Taiwanese Literature through the Lens of World Literature: Publications in 2022 and 2023

Written by Jessica Ssu-Chieh Fan.

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

The past year, from 2022 to 2023, has witnessed some exciting achievements in Taiwanese literature. Malaysian-Chinese Taiwan-based novelist Chang Kuei-hsing won the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, one of the most prestigious literary prizes for contemporary prose and poetry written in Chinese. From the discourses surrounding this literary event, including Chang’s acceptance speech and the remarks by Chang’s nominator E.K. Tan, some evolving trends related to broader paradigm shifts in Taiwanese literary studies can be discerned. Both Chang and Tan referenced the hybrid transcultural aesthetic influences epitomised by Chang’s literary style, which Tan described as “a unique branch of Chinese literature as world literature.” Another Taiwanese writer who has garnered significant international attention is Kevin Chen. His novel Ghost Town, translated into English by Darryl Sterk, was featured on the Best Books of World Literature of 2022 by Library Journal and on the longlist of the PEN Translation Prize 2023. In addition, Ghost Town received favourable reviews from several major US media outlets, including the New York Times and NPR. Using world literature as a keyword, this article introduces recent scholarly publications that situate Taiwanese literature within larger global contexts of literary exchanges and interactions, thereby illuminating how Taiwanese literature has been produced, translated, and circulated in the current age of globalisation and digitalisation. 

Before moving on to the publications, it is helpful to provide an overview of the concept of world literature and the renewed attention it has gained since around the turn of the century. The term “world literature” derives from the German word  Weltliteratur, which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe coined in the 19th century to describe literary works with the capacity to transcend national and literary boundaries. While world literature started to emerge as an academic discipline in the US in the mid-twentieth century, alongside the institutionalisation of comparative literature, it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the focus of world literature expanded vastly beyond Western classics. The underlying historical conditions are manifold, including the end of the Cold War, the emergence of a more integrated global literary marketplace, and the accelerated flow of information facilitated by internet technologies. Among the surge of critical approaches to world literature, some of the most referenced scholars are David Damrosch, Pascale Casanova, and Franco Moretti. Damrosch posits world literature as a mode of circulation and reading, highlighting the mediating role of translation. Adopting a sociological approach to world literature, Casanova conceptualises world literature as a dynamic space of literary rivalry, where writers from the peripheries constantly struggle for recognition from the literary centre. Moretti regards world literature more as a problem than an object and proposes the method of “distant reading” to deal with “the great unread” to bring broader literary patterns and trends to light.  

In addition to world literature, the Sinophone is another theoretical framework that encourages transnational perspectives for studying Taiwanese literature. The term Sinophone was first coined by Shu-mei Shih in her influential essay “Global Literature and the Technologies of Recognition” in 2004. Since its inception, Sinophone studies has gradually gained traction within English-speaking academia. This area of study, influenced by postcolonial perspectives, challenges the notion of a uniform or homogeneous Chinese identity and argues against the marginalisation of literature in Sinitic languages outside of mainland China. The criteria for including or excluding works as part of Sinophone literature is still a topic of discussion, particularly regarding literary works from China itself. Nevertheless, Sinophone studies has introduced valuable analytical tools that help expand Taiwan studies beyond the limitations of area studies. These tools include relational comparison, multi-directional critique, and minor transnationalism. 

Taiwan Literature in the 21st Century: A Critical Reader, co-edited by Chia-rong Wu and Ming-ju Fan, represents an ambitious endeavour to capture the ever-evolving literary landscape of contemporary Taiwan. Following the repeal of martial law in 1987, Taiwan’s cultural landscape experienced significant changes. These transformations were marked by increased local awareness, a rapid influx of diverse aesthetic influences from abroad, and a broader acceptance of multicultural and progressive values. This volume combines the works of writers and scholars from various generations and is divided into five sections to showcase diverse methodologies and interpretations of Taiwanese literature. The first section of the volume focuses on exploring and reinterpreting Taiwan’s history and politics. The second section investigates matters related to literary form, genre, and experimentation. The third section illuminates topics concerning gender, sexuality, and homoerotic politics. The fourth section delves into themes surrounding ethnicities and races. Finally, the fifth section highlights aspects of transnationality, globalisation, and cosmopolitanism. Citing The Columbia Sourcebook of Literary Taiwan as among its main sources of inspiration, the volume also shares a similar vision to promote Taiwanese literature and its scholarship beyond the traditional national literature paradigm by encouraging inter-referencing between Taiwanese literature and other literatures on a regional and global scale.   

Taiwanese Literature as World Literature explicitly adopts world literature as its conceptual framework and argues that the palimpsestic colonial history of Taiwan and the multilingual nature of Taiwanese literature make it particularly suitable to frame Taiwanese literature as part of the larger literary world. In the introductory chapter, the editors Pei-yin Lin and Wen-chi Li note that despite the all-inclusive promise of world literature, Western literatures, languages, and cultures continue to dominate the practices and discourses of world literature. Therefore, Lin and Li emphasise the need to draw insight from the relational comparison and oceanic epistemology advocated by Shu-mei Shih, Édouard Glissant, and Epeli Hau‘ofa. This comprehensive volume addresses many topics, including the asymmetrical dynamics of transcultural and translational practices, institutional mechanisms for recognition, the integration of imported aesthetic resources, and the politics of circulation. The twelve chapters are thoughtfully organised into three sections: “Bridging Taiwan and the World,” “Bringing the World Home,” and “Bringing Taiwan to the World.” Each section highlights various aspects of Taiwanese literature, such as framing, transculturation, and translation. By critically engaging with Sinophone studies, postcolonial studies, and world literature studies, this volume powerfully demonstrates that Taiwanese literature has always been an integral part of world literature. 

The Making of Chinese-Sinophone Literatures as World Literature, co-edited by Kuei-fen Chiu and the late Yingjin Zhang, is another significant contribution to studying Taiwanese literature in English academia. However, the geographic scope of the volume exceeds beyond Taiwan. In the introduction, Chiu and Zhang provide a cogent analysis of the state of the field traditionally known as Chinese literary studies by differentiating between world literature, Sinophone literature, and world literature in Chinese. By proposing the hyphenated and pluralistic term “Chinese-Sinophone literatures,” Chiu and Zhang seek to create a more encompassing framework that foregrounds the problematics of Chinese and allows for more elastic parameters of inclusion. Addressing a vast array of authors and topics that span from Li Ang and Gao Xingjian to genre hierarchy and internet culture, this collection charts new territories in world literature scholarship by critically reflecting on existing methodologies and incorporating literary texts circulated through cyberspace. The chapters by Andrea Mei-ying Wu and Chiu are specifically centred on Taiwan. Wu traces the transnational, transcultural, and transmedia trajectories of the award-winning Taiwanese picturebook Guji Guji. In contrast, Chiu examines how digital platforms have emerged as new agents of recognition and consecration in the case of Li Ang.  

It is noteworthy that Kuei-fen Chiu’s latest monograph, Taiwan wenxue de shijie zhi lu (臺灣文學的世界之路 Taiwanese Literature’s Voyage to the World), was published in Taiwan in February 2023. The book culminates in Chiu’s dedicated efforts to bridge Taiwanese literature and its scholarship with the global cultural community. Integrating theoretical reflections on the field of world literature with case studies from Taiwan, including Taiwanese millennial writers, Wu Ming-yi, Badai, Walis Nokan, and the film Le Moulin, the book delineates the diverse trajectories of Taiwanese literature in the international literary space. Chiu not only analyses the opportunities and challenges faced by cultural agents seeking to bring Taiwanese stories to the world but also expands the scope of literature to include new media and transmedia adaptations in her discussion of Taiwanese literature. 

The global dissemination and circulation of Taiwanese literature is a collaborative effort of multiple stakeholders, including writers, translators, literary agents, publishers, scholars, critics, readers, and so forth. According to the Taiwan Literature in Translation Repository, an open-access online database created by the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, Taiwanese literature has been published in more than 20 countries and languages as of 2022. Moreover, the international visibility of Taiwanese literature has increased steadily, with titles from Taiwan being translated and published through various channels such as the “Books from Taiwan” initiative, the Cambria Literature from Taiwan Series, UCSB’s Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series, and many more. Indeed, Taiwanese literature has been inextricably intertwined with world literature and will continue to reinvent itself with all its vitality and possibilities.  

Ssu-chieh Jessica Fan is a PhD student in Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include Sinophone literatures and cinemas, translation and transculturation, East Asian modernity, and comparative cultural studies. Her dissertation project will focus on the literary culture and cultural production of post-martial law in Taiwan.  

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

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