Taiwan Lit and the Global Sinosphere


Millennial Writers and the Taiwanese Literary Tradition

Taiwan Lit 2.1 (Spring 2021)

In a commentary she wrote for The Contents of the Times文藝春秋, a collection of short stories by the Taiwanese writer Huang Chong Kai 黃崇凱, Yvonne Chang noted that the stories in the collection exhibit two distinctive traits. In terms of content, many of them refer to renowned Taiwan writers, such as Wang Zhenghe 王禎和, Nie Hualing 聶華苓, Zhong Lihe 鍾理和, and Huang Lingzhi 黃靈芝 (Chang, 298). In terms of narrative strategy, Huang incorporates well-known historical figures and events into his fictional narratives, and thereby often blurs the boundary between fiction and reality. Interestingly, these two traits can also be found in many other works published about the same time. In addition, the authors of these works, just like Huang, belong to what Chang calls the “millennial generation.” They were all born in the 1980s.

The Contents of the Times came out in 2017. That year also witnessed the publication of Anecdotes of a Magnificent Island: The Key 華麗島軼文:鍵, another collection of short stories, this time featuring Taiwan writers and artists of the colonial period. Anecdotes is a joint effort of five millennial writers: He Jingyao 何敬堯, Yang Shuangzi 楊双子, Chen Youjin陳又津, Xiaoxiang Shen 瀟湘神, and Sheng Haowei 盛浩偉. Like The Contents of the Times, Anecdotes transforms well-known writers in Taiwan’s literary history into fictional characters. As He Jingyao, the convener of the Anecdotes publishing project explains, the two key terms of the book title are associated with two prominent writers in colonial Taiwan: the influential Japanese writer Mitsuru Nishikawa 西川滿 and the Taiwanese writer Lu Heruo 呂赫若, who disappeared in the White Terror period. Mitsuru Nishikawa coined the term “magnificent island” to refer to Taiwan. The word “key” comes from an anecdote about Lu Heruo, who was said to have entrusted the Taiwanese artist Guo Xuehu 郭雪湖 with a bunch of keys before he fled from the political persecution of the KMT. Both Mitsuru Nishikawa and Lu Heruo appear in Anecdotes as characters.

These two collections were followed by 100 Years of Taiwan Literature: 1900~2000百年降生:台灣文學故事 19002000—another collection of stories about Taiwan writers, or literary phenomena, from the colonial period to the end of the twentieth century. Like Anecdotes, 100 Years of Taiwan Literature is a joint effort involving twelve millennial writers rather than being a solo work. It maps the trajectory of the development of Taiwan literature in the 20th century by arranging the 101 stories in chronological order. Each story is devoted to either a writer, a literary movement, a specific literary genre, or a literary community that has played a significant role in the shaping of 20th-century Taiwan literature. It is noteworthy that, in addition to consecrated writers, such as those appearing in the aforementioned two collections, 100 Years of Taiwan Literature pays special attention to lesser-known and less well-studied writers and implicitly acknowledges their contribution to the shaping of Taiwan literature.

Arguably, as I discuss in detail elsewhere (Chiu 2021, forthcoming), a new trend in Taiwan literature is taking shape and being promoted by the millennial writers in Taiwan: making the Taiwanese literary tradition visible and marking Taiwan literature as something they inherit. This trend inadvertently sheds light on a peculiar feature of Taiwan literature. Unlike writers from other countries, who constantly draw upon the literary legacy of writers from their own country and thereby implicitly acknowledge a literary tradition of their own, the intertextuality between Taiwanese writers and their predecessors is hard to find. While the names of Western, Japanese, and Chinese writers populate Taiwan’s writers’ texts, the names of Taiwanese writers are scarcely mentioned. For example, Lai He, who is often hailed as the father of Taiwanese new literature, was said to be inspired by the Chinese writer Lu Xun 魯迅. The poets of Le Moulin poetry society in colonial Taiwan openly acknowledged their debt to French surrealist poets, such as André Breton and Jean Cocteau, as well as Japanese modernist writers, particularly Nishiwaki Junzaburō. Taiwanese modernist writers Wang Wenxing 王文興 and Wang Zhenhe 王禎和 also referred to Western modernist writers, such as Henry James and William Faulkner, as their source of inspiration. It is well known that the Taiwanese post-modernist writer Zhang Dachun 張大春 borrowed from the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez in composing his own fictional works of magical realism in the early 1980s. The link between Taiwan’s nature writing and Western nature writing is quite obvious in the works of nature writers like Liu Kexiang 劉克襄 and Wu Ming-yi 吳明益. Given this deep influence of Western, Chinese, and Japanese literature on Taiwan literature, it is not far-fetched to say that twentieth-century Taiwan literature constantly reinvented itself through the appropriation of foreign patrimonies. In other words, “world literature” was eagerly sought and exercised as literary capital by the writers, whereas Taiwanese literature was not.

This strong preference for foreign patrimonies characterizes Taiwan literature as what Pascale Casanova calls “small literature”—literature occupying a dominated and peripheral position in the world literary space and perceived as “literarily deprived” (Casanova, 181). For reasons that we shall discuss in the following, writers on the island often use the appropriation of foreign patrimonies as an effective way of accumulating literary capital and instigating literary upheaval on the island. Casanova contends that literary capital is constituted by material objects such as texts (ibid., 14). The literary capital is “embodied by all those who transmit it, gain possession of it, transform it, and update it” (ibid., 15). “Age” constitutes an important aspect of this capital: “The age of a national literature testifies to its ‘wealth’—in the sense of number of texts—but also, and above all, to its ‘nobility,’ to its presumed or asserted priority in relation to other national traditions and, as a result, to the number of texts regarded as ‘classics’… or ‘universal’” (ibid., 14). The absence of the intertextuality between Taiwanese writers of different generations, in a sense, implies a failure of Taiwanese literature to be “capital” for Taiwanese writers, at least in the 20th century. It was not recognized as capital, deemed worthy of being possessed, and therefore transmitted or transformed. Not surprisingly, the concept of a Taiwanese literary tradition was missing in their creative works.

Several factors might have been at play in the shaping of this peculiar characteristic of Taiwan literature. First of all, the constant reshuffling of political structure makes it inevitable that a literary tradition would find difficulty coming into shape. Taiwanese indigenous people did not have any writing system. Chinese literature was introduced to Taiwan when Chinese writers travelled to the island or settled down there for one reason or another in the 17th century. The Chinese literary tradition based on Chinese classical literature dominated the works of Taiwan writers before the island was handed over by the Qing dynasty to Japan in 1895. This Chinese literary tradition was disrupted because its mastery was no longer regarded as an asset in the new literary environment. Instead, writers in colonial Taiwan were taught to measure themselves against the literary standard set by Japanese writers. Many colonial writers who made their names in Taiwanese literary circles wrote in the Japanese language and had their works published in Japanese literary magazines. Yang Qui’s 楊逵 “The Newspaper Carrier 送報伕,” Lu Heruo’s “The Ox Cart 牛車,” Long Yingzhong’s 龍瑛宗 “A Small Town Planted with Papaya Trees 植有木瓜樹的小鎮,” and Wu Zhuoliu’s 吳濁流 Orphan of Asia 亞細亞的孤兒 are just some of the prominent examples. The Japanese literary tradition became the dominant literary tradition, and Japanese writers replaced Chinese writers as the ones to be emulated and competed with. The Chinese literary tradition also had a role to play in colonial Taiwan, as Taiwanese writers who insisted on using Chinese language, such as Lai He 賴和, looked toward the modern Chinese May Fourth movement in their attempt to launch the new Taiwanese literature movement.

The end of World War II brought Taiwan within the Cold War structure. The proclamation of Chinese Mandarin as the official language marked again a whole new set of literary texts to be learned and a new literary tradition to be inherited. The Taiwanese writers active in the colonial period could no longer maintain their status as “writer” because the literary capital they had worked hard to accumulate under Japanese rule was useless in the new literary environment. Their works remained mostly unknown until the 1990s, when Taiwan literature gradually emerged as a legitimate concept and pedagogical category. At the same time, the reliance of Taiwan on US political power in the Cold War era placed Anglo-American literature at the top of the literary hierarchy. The emergence of the modernist movement in the 1960s is a good example. Their appropriation of the innovations and techniques of Western modernist writers created the literary capital they needed to energize the literary revolution they tried to initiate. Since then, Western literature, or to be more precise, world literature as decreed by the literary center in the West, has remained the dominant form of literary capital in Taiwan. Given the position Taiwan literature has occupied in literary hierarchies over the past hundreds of years, it is understandable that it has seldom been recognized as useful capital by Taiwanese writers. It does not have the literary authority that would help consecrate a writer. The measures of literary authority, as identified by Casanova, include “the age, the ‘nobility,’ and the number of literary texts written in a given language, the number of universally recognized works, the number of translations” (Casanova, 20). Taiwan literature, as a category, has none of these.

Another factor is the late emergence of “Taiwan literature” as a concept. Although “literature” as a concept appeared on the Taiwanese scene in the 17th century, the concept of “Taiwan literature” did not emerge until the 1990s. The first history of Taiwan literature was published by Ye Shitao 葉石濤 in 1987, the year martial law was lifted. The 1990s witnessed the academic institutionalization of Taiwan literature as an independent pedagogical field, which made it possible to reclaim the works of colonial writers, particularly works written in the Japanese language. In a sense, the literary tradition of Taiwan literature only came into being in the 1990s, when Taiwan literature began to be taught, studied, and propagated through courses devoted to Taiwan literature in the universities.

In order to be recognized as having a tradition with its own canonical texts worthy of transmission and propagation, Taiwan literature needs to be regarded as “cultural memory.” This link between Taiwan literature and cultural memory took place in the 1990s when literature, particularly those colonial works that were suppressed under KMT rule, and which fell into oblivion as a result, began to be seen as objects of remembrance. Astrid Erll and Ann Rigny identify three significant roles played by literature in the production of cultural memory: literature as a medium of cultural remembrance, literature as an object of cultural remembrance, literature as a medium for observing the production of memory (2006). It was only in the 1990s that these three roles of Taiwan literature in the active production of Taiwanese cultural memory were brought into full play. Jan Assmann argues that cultural memory “requires institutions of preservation and re-embodiment” (Assmann). The establishment of institutions devoted to the preservation, interpretation, and reproduction of Taiwan literature is particularly important for shaping the concept of Taiwanese literary tradition. The appearance of departments of Taiwan literature in the universities from the late 1990s and the establishment of the National Museum of Taiwan Literature in 1998 established institutional mechanisms for the production and dissemination of Taiwan literature as legitimate cultural memory. This belated recognition of Taiwan literature as having a tradition of its own and possessing a rich reservoir of texts worthy of being remembered and transmitted is also a reason references to Taiwan literature were missing in most of the works produced in the 20th century.

A sea change began to take place after the turn of the century. For sure, millennial writers continue to be inspired by works from other countries. Anecdotes took the Japanese popular manga Bungo Stray Dogs as a model, and the idea of its “relay” form also comes from a publishing project launched by the Japanese magazine Faust (He, 9–14). With the exception of Sheng Haowei’s 盛浩偉 “Flowers in the Mirror 鏡裡繁花,” which identifies itself as literary fiction, all the other four stories in the collection are basically genre fiction closely connected with Japanese popular literature, including Japanese monster literature, Japanese Yuri literature, Japanese BL (boys’ love) literature, and Japanese fantasy literature. 100 Years of Taiwan Literature was inspired by Gunter Grass’s My Century, which reconstructs German history from 1900 to 1999 with 101 stories. Each of the stories focuses on a specific year. This is basically the format adopted by 100 Years of Taiwan Literature. However, what distinguishes the writing of Taiwanese millennial writers from their predecessors is their self-conscious identification of themselves as heirs to a Taiwanese literary tradition. Taiwan literature is deliberately deployed as capital. These millennial writers make it a point to refer to Taiwanese writers and events in the works they create. They not only highlight Taiwan literature as an object of remembrance but also use creative writing as a medium of remembrance, to create the “afterlives” of Taiwanese writers and their works. In the hands of these Taiwanese millennial writers, Taiwan literature is finally recognized as literary capital. The young writers’ acknowledgement of a Taiwanese literary tradition changes profoundly the character of Taiwan literature in the 21stcentury.


I would like to thank the Ministry of Science and Technology in Taiwan for its support of my research project “On the ‘Newness’ of Literature: Taiwan Literature in the Early Twenty-first Century.” This short essay is part of the research output of the project.



































































Works Cited

Assmann, Jan. 2010. “Communicative and Cultural Memory.” In Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, eds., Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter. 109–118.

Casanova, Pascale. 2004. The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M. B. Debevoise. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.

Chang, Yvonne. 2017. “Cultural Transmission in Detour 迂迴的文化傳遞.” In Huang Chong Kai, The Contents of the Times. Taipei: Weicheng (Acropolis). 297–305.

Chiu, Kuei-fen. 2021. “Millenial Writers and the Making of a New Taiwanese Literary Tradition.” Chung Wai Literary Quarterly.

Erll, Astrid and Ann Rigney. 2006. “Literature and the Production of Cultural Memory: Introduction.” European Journal of English Studies, 10.2: 111–115. DOI: 10.1080/13825570600753394

Erll, Astrid and Ansgar Nünning, eds. 2010. Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.

He, Jingyao何敬堯. 2017. “Preface: A Round-table Meeting in a Magnificent Age 序:華麗時代的圓桌會.” In He Jingyao et al, Anecdotes of a Magnificent Island: The Key麗島軼文:鍵. Taipei, Jiuge. 7–17.

He, Jingyao 何敬堯, Yang Shuangzi楊双子, Chen Youjin陳又津, Xiaoxiang Shen瀟湘神, and Sheng Haowei盛浩偉. 2017. Anecdotes of a Magnificent Island: The Key華麗島軼文:鍵. Taipei, Jiuge.

Huang, Chong Kai黃崇凱. 2017. The Contents of the Times 文藝春秋. Taipei: Weicheng (Acropolis). 297–305.

Li, Shiyong李時雍. 2018. 100 Years of Taiwan Literature:1900~2000百年降生:台灣文學故事19002000. Taipei: Lianjing.