Taiwanese Literature in Transition: Indigenous Writing and Eco-literature as Method

Written by Ti-han Chang.

Image credit: Layers Of Blue by lwtt93/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

At the crossroad of the 21st century, we see the rise of a new transition in Taiwanese literature. In the era of anthropogenic climate change, environmental literature or ecocriticism, which was first established in the Anglophone literature begins to sow its seeds in Taiwan in the late 80s and early 90s. Alongside this new transition, aboriginal literature in Taiwan also underwent a phase of cultural renaissance in the same period. Work published by Syaman Rapongan 夏曼藍波安, Walis Nokan瓦歷斯諾幹, and Topas Tamapima 拓拔斯塔瑪匹瑪 (田雅各) enrich and diversify the literary scene in Taiwan. The work of Rapongan, which promotes sea-writing and oceanic cultural imaginary, deserves, especially our attention. Rapongan offers elements of ecological writing through his portrayals of Tao’s cosmology and society, which sets Rapongan apart from his fellow indigenous writers. Most importantly, I argue that his works open the possibility to form a new narrative for Pacific Island Literature which goes beyond the traditional boundary confined by national literature.

A Turn to the “Ocean Cultural Imaginary” in Contemporary Taiwanese Literature

A paper published in 2009 by a renowned literary scholar, Chiu Kuei-fen, notes that there were multiple attempts to “re-conceptualise” Taiwan as “a country of the ocean” beginning from the 1990s. For Chiu, Rapongan’s writing is crucial because it gave rise to the new genre of “ocean literature” and offered a clear shift of Taiwan’s political discourse. Rapongan’s works not only contribute a cultural specificity for Taiwan that is distinct from China, but they also linked Taiwan to the Austronesian historiography and articulate a more prominent political identity that is well-connected to the broader Pacific. Retrospectively, it is interesting to see that a decade ago, a scholar like Chiu mainly was concerned about how Rapongan’s sea-writing could contribute to Taiwan “politically.” Surprisingly, a decade after, the real impact of Rapongan’s works was not limited to this aspect. I argue that the significance of Rapongan’s sea-writing lies at the heart of Taiwanese eco-literature. It provides far more insight into contemporary indigenous ecocriticism and lays a solid foundation for Taiwanese environmental writing to mature in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Oceanic Worldview: Tiankong de yanjing 天空的眼睛 [Eyes in the Sky] (2012)

The oceanic worldview that is presented in Rapongan’s Tiankong de yangjing is fascinating. Unlike typical fictional works, the story begins with a fish narrator, directly addressing the readers in the preface to recognise his legitimacy in telling tales. Therefore, readers are compelled to accept an alter/native nonhuman actor rising from the sea, and an oceanic worldview is immediately invoked. Contrasting to the conventional human history that is usually rooted in the landscape and its surroundings, the oceanscape presented by Rapongan in Tiankong successfully deconstructs the logocentric (human-centric) writing of a story. These challenging boundaries are inscribed between humans and animals. Some may read this as a simple return to panpsychism, which regards nature or all beings having a mind or a mind-like quality. However, I argue that Rapongan’s design should not be read in this reductive manner. Bruno Latour, a contemporary French environmental philosopher, suggests that in the epoch of Anthropocene, it becomes increasingly urgent to tell our “geostory” since the crisis of climate and the natural environment goes beyond traditional borders nation-states. For Latour, it is “the hybrid chain of association between human and nonhuman beings (actor-network)” that enables us to tell our “geostory.” Reading Tiankong in this light, Rapongan’s deliberate focus on the ocean and nonhuman actor constitutes a “geostory” that can challenge and re-interpret the limits of physical and ontological borders between humans and nonhumans as well as between nations.

Tao’s fish culture is not exclusively in Rapongan’s Tiankong, but it is widely incorporated into a series of his works. This culture plays a critical role in the development of cetacean writing in Taiwanese eco-literature. Rapongan himself hardly writes about whales but refers mainly to guitoudaoyu 鬼頭刀魚 [dolphin fish] and feiyu 飛魚 [flying fish], the two types of fish that have dominating roles in Tao people’s diet, social organisation and belief system. Nevertheless, his portrayals of Tao’s socio-linguistic embodiment of and cultural entanglement with these fish provided rich materials for eco-writers like Wu Ming-yi 吳明益 or Liao hong-ji 廖鴻基 to expand their literary imagination further. Wu has also affirmed that his invention of Wayo Wayo islanders in Fuyenran複眼人 [The Man with the Compound Eyes] (2011), whose belief system and worldview are founded on the cetacean and oceanic cultures, draws direct inspiration from Tao’s culture and Rapongan’s writings.

Archipelago Writing and Tao’s Indigenous Traditional Knowledge: Badaiwan de shenhua八代灣的神話 [Kavavatanen No Ta-U Jimasik] (1992)

In Badaiwan de shenhua, readers perceive both direct and indirect linkages to the Pacific archipelagos via oral mythological stories. In “Jiumu lixianji救母歷險記 [A Journey to Save Mother],” two brothers and their father undertook a maritime journey from the Jimasik village on Orchid Island to the Ivatan island of Batanes (in the northern Philippines) to rescue the mother from the hands of the devil. The journey immediately invokes a shared history of the Pacific indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the tale, “Xiaonanhai yu dashayu小男孩與大鯊魚 [The Little Boy and the Big Shark],” also resonates in many respects the human-nonhuman relations that are delineated in The Whale Rider (1987), a famous literary work by the Maori writer, Witi Ihimaera.

Certain socio-economic aspects of Tao’s traditional knowledge (hereafter referred to as TK) that are portrayed in Rapongan’s work can also be qualified as essential references to establish a transpacific environmental model of sustainability. In “Feiyu shenhua 飛魚神話 [The Mythology of Flying Fish],” the black wing flying fish entered the dream of a Tao ancestor. It imparted knowledge to the Tao people concerning the various kinds of flying fish, the appropriate seasons to catch them, the suitable ways to consume them, and the right moment to cease all fishing activities. Without using advanced technology or scientific data, the empirical knowledge derives from Tao’s TK contextualises an awareness of sustainability concerning one’s local environment essentially. In a way, Tao’s TK can become the key to connect the trans-indigeneity from an ecological perspective, linking the Batanes in the Philippines or Cook Islands and Western Samoa in the South Pacific, where flying-fish culture is also a defining feature for the local indigenous peoples.

In the Anthropocene age—when climate displacement or migration triggered by severe environmental degradations turns into a pressing reality for many Pacific islands—the survival of minority indigenous groups and preserving their cultures has become a most critical issue. Rapongan’s sea-writings successfully gave rise to a new transition in Taiwanese literature, shifting more weight on ecocritical concepts inherent to indigenous writing. This approach not only enables an alter/native discourse within the Taiwanese indigenous literature, ultimately, it can also shed new light in establishing a transpacific indigenous ecocriticism.

Ti-han Chang is a lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. She researches and teaches across various interdisciplinary subjects such as environmental development and socio-political movements in the Asia Pacific region. Specialised in Taiwan studies, she also delivers a module dedicated explicitly to the postcolonial history, literature and society in Taiwan.

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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