Author T’ien-wen Chu Chronicles Taiwan’s Troubled History, Linguistic Diversity
Taiwan’s past is complicated, and with that comes a fraught linguistic history.
Dutch settlers colonized the small island nestled between the South and East China Seas during the 17th century, but its former name Formosa actually means “beautiful island” in Portuguese. Just a few decades letter, China’s Qing Dynasty drove European colonists from Taiwan and controlled it for the next two centuries, until they lost control of the island during the war with the Japanese in 1905.
Japan ruled the island for the next 50 years, until the massive territorial contraction at the end of World War II. For the next four years, Chinese Nationalists gradually retreated to the island during a civil war with the Communist Party of China, eventually losing control of the mainland for good in 1949. In the 66 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Nationalist-controlled Republic of China (known informally as Taiwan) has had a rocky relationship with its neighbor.
“Other than these five languages [Dutch, Portuguese, the Qing Dynasty classical language, Japanese, and Mandarin], the native Taiwanese people – they also speak a language,” said author T’ien-wen Chu, who was born in Taipei during the post-civil war upheaval. “And also, the Cantonese people who came to Taiwan, they also speak their language. There’s also another linguistic element, a Hakka dialect in Taiwan.”
Chu won the University of Oklahoma’s 2015 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature for her collection of short stories Fin-de-siècle Splendor. The anthology of eight stories all center around the capital and her city of birth, Taipei, and Chu says Japanese still influences Taiwan’s society and people seven decades after the occupation ended. Her parents’ generation spoke Japanese almost exclusively.
“When you speak a language, it’s not about the language only, it’s also about the culture behind the language,” Chu said. “And this also contributed to the tension between the Native Taiwanese people and the mainlanders who came from mainland China.”
And that wide range of diversity on such a tiny island is a form of wealth that Chu describes as the bank of an influential river.
“The soil is rich, so people can write,” Chu said. “This soil on the bottom of the river is what we writers take from when we write.”
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On themes of homosexuality in her novel Notes of a Desolate Man
I had a friend - a teenager friend - who talked to me about his problems during a certain period of time, and I heard about his story, and I wrote about it. But as soon as I started writing about his story, I found that this element is amazing because it's like I'm putting this different element in a bottle. And also adding to this bottle other chemical elements. And then they interact with each other, and they create more tension, which I need for writing a great piece of literature. So this is why I use that reason. And the protagonist of Notes of a Desolate Man is one homosexual who did not come out of the closet. It's precisely because he did not come out, so he creates more tension. He's carrying more tension than these people who are already homosexual activists. He creates a new condition that even challenges all my past thoughts and stimulates me to write them out.
On the “White Terror” period of martial law in Taiwan from 1949 -1987
People had been talking about the martial law since as early as the 1960s, and there were a lot of, for example, literary stories writing about this "White Terror." And they were not censored. But A City of Sadness was the first movie to deal with this problem. And I was riding a big tide of people talking about the "White Terror" after the lifting of the martial law at that period. And as soon as the martial law was lifted, people naturally wanted to talk about this. So it's like the repressed energy in the mass was suddenly liberated. And I was riding the tide, and wrote that story for the movie. So even the generation like my parents' generation, they were not usually the moviegoers, but A City of Sadness became a movie for which they can watch and think about their repressed history.
Editor’s note: This interview was translated by Ping Zhu, who accompanied T’ien-wen Chu to the KGOU studios
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: T'ien-wen Chu, welcome to World Views.
T'IEN-WEN CHU: Thank you for having me.
GRILLOT: Well, T'ien-wen, congratulations, first of all, on winning this year's Newman Prize. It's a wonderful thing. First female winner of the Newman Prize, so congratulations for that. And this festival here celebrating the work that you have done, your literary work. And I'd like to begin talking about the short story nature of your work. Much of your work, and the work that's being honored here at the Newman Prize is a collection of short stories. It's been said that your work, your short stories, suck the reader into the text. And that this is something that isn't common among short stories, because often they're very short. So you look to novels to really immerse yourself. But tell us about your work in the genre of short stories, and why short stories have been the area that you've chosen to work in?
CHU: Because a short story is like a race, a short distance race. You have to reach a certain kind of tension between content and the format. And this tension is like the tension on the surface of water. And this tension would suck the readers into the story, and transform them in a way.
GRILLOT: So you have to obviously introduce your characters and really tell that story in a very vibrant way. Your answer was also very vibrant and eloquent. I could see why you'd be a great short story artist, because that period of time that you have with your character in order to make your point is so difficult, and so short.
CHU: There is a contrast between humans and the environment. And this kind of tension, in short stories, can only be reflected through one certain point. And this point might be a weak point, but still, this tension must be built on this very tiny, or even weak point. And this weak point might be, for example, a person's failure or dilemma, because normally a story would not depict one person's success. So normally I, as a writer, would depict the failure or dilemma of a person to reflect the most possibilities of his being. So the key of writing a short story is to unfold the infinite possibilities on the weak point, or the weak pinpoint.
GRILLOT: So as you're writing, then, you're finding these infinite possibilities. In terms of solving the dilemma or addressing this failure, do you know when you go into writing the story what that conclusion will be, if, as you say, there are infinite possibilities?
CHU: My short stories do not offer answers. Actually, most of the time, they just raise a question. As to how to answer this question, I leave it to my readers. For me, my job is to raise a question. A good question actually already contains in itself at least 50 percent of the answer. The question's consciousness itself is very important because it contains my understanding of the question.
GRILLOT: So I'd like to ask about one of your previous works, Fin-de-siècle Splendor. It's been said about this book that it bears the imprints of Taiwan's fraught linguistic past. Can you tell us a little bit about what Taiwan's linguistic past has been, and why it has been fraught?
CHU: Taiwan got its name from the Dutch and the Portuguese. When they traveled through the world, they saw Taiwan, and they called this place "beautiful island." Formosa means "beautiful island." And that's how Taiwan's early name came into being. And then in the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese people drove the Dutch away from the island, and Taiwan was a part of China. Had been a part of China. And then in 1895 the Qing government lost its war to the Japanese, and Taiwan was given to the Japanese people as a colony. And then the Japanese ruled Taiwan for 50 years. So Japanese became a part of language during this colonial history period. And then in 1945, the Nationalist Party fought with the Chinese Communist Party, and then it lost its war. So since 1949 Taiwan was under the rule of the Nationalist Party. So during this period Mandarin became the official language of Taiwan. So over this historical period, Taiwan obviously had different linguistic elements. For example, the Dutch the Portuguese, and the Qing Dynasty classical language, and then the Mandarin, and the Japanese before the Mandarin. So these five linguistic elements contribute to the fraught linguistic history of Taiwan. Other than these five languages, the native Taiwanese people - they also speak a language. And also, the Cantonese people who came to Taiwan, they also speak their language. There's also another linguistic element, a Hakka dialect in Taiwan. So most Taiwanese people now speak Taiwanese, and also the Hakka dialect. But the official language is Mandarin.
GRILLOT: So basically your work is reflecting how language in Taiwan has reflected its colonial past, and historically combining all of these different colonial influences as well as the impact of native and local dialect. But today, do you still see a lot of difference? I know one of the things that's really different about language in China and Taiwan and other parts of Asia is that it's very reflective of one's culture. So is this how you can maybe come to terms with the fact that the cultural impact of colonial presence, as well as other, local and native cultural impacts on a language as its spoken today? Can you still detect all of that in the language today?
CHU: Actually, the language that is influencing Taiwanese people most is still Japanese. For example, my parents' generation - almost all of them spoke Japanese. And when you speak a language, it's not about the language only. It's also about the culture behind the language. So that's why in their daily lives they incorporated the cultural elements of the language. And this also contributed to the tension between the native Taiwanese people and the mainlanders who came from mainland China. Because they have cultural clashes. The people who speak Japanese, they would recognize or identify with Japanese culture, but the people who speak Mandarin, they do otherwise. They identify with the mainland Chinese culture. That's why there's a tension between different groups of people in Taiwan.
GRILLOT: So it sounds like even though Taiwan is a small place, it's a small island, but it has a lot of influence, and still a lot of diversity - even among its people - a lot of diversity in terms of the cultural representations and impact.
CHU: Diversity, in my opinion, actually, it's a form of wealth. It's like the bank of the river. The soil is rich, so people can write. So this soil on the bottom of the river is what we writers take from when we write.
GRILLOT: Well, T'ien-wen, I'd like to talk about a couple of your other pieces of work, and particularly Notes of a Desolate Man and A City of Sadness, which deal with very difficult subjects, both at the individual and societal level. In Notes of a Desolate Man you take on the subject of homosexuality in Taiwan. And the narrator talks about his friends that are dealing with the struggles of living in society in Taiwan as a gay man. And of course, then dying from AIDS. And where in A City of Sadness you reflect on the "White Terror" period, where back in the 1940s to 1987, where many people died. It was a period of martial law. It was very difficult. So you've taken on some difficult individual and societal issues in Taiwan as well. What led you to focus on these kinds of things? Maybe it goes back to kind of raising questions, as opposed to providing answers, but what kinds of questions are you asking? Or what are you trying to communicate about dealing with these types of issues in Taiwan?
CHU: Some of the reasons of writing Notes of a Desolate Man, actually, it's pure coincidence. For example, I had a friend - a teenager friend - who talked to me about his problems during a certain period of time, and I heard about his story, and I wrote about it. But as soon as I started writing about his story, I found that this element is amazing because it's like I'm putting this different element in a bottle. And also adding to this bottle other chemical elements. And then they interact with each other, and they create more tension, which I need for writing a great piece of literature. So this is why I use that reason. And the protagonist of Notes of a Desolate Man is one homosexual who did not come out of the closet. It's precisely because he did not come out, so he creates more tension. He's carrying more tension than these people who are already homosexual activists. He creates a new condition that even challenges all my past thoughts and stimulates me to write them out. So the story behind my writing A City of Sadness was the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in 1987. Actually people had been talking about the martial law since as early as the 1960s, and there were a lot of, for example, literary stories writing about this "White Terror." And they were not censored. But A City of Sadness was the first movie to deal with this problem. And I was riding a big tide of people talking about the "White Terror" after the lifting of the martial law at that period. And as soon as the martial law was lifted, people naturally wanted to talk about this. So it's like the repressed energy in the mass was suddenly liberated. And I was riding the tide, and wrote that story for the movie. So even the generation like my parents' generation, they were not usually the moviegoers, but A City of Sadness became a movie for which they can watch and think about their repressed history. So even these people, they would go to the movie to watch that film. That is why the box office of A City of Sadness was surprisingly good.
GRILLOT: Alright, well, T'ien-wen, thank you so much for being with us today, and again, congratulations on winning this year's Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. Your work sounds fascinating, and we're really pleased to hear from you about it. Thank you.
CHU: Yes, thank you.
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