Writing History Within/Outside of Taiwan: A Postcolonial Perspective on Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island (2016) and Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (2015) – Part 2

Written by Ti-Han Chang.

Image Credit: 青洲燈塔 ● Green Island Lighthouse by Raymond Ling/ Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Part 1 of this article, I have pointed out that one of the ways in which people can get to know the contemporary Taiwan is through its postcolonial literature. And it is particularly interesting when one comes to learn Taiwan’s colonial history re-constructed both from inside and outside of Taiwan. The stylistic difference which is highlighted amongst these two authors, Wu Ming-yi and Shawna Yang Ryan, demonstrates that different narratives (i.e. linear narrative or postmodern metanarratives) could be used effectively in approaching different readerships. In the following paragraphs, I will investigate their specific portrayal of female perspective in these two novels to show how traditional discourse of postcolonial “his-”tory can be challenged via the staging of a “her-”story. Towards the end of this article, I will also include a brief discussion on the potential “ecological turn” in postcolonial Taiwanese literature, showing our readers what may come after this gendered perspective.   

A Postcolonial “Her-”story

Despite the stylistic difference, there are some striking similarities in Ryan’s Green Island (2016) and Wu’s The Stolen Bicycle (2015). Typically, Taiwanese postcolonial novels follow the tradition that embodies its colonial experience and historical trauma through individual family history. This tradition has been widely shared across publications that came out in different periods, from the earlier anti-colonial novel such as Wu Zhou-liu’s Orphan of Asia (1959) (original title: 亞細亞孤兒 Yaxiya guer) to the more recent postcolonial feminist novel such as Chen Yu-huei’s Mazu’s Bodyguards (2009) (original title: 海神家族 Haishen jiazu). Yet, what makes comparing Wu and Ryan’s works fascinating is that, beyond this tie between the family and national history, the unbearable weight of its colonial trauma – whether this trauma is the scar of the Japanese imperial rule or is the mark of Kuomintang neocolonial regime – can only be endured and eventually come to a reconciliation through the sacrifice and love of a mother figure.

In Green Island, for example, after the miscarriage provoked by a violent interrogation of a few undercover KMT police, the female protagonist who initially considered divorcing her husband, decisively chose to stay for her marriage. She states,

“I realized that this was what Mama had meant by love. A shared experience, a shared history, a shared trauma: this is what made us a family. No one else could understand it. […] Now I understood there was something stronger than fate. Choice. It was ugly and quotidian and lacked romance, and that was exactly what gave it its strength. So, like my mother, I chose to stay.” (Ryan 344)

For both the female protagonist and her mother, in various difficult periods of their lives such as experience of miscarriage, loss of a husband, or death of a family friend brought by KMT’s violence and colonial oppression, the ultimate solution for the family (i.e. the nation) is their choice to endure and sacrifice.

The portrayal, to a large extent, resonates with Wu Ming-yi’s story. For example, the beginning chapter of The Stolen Bicycle is titled, “The History of Bicycles that My Family Has Lost”. Here, the family also refers to Taiwan, and the missing bicycles symbolize the unheard stories of different populations – indigenous peoples from Taiwan and Burma, the Japanese and Mainland Chinese soldiers – who have struggled through the Japanese colonial time, the Pacific War, and the KMT authoritarian rule. Their voices and memories, sometimes individual and sometime collective, were excluded in the periphery of Taiwan’s history. The protagonist, Ch’eng, sets out to find his missing father (Xunfu尋父) and the lost bike, and it only comes out that the search unfolds even more untold traumatic stories that are linked to peoples’ memories of bicycles. Most intriguingly, although the main plot line is dominated by the search for this missing father figure, the mother figure does not fade into the background. On the contrary, the emphasis is place on the mother and her endless accounts of her sacrifice and endurance for the family, which she equates with the meaning of love (Wu 17).

Both stories begin with a missing father figure. Throughout the story, the missing father haunts the family like a historical spectre. Surprisingly, both end with a mother figure who is hospitalised. The ill and weak mother figure suggests that a closure of a historical time soon will come, and the unbearable burden of historical pain may fade with her. Nevertheless, it also informs the readers implicitly that a different page of postcolonial history is about to turn.

Prospect in Taiwanese Postcolonial Literature- Animal and its Historical Testimony

Many more can be said on the comparative study of these two novels, yet what is important here is to highlight what sort of future prospect that one can further expect from the development of Taiwanese postcolonial literature as well as its significance in “worlding” Taiwanese literature as a whole. An emerging feature that may potentially be established into a kind of “new traditions” for Taiwanese postcolonial literature is the sparks that come out from its cross-disciplinary reference to environmental literature. The agency of non-human beings, notably the animal agents, which tells historical events outside of our anthropocentric point of view is now much welcomed in postcolonial literature worldwide. Though more significantly present in The Stolen Bicycle than in Green Island, Lin Wang the Elephant is easily discerned by the readers in both works. The elephant, to the eyes of these two authors, apparently has a critical role in the historical testimony of postcolonial Taiwan. To my mind, this could be the most fascinating scope that Taiwanese postcolonial literature can extend beyond and re-shape a different form of writing in response to the “‘worlding’ of Taiwanese literature”.

Ti-han Chang is a lecturer of Asia Pacific studies at University of Central Lancashire. Her research interests cover a wide-range of topics, including postcolonial environmental literature, ecocriticism, environmental and animal ethics, socio-political movements, political identity, political censorship, migrant and aboriginal studies.

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