Sun, Sep 19, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Discovering a new idea in Taiwanese literature

Taiwan studies has emerged in the academic world and Tu Ko-ching, who recently took up the newly created Lai Ho and Wu Chu-liu Endowed Chair in Taiwan Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is promoting literary tradition and Taiwan's place in the world

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Literary traditions are subjective things and the various merits of "canonical" writers are something that scholars have spent lifetimes arguing over. Tu Kuo-ching (杜國清) is embarking on the perilous task of establishing a literary tradition for Taiwan, a task made all the more difficult by Taiwan's still uncertain sense of its national identity and also by the fact that he wants to make this tradition known internationally through a projected series of literature in translation that will introduce the Western reader to the great figures of Taiwanese literature from the Japanese occupation period until the early 1980s.

The definition of Taiwanese literature is a fraught question, seeing as it invokes linguistic, ethnic and nationalist sentiments, and also rubs up against the overwhelming presence of the literature of China. Tu boldly sweeps aside much of the debate when he states "Taiwanese literature is literature that deals with Taiwan, with this island and its experience."

"We simply cannot have a linguistic definition of Taiwanese literature," he said during an interview last week when visiting Taiwan to give a seminar on the various projects that he hopes to initiate as the Lai Ho and Wu Cho-liu Professor of Taiwan Studies. "If we say that Taiwanese literature must be written in Chinese, then we cut out many writers of the [Japanese] occupation."

The question is quite fundamental for Tu, who dates Taiwanese literature from the Japanese occupation period, during which some seminal figures wrote in Japanese. Tu sees Taiwan's experience as unique and separate from that of its giant neighbor China, and therefore worthy of separate study.

"The impact of various foreign influences on Taiwanese literature have made it an important subject for comparative study from an international perspective, and have also warranted its study on a theoretical basis for eventual evaluation within a global vision," was how Tu put it during his inaugural speech on Aug. 30, this year. But it has been a long process to have Taiwan recognized as a separate field of academic study, especially within the international community. Against China's strongly nationalistic definition of what constitutes Chinese literature, Tu promotes a broader idea of Chinese literatures (with an emphasis on the plural), of which Taiwanese literature is a branch.

In 1996, Tu launched the Taiwan Literature English Translation Series published by Forum for the Study of World Literatures in Chinese, a scholarly journal dedicated to introducing Taiwan's literature to a broader academic community. The name of the publisher reflects Tu's desire to distance Chinese literature from a narrowly linguistic definition. "There is no reason why Chinese literature must come out of China," Tu said. "What about Chinese writers in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries? What about literature in other languages about the Chinese experience?"

So within this broad context, Taiwanese literature can take its place among world literatures written in or by Chinese without any direct reference to the political entity of the People's Republic of China (PRC). "This is an idea that the PRC probably doesn't much like, for the Chinese tend to see such things in terms of monolithic unity -- we are the only one, we are the center -- but Chinese literatures are branches of the main body."

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