Sun, Nov 14, 2004 - Page 18 News List

The world of books in Taiwan

'Literary Culture in Taiwan: From Martial Law to Market Law' takes a look at the country's recent literary past

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Literary Culture in Taiwan
By Sung-sheng Yvonne Change
Columbia University Press
271 pages

Literary Culture in Taiwan is a cogent and important contribution to Taiwan studies in English. Subtitled From Martial Law to Market Law, it covers the last 50 or so years with an admirable even-handedness.

The sardonic subtitle, on the surface merely indicating a historical period, appears also to suggest a double bind within which literature in Taiwan is somehow caught. The idea is unavoidable that serious writing has in some way been unable to find a free space for itself and instead has lurched from one set of restrictions to another. Martial law didn't end until 1987, which doesn't leave market law, usually called market forces, much time to set in with its own form of stormy weather. "Was there a brief blossoming some time in the early 1990s?" you wonder.

In fact the book doesn't really take so dark a view. The title is closer to being a joke than to being a prison sentence. Even so, the restrictions resulting from both military rule and commercial pressures are part of the picture the author paints.

One virtue the book has is that Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, is aware of the different needs of different kinds of readers. She begins, for example, with an overview of Taiwan's history, adding that Taiwan specialists should skip it and move directly to the next chapter. It's thus clear that she does not intend her book to be read only by her fellow-academics, but is making a bid to attract ordinary educated readers as well.

Essentially, this is a positive and enthusiastic survey of how ideals derived from China's literary classics dominated one period, how middle-class demands took over from these, and finally of how the growing demand for entertainment other than books influenced publishers' ideas as to what the public would buy. Nevertheless, despite varied attempts to hem in authors, Taiwan's writers have been a brave and lively lot, you feel, and the author by and large agrees with you.

There are many themes in this book. One is that the characteristic elitism of modernism gave way to more middle-brow, semi-popular cultural products, and that this process was facilitated in Taiwan by the cultural supplements (fukan) of the large Chinese-language newspapers. Modernism had been elitist everywhere, with the mature works of writers such as James Joyce, composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, and painters such as Mark Rothko producing unapproachable mega-works that almost no one enjoyed but which nonetheless were widely held to command the cultural heights. In Taiwan, you have to read "the classical literature of China" in place of Western abstraction and intellectual complexity. This more or less prevailed under martial law. It was after this ended that the floodgates were opened.

But once an elite "high" literature was displaced (for all but the very few), there was nothing to prevent the earthy tastes of the population at large from taking control of the commanding heights of cultural production. Very recently, for instance, one major Western-style leisure store in Taipei appears to have removed serious books altogether from its main outlet, substituting software for computer games in their place. This is precisely what this author means by "market law" -- and the effects it can have on leisure habits and book production.

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