for both could serve as links in the anti-Communism chain. The difference was, official government literary policies encouraged realism and basic ideology was still framed by anti-Communist discourse. Furthermore, even though Convergence and Literature Quarterly – publications today associated with the “Literature Quarterly” series of journals – stridently criticized modernism, they too carried translations of Western modernist works in the name of pursuing “modernization.” Thus, the 1950s and 60s can be aptly regarded as a stage of intense development and change in the establishment of model writing forms. Taiwanese “modernism” was at its height in this period, eliciting both criticism and praise.
In terms of content, Taiwan in the 1950s and 60s experienced a modernist movement based on two major forms of modernist writing, poetry and fiction. Of the two, modernist poetry arrived first on the literary scene, soon followed by modernist fiction, which also had a great impact. In the mid-1950s, three major poetry periodicals sprang up in succession – Modern Poetry, Blue Star, and Epoch Quarterly, respectively published by eponymous poetry societies – holding fierce debates on the form and content of modernist poetry. Led by Ji Xi’an (Hsia Chi-an), the Modern Poetry Society established itself as a modernist faction in 1956, promulgating six “tenets” of modern poetry. The first three tenets clearly exalted the West, regarding Western forms and ideas as newest and best: “We are a modernist group that seeks to carry on and develop the spirit and essence of all modern poetry schools since Baudelaire;” “We believe that modern poetry is a horizontal transplantation, not a vertical inheritance;” and “The exploration of a new world of poetry, the opening of virgin territory in poetry; the expression of new content, the creation of new forms, the discovery of new tools.” This veneration of the West and the rise of modernism in Taiwanese literature were utterly different from Western-style modernism, which primarily arose in reaction to modern civilization, one of the reasons Taiwanese modernism was later widely criticized. When the Epoch Poetry Society advocated surrealism in the late 1960s and early 1970s modernist poetry was accused of being overly abstruse.
Similarly, in 1956, the founding of Xia Jian’s Literature Magazine marked the beginning of the development of modernist fiction in Taiwan. Xia felt that fiction writers should attempt to capture moments of “epiphany” rather than discussing “important themes.” After Xia left for the U.S. in 1960, his students – Kenneth Pai, Wang Wenxing, Ouyang Zi, Chen Ruoxi (Chen Jo-his), and other – founded Modern Literature magazine. Carrying on the spirit of Literature Magazine, the new publication even more systematically introduced modernist Western intellectual ideas and literary trends – existentialism, psychoanalysis, stream-of-consciousness writing – translating major Western modernist authors and works. The publication was a milestone in the development of modernist fiction in Taiwan.
In the field of drama, a group of youths – Huang Huacheng, Qiu Gangjian, and others – published Theater magazine from 1965 to 1968, introducing Taiwanese to Western modernist trends in theater and film, translating works by “absurdist” playwrights such as Ionesco, Beckett, and Artaud. The group even staged Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, later critiquing the production in Theater. Although the magazine ran for only nine issues, it played a significant role in the development of drama in Taiwan.
Overall, postwar modernist Taiwanese writers and poets produced a remarkable body of work. Representative figures – fiction writers Wang Wenxing, Qideng Sheng, Guo Songfen, and Wu He, and poets Lo Fu, Huang Hesheng, and Yang Ze – expressed themselves in highly conscious language forms, newly-coined usages, twisted syntax, and converted meanings, focusing on the creation of new narrative modes. Taiwanese modernists explored themes such as time, death, sexual desire, self, and evil, often setting their works in urban environments, expressing modern existential emptiness and bewilderment. And because many Taiwan writers relocated from mainland China or lived abroad for extended periods, in addition to depicting estrangement, anxiety, and inner desires, much of their writing touches on themes of exile and wandering. The ten selections chosen for this unit offers an overview of the development of modernist literature in Taiwan.
According to Yvonne Sung-sheng Chang in Modernism and the Nativist Resistance: Contemporary Fiction from Taiwan (1993), even though many in the literary world have criticized modernist literature, modernism’s influence is all pervasive, apparent not only in often-cited works of modernist writers – primarily those featured in Kenneth Pai’s Modern Literature – but also present in later nativist fiction as well. Thus, modernist literary techniques have had a far-reaching influence on modern Taiwanese literature.
But modernism in Taiwan has never been seen as simply a matter of literary technique; on the contrary, it has always been a highly charged critical issue. Some have contended that Taiwanese modernism is a product of American imperialism – a latecomer, a second-rate imitation; as such, it quite naturally can only be described as “pale” and “incomplete,” of low-value and unworthy of serious consideration. Still, other voices feel that the advent of Taiwanese modernism was actually a manifestation of alienated writers’ quest for spiritual freedom in an era of repression; these latter critics felt modernist writing possessed both creative and aesthetic value, the works shaped by Taiwan’s multicultural traditions – Chinese and Japanese, blending Taiwan writers’ “apolitical” stances with aestheticized Western modernism. These antithetical views of Taiwanese modernism have been – and likely will continue to be – the subject of nonstop controversy in Taiwanese literary circles.
“Sorrow” is the pinnacle of Wuhe’s novelistic career and a rare jewel in modernist Taiwanese literature. Constructed in a non-linear fashion and woven... (Read more)
Luo Fu wrote the opening sections of Death of a Stone Cell when he was sent to the island of Jinmen to serve as press liaison officer in 1959. There, ... (Read more)
Translated by K. C. Tu and Robert Backus (1999) Autumn cool in the world, a rainy day dusk cannot but have some responsive sighs Uselessly standi... (Read more)
“A Small Town Planted with Papaya Trees” (1937), Lung Yingzung’s first published work, was an immediate sensation, a literary portrait of the heart an... (Read more)
Guo Songfen’s “Running Mother” (1984) is the story of a young man raised by a single mother after his father disappeared early on. Because of various ... (Read more)
Lin Yaode was a fleeting comet streaking across the skies of Taiwanese literature. In his short life of thirty-six years he wrote poetry, essays, fict... (Read more)
“A Love Story before Dawn” (1937) is a special work of so-called “demonic” literature from the Japanese colonial period. The short story is also profo... (Read more)
Qideng Sheng’s “I Love Black Eyes” (1967) is a problematic piece of fiction, a work famed for the difficult moral questions it raises as well as its f... (Read more)
“Flaw” is a short story in Wang Wenxing’s early collection Fifteen Stories. In a tale of first love, an eleven year-old boy falls for a married woman ... (Read more)
Ma Yihang, PhD candidate, Instituted of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University In a long preface to The Smell of Rain (2006), Ye Weilian (Yip ... (Read more)
Zhong Zhiwei, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Although Autumn Leaf is Ouyang Zi’s (Ou-yang Tzu) only... (Read more)
Huang Jian, PhD student, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, National Chi Nan University Writer Yu Guangzhong (Yu Kwang-chung) is the subj... (Read more)
Qiu Maojing, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Chen Yizhi, author of Sonar: The Evolution of Taiwanese ... (Read more)
Liu Yuning, MA, School of Theater, Taipei National University of the Arts “Glory’s by Blossom Bridge” occupies a special place in Bai Xianyong’s (Pa... (Read more)
Qiu Maojing, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University In 2010 the National Museum of Taiwan Literature launche... (Read more)
Shen Manling, PhD candidate, Department of Chinese Literature, National Zhongxing University The words “modernism,” “modernist,” and “modernity” appe... (Read more)
Li Shiyong, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Wang Wenxing’s Family Catastrophe (1973) and the two-vol... (Read more)
Zhong Zhiwei, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Written by Zeng Xiba and directed by Zhang Zhongyi, Ma... (Read more)