Chen Chianchoung, Professor and Institute Director, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
The scope of “historical narrative” is wide indeed. The term refers to the “historicism” that from the nineteenth century onward took objective evidence as its basis, attempti... (Read more)
Chen Chianchoung, Professor and Institute Director, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
The scope of “historical narrative” is wide indeed. The term refers to the “historicism” that from the nineteenth century onward took objective evidence as its basis, attempting to restore history to its original state, reconstruct events and uncover essential truths. The concept also encompasses the “new historicism” that arose in the 1980s – a reaction to formalism, new criticism, and structuralism – and which advocated “history’s textuality” and “textuality’s historicity.” Nevertheless, both historicism and new historicism focused on reinterpreting historical incidents: by reading different historical narratives readers could return to a particular historical scene or event, gaining a new perspective on it. Thus, different histories produce different narrative perspectives. Each new narrative perspective can be read as a challenge to previous interpretations, perhaps previous ideologies, advancing a new interpretation, perhaps even a new ideology.
If we view “historical narratives” from the perspective of Taiwan’s literary history, periodicals such as Taiwan Daily Newspaper (Taiwan Nichinichi Shimpo), Wind and Moon News, and 369 Tabloid published a good deal of historical fiction during the Japanese colonial period. These works often contained elements of popular fiction, and there was no shortage of long novels; Xie Xueyu, Wei Qingde, and Bai Yuzan were some the best-known writers. Set in the Ming period, Bai Yuzan’s story “The Golden God of Fate” was the longest piece of classical Chinese writing published under Japanese colonial rule. Xie Xuefu’s “Banishing the Brigands,” “Legend of the Eighteen,” and “The Strange Samurai” – set for the most part in Japan – aimed to promote harmonious Sino-Japanese relations. As for “new Taiwanese literature,” Wu Chuo-liu’s The Orphan of Asia (1946) marked the beginning of a tradition of literary fiction based on Taiwanese history.
Subsequently, Taiwanese writers who lived through the Japanese colonial period all shared a “historical-narrative complex,” retelling “unofficial” Taiwanese history, as opposed to “orthodox” Chinese Nationalist accounts. Thus, a loose narrative tradition took shape as writers recorded their own versions of events. During the martial-law period “postcolonial works” by native Taiwanese writers included a number of romans-fleuve. 1 Regardless of when the stories began, narratives always came to a standstill in 1945 – 1947’s 228 Incident and similar politically sensitive topics were taboo, and very few fiction or nonfiction writers dared broach them. In the mid-1970s, however, Chen Yingzhen’s “Little Bell Flower” (1983) and “Mountain Road” (1983) looked boldly at the “White Terror” period, breaking the lock the martial-law regime had placed on historical memory. Postwar writers of romans-fleuve such as Wu Zhuo-liu, Chung Chao-cheng and Li Qiao exemplify historical fiction’s “historical-narrative complex.” Following The Orphan of Asia (1946), Wu Zhuoliu published The Section Chief of Potsdam (1948), The Fig Tree (1968), and Taiwan Forsythia (1973-1974); Chung Chao-cheng came out with “The Muddy Water Trilogy”: Muddy Water, Rivers and Mountains, and Passing Clouds (1962-1969), “The Taiwanese Trilogy”: Sinking into Oblivion, The Azure Sea, and Mountain Song (1966-1976), Under the Eight-cornered Tower (1975), and “The High Mountain Suite”: Islands in the River and The Fires of War (1985); and Li Qiao published his “The Wintry Night Trilogy”: Wintry Night, Deserted Village, and Lone Lantern (1981). “Unofficial” histories, these works reconstructed historical images, opening new horizons for identification with Taiwanese history, striving to resist the loss of historical memory and rebuilding self-identity.
Taiwan’s “collective unconscious” was liberated in the post martial-law era (1987- ). Ethnic politic became a focal point in the 1990s: each of Taiwan’s various social and ethnic groups – Aborigine, Holo, Hakka, and Mainlander – had thrown off the shackles of martial law and all had the desire and freedom to construct narratives of their own, creating a new trend in historical narrative. Tonfang Po’s A Cinematic Journey (1990), Cai Deben’s Sweet Potato Elegy (1994), Li Qiao’s Buried Injustice: 1947 (1995) for the most part still fall within the historical narrative tradition; others works, such as Li Ang’s Mysterious Garden (1991) and Chen Ye’s Muddy River (1989) focus on gender politics; and still others – Chen Yinzhen’s Chung-hsiao Park (2001), Wang Jiaxiang’s Daofeng Inner Sea (1997), and Zhu Tianxin’s The Old Capital (1997) – deal with ethnic politics. Lin Yaode’s 1947 – Takasago Lily (1990), and Zhang Dachun’s Lucky Worries About His Country (1988) and The Lying Believer (1996) questioned the historical-narrative tradition from a postmodern historiographical perspective, stressing history’s textuality. The conscious and critical viewpoints in these novels are counterpart to official historical narratives; moreover, influenced to a greater or lesser degree by new historicism, the works are entirely different from the historical narratives of the previous period, positing “textualized history,” demonstrating that, in the end, history is what individual writers interpret it to be.
Based on differences in thematic categories and aesthetic transformations, Taiwan’s historical-narrative fiction can be roughly sorted into four major types. The first type, “traditional historical fiction,” is influenced by the China’s “historical biography” tradition, portraying important historical events and personages, emphasizing both the factual and the legendary. The second type, “anti-Communist historical fiction” primarily depicts the struggle between Communists and Nationalists, focusing on the root causes of the Communist victory; thus, portraying the spread of the “Red peril” was a means of hinting at a vision for restoring the Nationalists to power on the mainland. Works in this category include Chen Jiying’s Eight Years in Cathay (1960) and Jiang Gui’s Whirlwind (1952). The former is a traditional historical narrative, the latter a formulaic product of official dogma. Aesthetic narratives and ideological leanings notwithstanding, these work have indeed left an indelible imprint on Taiwanese history.
The third type, “postcolonial fiction,” focuses on recovering historical memories that colonizers either distorted or suppressed, retelling the history of the Japanese colonial era, the Chinese Civil War, the KMT martial-law period, the 228 Incident and the White Terror era. Most major events in Taiwan’s tumultuous history are covered in works of this category. Because Taiwan has undergone repeated colonization, Taiwanese society has suffered from a serious lack of subjective historical memory. Postcolonial fiction resists the silencing of history, reconstructing historical memory; the aforementioned works of Wu Chuo-liu, Chung Chao-cheng, Li Qiao, and Tonfang Po all belong to this category.
“New historical fiction” comprises the fourth type. “New historicist” and postmodern conceptions of history have influenced works in this category, in which there is a marked tendency toward focusing on micro-history and deconstructing official mainstream narratives, the works embodying a rich diversity of ideological standpoints. Li Ang, Shi Shuqing, and Ping Lu are representative female writers of new historical fiction, highlighting the gender significance of “women’s history” writing. Zhang Dachun, Lin Yaode, and Zhu Tianxin are characteristic second-generation postwar new-history fiction writers. Badai’s Times Past: An Aboriginal Taiwanese Soldier’s Story (2010) and his “Damalagaw” series (2007-2011) stand as representative works of new-historical fiction by an aboriginal author. Times Past portrays the bitter experiences of an indigenous Taiwanese soldier in the Chinese Civil War, and the “Damalagaw” series is regarded as the Puyuma people’s first roman-fleuve. Moreover, Wang Jiaxiang and Zhang Mingru are ethnic Han writers who have penned “new-historical” fiction dealing with Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. As for newswriting, Gao Xinjiang established a “Reportage Award” in the China Times “Human World” supplement in 1978, a time when coverage was turning from Taiwan’s international political situation to domestic issues and social criticism – Gu Mengren’s Black Village (1978), Weng Taisheng’s Lepers’ Hospital (1980) and Lan Bozhou’s Song of the Covered Wagon (1991) all draw attention to society’s disadvantaged and marginalized, providing historical narrative with a different perspective.
Overall, the majority of Taiwan’s historical narratives are interpretations of “historical incidents.” With the exception of Li Qiao’s Wintry Night, in which the main theme is “identification with the land,” this unit’s selections all focus on particular events in Taiwan’s history. Chen Qianwu’s autobiographical novel Hunting Captive Women (1984) not only recounts the writer’s personal experience serving as Taiwanese “volunteer” in the Japanese army in WWII’s Pacific theater, illustrating colonial Taiwan’s awkward position within the Japanese empire, but also reflects on Japan’s war of aggression. Stylistically unconventional, Wu He’s Remains of Life (2000) retells 1930’s “Wushe Incident,” acquainting readers with historical memories that have been neutered or castrated. Exile and homelessness are the themes of Bo Yang’s The Alien Realm (1961), which depicts the brutal experiences of Nationalist soldiers struggling to survive in the Yunnan hinterlands during the Chinese Civil War. Lin Shuangbu’s “The Huang Su Chronicles” condemns KMT authoritarianism in the post-228 “White Terror” period, exposing the era’s social and political wounds. “Mr. Hopper” marked Chen Yingzhen’s return to literary circles following his 1968 imprisonment for involvement with the “Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League”; told from the perspective of Xiao Cao, a young Taiwanese woman who admires a “saintly” yet psychologically wounded American war veteran, the story questions the legitimacy of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Essayists also look back on the past, viewing history from different narrative perspectives. Wang Dingjun’s “Red Ribbons” records the writer’s memories of the Second Sino-Japanese War, interweaving dialogue and monologue, painting a realistic portrait of individuals swept up in the tides of history. In “Old Mainlander, for You I Write” poet Huang Kequan portrays the loneliness and isolation of Nationalist soldiers who followed the KMT government to Taiwan in 1949. Based on her personal experiences, Sun Kangyi’s (Kang-i Sun Chang) “Journey through the White Terror” revisits dusty-but-deep historical memories, the essay returning to the past as a means of coming to terms with it.
Regardless of whether they are categorized chronologically or discussed in terms of narrative types – traditional, postmodern, postcolonial, or “new historicist” – Taiwan’s historical narratives all happen to revolve around major historical incidents, witnessing Taiwanese history’s changing contexts. Thus, if we are to understand the complex face of Taiwanese history presented in these historical narratives, we can’t simply analyze individual texts. Rather, we must conduct broad and systematic investigations, adopting integrated cross-genre and interdisciplinary comparisons. At the same time, we must also pay attention to different historical-narrative lineages – from writers to readers, and even critics’ memory disputes and interpretive perspectives – including the ideologies of ethnic groups, social classes, and nationalities; of course, the different viewpoints embodied in the various narrative styles reveal the features of different periods in Taiwan’s history. Hence, narrative aesthetics or historical consciousness aside, Taiwanese historical narratives raise many thought-provoking questions. If we adopt a genealogical approach, it’s easy to discover that a guarded relationship – neither close nor distant – exists between the aesthetics of historical narrative and mainstream ideology; there are even memory and power disputes between historical narratives from different periods or of different genres.
1 “A long novel, often in many volumes, chronicling the history of several generations of a family, community, or other group, often presenting an overall view of society during a particular epoch. Also called saga novel.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 17 Sep. 2015.
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