Taiwan Lit


Mainlander Writings in Taiwan Literature: Predicaments and Potential

Taiwan Lit 1.2 (Fall 2020)

Mainlander writing (外省書寫) has occupied an ambiguous position in Taiwan literature because of its representation of mainlanders’ ambivalent identification with two locations, Taiwan and China, and two identities, Taiwanese and Chinese. In the field of Taiwan literature, “China” often represents two authoritarian powers that Taiwan has sought to be rid of: the KMT’s (Kuomintang) cultural imperialism during the martial law period and the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) threat to Taiwan’s democratic liberty and cultural subjectivity. The in-between identification displayed in mainlander writings makes the genre feel inauthentic within the body of Taiwan literature. This essay discusses the predicaments of mainlander writing in Taiwan literature, emphasizing the importance of the genre in articulating a literary discourse of “Chineseness” from the perspective of Taiwan literature, and exploring the potential of positioning mainlander writing in the global context of immigration culture.

The emergence of Taiwan literature can be seen as a counterforce against the KMT’s Chinese nationalism, which was widely propagated during the martial law period between the 1950s and 1980s, as the main goal of institutionalizing “Taiwan literature” in the late 1990s was to constitute a Taiwanese cultural outlook distinct from the China-centric discourse of “Chinese literature.” Mainlander writers’ preoccupation with the theme of “China” (either a remembered one, an imagined one, or an experienced one) makes their writings an ideologically poor fit within Taiwan literature, particularly in the 1990s, when the Taiwanization movement gained momentum and the majority of Taiwanese society eagerly demanded a China-free, Taiwan-centric “Taiwanese identity.” Second-generation mainlander writers, such as Chu Tien-hsin and Su Wei-chen, on different occasions, have expressed their discontent with regard to the exclusion of mainlander writings from Taiwan literature.

From the early 2000s, Taiwanese literary critics have been re-evaluating mainlander writing by grouping these works with Taiwan’s ethnic writing, along with those of Hoklo, Hakka, and aboriginal writers, as is seen in Chen Kuo-wei’s Imagining Taiwan: Ethnic Writings in the Contemporary Novels (2007). While the categorization of ethnicity shows an attempt at social reconciliation by including mainlanders in Taiwanese society and culture, this approach leads to two problems. The first problem is that mainlanders’ migrant identity is elided from the ethnicity discourse. While the concept of a migrant identity accommodates multiple or hybrid identification with the original land and host land(s), an ethnic identity tends to recognize a single identity within a social context. That is, all ethnic groups are expected to identify with Taiwan and exhibit some degree of national loyalty. Even if multiple identities have been gradually accepted into the discourse of ethnicity, it is generally mixed local ethnic identification (such as Hoklo-Hakka) that is recognized as “Taiwanese”. This in turn accounts for the dilemma of mainlander writing in Taiwan literature: unlike works of other ethnic groups, such as those of Hoklo Taiwanese writers, whose families have lived in Taiwan for hundreds of years and who often express a unique ethnic perspective towards their bonds to the land, mainlander writing tends to be characterized by a strong sense of alienation from Taiwanese society and an obsession with the mainland, as if it were only through this alienated displacement that mainlanders’ identities become meaningful. This characteristic makes mainlander writing problematic and marginal in Taiwan-centric literary discourse.

The second problem of ethnic categorization is that it only takes into account the minority position of mainlanders as an ethnic group in Taiwan without reflecting the high proportion of mainlander writers and publications in Taiwan’s publishing market. While mainlanders account for only 7 to 8 percent of Taiwan’s population, due to the China-centric ideology fostered by the KMT, mainlanders dominated Taiwan’s publishing market from the 1950s until the 1980s. In researching the background of writers in Taiwan, Chiou Der-liang (2020) found that mainlanders make up almost half the total number. However, this high proportion of mainlander writers is not reflected in academic research. For example, in one of the most prestigious literary journals in Taiwan, The Journal of Taiwan Literary Studies (台灣文學研究學報), only 35 out of 246 papers published from 2005 to 2020 address mainlander writers and their works—less than 15 percent of the total. As the contributors to the journal are both established and junior researchers from the leading universities in Taiwan, the scarcity of research papers on mainlander writing suggests that Taiwanese scholars have little interest in mainlander writing or have concern about the representativeness of the genre in Taiwan literature.

Mainlander writers’ preoccupation with the themes of “China” and “Chineseness” is probably the main reason for this lack of interest. This was evident in a literary debate about the second-generation mainlander writer Lo Yi-chin’s novel The Ming Dynasty (2019). Literary critic Chu Yu-hsun criticized Lo’s work as “revealing a mainlander’s lonely loyalist mindset and resentment of the loss of the throne of Chineseness” (2019), a comment which provoked fierce debate regarding whether an author’s attitude toward China and Chineseness should be taken as a standard for evaluating the quality of his/her literary works. Chu’s critique of the novel reflects Taiwan’s cultural change from Sinicization to Taiwanization that accompanied the lifting of martial law. Over 30 years have passed since then, and Taiwanese identity has been well established, with polls (Chen 2020) showing that the majority of citizens identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. In addition, it is generally agreed that Taiwan literature has reached a stage of heteroglossia (眾聲喧嘩), in which multiple voices and views are heard and accepted. However, the validity of mainlander writings is still questioned by Taiwanese academics.

Indeed, Taiwan literature was developed in opposition to Chinese literature and culture, and China and Chineseness are not popular topics in the field. However, this aversion to productive analyses of Chineseness in Taiwan literary studies has made this the weakest part of the field. As it is undeniable that there are enormous cultural and linguistic links between China and Taiwan, this vacuum has encouraged the PRC to exert its discursive power to interpret Taiwan literature as a peripheral and supplementary subset of Chinese literature (Chiu 2019). Without dealing with the issue of Chineseness and developing a valid discourse from the perspective of Taiwan literature, the shadow of China will always haunt the field.

Shu-mei Shih’s Sinophone Studies (2013) provides a powerful theoretical ground for re-interpreting mainlanders’ “Chineseness” in Taiwan by positioning mainlander writing in the global context of immigration culture. Shih’s idea of the Sinophone de-centers the “Middle Kingdom complex,” acknowledging the heterogeneity of Chinese diasporic cultures while recognizing the flexible relationships between the overseas Chinese communities and Mainland China. Although Shih’s theory has been criticized for its overbroad application to all overseas Chinese communities in different countries (Ng 2018), her Sinophone Studies effectively accounts for mainlanders’ identity transformation across generations. By reading mainlanders’ works through the lens of Sinophone studies, we may resolve the current predicaments of mainlander writing in Taiwan literature and settle the unarticulated issues of the relations between Taiwaneseness and Chineseness. While a growing number of scholars recognizes that Taiwan is an island with different layers of migrant cultures, few have discussed mainlander writings as examples of recent Chinese migrants’ identity transformation.

The mainlander identity and images of China presented in mainlander writing have been noticeably changing in response to changes in Taiwanese society. Literary works by the first-generation mainlander writers, particularly those published in the 1950s and 1960s, are filled with nostalgia and a longing for the Chinese homeland. More often than not these works conformed to the KMT’s anti-Communist stance and the ideology of Chinese nationalism. The 1960s modernist literary movement featured an evolution in younger mainlanders’ liberalism during the repressive socio-political milieu of the KMT’s authoritarian regime, as exemplified by the critical yet sympathetic views toward the first-generation mainlanders adopted by writers such as Pai Hsien-yung in his Taipei People. Modernists’ interpretations of China diverged from the KMT’s “China,” presenting a localized (if not Taiwanized) view of Chineseness in response to the KMT’s dictatorship.

Literary works by second-generation mainlander writers who were born in Taiwan, educated during the martial law period, and faced with society’s rapid Taiwanization after the lifting of martial law best demonstrate the transformation of mainlander identity from a diasporic Chinese identity to a more fluid Sinophone identity (Huang 2021). Their narratives of juancun (military dependents’ villages), the military compounds that were established in the 1950s by the KMT to accommodate soldiers and their families, exemplify how the locales, which initially functioned to consolidate mainlanders’ Chinese identity, have been interpreted and reinterpreted in different time periods, in turn reflecting mainlanders’ gradual Taiwanese acculturation. While in Yuan Chiung-chiung’s This Love, This Life (1988), the juancun culture represents a superior Chinese culture distinct from the alien Taiwanese culture, Chu Tien-hsin’s “In Remembrance of My Buddies from the Military Compound” (1992/2002) presents the second-generation mainlander narrator’s complex nostalgia for a juancun which no longer represents a temporary shelter but rather a home. Chu’s work reveals the author’s recognition that the second-generation mainlanders’ understanding of “China” is actually based on their experience of juancun, and the real China has become abstract and distant. Lai Sheng-chuan and Wang Wei-chung’s popular play The Village (2011) further incorporates mainlanders’ juancun experience into Taiwanese culture. By presenting Taiwanese characters positively and portraying Taiwanese and mainlanders as similarly traumatized during the White Terror, the play shows mainlander culture as an integral part of Taiwanese culture. As such, the juancun culture, which in the earlier works functions as a symbol of Chinese culture and demonstrates how segregated Taiwanese and mainlander-Chinese were, transforms in later representations into evidence of mainlanders’ lived experience in Taiwan. “China” in these works thus presents a Taiwan-based sense of Chineseness, which reflects the trajectory of this group’s settlement on the island. While Chu Yu-hsun is concerned with mainlanders’ longing for a revival of an essentialist Chinese nationalism, the sense of “Chineseness” represented in mainlander writings, especially those by second-generation immigrants, has in fact become complex and hybrid, as it is blended with Taiwanese culture and an imagined memory of China. This hybrid Chineseness in mainlander writing does not indicate the writers’ support for any forms of Chinese nationalism (as held by the KMT or the CCP) but instead exhibits the authors’ attempts to reinterpret and revise the meanings of “Chineseness,” so as to constitute a distinct discourse to defend mainlander identity in Taiwan. This is especially evident in mainlander writings in the post-martial law period, with more and more works portraying mainlanders as victims of the KMT’s regime and modern Chinese history.

A different case is presented by publications by double-migration mainlander writers such as Chiang Hsiao-yun and Ming Feng-yin, who grew up in Taiwan and identified as second-generation mainlanders but then migrated to the US in their twenties. In their works, mainlander identity is no longer confined to an either-or choice between China and Taiwan but is open to more possibilities. For example, Chiang Hsiao-yun’s Peach Blossom Well (2011) tells of a mainlander family’s return to China. The focus of the story is the emotional distance and cultural discrepancies across the Taiwan Strait, and it questions the possibility of a real return to a remembered homeland. Chiang highlights the first-generation mainlanders’ double alienation from both China and Taiwan, their descendants’ indifference to mainlander identity, and their fraught relationships to both countries. Peach Blossom Well suggests that mainlander identity will eventually become one of the multiple identities of the overseas Chinese migrants and will lose its significance in connection to the concept of “homeland,” “home country,” or even Chinese patriotism.

Examining Taiwan literature taught at universities in North America, Mu-min Shih (2020) argues that Taiwanese literary works are often introduced within various theoretical frameworks, such as Sinophone studies and post-colonialism, and that post-2000s Taiwan literature is often absent from the curriculum. While Shih’s article aims to provide suggestions for the future translation of Taiwan literature, it also offers some thoughts concerning the directions in which Taiwan literature can be promoted within the global context of English language scholarship. Mainlander writing is a perfect example of a literature which fits within the Sinophone theoretical framework against the backdrop of global mobility. It helps alleviate the problem of the lack of more recent literary works since the genre provides a wealth of examples which portray the Chinese migrant group’s identity transformation from the 1950s to the present day. Mainlander writings demonstrate how the Chinese civil war migrants have struggled with the conflicts between the culture of their place(s) of residence and that of their place of origin, forcing them to construct vibrant hybrid cultural identities informed by both, yet original. While “Chineseness” may not be what most Taiwanese academics want to focus on, mainlander writing showcases how Taiwan has cultivated a unique, locally based sense of “Chineseness,” which serves as a powerful example of the distinctions between Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese cultures.


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