“Transitions in Taiwan: Stories of the White Terror” edited by Ian Rowen

The Horrifying Inspection by Huang Rong-can, 1947 (via Wikimedia Commons) The Horrifying Inspection by Huang Rong-can, 1947 (via Wikimedia Commons)

 “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. 

Each of the seven stories included in this volume—all originally written between 1972 and 2017—is a window into fragments of lives in different social spaces (village, city, prison, military base, slums) during the White Terror period, and together, they open up a broader observational perspective onto the multiple and varied imaginative reworkings of the country’s historical memory.

 

Transitions in Taiwan: Stories of the White Terror, Ian Rowen (ed) (Cambria Press, April 2021)
Transitions in Taiwan: Stories of the White Terror, Ian Rowen (ed) (Cambria Press, April 2021)

This book is, in fact, a reflection on traumatic memory and the possibilities of its narrativization at a personal as well as collective, or even institutional level. The difficulty of accessing one’s painful past and making it utterable is reflected in the non-linearity of the narrative structures that these texts are often built upon. Metanarration, multiple voices, unreliable narrators, Kafkaesque allegories: these are just a few of the elaborate literary techniques showcased here. These textual strategies are particularly apt at investigating a common theme, or feeling perhaps, that all these stories, in different ways, deal with: displacement.

For instance, in Zhu Tianxin’s “Long Long Ago There was an Urashima Taro” (translated by Sylvia Li-Chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt) the protagonist, a former political offender released from prison after 30 years, has a hard time re-integrating into society; he still believes he is being followed by KMT spies, and everyday has to find a new route to walk his grandson to school. His reality comes crashing down when one day he finds a box that contained all the letters he had sent to his family while in prison, most of which had never been opened. The man suddenly realizes that the reality he had so accurately crafted in those letters has never really existed in the world his loved ones inhabited. He feels spatially and temporally disconnected from the “real” world, and his story is nothing but a re-enactment of the Japanese fable of Urashima Taro referenced in the title, that the protagonist’s mother used to tell him as a child, in which a young fisherman, back from his trip to the underwater Dragon Palace, is suddenly transformed into an old man, after opening a mysterious box.

A similar disconnection in time and space is experienced by the protagonist of Li Ang’s story, “Beef Noodles” (translated by Sylvia Li-Chun Lin). A former political prisoner, the man eventually finds out that the popular Taiwanese dish, supposedly of Sichuanese origin and brought to the island by the Chinese nationalists after 1949, does not really exist in Sichuan. The man had developed a taste for beef noodles while in prison—they were a modest luxury conceded to inmates for a reasonable price, and were also served as last meal to prisoners on death row.

 

He had thought that his stomach was under KMT control during all those fearful, desperate years in his prison cell, those twenty-three years of suffering caused by his belief in Taiwan independence.

 

If it is true that food is a privileged site of memory, then Li Ang’s beef noodles function as a powerful gastronomical trigger that offer a personal, gustatory perspective on how the bitterness of history continues to feed the present and influence the construction of social identities.

 

All the authors whose stories are included in this collection have lived through the White Terror period, with the partial exception of Huang Chong-kai (born in 1981, only six years before the abolition of martial law). His story, “Dixson’s Idioms” (translated by Brian Skerratt) is inspired by the real life of Ko Chi-Hua, a Taiwanese writer and teacher of English—the author, in fact, of a very famous English Grammar manual used by generations of Taiwanese and based on the work of American teacher Robert Dixson—who ended up in prison after being implicated in a conspiracy to commit sedition. An insightful observation of the possibilities and limitations of language and grammar when it comes to narrating traumatic experiences, the text is structured on the model of a language learning manual: it is divided into shorter sections that are given the titles of different English idioms and which function as entry points into the narration.

Transitions in Taiwan is a literary exploration of the forty violent years during which the Taiwan people were ruled by an authoritarian power. The seven carefully selected and beautifully translated stories in this volume, in addition to presenting to the English readership some of the country’s best literary talent, offer an invaluable glimpse into a difficult part of Taiwan’s history, while reflecting on the possibilities for its imaginative reconfigurations by means of fiction.


Serena De Marchi is a postdoctoral researcher of Chinese and Sinophone literature currently based in Taipei.