Curated by Ta-wei Chi, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
In Taiwan “LGBT” literature refers to literary works – fiction, essays, poetry, and drama – that deal with homosexuals and homosexuality. Through the influence of the Japane... (Read more)
Curated by Ta-wei Chi, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
In Taiwan “LGBT” literature refers to literary works – fiction, essays, poetry, and drama – that deal with homosexuals and homosexuality. Through the influence of the Japanese language, the term tongxinglian (homosexual) gained currency in China in the early to mid-twentieth century but was replaced by the usage tongzhi (“comrade”) in the 1990s.
“LGBT literature” is both a category of literature and a field of scholarly research. As a literary category, LGBT literature refers to works that treat various homosexual themes (gay sex and romance, societal pressures). This classification, however, serves only as a convenient label. Although the label allows libraries, bookstores, and readers to easily categorize books and periodicals, it undoubtedly undermines understanding of both homosexuality and literature. How can two such complex subjects be encompassed by one simple term? Both homosexuality and literary forms, ancient and modern, defy such easy pigeonholing. Wang Zhenhe’s novel Rose, Rose, I Love You, for example, devotes much ink to descriptions of heterosexual sex work, and very little to homosexual reveries. Zhu Tianxin’s long essay Striking the Earth Song portrays high-school girls’ friendships and ambiguous emotional attachments without ever mentioning which of the girls may be lesbians. In the martial-law era, however, these works gave readers space to imagine homosexuality, and therefore must not be overlooked. Although neither work featured homosexual protagonists, they still count as valuable assets of Taiwan’s LGBT culture.
The quality and quantity of Taiwan’s LGBT literature is extraordinary when compared with that of other Asian countries, or even the rest of the world. Thailand is famous for its gay nightlife, but has yet to combine homosexuality and literature. Other Chinese-speaking societies, such as China and Hong Kong, are limited by various taboos, and thus incapable of producing a similarly rich body of LGBT writing. Many Taiwanese LGBT literary works have been translated into English, Japanese, French and other languages, and are an important window through which the international community has come to know Taiwan. In developed countries, gay rights are now seen as a universal value; thus, Taiwan’s LGBT literature is an index of sorts, proof of Taiwanese society’s openness and freedom of expression.
Paradoxically, LGBT literature has blossomed in Taiwan because society was once so repressed. Freedom of speech was limited in the martial law era, thus dissidents of various stripes (from those who opposed the KMT government to those in sympathy with homosexuals) chose writing as a vehicle for challenging the social mainstream. But literature was not a completely safe harbor in that period, and many writers were convicted of breaching official taboos. However, the government was still comparatively tolerant of literature during the martial law era, and writing was a respected avenue of expression among the people. Many works of LGBT literature emerged in that period, perhaps because no other tools were available to those who wished to portray homosexuality. By comparison, postwar Japan was free and unrestricted – depictions of homosexuality were not limited to literature, but flourished in cinema, drama, and other arts. At present, there is a greater variety of homosexual expression in Japan, but in terms of quality Japanese LGBT literature (excluding popular literature) is not necessarily richer than Taiwan’s.
Development of LGBT literature in Taiwan can be roughly divided into in three periods: the Japanese colonial period (pre-1945); the end of Japanese rule to the lifting of martial law (1945-1987); the end of martial law to the present (post-1987). Although literary creation sometimes precedes societal change, it usually follows in its wake. Because literature requires time for fermentation and refinement, it often does not promptly reflect political changes. But literature may also be prophetic, challenging authority even before prohibitions have been lifted. The ending of martial law in 1987 is usually seen as a watershed for literary creation in Taiwan. Works openly portraying homosexuality could not be published prior to that year, but LGBT literature flourished in the years that followed. Although Pai Hsien-yung’s novel Crystal Boys, which depicts homosexuality and homosexual intercourse, came out prior to the lifting of martial law, the great wave of LGBT literature did not roll in until the 1990s.
Due to the KMT policy of erasing Japanese influence in Taiwan, Taiwanese literature from the colonial era has long been overlooked. However, historical material from that period, such as local newspapers and Japanese travelogues, contain reports of homosexual behavior among Taiwanese men and women. Did Taiwan produce any LGBT literary works in the four-year period between the Japanese withdrawal in 1945 and the imposition of martial law in 1949? At present documentation that would prove such has yet to come to light.
The second stage – the martial-law era – can be subdivided into four periods. In the 1950s, writers in Taiwan were mobilized to turn out patriotic, anti-Communist literature, and had no time to write about homosexuality. In the 1960s, Jiang Gui, an old hand at anti-Communist writing, Guo Lianghui, a veteran romance novelist, Pai Hsien-yung, National Taiwan University’s rising literary star, and Pai’s classmate Ouyang Zi, began writing about gay men. Taiwanese literature is usually regarded as an extension of the May Fourth Movement, but this view merits careful reconsideration: works by Chinese writers who wrote about homosexuality in the 1920s – Yu Dafu, Guo Moruo, and others – were essentially banned during the martial law era due to the authors’ leftist political leanings. In spite of official vigilance, however, some proscribed works were available on the Taiwan market. Hence, Chinese LGBT literature of the 1920s probably had a limited influence on Taiwan’s LGBT writing – certain Chinese literary works of that period failed to reach Taiwan, while others were smuggled onto the island, influencing a handful of Taiwanese writers.
Of the abovementioned forerunners of LGBT literature in Taiwan, Pai Hsien-young became the most prominent, winning praise from cultural leaders not only for his talent, but also because of his association with an elite cultural institution, National Taiwan University of the 1960s. Jiang Gui and Guo Lianghui, two seasoned authors who also wrote about homosexuality, have been seriously overlooked since the 1960s, probably because they were not associated with the cultural elite.
Literature portraying lesbians emerged in the late 1960s, and truly began to shine in the 1970s. Ouyang Zi was a forerunner. Readers often venerate Pai Hsien-yung, while overlooking the fact that his classmate Ouyang Zi wrote several short stories in which gay men and lesbians appear. The emergence of lesbianism in literature was closely related to Taiwan’s economic development. During the Cold War era, Taiwan industrialized and large numbers of women went to work in factories and private companies, earning money of their own, some of which they were free to spend as they pleased. At a time when Qiong Yao novels and movies held sway in the marketplace, many female writers began to explore sexuality beyond the confines of traditional marriage, writing about subjects such as lesbianism. Guo Lianghui’s Beyond Two Types – a novel that was published before Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys – depicted a variety of lesbian characters in pursuit of both love and money. Li Ang’s early literary efforts included short stories about adolescent girls who vacillate between homosexuality and heterosexuality.
While lesbians in the literature of the 1970s pursued economic success, gay men were chiefly concerned with American cultural hegemony. Lin Huaimin’s fiction melds the American dream, gay sexual pleasures, and homosexual guilt. Guang Tai embraces America even more fervently in his popular novel Escape from Marriage, not only sending his gay protagonist to the U.S. (because the country is seen as a homosexual paradise) but also importing American psychiatric ideas to Taiwan (from that time on homosexuals wanted only to be seen by American-style psychiatrists). Wang Zhenhe was an outlier – although intimately familiar with Western literature, he was still highly critical of Western culture, smuggling depictions of homosexuality into his critiques of the West. Wang’s screenplay Come Back Soon portrays gay men, prostitutes, disabled individuals and other marginalized characters from the lower rungs of Taiwanese society, a social milieu free of American influence. Pai Hsien-jung’s celebrated Crystal Boys, serialized in elite literary publications in the late 1970s, also mentions America’s gay nightlife.
In the 1980s Taiwan’s LGBT literature echoed the democracy movement’s ardor, heralding the end of martial law. Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys was published in its entirety, offering the public a lesson in male homosexuality. Prior to the ending of martial law, it was difficult to conduct sociological surveys on homosexuality. Thus, domestic and international scholars seeking knowledge of homosexuality in Taiwan during the martial law era refer to Pai’s novel, recognizing it as an authoritative alternative to field studies. In the same period, Wang Zhenhe’s novels Portraits of the Beautiful and Americanized and Rose, Rose, I Love You combined criticism of the West with homosexual fantasies. Poet Chen Kehua had already began to celebrate non-mainstream sexuality in the 1980s, and went on to portray homosexuality even more frankly in the 1990s.
The third stage, the 1990s, was the post-martial law “honeymoon” period. The print media and publishing companies eagerly issued works by both established authors and new voices. Ling Yan, Tsao Lichuan, Qiu Miaojin, Chen Xue, and Hong Ling published stories about lesbians; Zhu Tianwen, Xu Yousheng, Lin Junying, Wu Jiwen, and Ji Dawei wrote about gay men. Hence, the 1990s is regarded as the golden age of LGBT literature in Taiwan.
However, the rise of the Internet constituted an assault on traditional media and publishing companies – literature lost its favored status as writers and readers gradually turned to other forms of artistic expression. By that time there were many simpler and more convenient channels though which the public could learn about homosexuality, and literature was no longer regarded as the sole reliable source of such knowledge. Actually, the passing of the LGBT literature fad was the normal result of the public’s view of homosexuality as nothing out of the ordinary. In the second decade of the twenty-first century established fiction-writers such as Guo Qiangsheng, Xu Yousheng, essayist Wang Shenghong, newcomers Luo Yujia, Lin Youxuan and others, as well as a group of new writers cultivated by the LGBT publishing company Gbooks, all continue to write on LGBT topics, proof that there is still a future for LGBT literature in Taiwan.
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