On 12 March 1867, an American merchant ship, the Rover, capsized near Kenting, on Taiwan’s southern coast. A handful of survivors managed to come ashore, but almost all were promptly killed by a local indigenous tribe.
A swamp turns into a castle. A princess shapeshifts into a squid of one pound and four ounces. An ugly toad by day transforms into a handsome young man at night. A betrayed sister reincarnates into a black bird to haunt who hurt her.
Wu Shih-sheng is a taxi driver, sinking in debt and living in a cockroach-infested metal shack in the outskirts of Taipei with his wife, Hsiang-ying. When she dies in a mental hospital, after claiming to have been hearing the voice of a ghost threatening her life and that of their daughter, Shih-sheng decides to dig deeper. His journey will lead him to consult with a deranged Taoist priestess, and eventually to embark on a dangerous hike on the top of Mount Jade, in central Taiwan, with the purpose of destroying the evil creature.
“Violence composes a fundament of modern Taiwan history,” opens Ian Rowen’s introduction to Transitions in Taiwan: Stories of the White Terror. In the almost forty years during which Taiwan’s authoritarian ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), kept the country under martial law and suppressed any form of political dissent, thousands of citizens—including alleged proponents of Taiwan’s independence from China or presumed communist collaborators—were abducted, imprisoned, or executed. This violence has undoubtedly left a scar on a generation of Taiwanese, and the stories that make up this volume, penned by some of Taiwan’s most notable writers, explore the mechanisms of power during that painful—and indeed violent—time. There isn’t however much gore or literal brutality in these stories, which rather reconfigure the violent trauma of history in its most subtle, almost mundane, aspects, displaying how authoritarian power effectively manages to infiltrate every aspect of people’s lives.