Wu Zhuoliu’s Orphan of Asia and the Madness of the Colonial Reality

Written by Makiko Mori.

Image credit: Museum of Literature, Tainan, Taiwan by Jonathan E. Shaw /Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Wu Zhuoliu’s (1900–1976) Orphan of Asia is a renowned work of colonial Taiwanese literature. Surreptitiously written towards the end of Japan’s colonial rule in Taiwan (1895-1945), this semi-autobiographical novel bears a powerful witness to Taiwan’s deeply troubled, albeit legitimately modern, claim for the right to self-determination and self-representation. The continuing appeal of the novel lies in part in its unequivocal and anti-colonial critique of Taiwan’s ascribed subject position, a question that still deeply resonates with the postwar and postcolonial discourses on the island. At the same time, the import of this colonial novel also resides in its scrutinising exploration of the condition and possibility of the island’s subjective identity formation. In the novel, the question of identity specifically concerns the double-edged nature of the performative both as constitutive of colonial hegemony, and as conducive to its disruption.

The Japanese language novel Orphan of Asia, originally titled Ko Shimei, is a “colonial bildungsroman” of the colonial subject Ko Shimei, set against the island’s increasingly vulnerable positionality vis-à-vis Japan’s colonial expansion in Asia on the one hand, and mainland China’s intensifying anti-imperialist nationalism on the other. As such, Shimei’s colonial bildungsroman is nothing like attaining autonomy. The repeated pursuit of a constant and stable sense of the self all end up thwarted and in disillusionment, whether by means of commitment to modern knowledge or through self-enacted formation of romantic and familial affinity. Such a conundrum is explicated throughout the novel.

For instance, the two episodes of love—first, his unrequited love for a Japanese colleague and, later, his failed marriage with a mainland Chinese woman—underline how the hopeful search for a place of belonging hinges on the ambivalent idea of affinity and intimacy with either one of the hegemonic entities. The latter episode in particular involves Shimei’s deliberate efforts to perform a middle-class mainland Chinese through drilling and mastering of its language and cultural and political norms. This symbolic union with the “motherland” legitimises his participation in mainland China’s modern nation-building at the same time as liberating him from the colonial authority’s punitive policing. But the affective union is far from ideal. Furthermore, such intimate relations soon turn out untenable as Japan’s imperialist aggression on the mainland intensifies. Nationalist China no longer sees “Taiwanese of Japanese nationality” as trustable members of the Chinese family: they are at best “deformed children.” In the end, dejected Shimei runs away from the mainland and returns home in Taiwan, a path of “thistles and thorns” that once again traps him in the repressive colonial relations.

Episodes like this one illustrate how colonial Taiwan’s circumscribed identity position was a naturalised effect of the performative economy of colonial and, in the case of this particular episode, nationalist relations. Shimei’s idealism may seem somewhat naïve, but the idea of affective union was really an integral part of the hegemonic discourses of colonialism and exclusionary nationalism. Underscored in these episodes of unrequited love and failed marriage is, therefore, just how Shimei’s futile pursuit of affective union was a very desirable effect of colonial and nationalist discourses, ones that do not include but instead exclude, Taiwan in their respective boundary formation.

The novel’s last two chapters detail the increasingly bleak colonial condition during intense “imperialisation” and war mobilisation between 1937 and 1945. At the time, Taiwan’s Japanese colonial government implemented a number of policies aimed at severing the island’s ties with mainland China, which went well beyond targeting at ostensive political affinity across the strait: Chinese language publication was banned, and cultural practices originating in mainland China were officially prohibited as well. Taiwan’s literary production of this period feature a number of colonial subjects in pursuit of “Japaneseness,” whether by adopting Japanese names, wearing kimonos, speaking Japanese, worshipping Shinto deities, or “volunteering” to fight in the war. These colonial subjects are “mimic men,” to borrow Homi Bhabha’s term; but under the particular historical condition of Taiwan at the time, the performative pursuit of “Japaneseness” (and its doomed success) does not so much mock or disrupt the inherent ambivalence of colonial discourse. Rather, as Wu’s novel makes plainly clear, such performative participation in the colonial fiction merely helped consolidate the hegemonic relations on the island.

Shimei at last exhausts all thinkable and available means of forming a coherent and bounded identity, and this eventually leads to the novel’s climactic ending with his transformation into a madman. This loss of sanity is, however, not just to indicate Taiwan’s tragic victimhood as an orphan abandoned by the “motherland” China. The narrative instead emphasises how Shimei’s madness is an act of colonial subversion. Particularly noteworthy here is the very theatrical way in which madness plays out as performance: with his face painted red like Lord Guan, Shimei seats himself in front of the gathered audience consisting of the family and community members, who initially came to Ko clan’s ancestral hall for his subversive poetry scribbled on the wall. With the poetry in the back, Shimei’s performance stately commences with his simulated solemnity of the cultural icon, Lord Guan, issuing a series of penetrating criticism of the colonial authorities; and the theatrical presentation of madness increasingly builds up its frenzy, shifting from the serious oration in the beginning to bewitching singing, and finally to inflammatory cursing. Shimei’s madness awakens the audience to the very madness of the colonial reality and seems to inject a new momentum among them. Perhaps more interesting, the narrative indicates that madman Shimei transgress colonial taboos unimpeded even as he continues to agitate colonial subversion in public: through madness presented in the manner of theatrical performance he thus also succeeds in transcending the very performative relations of colonial hegemony.

Makiko Mori is Associate Professor at the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures, Auburn University. This article is part of the special issue on the literature.

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