Situating Taiwanese Literature in the Framework of World Literature 

Written by Pei-yin Lin and Wen-chi Li.

Image credit: Bloomsbury.

The piece is an excerpt from “The Introduction” in Taiwanese Literature as World Literature, with a slight revision to enhance readability in the Taiwan Insight. 

World literature, a term for which Goethe is usually credited as the first proponent, has generated discussions in the West since the second half of the 20th century, particularly since the late 1990s. Casanova’s sociological studies of the “world republic of letter,” Moretti’s call for a “distant reading” and attention to variations in the genre, and Damrosch’s shying away from the literary canon to the circulation of texts are oft-quoted examples. These discussions have left noticeable impacts on the discipline of comparative literature, encouraged us to step out of the usual aesthetics confined by “great tradition”, as Leavis notes, and expanded our understanding of a literary canon beyond Shakespeare and Flaubert to include Mahfouz and Cao Xueqin. Nevertheless, these narratives cannot escape their European and North American backgrounds. Examples proposed by scholars or readers, such as The Guardian’s “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time,” are often coloured by the Euro-American centrism in which Western works emerge, receive canonisation, circulate within Europe and North America, and subsequently are distributed to the rest of the world. 

Extant scholarship on world literature focuses primarily on how “first world” works are disseminated and read beyond Anglo-European zones. Individual works from African, South American, and Asian canons are consequently assessed without a comprehensive understanding of the history of local literature. As a result, their circulation in the first world is limited to Western eyes that can Orientalise, flatten, homogenise, disrupt, and even discriminate at any point. Take the translation of Taiwanese literature as an example: feminism and queer issues attract more attention than anticolonial resistance, a dominant theme of modern Taiwanese literature. This is likely because modern readers are keener to learn about issues that are most immediately relevant to them, as opposed to those that reference a specific historical context. 

As the concept of “world” in world literature is de facto grounded in Western practice, discussion of the topic in reference to Chinese-language literature tends to concentrate on its connection to the “world,” mainly Western readers. Chinese writers zealously draw on transnational and transcultural substances, resulting in a trap—the idea that modern China is a country of passive acceptance rather than active influence. Chakrabarty’s words about India are equally relevant to China: “Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.” The nearly zero obligation of the West gives rise to a subsequent question—the politics of recognition. Western works are considered almost universal and widely applicable worldwide because they are thought to tackle intellectual issues. In contrast, the latter are required to characterise these issues according to “geopolitical realism” and to stabilise the content by way of a “nation, ethnic, and cultural location.” Mo Yan’s winning the Nobel Prize for using “older Chinese literature and popular oral traditions as a starting point, combining these with contemporary social issues” (emphasis added) is an illustrative case. Peter Handke, the 2019 Nobel laureate in literature, in contrast, is applauded more generically for his “linguistic ingenuity.” In 2020, the prize was given to the American poet Louise Glück for her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal” (emphasis added). These different comments raise the following question: Do Asian writers have to be local or socially realistic to win world recognition? Are they less competent than their Western counterparts in composing universally themed or linguistically creative works? 

Cautious about Western theories and stereotypes, we have contacted Prof. Thomas Beebee for Bloomsbury’s book series “Literature as World Literatures” and launched the project Taiwanese Literature as World Literature to provide an approach that situates Taiwanese literature with respect to the world and that reframes world literature by reducing the effects of American-European centrism. To flesh out in depth the issues in which we are particularly interested—the framing, transculturation, and translation of Taiwanese literature—the book is divided into three interconnected sections. Each represents one important dimension of approaching Taiwanese literature as world literature. 

We are pleased to invite ten contributors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, France, Italy, the UK, and the US. Starting with methodology, the first part of our book explores frameworks and tactics for conceptualising Taiwanese literature as world literature. The second and third parts investigate, respectively, the import of world literature to Taiwan and the export of Taiwanese literature to the world. Taken together, the twelve chapters respond to the three interrelated questions of Taiwanese literature globally: To what extent can Taiwanese literature be viewed as world literature? What kinds of world inspirations have led to the creation of Taiwanese literature? What is the political background behind translating Taiwanese literary works into foreign languages?  

In our book,  Taiwanese Literature as World Literature, Kuei-fen Chiu uses the example of Taiwanese literature to challenge the theoretical framework of Sinophone literature and embrace transculturalism within world literature. Through carefully selected case studies, she compares and contrasts the advantages and limits of both the Sinophone and world literature models. Carlos Rojas discusses the different contingent constructions of Taiwanese literature as the “worlding” tactics of the literary works themselves. Focusing on Wu Ming-Yi, he maintains that political and institutional constraints may actually foster writers’ creativity at the outset. Concerned with the literary modes in a global context of production, circulation, and reception, Pei-yin Lin investigates three forms—family saga, autobiographic narrative, and Bildungsromanthat she characterises as classifying Taiwanese literature as “worldly.” Her selected texts tackle the “back” circulation, “non-Western” circulation, and even the “non-circulation” of works with a transnational vision, which are usually overlooked in world literature studies.  

We have three scholars to present three case studies of transculturation in Taiwanese literature. Yi-chen Liu reevaluates the circulation of knowledge and the localisation of the Le Moulin Poetry Society. She posits that their Japanese inspirations and emphasis on intellectualism made them quite different from French surrealism, at least Breton’s automatism. On the other hand, they were less politically radical than their Western counterparts because their literary rebellion was against the left-leaning Taiwanese literary establishment in the mid-1930s instead of colonialism. Continuing the glocal circulation of Taiwanese literature, Darryl Sterk revisits Wu Ming-Yi’s environmentally informed works, which have been hailed for their symbiosis of local concern and global vision. He takes Wu’s eco-cosmopolitanism as his departure point, delving critically into the relationship between Wu’s eco-writing and his portrayal of indigenous people. Finally, Nicholas Kaldis explores how Chu T’ien-wen’s gay novel Notes of a Desolate Man conflates postmodernity and homosexuality, with the former aligning with Western techniques and the latter reflecting a unique Taiwanese reaction to global literary trends. 

Another four scholars examine Taiwanese literature in various translations. We start with the English translation primarily because it is the most major foreign language in which Taiwanese literature has been circulated globally. Resonating with Lefevere’s observation that the selection of texts is subject to the mainstream aesthetics and ideologies of the specific historical context in which the translation is produced, John Balcom investigates several anthologies ranging from the 1970s to 2021. He maintains that cultural variety has finally been emphasised in recent anthologies. Gwennaël Gaffric, analysing selected French series of Taiwanese literature, argues that Taiwan’s image has changed from a reserved area for Chinese culture to a multicultural and multilingual society. Federica Passi illustrates how two minor kinds of literature—Taiwanese and Italian—can exchange their cultural capitals equally. She also demonstrates how Taiwan can provide an alternative voice for Western readers to understand the Chinese-speaking world’s complexity, transgress China’s hegemony, and embrace other Sinophone regions like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Ying-che Huang scrutinises the shifting conceptualisation of Taiwanese literature among Japanese scholars and translators from “Taiwan’s literature,” which entails an absence of national identity, to an entity with its autonomy facilitated by governmental patronage since the 1990s.  

After investigating the politics and implications of translating Taiwanese literature into four different languages, we focus on two celebrated authors—Chiu Miao-chin and Li Ang, both are mentioned in Huang’s chapter—to delve into the effectiveness and complications of cultural equivalence in translation. Wen-chi Li implements a field research method to provide an understanding of Western readership concerning non-Western literature—Chiu Miao-chin’s lesbian works specifically. Admitting that the strategy of distant reading adopted by English-speaking people risks reducing Taiwan’s distinctiveness, Li nevertheless confirms the possibility of their appreciation and opportunities for their discovery of new Taiwanese queer texts. Sheng-chi Hsu highlights two translations of Li Ang’s The Butcher’s Wife, demonstrating how different translators might manipulate the rendering of sexuality in a feminist work. The chapters in this section altogether offer valuable insights into the current state of introducing Taiwanese literature through translation to a global audience. 

These years, we have seen the efforts of scholars and translators, publishing houses, and government to introduce Taiwanese literature on the global stage. As a result, we expect that Taiwan and its nationality will be widely recognised by the world soon.  

Pei-yin Lin is currently Associate Professor at the School of Chinese, University of Hong Kong. She is the author of Gender and Ethnicity in Taiwanese Literature: Japanese Colonial Era to Present Day (National Taiwan University Press, 2021) and Colonial Taiwan: Negotiating Identities and Modernity through Literature (Brill, 2017).

Wen-chi Li is Susan Manning fellow at the IASH, the University of Edinburgh. He has received the SNSF Postdoctoral Mobility Fellowship and will continue his research at the University of Oxford this July. He is the coeditor of the Mandarin poetry anthology Under the Same Roof: A Poetry Anthology for the LGBTQ (Dark Eyes Ltd, 2019).

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Taiwanese Literature in/and the World‘.

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