Curated by Su Shuobin, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
The term “landscape literature” refers to writing that imbues a particular aspect of the land with literary significance. This unit’s ten post-1980 literary works portray Taiwanes... (Read more)
Curated by Su Shuobin, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
The term “landscape literature” refers to writing that imbues a particular aspect of the land with literary significance. This unit’s ten post-1980 literary works portray Taiwanese landscapes, on the one hand introducing the island’s distinguishing geographic features, and on the other hand celebrating the cultural significance writers have attributed to the land. The selections provide a virtual tour of Taiwan, guided by authors intimately familiar with the places they write about, the depiction of the landscape a part of their life histories. More than simple descriptions of nature, the works integrate writers’ connections with the land, memories, and history.
Taiwanese landscape literature can be divided into three levels: The first level is description of the geographic significance of specific landscape features; the second level treats the social significance of landscape in establishing local identity; and the third level, decentralization, is significant politically.
Taiwanese landscape literature is rich with vivid geographical descriptions. An island, Taiwan lies in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, not far from China’s southeastern coastline. North to south, Taiwan is approximately four hundred kilometers in length and one hundred and forty kilometers in east-to-west width, its shape similar to that of a sweet potato. Although it’s a small island, mountains in the central range rise some four thousand meters above sea level, giving Taiwan one of the highest average altitudes of any island on earth. Thus, Taiwan boasts a range of distinctive geographic features – ridges, gorges, precipices, and geothermal springs – all of which brim with great natural interest. Rushing rivers and streams originate in the high mountains, flowing in all four directions to the plains below, fostering both agriculture and civilization.
Full of mystery, Taiwan’s central mountain range offers challenges to mountain climbers. Eastern Taiwan’s rift valley is the most beautiful and least populated part of the island. Southern Taiwan, a fertile plain, produces an abundance of agricultural products, and is home to the island’s oldest towns and cities. The nation’s administrative center, north Taiwan boasts the island’s highest concentration of industries and a highly developed urban network. Outlying islands in the waters around Taiwan are rich in rustic charm and beauty.
But landscape – natural terrain, invested by humans with cultural significance – is an even greater object of interest. The ten works in this unit link Taiwan’s various landforms to the island’s historical development, portraying farm villages, urban areas, mountain regions, and outlying islands, as well as ancient cities, battlefields, wharves, and hot springs.
The second level of significance is also apparent in Taiwanese landscape literature: landscape’s social significance in establishing local identity.
Taiwan’s original inhabitants were indigenous peoples, oral cultures. In the 1660s Chinese immigrants began crossing the sea to Taiwan, and in the 1680s the Qing dynasty claimed the island as part of its domain. Only then did the Taiwan’s landscape become the subject of literature, mostly poems penned by government officials and literati who had come over from China. In this “landscape poetry” scenic vistas served as vehicles for emotional expression, unlike later realistic depictions. After China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895, literary works featuring realistic descriptions of Taiwan’s landscape began to appear, such as those found in Japanese travelogues and 1930s “new literature” poetry and fiction, e.g. Weng Nao’s “Decline,” which contained descriptions of Taipei’s streets, Shuiyinping’s (Yang Chichang) Tainan writings, and Lin Huikun’s popular novel It’s Hard to Go Against Fate, with its depictions of romantic Taipei locales.
But landscape literature’s implications went beyond realistic geographic descriptions. Writing that questioned the notion that “science controls nature” looked to find the genius loci, or “spirit of place” in the land. 1 In literature of this type, the land was the guardian spirit of the people who lived on it, rather than something to be admired simply for its beauty.
Because the KMT government claimed to represent “free China” in the postwar era, “local” writing was suppressed from 1950 through 1970. Although the period produced much excellent writing on geography and landscape, writers tended to move in one of two directions. Some produced nostalgic works in which landscape sparked fond recollections of the past, such as Lin Haiyin’s My Memories of Old Beijing (1960). Others wrote romans-fleuve, epics such as Zhong Lihe’s Lishan Farm (1956), wherein landscape reflected the Taiwanese people’s fate. Wu Xinrong’s “Salt Belt” appeals for recognition of local identity emerged in the Japanese colonial period, but in the thirty years that followed such calls were seldom heard. Because of the strong nativist consciousness that arose in social and literary circles after 1980, city and county governments all over Taiwan established literature prizes, encouraging outstanding writers to produce “local” works. Thus, a great volume of writings that combined landscape literature with local consciousness appeared in the 1980s, a distinctive feature of Taiwan’s literary scene in that era.
For the most part, these writers returned to the places where they grew up, although some wrote about areas they later migrated to and settled in. But all have spent a great deal of time experiencing the land, investing it with deep cultural significance. Their works integrate landscape, culture, and history, an important characteristic of Taiwanese landscape literature, differentiating it from “travel writing,” the ethnic concerns of “nativist literature,” and environmentally-conscious “nature writing.”
A third level of significance can be read into Taiwan’s landscape literature: “decentralization,” a politically meaningful construct.
From the Japanese colonial era onward, north Taiwan has been the island’s administrative and economic center. Landscape literature gave impetus to local social consciousness, which can be seen as resistance to centralization. With the rise of “local writing,” and the ending of nearly forty years of martial law in 1987, authoritarian ideological control slackened and landscape literature blossomed island-wide, gradually transforming Taiwan into a pluralistic, localized culture.
Specifically, landscape literature that linked individual writers’ lives to local culture and history began to take shape around 1983. At the time, well-known writers such as Chen Guanxue, Wu Sheng, and A-Sheng led a return to farming villages, presenting farmers and farm life through concrete descriptions of rural landscapes – scarecrows in rice paddies, oxcarts in the market, farmers’ assisting one another in the busy planting and harvesting seasons, and chatting and joking in their idle time – depicting natural landscapes and the ways of the rustic world. Chen Guanxue’s “Autumn in the Countyside – October 1,” the earliest of this unit’s ten selections, recounts the author’s return to a hermetic life in a Pingdong farming village, where he passed the days tending a rice paddy, accompanied by a water buffalo and flocks of birds.
As the trend developed, landscape literature that reflected a sense of local identity flourished, and local literary organizations began to spring up. In 1988 Taiwan Pen Association founded its “Salt Belt Branch” branch, unleashing a tide of literary creativity. In the mid-1990s many local governments established their own literature awards, and within a short time landscape writing blossomed in all regions of Taiwan – north, south, east, central, and outlying islands – and continues to thrive today. Interestingly, experienced writers are not the only ones depicting their native areas – many younger scribes are leaving Taipei literary circles and returning to their places of birth, researching local culture and history, creating a new wave of landscape literature.
These contemporary works of Taiwanese landscape literature are not written from travelers’ perspectives; rather, the writers project personal and collective memories and emotions onto landscapes with which they are intimately familiar. As late Taiwanese literary critic Wu Qiancheng noted, this type of literature encompasses “specific localities or regions, concrete facts and features, and an abundance of local customs, conditions, and history,” going beyond simple descriptions of scenery and momentary flights of fancy.
Taiwanese landscape literature celebrates the land the where the people of Taiwan are born and grow, sharing a common love of the natural world with ecological literature, works such as Liu Kexiang’s ornithological writings, Wu Mingyi’s studies of butterflies, Liao Hongji’s portrayals of whales and dolphins, and Syaman Rapongan’s Orchid Island (Lanyu) essays. Although these latter works don’t necessarily emphasize specific aspects of culture and history, they show great respect for the concept of humans and nature coexisting in harmony, an ideal shared by writers of landscape literature.
In this third level of significance, landscape literature presents the interactions of humans, the land, and history, highlighting local characteristics, even reestablishing local cultures. In recent years researchers have found that landscape literature from southern Taiwan tends to celebrate local history, while that of eastern Taiwan and the outlying islands focuses on the relationship between the natural environment and the plight of local peoples.
We invite readers to begin our literary tour in northeast Taiwan, with Huang Chunming’s “Turtle Mountain Island,” a poem that portrays of the joys of homecoming. For Huang, Turtle Mountain Island is not simply a body of land surrounded by water, but a living signpost for returning Ilan natives. Next we move south, along eastern Taiwan’s rift valley to poet Chen Li’s hometown of Hualian, his essay “Pure Emotions, Proud Landscapes－Hualian, My Home” introducing readers to the city and its surroundings. A short hop from Hualian brings us to Taiwan’s tallest mountain, Jade Mountain (Mt. Morisson). In “Mount Morrison Journeys” Chen Lie shares his vast knowledge and deep experience of this natural wonder, fondly dubbed “Taiwan’s Mountain.”
After a short rest and a detour around Taiwan’s southernmost tip, we come to the western plain region. Set in Pingdong, Chen Guanxue’s “Autumn in the Countryside – October 1” is a tribute to rural tranquility; in Wang Jiaxiang’s “I Live on Hamasen Fisherman’s Wharf,” a whale leads an imaginary tour of Kaohsiung’s coastal area; and in Tainan, Lai Xiangyin’s “Zeelandia,” introduces readers to one of Taiwan’s best known landmarks, Anping Castle. Our next stop is Lugang, a central Taiwan town that was once the island’s major river port. In Li Ang’s “The Ghost That Never Sees the Sky” a female spirit relates her tragic life story, recounting the history of the Lugang’s immigrant Han population.
From Lugang we cross the Taiwan Strait to Jinmen, a wartime island fortress so close to the China mainland visitors can actually see the Fujian city of Xiamen. Young writer Wu Junyao’s “Partake of This Offering” introduces readers to Jinmen foods, chronicling the area’s transformation from battlefield to tourist attraction. Lastly, our literary landscape tour visits Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city. Hao Yuxiang’s “Hot Springs Wash Our Grief Away” and Shu Guozhi’s “Life in Taipei” blend elements of history with landscape, allowing readers to experience the human warmth that lies at the heart of the concrete jungle.
These ten works of landscape literature brim with knowledge and observations of geography, forestry, archaeology, and history. Writing from personal experience, the authors have laid a foundation, leading readers into a rich literary world, turning simple “land” into deeply significant “landscape.” Portraying natural scenery, social interaction, and cultural history, these writings are without doubt the most outstanding and profound guide to the island Taiwan.
1See Stephen Siddall, Landscape and Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2009) p.27.
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