Western Xia Hotel and the Paradox of Becoming (non)-Taiwanese: The Identity Politics of Second-Generation Mainland Writers

Written by Fangmei Lin.

Luo Yi-jun (駱以軍) is one of the most significant writer in contemporary Taiwan literature and has received many literary awards. He is famous for his obsession with diaspora, trauma, and grievances due to his position as a second-generation mainlander. “The paradox of becoming (non)-Taiwanese,” in this article, means that those who do not identify with Taiwan are still Taiwanese, too. It takes changing ethnic relations in Taiwan as the background in order to explore under what kinds of cultural, social, and political conditions the speaking position of not willing to identify with Taiwan is made possible and embedded within Taiwan’s national discourse.

This article examines the concept of exile in Western Xia Hotel (西夏旅館) as rooted in the specific historical circumstances of Taiwan. Therefore, this is a place-based exile. What is emphasized by Luo as “becoming non-human” is, in fact, becoming non-Taiwanese. The entire loop of becoming eventually demonstrates the paradox of the Taiwanese: unending deferral and the situation of absence constitute the meaning of being and becoming (non)-Taiwanese.

The Intersection of Two Historical Events

There are two story-lines in this novel: the first describes how the protagonist Tunik’s grandfather and father fled to Tibet after the end of civil war between Chinese Communists and the KMT; the second story-line is about the collapse of the Western Xia Empire in the thirteenth century. As the empire was invaded by the Mongols, the remaining armies fled the capital and escaped to unknown wilderness. These two story-lines intersect with each other, depicting the experiences of fear, trauma, and exile.

The real author and the fictional narrator are usually regarded as separate entities, but Luo intentionally mixes the two by adding his own biographic data into the narrator. Luo Yi-jun is the narrator, and vice-versa. At the same time, Luo Yi-jun also hides behind other characters. Tuohan ruhu (脫漢入胡), meaning to de-Sinicize and become barbarian (Hu), is the key phrase in this novel. The author wishes to become of the Western Xia people—Hu, the barbarian—in order to leave behind the Han identity, and this seems to indicate the novel’s intention to deconstruct the myth of Great China.

But as we will see shortly, Han people also refer to Taiwanese, and he poses a cynical gesture of identifying with neither China nor Taiwan.

Luo often grants interviews to journalists and literary scholars, saying that as a second-generation mainlander he has an identity crisis and anxiety. Having lots of qualms about nativism, he assumes that for Hok-lo people (a major ethnic group in Taiwan who have been settled there for centuries), it is easy and natural to be Taiwanese. He ignores the fact that during the Martial Law period the KMT successfully instituted an ideological and educational hegemony of Chinese nationalism and all ethnic groups, including Hok-lo and indigenous, were taught to regard themselves as Chinese. Native Taiwanese were compelled to be Chinese, but at the same time not-quite so. It also took many painful steps and a long process for Taiwanese consciousness and nativist discourse to emerge and assert their importance in the political and cultural arena. Since the decline of Chinese nationalism after the lifting of Martial Law, ethnic relations became a controversial issue and each ethnic group claims their special experiences of being marginalized and oppressed. Identity politics in Taiwan henceforth has been based on claims of grievances.

There are many differences between the first and the second generation mainlanders. While the former took it for granted that they were Chinese and remained content with being Chinese, the latter identified with Chinese culture and the regime of ROC in their youthful days, but in their mature years, with the emergence of Taiwan nativism and nationalism, their belief in the KMT regime and Chinese nationalism began to collapse. In spite of disillusionment with KMT regime and Chinese nationalism, they cannot adopt the new identity of being Taiwanese. Their former beliefs were shaken and broken into pieces, resulting in cynicism and resentment about losing their youthful innocence. The need to take a negative gesture of not loving Taiwan is closely intertwined with the need to attach themselves to Taiwan in the form of denial and protest. This, ironically, reinforces the importance of Taiwan-centered discursive formation by way of disavowal.

Conclusions

This article attempts to abolish the binary opposition between “Taiwanese identity” and a “refusal of Taiwanese identity.” The latter can be seen as a flip side of Taiwanese identity. The gesture of self-exile is a place-based cultural production which cannot be fully grasped unless we understand the intersections of ethnic, cultural, political, and historical forces in Taiwan. Writing about self-exile and resistance to Taiwan nativism is an active element in the literary field of Taiwan. Lou Yi-jun manipulates the double game of Western Xia history and contemporary Taiwan, inverting the former to be metaphor of the latter. The so-called “anxiety of second-generation mainlanders” can thus be seen as creative energy that can instigate more diverse and open-minded imagination of collective self-understanding about the constructive and de-constructive interplay of Taiwanese identity.

 

Fangmei Lin is Professor at National Taiwan Normal University. Photo Credits: Kishu An This paper is part of EATS 2019 conference special issue. 

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