Review of "Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers"

By Kuei-fen Chiu

Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers: An Anthology showcases the best examples of contemporary Taiwanese writing by women writers, all of whom have won major literary awards in Taiwan and are recognized as leading figures of Taiwan’s literary scene. With ten short stories and one piece of non-fiction, the anthology covers a wide range of topics, including mother-daughter relationships, relationships in and outside the institution of marriage, the intertwining of politics and gender, and the desire for life-giving power. In this respect, it recalls Bamboo Shoots after the Rain: Contemporary Stories by Women Writers of Taiwan (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993), with a major difference being that the latter includes writing by women writers born in China in the early twentieth century, while Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers is devoted to works by women writers born in Taiwan after World War II, with Chen Jo-his (1938-) as the sole exception.

The eleven pieces can be divided roughly into several groups that address themes found not only in Taiwanese literature or Sinophone literature, but also in women’s writing and world literature. For example, “Wedding Date” (Ping Lu) and “Seed of the Rape Plant” (Liao Hui-ying) tell intriguing stories that reveal the often ambivalent love-hate relationships between daughters and mothers. Since the mother-daughter plot is an important focal point in feminist literary criticism, the in-depth psychological portrayal of the daughter-protagonists vis-à-vis their oppressive mothers would appeal to readers with feminist concerns. Likewise, the gender politics of marriage as depicted in “Seed of the Rape Plant” and “A Place of One’s Own” (Yuan Chiung-chiung) resonates with many canonical texts of women’s literature in general and invites further comparative studies. Indeed, the title “A Place of One’s Own” immediately calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s celebrated feminist work A Room of One’s Own. Situated within the context of Taiwanese literature, these three texts reflect Taiwanese women writers’ interest in the institution of marriage during the 1980s and 1990s and are part of the canon of Taiwanese women’s literature. Also engaging with the theme of marriage, “The Party Girl” by Lin Tai-man relates how its young female characters pursue their dreams of marrying rich so as to “enjoy a life of elegance and taste,” implicitly mocking a consumerist society and its value system.

While these four stories tackle human relationships framed by the institution of marriage, “The Travels and Lover of a Junior High Girl” by Chung Wenying and Li Ang’s “The Devil in a Chastity Belt” foreground sexuality as the main issue. In the former, the sexual fantasy of a junior high girl, who undertakes a journey to meet a renowned middle-age male writer, reminds one of Li Ang’s short story “Flower Season” (1968). Both feature teenage girls as protagonists and use their perspectives to dramatize young girls’ curiosity about sexuality. (“Flower Season” is included in Bamboo Shoots after the Rain: Contemporary Stories by Women Writers of Taiwan, which is another reason to read these two anthologies together and comparatively.) “The Devil in a Chastity Belt,” a story written by Li Ang thirty years after the publication of “Flower Season,” continues Li’s preoccupation with female sexuality, but it sets the story in a much more embedded social context. The protagonist, the wife of an imprisoned oppositional dissident, is elevated to the venerable position of “Grieving National Mother” only to find herself in a state of prolonged sexual repression. The interplay between politics and sexuality is a distinctive characteristic of Li Ang’s writings in the 1990s and “The Devil in a Chastity Belt” is an illustrative example.     

Politics also surfaces in “The Story of Hsiao-Pi” by Chu T’ien-wen and “The Fish” by Chen Jo-his. Authored by Newman Prize for Chinese Literature winner, in her piece “The Story of Hsiao-Pi” Chu T’ien-wen shows us the lifeworld of children of Chinese migrants who retreated to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party after World War II. With a boy from the so-called “military village” as the protagonist, Chu T’ien-wen’s story highlights the issue of ethnicity within a specific Taiwanese socio-historical context. While gender politics lurks in the background, it is not presented as the main subject here. The story itself was adapted into the 1983 film Growing Up by Chen Kun-hou (one of the representative works of New Taiwan Cinema), and was awarded “Best Adapted Screenplay” at the 20th Taipei Golden Horse Film festival as well as selected as Taiwan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 56th Academy Awards. Similarly, with its portrayal of people’s daily lives during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in mainland China, Chen Jo-his’s “The Fish,” which displays her writing at its best, is not concerned so much with gender issues as with politics. Chen lived in China from 1966 to 1973, and she is known for her depictions of life during the Chinese Revolution. “The Fish” gives us a glimpse of Chen’s literary achievement as a Taiwanese writer who writes well-crafted stories about a particular period of China’s traumatic historical past. The inclusion of these two pieces in the anthology suggests that gender issues are not always a focal point for contemporary Taiwanese women writers.   

“Baby, My Dear” by Marula Liu and “No Time to Grow Up” can be considered together, for the figure of the child dominates both stories. In a way, “Baby, My Dear” rewrites the typical story of childbearing within a patriarchal social structure. If women are objectified in a traditional patriarchal society because of their expected role of sustaining the male linage through childbearing, the female protagonist in “Baby, My Dear” treats men as objectified tools in her pursuit of her dream of having a child of her own. (Liu is also a writer actively participating in film production and is known for adapting her work “Seven Days in Heaven” into a blockbuster movie with the same title, which won the “Best adapted screenplay” award at the 47th Golden Horse Film Festival.) “No Time to Grow Up,” the only piece of non-fiction in the anthology, uses the eye-witness account to give us a glimpse of the final days of hospitalized children with terminal illnesses. In a sense, both “Baby, My Dear” and “No Time to Grow Up” are saturated with the desire for life-giving power. Whereas the former longs for the life yet to be shaped, the latter laments the premature loss of young lives.

Unlike the other stories in the anthology, Tsai Su-fen’s “Taipei Train Station” tells the story of a non-place. Instead of focusing on specific human characters and their various desires, the train station apparently serves as the epitome of a changing Taiwanese cityscape impacted by modernization. Here human characters do appear on the scene, but are unnamed and almost faceless. As such, “Taipei Train Station” straddles the genres of non-fiction and fiction, and its inclusion in the anthology showcases Taiwanese women writers’ experimentation with non-place writing.   

As editor Jonathan Stalling writes in the introduction, “Individually, each story expresses its own varied, expansively heterogeneous narrative, yet, taken as a whole, we discover a pointedly gendered exploration of modern Taiwan in works that span more than four decades.” This emphasis on the book as “a pointed gendered exploration of modern Taiwan” may explain the absence of a framing scheme, but the anthology notably includes voices from the younger generation of Taiwanese women writers. More broadly, female relationships, whether between mothers and daughters, wives and husbands, women and their burgeoning sexuality, or women and the politics of gender, certainly find resonances in women’s literature worldwide. And readers interested in the intersection of women writers and film (production) may wish to further their studies of Chu T’ien-wen and Marula Liu. Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers is a rich anthology with a great deal to offer to a wide variety of readers both locally in Taiwan and globally.

Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers: An Anthology. Edited by Jonathan Stalling, Lin Tai-man, and Yanwing Leung. New York: Cambria Press, 2018.

Kuei-fen Chiu holds a PhD degree from the University of Washington, Seattle and is Distinguished Professor of Taiwan Literature and Transnational Cultural Studies at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan. In addition to several books in Chinese and New Chinese-language Documentaries (co-authored with Yingjin Zhang from UCSD), she has published in leading journals such as New Literary History, The Journal of Asian Studies, The China Quarterly, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies and contributed to edited volumes from international publishers like Routledge. She is currently in charge of The Taiwan Literature Archives project -- a digital project on Taiwan’s literary history.