Sun, Nov 28, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Taiwan as the postmodern vanguard

June Yip says that Taiwan may be the first country to have abandoned the idea of the nation-state

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Envisioning Taiwan

Envisioning Taiwan is a brilliant analysis of the present state and nature of Taiwanese culture, but it's not for the faint-hearted. It looks at Taiwanese fiction, film and other media against the background of increased globalization, and with these, weakening ideas of national sovereignty.

Where could be more interesting for examining fluid concepts of what peoples are and what constitutes a nation-state, the author asks, than Taiwan, where the island's name, its status and its allegiances are the subjects of almost perpetual debate.

Taiwan represents the fluidity of the idea of the nation-state, she argues, more, perhaps, than anywhere else on Earth.

June Yip, who's described as an "independent scholar" living in Los Angeles, is enormously enthusiastic about Taiwan in general. Early on, she points to the transformation that has overtaken Taipei in particular over the last 15 years, calling it a typically postmodern city, enjoying a no-holds-barred democracy, a freewheeling media, and an affluent, well-educated and well-traveled elite.

These developments have not come without their problems, however -- an increasing difference between the cities and the rural areas, pollution and over-crowding, a weakening of traditional social relations, and what the author calls "a manic consumerism precipitated by a deluge of American, European and Japanese products into the Taiwanese market."

These problems of adjustment are central to the two artistic genres Yip covers -- hsiang-t'u or Nativist Literature of the 1970s, and the Taiwanese New Cinema that emerged in the 1980s. Within these movements, the author concentrates her attention on two individuals, writer Hwang Chun-ming (黃春明) and filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢).

If there is a weakness in this otherwise admirable book, it is that whereas the typical characteristics of current-day Taipei, the author points out, all came into existence in the last 15 years, the two artists she opts to focus on both created their most significant work somewhat earlier.

Hou made his first movie, Cute Girl, in 1980, while Hwang's best-known collection of stories, Awaiting the Name of a Flower, appeared in 1989.

So-called nations, Yip argues (in the approved modern manner), are in reality not solid things but imagined entities, constructed in the past by people who thought in terms of the unity that, as it seemed to them, ethnicity, language, history or geography imposed.

But these clear-cut divisions, these differently colored areas on maps, are being made increasingly less significant by globalization. The international fluidity that results characterizes Taiwan.

In addition, Hou's films in particular paint a picture of Taiwan as a "hybrid social space ... continually being shaped and reshaped by the multiple languages, cultures, social classes and value systems with which it comes into contact."

By contrast, Hwang creates in his stories a nostalgic rural vision that was passing even as he described it.

What is so very remarkable about this book is that Yip challenges the orthodoxies of both the political blues and the political greens in Taiwan. While the greens have undoubtedly embraced a vision of a Taiwan of far more mixed origins than was allowed by the old Confucian paradigms, the blues for their part have tried to claim an internationalism that contrasts with the greens' allegedly more local viewpoint.

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