Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 18 News List

The books that made a make in 2003

Bradley Winterton glances back upon some of the best Asia-focused books published this year, most of which he reviewed in the 'Taipei Times'

1421: The year China Discovered America

There were a surprising number of books on Taiwan in 2003, perhaps confirming Christopher Logan and Teresa Hsu's thesis in their admirable Culture Taipei! (SMC Publishing) that a remarkable social and artistic renaissance is taking place here.

First there was Eric Mader-Lin's satirical novel A Taipei Mutt (Cheng Shang) in which a newly arrived foreigner is changed into a dog by a bewitching lady in slinky black silk and embarks on the search for the girl who might change him back again. Next came Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan (Hawaii) in which Fran Martin translated 10 notable gay short stories from the Taiwan of the 1990s. The Emerging Lesbian by Sang Tze-Lan (Chicago), which, though mainly about China, had an illuminating chapter on developments in Taiwan. It saw the island as a beacon of liberation and freedom which one day China may just possibly see fit to follow.

Private Prayers & Public Parades by Mark Caltonhill (Taipei City Government) surveyed Taipei's religious life with affection and tact, while Scott Simon's Sweet and Sour: Life-Worlds of Taipei Women Entrepreneurs (Rowman and Littlefield) looked at a wide range of enterprising Taiwanese women from the worlds of high finance to noodle-selling.

Lastly, there was the historical Doctors Within Borders by Ming-Cheng M. Lo (California) featuring the reactions of the early 20th century medical profession in Taiwan to the 1895 to 1945 Japanese occupation.


The book written by a foreigner that was most popular with Chinese people this year was probably 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (Bantam). In it, Gavin Menzies, a retired sea captain, advanced his theory that in that year Chinese fleets sailed to not only Borneo, Arabia and East Africa, as traditionally accepted, but also to North America, New Zealand and Antarctica. Scholars may have remained skeptical, but the book's potential to feed local pride on both sides of the Taiwan Strait is clearly immense.

Meanwhile, two very different novels highlighted contrasting aspects of Chinese life, past and present. The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa (Chatto), originally written in French, imagined the meeting of a Japanese officer and a Chinese girl against the background of Japan's invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s; while Yu Hua's bizarrely comic Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (Pantheon) centered on the culture of blood-selling in the PRC during the 1950s and later.

Ting-xing Ye, author of the memoir A Leaf in the Bitter Wind (Bantam, 2000), published a novel Throwaway Daughter (Doubleday Canada) about a Chinese child adopted by a Canadian family who decides to travel to China in search of her birth parents and her roots. And in The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure (Hodder and Stoughton) Adam Williams penned an ambitious historical epic more than 700 pages long set in the days of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Both these novels will be reviewed in the Taipei Times early in the new year.

More ambitious still was A Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong (Columbia). This wonderful novel, organized like a dictionary, began with the life of the minority Maqiao people but went on to cover much of human existence. Han resembles James Joyce in his simultaneous zest for stylistic experiment and for the truth, however squalid. If a Chinese masterpiece was published in English in 2003, this book was probably it.

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