Taiwan Lit


Review: A History of Taiwan Literature by Ye Shitao, Translated by Christopher Lupke

Taiwan Lit 1.2 (Fall 2020)

Since the institutionalization of Taiwan’s literary studies in 1997, with the establishment of the first Department of Taiwanese Literature at Aletheia University in Northern Taiwan as the marker, the subjectivity of Taiwanese literature has been widely recognized and celebrated by writers and critics. The de-centric Sinophone framework that challenges China’s cultural hegemony and which has gained momentum in the past decade further lends weight to the autonomy of Taiwanese literature. While Taiwanese literature is being taught and researched as a field in its own right, both in and outside of Taiwan, it is meaningful to reflect on the trajectory of Taiwanese literature from the perspective of literary historiography. It is within this context that A History of Taiwan Literature by Ye Shitao (1925–2008), published initially in February 1987, five months before the lifting of martial law,1 Martial law was lifted on July 15, 1987. should be appraised.

Ye’s A History of Taiwan Literature is often hailed as the first book-form literary history containing a distinctly Taiwan-centric perspective. While this statement can be upheld, Ye was not the first person to have had the ambition of composing a literary history for Taiwan. Indeed, this effort can be dated back to the colonial era. Liu Jie’s two articles on “Taiwan bungaku no chōkan” (A bird’s-eye view of Taiwanese literature), published in the mid-1930s,1 Liu Jie, “Taiwan bungaku no chōkan” [A bird’s-eye view of Taiwanese literature], <em>Taiwan bungei</em> 1 (November 1934): 58–63. Part two of the essay, “Shoku Taiwan bungaku chōkan” [Continuing a bird’s-eye view of Taiwanese literature], is published in the same magazine 2.3 (March 1935): 45–50. and Huang Deshi’s 1943 “Taiwan bungakushi josetsu” (An introduction to Taiwan’s literary history)1 Huang’s article is published in <em>Taiwan bungaku</em> 3.3 (July 1943): 2–11. Ye Shitao translated it into Chinese in 1996. The Chinese version is compiled in <em>Taiwan wenxue ji—Riwen zuopin xuanji</em> [Collection of Taiwanese Literature I—Selected Japanese Works] (Kaohsiung: Chunhui, 1996), pp. 3–19. are some earlier examples if one is counting Taiwanese critics’ writing only. Despite their good intentions, those essays were too brief to do the richness of Taiwanese literature justice.

After Japan’s surrender, Taiwanese writers continued to make efforts to compile colonial Taiwanese literature. Wang Shilang, for instance, in his capacity as the editor of Taibei wenwu (Taipei Artifact), published two issues on Northern Taiwan’s literature and modern drama in, respectively, August and December of 1954, although they were subsequently banned.1 Quoted from Lin Ruiming, <em>Taiwan wenxue de lishi kaocha</em> [A historical investigation of Taiwanese literature] (Taipei: Yunchen, 1996), p. 48. In the early 1970s, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, hereafter the KMT) took the initiative, with the thick Zhonghua mingguo wenyi shi (History of the Republic of China’s Literature and Arts), released in 1975, being the final result.1 Yin Xueman, ed. <em>Zhonghua mingguo wenyi shi</em> [History of the Republic of China’s Literature and Arts] (Taipei: Zhengzhong shuju, 1975). Conceptualizing Taiwan as a peripheral addition to Republican China’s tradition, it places native Taiwanese writers at the margins and mentions very few of them, and then only cursorily. Fortunately, however, Taiwan xinwenxue yundong jianzhi (A Brief History of Taiwan New Literature, 1977), compiled by the political scholar Chen Shaoting, partially redressed the provincialization of Taiwanese literature.1 “Partially” refers to the book’s being not particularly Taiwan-centric, although it did give general readers the opportunity to get a glance at colonial Taiwanese literature. In the afterword, Chen specifically acknowledges Huang Deshi’s 1943 “Introduction,” claiming that Huang’s essay served as the “backbone” of the 1977 book. Huang contributed to the preface of the book, making a connection between pre-1945 and post-war endeavors at literary historiography.

Bearing this contextual information in mind, we can establish that the significance of Ye’s A History of Taiwan Literature is at least twofold—its slight pre-emption, in terms of its publication time, of martial law and its Taiwan-oriented perspective.1 In 1995, Ye confessed that when drafting <em>A History of Taiwan Literature</em>, it was still the martial law period. In light of the poor political environment, he was cautious with his wording and could not explain clearly works by those writers who would express ideas about self-rule or the thoughts of left-leaning authors. See Ye Shitao, <em>Taiwan wenxue rumen</em> [Introduction to Taiwanese Literature] (Kaohsiung: Chunhui, 1997), p. 2. It offers a salient case study of how the writing of Taiwan’s literary history has been so intertwined with the island’s specific socio-political context. It also provides an illuminating angle from which to explore Ye as a “cross-regime” author who emerged from the late years of colonial Taiwan and continued to write under post-war KMT rule, albeit with a 14-year silence (1951–1965) during the “White Terror” period.1 This interval included Ye’s imprisonment (September 1951 to July 1953) for the crime of covering up communist activities. Ye’s aspiration of constructing a literary history for Taiwan emerged around 1965, when he published the article “Taiwan de xiangtu wenxue” (Taiwan’s nativist literature) in the liberal magazine Wenxing (Apollo).1 Ye Shitao, “Taiwan de xiangtu wenxue” [Taiwan’s nativist literature], <em>Wenxing </em>[Apollo] 97 (1965): 70–73. This article ushered in his productive period writing literary commentaries over the next two decades. In 1977, Ye published “Taiwan xiangtu wenxueshi daolun” (An introduction to Taiwan’s nativist literature).1 Ye Shitao, “Taiwan xiangtu wenxueshi daolun” [An introduction to Taiwan’s nativist literature], <em>Xiachao </em>[China Tide] 14 (May 1977): 68–75. These two articles laid the foundation for his A History of Taiwan Literature. In the former article, Ye expressed his wish to have the ability to sort out Taiwanese writers’ works systematically and produce a history of nativist literature (xiangtu wenxue). In addition, he remarked that Huang Deshi, in 1940s Taiwan, was likely inspired by Hippolyte Taine’s History of English Literature when trying to compile a literary history for Taiwan. And in the latter article, Ye’s attempt to produce a Taiwan-focused literary history became palpable, as he not only emphasized “Taiwanese consciousness” but also claimed that only works written with “Taiwanese consciousness” could be deemed “Taiwan’s nativist literature.”

It is worth noting that, under martial law, when Taiwan’s literary subjectivity could not be expressed explicitly, Ye employed the ideologically ambiguous notion of “native soil” (xiangtu) as a camouflage for his Taiwan-centric literary perspective. During the virulent nativist literary debate that took place between 1977 and 1978, émigré writers such as Zhu Xining and Yu Guangzhong opposed nativist literature for its potential provincialism and communist-leaning class awareness. The term “literary debate” here is a misnomer because the core of the critics’ diverse takes on “xiangtu” lay in their conflicting ideological inclinations—along the lines of pro-KMT writers (the opponents) versus those critical of the KMT (the advocates). Ye Shitao and Chen Yingzhen both belonged to the latter. Despite Ye’s accentuation of the uniqueness that had been developed by Taiwan’s nativist literature since the colonial era, he did not, in the debate, promote Taiwanese literature as an independent entity distinct from Chinese literature. Based on general humanitarian socialist concerns, Ye’s view then was not incompatible with Chen’s, even though the two are now seen as representatives of two contrasting paradigms of how to narrate Taiwan’s literary history—Ye for his “Taiwan centrism” and Chen for his unswerving “pro-China” anti-imperial and anticolonial model.

Ye’s view appeared increasingly at odds with Chen’s in the early 1980s. Following Taiwan’s continued democratization, more and more critics, such as Peng Ruijin, together with his Wenxuejie (Literary World) peers, as well as Chen Fangming (who was then on the KMT’s “blacklist” and unable to return to Taiwan) began what can be termed the “indigenization” (bentuhua) or “de-Sinification” of Taiwan’s literary historiography in the first half of the 1980s. Ye was a founding member of Literary World and, without the support of his like-minded Literary World friends, Ye perhaps would not have kicked off the daunting task of writing A History of Taiwan Literature. The contents were initially serialized in Literary World in 1984. It is not entirely coincidental that the book was published by Wenxuejie in 1987. The serialized version differs from the book in many places, indicating that Ye composed the literary history “with reservation.”1 Shi Jiaju [Chen Yingzhen] criticized Ye for being an “opportunist” because Ye did not sustain his earlier view conceptualizing Taiwanese literature as (part of) Chinese literature. See Chen’s “Ye Shitao: ‘Miancong fubei’ haishi jihui zhuyi” [“Ye Shitao: ‘Complying in appearance but opposing in heart’ or opportunistic?”], <em>Gaobie geming wenxue: Liang’an wenlunshi de fansi </em>[Bidding Farewell to Revolutionary Literature: Reflections on the Cross-strait History of Literary Theory] (Taipei: Renjian, 2003), pp. 128–142. It is only in the book form that Ye emphasized the strong “autonomous will” (zizhu yiyuan) Taiwanese literature had developed and its unique “Taiwanese traits” (taiwan xingge), inviting future scholars to produce a more comprehensive literary history based on the “outline” his book provided.1 See the 1987 Chinese version, p. 2 of the preface. Ye’s 3-page preface was not translated in the English version.

Ye’s wish was eventually realized, as this “indigenization” of Taiwan’s literary historiography became palpable in the 1990s, with Peng Ruijin’s Forty Years of Taiwanese New Literature Movement (1992) being a great example. By the early 1990s, Ye asserted that Taiwanese literature was part of “world literature” instead of being a “subservient literature” attached to any external rulers, thus demonstrating a more distinct “postcolonial” stance. He added that Taiwanese literature is a literature of the oppressed, and its essence is Taiwanese people’s resistance against external rule, which he termed “Taiwanese consciousness.”1 Ye Shitao, “Zhuanxie Taiwan wenxueshi yingzou de fangxiang” [The direction one should take when writing Taiwan’s literary history], <em>Taiwan wenxue de kunjing</em> [The Predicaments of Taiwanese Literature] (Kaohsiung: Paise wenhua, 1992), pp. 3–23. While Ye’s Taiwan-centric perspective was echoed in Peng’s aforementioned book and also later by Chen Fangming, who treated KMT rule as Taiwan’s “re-colonial” phase in his A History of Taiwan New Literature (2001), Chen Yingzhen’s view treating Taiwan’s literature as a segment of Chinese literary tradition gained momentum among PRC scholars.1 The Taiwan-centric Chen Fangming and pro-China Chen Yingzhen conducted a debate on Taiwan’s historical periodization from 1997 to late 2000 in the magazine <em>Unitas</em>. In response to Chen Shui-bien’s winning Taiwan’s 2000 presidential election, some mainland critics considered Ye and others as “(promoting) Taiwan independence through literature.”1 See Zhao Xiaqiu and Zeng Qingrui, <em>Wenxue Taidu mianmianguan</em> [Aspects of Taiwan Independence through Literature] (Beijing: Jiuzhou chubanshe, 2001). The preface is written by Chen Yingzhen. Interestingly, Chen Fangming’s A History of Taiwan New Literature is regarded by some nativist scholars as not sustaining his postcolonial perspective because Chen does not treat the émigré authors critically enough.1 You Shengguan, “Houzhimin? Houxiandai?—Chen Fangming <em>Taiwan wenxueshi</em> shuxie de lunshu kunjing” [Postcolonial? Postmodern? On the narrative conundrum of Chen Fangming’s <em>Taiwanese Literary History</em>]. <em>Taiwan ribao</em> (2011.08.20), p. 25. Both cases are highly illustrative of how politicized the writing and discussion of Taiwan’s literary historiography can be, and have been.

Another, and perhaps underdiscussed, aspect that makes Ye’s book particularly interesting is that he was not a hardcore realist or socially engaged author at the outset. On the contrary, his debut work “A Letter from Mr. Lin” (1943), published in the Nishikawa Mitsuru-led journal Bungei Taiwan, is full of French literature-inspired youthful romanticism.1 Mo Yu points out that “A Letter from Mr. Lin” was probably inspired by Alphonse Daudet’s “The Old Folks.” See Mo Yu, trans. <em>Mofang wenzha</em> [Letters from My Windmill] (Taipei: Guiguan tushu, 2002), pp. 13–14. In addition, Ye also defended Nishikawa Mitsuru in the “Feces Romanticism” debate that occurred in May of the same year.1 See Ye’s “An open letter to Mr. Shiwai Min” in <em>The Columbia Sourcebook of Literary Taiwan </em>(New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 138–139, for details. But Ye later states the letter was actually composed by Nishikawa. Although Ye depicted poverty and unemployment in his early post-war works, romanticism remained discernible in his writing into the late 1960s, such as in “Spring Dream at Gourd Alley” (1968). In his 1977 essay “An introduction to Taiwan’s nativist literature,” Ye spelled out that it must be “realist literature” (xieshi wenxue) displaying a national style (minzu fengge).1 Same as fn.10, p. 75. Although Ye did not explicate what he meant by “national” style,1 Chen Yingzhen, in “Taiwan xiangtu wenxue de mangdian” [The blind spots of Taiwan’s nativist literature], <em>Taiwan wenyi</em> 2 (June 1977): 112, defines the “national” style as a China-oriented national characteristic. his preference for realism became evident. In 1986, looking back on his life, Ye regarded himself as a socialist who had changed from believing in scientific socialism to pursuing social democracy.1 Ye Shitao, “Chentong de gaobai” [Bitter confessions], originally published in <em>Zhongguo luntan</em> 30 (May 1986), collected in Ye’s <em>Yige Taiwan laoxiu zuojia de wushi niandai</em> [A Decayed Taiwanese Writer’s 1950s] (Taipei: Qianwei, 1991), pp. 5–29. In retrospect, A History of Taiwan Literature can be taken as the pinnacle of Ye’s “realist” turn, or even of his quest for democracy.

Given the importance of Ye’s book, Lupke deserves extra credit for bringing it to an English readership with his clear, faithful, and fluent rendering. He is far more than just a translator, being more a translator-cum-scholar of Taiwanese literature. Take Chapter One as an example. It contains poems written by some of the earliest authors from Taiwan and, as such, requires the translator to have a good grasp of both classical and vernacular Chinese. With its extensive coverage of writers, literary societies, and journal titles, translating this book must have been challenging. For many terms, Lupke’s translation will likely be the first one available in English. His meticulous introduction and footnoting, which could be termed “thick” translation (if we tweak Geertz’s “thick description” slightly), are valuable for readers of the book and researchers in Taiwanese literature alike. For more serious readers, the relatively error-free and user-friendly glossary, along with Lupke’s translation of the extensive notes from the Japanese translation of Ye’s book, should be particularly useful.1 The Japanese version was published in 2000. The book now also has a Korean (2013) and Vietnamese (2018) version. The Epilogue prepared by Lupke, which succinctly recapitulates the development of Taiwanese literature after the publication of Ye’s book, functions like an 8th chapter of Ye’s 7-chapter book. This structurally coherent addition not only makes Ye’s book much more relevant to us nowadays, it also aptly highlights two special characteristics—thematization of gender and eco-writing—of contemporary Taiwanese literature. In light of the length of the translated version (385 pages, including the Index), it is reasonable that the almost 200-page-long “Chronicles of Taiwan’s literary history,” compiled by Lin Ruiming and published as an appendix to Ye’s A History of Taiwan Literature, was omitted.

Literary history should always be written in multiple versions, so that authors can choose to focus on those topics that interest them most. In this regard, Ye’s account, which he humbly refers to as an “outline history,” concentrates on fiction and poetry (though the latter to a lesser extent). Attention to essay and drama is noticeably thin, and spatial limitations mean that most literary works lack in-depth analysis, but the book is without doubt a handy outline inviting future research. An angle that warrants further investigation, in my view, is works by non-Han authors, such as indigenous authors, Taiwan-based Japanese authors, and the new migrants from Southeast Asia, so as to truly demonstrate the diversity of Taiwanese literature and more effectively substantiate Taiwanese literature as literature with a “global vision” (shijiexing shiye).1 See the 1987 Chinese version, p. 2 of the preface. This deficiency was, however, not necessarily due to any inherent limits of Ye Shitao’s, but likely was an inevitable consequence of the time in which his book was published. This gap has been, to some extent, redressed by Chen Fangming in his two-volume A History of Taiwan New Literature. More versions and different angles, such as a thematic, rather than a rigid, decade-based chronological treatment, would be welcome, too.

Lupke praises Ye for his “magnanimity” (p. 11), and I would add that Ye was relatively fair in his judgement. He claimed that modernists are not totally “devoid of any ‘vertical inheritance’” (p. 261), although he felt their “wholesale Westernization was incompatible with the literary traditions of Taiwan” (p. 262). And, for the nativists surrounding Taiwan Literature and Bamboo Hat, Ye was concerned that their “exaggerated social consciousness” might “sacrifice the broad, worldly perspective in the analysis of nativist issues” (p. 264). Ye’s striving to strike a balance between nativism and worldly vision was insightful, and this remains a valid point in literary historiography and valorization to date.