Literary Culture in Taiwan: Martial Law to Market Law

By Haddon, Rosemary | The China Journal, July 2005 | Go to article overview
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Literary Culture in Taiwan: Martial Law to Market Law


Haddon, Rosemary, The China Journal


Literary Culture in Taiwan: Martial Law to Market Law, by Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. xiv + 271 pp. US$36.50/£24.00 (hardcover).

Literary Culture in Taiwan is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of Taiwan's literary developments since 1949-the year of the commencement of Martial Law. Yvonne Chang uses a contextual approach to trace this fifty-year trajectory and, significantly, to examine the development of key players and groups under the influence of political and market forces. In the process, the book brings us up to date with recent critical trends in Taiwan's literary scene since the lifting of Martial Law in 1987. Literary Culture continues the meticulous, informed scholarship that characterized Chang's previous work, Modernism and the Nativist Resistance. Like its predecessor, the present study is based on an approach that is jargon-free and that is grounded in an intimate, dispassionate understanding of Taiwan's complex history, society and politics.

Taiwan's literature has traveled a road that has led from the nostalgic, sinocentric writing of the 1950s and early 1960s, subject to KMT political domination, through to what Chang terms the "relatively autonomous and increasingly professionalized cultural field" of the 1990s. The latter is defined by the market logic that has assumed significant proportions in Taiwan. To assist her analysis, Chang has devised a paradigm based on Pierre Bourdieu's conception of the "field of cultural production", Peter Hohendahl's "institution of literature" and Raymond Williams' concept of hegemony and cultural formations. Of particular note is Williams' tripartite structure of dominant (hegemonic), alternative and oppositional formations. Chang applies this to the "situatedness of individual texts" that takes into account the complex web of sociological forces surrounding cultural production. Her paradigm addresses the status of individual texts that are often left unconsidered in the current academic environment dominated by lit. crit. categories of analysis (p. 28).

Chang applies Bourdieu's theory of "aesthetic positions" to her discussion of the four major artistic formations that have dominated Taiwan's literary scene since 1949: the KMT-endorsed, sinocentric mainstream; the liberal-minded modernists; the socialist-inclined nativists; and the localist trend affiliated with Taiwanese nationalism (p. 37). The first of these, comprising the first- and second-generation Mainlander writers, is the dominant group, and is conservative, conformist and neotraditional. The modernists emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, inspired by American liberal humanism, and re-surfaced in the radical trends of the 1980s and 1990s in what is commonly referred to as "postmodernism". Finally, the nativists and the localists initially came into being in the 1970s as a response to capitalist modernization and Taiwan's diplomatic setbacks early in that decade, then re-emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s. The gradual loosening of government control enabled these groups to pose a serious challenge to the KMT-endorsed dominant culture.

The heart of Chang's discussion is a narrative of Taiwan's literary history that commences with the dominant mainstream group of the immediate postwar period. The literature comprised anti-Communist works, chun wenxue (pure literature) and other genteel apolitical genres that supported Nationalist hegemony. The first part of the book includes an in-depth discussion of the antiCommunist novel Xuanfeng (Whirlwind) and the reasons for the novel's lack of recognition by the literary world.

The second part of the book centers on the interaction of the mainstream, modernist and localist literary formations during the early period. This includes a discussion of the editor-writer Lin Haiyin, a Taiwanese who grew up in China. Lin played a valuable role as an intermediary between the government and the emerging nexus of local Taiwanese writers.

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