Monday, 23 June 2014 00:00

Book Review: Evan Osnos 'Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China'

This is a great, accessible read, that offers a map for those interested in picking their way through the minefield of press reports on China, ranging from the "China threat" myth perpetuated by some of the Western press and the "China is the best thing since sliced bread" line served up by China's state media.


On my first read I felt a little uncomfortable with the same old rhetoric trotted out about China at the start of this book, which set out the argument that China is traditionally a "collective" society in contrast to the "individualist" Western society. The logic seemed slightly confused for me, as the timeline jumped around a bit, citing Liang Qichao's invocation of Cromwell to illustrate China's collectivism, and contrasting this to the ideals of Greek society - despite the fact that Cromwell is also "Western". This became a lot clearer, however, when I heard a Sinica podcast on the subject, which makes the division between wheat growing cultures, herding cultures and rice-growing cultures, and explains that this division is not so necessarily East/West, but also divides different places in China. It also clarified what is actually meant by "individualist" and "collectivist" societies, which may sometimes be slightly counter-intuitive:


Listen to it here.


This also reminded me of an interview that I had subtitled on the differences between Western art and Chinese art that had sparked a long discussion between me and a Taiwanese friend, when she revealed that she thought there was inherent differences between Western and (ethnically or culturally) Chinese people, whereas I've always been in the "people are essentially the same" camp - it's just about relative conservatism. The interview was with Tim Yip, the art director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who was talking about differences between Western and Chinese art:



I thought that it was a little inappropriate to contrast Chinese traditional art or furniture to Andy Warhol and concept art, as if that's representative of Western tradition, but it sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and Yip raises some interesting points on the role of the artist and of religion in traditional Western art and how perceived individualism and collectivism impinges on artistic expression, although I felt his idea of Eastern tradition sounded a lot like Plato's plane of ideal forms, despite my friend's protestations that I just wasn't understanding spacial dimensions of the Chinese word "境界" - which I think I translated as "aura" but could easily have been "paradigm".


I've regularly engaged Taiwanese friends on the cultural exceptionalism they often use to define themselves, but am yet to find a difference that is greater than the cultural divide between me and my maternal grandmother, although in China I thought that the culture gap was a lot larger. I thought Osnos made an effort throughout the book to undermine this cultural relativism later in the book, however, by presenting a wide range of interesting and diverse individuals throughout the book, and I even suspected that this was a deliberate attempt by the author to undermine this kind of generalization. He actively debunks many of the prevalent ideas about Chinese cultural differences, particularly with the common stories featured in the news about accidents or attacks in China which include a heartless onlooker trope, like in the story about a woman attacked and killed in a McDonald's across the street from a police station by members of a pseudo-religious organization while other patrons just looked on, or this story about a man in Yunnan who was jeered at and told to get on with it, when he was threatening to jump to his death in Yunnan. This is often attributed to a difference in cultural norms, and I've even heard some ex-pats insist that China has too many people for individual life to be of any value. Osnos does a good job of undercutting this trope, with reference to the case of a young girl who was killed in a hit-and-run killing, and whose body was passed over by several people before a trash collector found her and tried to get her help. By fleshing out the story and letting us see that the "heartless onlookers" in the eye-grabbing headline are more human than we'd like them to be portrayed, when he visits them and asked them why they failed to help her:


They were conscripted into a parable, but the morality play did not do justice to the layers of their lives.


Indeed, it's in his descriptions of people, that Osnos gives us some of the most well-crafted lines in the book, like, when describing a dating site founder, he says of her:


... she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China's industrial id.


Osnos is very insightful and sensitive in his portrayal of all the people that he presents to us in his book, and they appear completely unvarnished, giving readers an insight into how high-profile figures in the West, like Ai Weiwei are viewed in China. He knows a lot of key figures in China's art and media scene, which allows him to pepper the book with comments from figures from China's literary and arts scene, like Wang Shuo and Jia Zhangke, while he still gives equal weight to the Chinese everyman and those whose ambitions were never realized.


There's an incredible range of facts in the book and lots of interesting detail, which give us the context to decisions announced dryly by the state press, and allow for a more rounded interpretation of the logic and aims of the Communist Party and what dilemmas they face as China continues to develop, along with the ideological impact of the choices they make, like the decision in 2002 to change references to the party from "revolutionary party" to "party in power," for example.


I was also fascinated to solve a question that I still remember from my third year course in Chinese at Leeds in the UK, when we translated a text with the term "bobozu" (波波族) and there had been a debate as to where the term came from, with one of my coursemates informing us that it was an acronym for "burnt out but opulent," which didn't seem very relevant to the China we had left the previous year. Osnos reveals that a satirical sociological book by David Brooks had been translated into Chinese a few years earlier called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and had become a bestseller, "bourgeious bohemians" being the "bobo" or "bubo" in question, although I still like my classmate's explanation better.


Osnos' book is also very funny, with little tidbits of information that will have you chuckling, such as night schools teaching Chinese to spit liquor into their tea to avoid getting drunk when out with their bosses and the state-media accusing a Chinese nationalist blogger of being a fifty-center (paid by government to keep the public internet debate in line amongst other funny tales.


There's also a real insight into the power of nationalism in the book, captured by the author in the words of Lu Xun on foreigners:


We either look up to them as gods or down on them as animals.


The way tools, such as patriotism, xenophobia and nationalism, are deployed in China, by the state, the media and individuals is highlighted by the author throughout the book, as well as how the state censorship machine really functions on the ground.


A worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in China who wants to understand what China is really all about, and the people that constitute its citizenry. The book is divided into the three sections that are the three things most discussed in references to China by outsiders - "fortune" referring to is now the cliched "meteoric rise" of China's economy, "truth" dealing with the media in China and censorship, and finally faith, dealing with what people often refer to as the spiritual poverty of China, and how this is rapidly changing as China opens up and people look for something beyond the physical.


5/5 Must read


This was originally published on Conor's blog, check it out here.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 00:00

He eats, he sleeps: giving birth in Cambodia

This is an extract from Clare Tan's novel in progress 
Il mange, Il dort. For more of Clare's work visit her blog here, where this post was originally published.

I felt the door swing shut as the doctor who had just stitched me up, and I was sure all the other nurses and various people who had been present, had left the room. I glanced around, which wasn't easy as I was lying on a surgery bed with a cloth still hanging a few inches from my face preventing me from looking down at my stomach and my arms were outstretched and pinned down, but yes, looking around, there was no-one else in the room. Really?! Again!? You are kidding me. This had happened a few times over the past two days in hospital, but this time it made me so mad that bitter tears started pouring down my face, I couldn't help it. I was so utterly helpless (not a position I like to be in), pinned in place, unable to move my stomach, staring up at the huge surgery light directed at my middle still, but switched off as the surgery was now over. I stared at it, thinking back to one of my temporary summer jobs as a teenager, cleaning the operating rooms and cleaning lights like those in Milton Keynes general hospital (yep, I took what I could get). I was 16 then- that was half my lifetime ago. They were exactly the same in this operating room on the other side of the world in Phnom Penh Cambodia: big long robotic arms, with 3 big beady alien eyes looking down. This is the first time, I guess I can be grateful to say, I have been on the operating table staring up at them though. Who'd have thought it would be here of all places in the world.

The operating room was not significantly big, but it had high ceilings and the tall green walls stared down at me boxing me in. All the doctors and nurses were wearing green or blue, I'm not sure what the difference signified, and even though I'd seen one or two of them in the delivery room before, they were all scrubbed up and wearing masks now that I could barely tell who anyone was. There were sliding windows on two sides like the kind you might get between a kitchen and a dining room. Not really sure why, maybe to pass sterilized equipment through? To get the doctor a coffee during long stints?? One of those, I observed, had a pile of dirty linen lying in it seemingly waiting to be washed. I got the impression the whole room could do with a bit of a tidy up. I didn't care though. I was staring at the wall clock ahead of me, fuming mad that yet again, no-one had bothered to quietly say in my ear as they left, 'we'll be back for you in a couple of minutes, just sit tight,' every tick of the clock seeming like eternity. Was it a language barrier thing? Or do patients in this country just take an inferior place amongst doctors and are not worthy of the communication. I do get the impression the less educated masses here just say yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir to those in authority and those in authority expect little less. Perhaps they thought they knew they would be back so there was no need to tell me anything, but just a few hours earlier I had been told to go into the delivery room to prepare for my epidural only to be abandoned again, waiting for almost half an hour before we asked what was going on, so who knew how long I might be here this time, and I couldn't very well get myself up and ask.

When I think about it now, I must have been in shock. The old cliche 'it all happened so quickly' rings true, even though at the time it really wasn't quick at all; it was painstakingly slow, but somehow it was already over, and I had given birth. Can I even say I 'gave birth' when I didn't do anything? Really, the English teacher in me wants to say birth 'was given' to my son as it was the doctor who cut me open and pulled him out. I felt no sense of achievement, received no, 'well done you did it!' because effectively I didn't do anything, and the staff couldn't really care less. The birth was the exact opposite of anything I could have wanted and was my absolute nightmare scenario for having my baby. The futility of the whole situation made everything worse: there was nothing I could do about it, there was no other option as my baby's heart rate had started becoming erratic, and the only thing worse than the nightmare birth, would have been if there were anything wrong with my child. So when the doctor had told us two hours earlier after the epidural that baby's heart rate had started to drop and, 'Did we agree?' to a Caesarean section, we asked, 'Do we have much choice?' There was no second thought. Do it. Annoyingly I didn't even want the damn epidural in the first place either, and what makes things even worse is that epidurals can cause a drop in heart rate! (I later found out).

I had thought I would be able to handle it: I've had tattoos and my foot injury last year was agonizing, but this labour was worse than both. Contractions were worse than I could have ever imagined, and until the day I (if ever) have another child, I won't be able to compare to know if they really were worse than they were supposed to be, or if it is just that they went on for so long that they became no longer tolerable. Being told in the evening it would likely be in the morning, then suffering through them through the night to be told at 7am I was dilated only two centimetres, and to be then told seven hours later that I was still only dilated 2 centimetres, I could see no end in sight.

Of course, as with many situations that go wrong, I was starting to do the 'what ifs;' one of them being, should I have been in England for this? Would I have had support from a midwife during my day long labour that would have enabled me to cope physically and mentally with the pain so I would not have given in to an epidural? In Cambodia, or at least in the hospital I was in, I can't speak for everywhere, the only monitoring they did was wrapping a heart monitor around my waist and monitoring the baby's heart rate every few hours. This involved lying on my back for half an hour. By 2 pm, half an hour meant eight or ten agonizing contractions, for which I had to be on all fours, or at least be on my side in order to bare. The nurse didn't seem to care about this, and after the 2 pm heart check she deducted from the results after hooking me up, walking out the room and coming back 30 minutes later that the contractions were small. Having to deal with the pain one way or another I had maneuvered a little onto my side so she said the contractions didn't pick up properly on the machine and that I should do another half an hour. It was probably at this point that I decided to go for the epidural as I was incapable of lying on my back another half hour. I felt like screaming,

'Can you not just look at me?? Hang around a couple of minutes after the precious machine is on and look at the human in front of you? You can see these are not Small contractions!!'

I have felt on more than one occasion in this country, perhaps with it being a developing country, that when they do have new fangled machines, they rely on them solely and nothing else. Thinking back to what I'd be offered in the UK I wondered if gas and air would have been sufficient pain relief? Here I had nothing. There's also a small chance baby was in the wrong position, they told me after I'd complained the pain was so bad that it was more painful for me because although the head was down the body was on one side of me. I was aware it had been like that for weeks and it hadn't budged, but I wasn't aware that was an issue. Having said that, no nurse or doctor had so much has just felt around my belly to see where baby was. I can't help but wonder if the pain increasing in my back as the labour went on and me not dilating any further, meant baby was moving in the wrong direction. But how will I ever know?? Perhaps regardless of the epidural I may have required a C section anyway. Who knows.

So in place of Nico being at my side, holding my hand, encouraging me through the pain, and witnessing the birth of our child, he had been abruptly stopped at one of the swing doors on the way through and told he could not go any further. They didn't even give him a chance for us to say anything to each other, for either of us to reassure the other it would be alright. I was whisked off so fast there was again nothing we could do, we were absolutely helpless, our considerations of no importance whatsoever. Of course, dealing with the now distressed unborn baby was of utmost concern so we put aside our personal concerns and did what the doctors instructed. It broke my heart to leave Nico at the door, waiting in the hot and sticky corridor. The only thing worse than being in the operating room going through something horrible, is to be on the other side of the door with no information, wondering what the hell is going on the other side of that door.

Speaking of doors, where was everyone? Where the hell was my baby? And how long would I have to stay lying here crucified to this operating table. I was shaking. Throughout the whole procedure, I had been shaking, shivering uncontrollably. I felt the doctors holding me down to stop me shaking. On my head's side of the curtain some helpful staff wrapped sheets all around my head and arms to try to keep me warm. I discovered afterwards that shivering was also an effect of the epidural but I didn't know this at the time. On the other side of the curtain, I was degradingly stripped down and left lying there with everything showing, of course making me colder. I can understand this might have been necessary for the procedure but after being stripped I still heard all the nurses chatting and joking amongst themselves, playing their phone ringtones to each other, laughing away, and it felt like a good while before they actually started working on me. I said at the one doctor who gave me any solace through the whole procedure, the anesthetist who had given me the epidural, could he please ask them to have some respect and stop all the noise and turn their phones off. At least they did. For them it was just another, as my mum put it, 'slab of meat on the table,' just a day job, they didn't think twice about the torment and concern racing through my head at that point and that I might appreciate some peace and quiet!

It turned out I didn't have to really wait that long at all, and one nurse returned to the operating room a few minutes later so I hadn't had a chance to compose myself, nor did I even have a hand free to dry my eyes. Not the kind of mood I expected I'd be in just after giving birth. Even when the nurse was surprised to see me like that and was concerned and tried to console me, telling me how cute my baby was (me thinking, great, it'd be nice if I could see him and judge for myself), I couldn't stop crying, wondering where the hell was my baby, was Nico with him yet? I was also bitterly disappointed, not only that Nico did not get to witness the birth, he didn't cut the cord, and I didn't get immediate skin to skin contact, which every bit of baby advice you read tells you you need as soon as possible.

2014-05-27 23.10.19

I had seen a UK's National Health Service video, where the baby was taken out after a C section but still put straight on the mother's chest as would be done following a natural delivery. If the NHS video did that, it meant that was how it was done in the UK. I wanted that, and I asked the doctor before she walked out the operating room could I have my baby back and was so unsympathetic and rude to me about it being 'standard procedure' that the baby be taken away, that I was lying there scheming her demise: I was going to find out her name, shame her and the hospital on all forums online, in newspapers, I was that angry. But then later I found out it was in fact standard procedure, which comes down to communication, could she not have mentioned that before when she told us we need a C section, or at least had the tiniest amount of compassion when she was telling me? Horror stories were running through my mind, babies being switched at birth, being stolen at worse; at best some nurse might happily bottle feeding it or sticking a dummy in its mouth affecting my future breast feeding. I had stipulated in my useless birth plan that at no point did I want to be separated from the baby. Useless.

I was watching the minutes tick by afraid that the longer and longer I was away from my baby the harder it would be for him to latch on and successfully breastfeed. I somehow had it stuck in my head from some place I had read, that skin to skin was necessary within the first hour, or it would affect breastfeeding. It turns out that is not necessarily the case, but as the minutes ticked by, this was what was playing on my mind the most. If, because of this, I could not breastfeed, I would be mad beyond belief: formula buying, sterilizing bottles, the cost, the fact that it is not the best choice for baby's health... everything was racing through my head at a hundred miles an hour.

At least this nurse back in the room with me had a sympathetic ear and consoled me. I think she must have been the one who'd squeezed my hand, I wasn't sure why. During the surgery I was aware of them cutting me. I was aware that as soon as they had cut in, the baby must have been affected and was squirming around so vigorously that one of the doctors was literally laying on my stomach to hold him still. I didn't mind that, what I minded was when a minute later the squirming stopped. Why had it stopped? Was everything alright? I became aware I was probably tense, and my uncontrollable shaking probably wasn't helping matters, so I decided to focus on my yoga breathing and try to stop shaking: in through the nose, out through the mouth, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Ironic that I was using the technique in a birth that had involved induction, epidural and finally C- section, rather than the pain reliever free, all kinds of odd yoga positions, natural birth I had been hoping for. Then a nurse squeezed my hand. I wasn't sure why until I heard baby cries. She could obviously see it was the moment baby was coming into the world. I couldn't see it though, I just heard the cries go off and move further from me towards the other end of the room.

'Boy!' The anesthetist told me. I was so happy to hear he was a boy, though I'm sure I'd have been equally happy the other way. I was just happy he was here finally that tears welled up in my eyes. I was happy, but definitely sad too. I couldn't really believe it, and not being able to see didn't exactly help. Probably five or so minutes later they wheeled him round next to me and I twisted my head around to see him. I swear he looked exactly like he did in his 32 week scan and he was on his own in the plastic hospital cot, kicking around, clearly as desperate for his skin to skin as his mummy was and I said,

'Baby, it's okay, it's gonna be okay,'

I'm sure, convincing myself as much as I was him,' and my clever baby reacted to my voice and looked in my direction.

I thought from then on it would be okay, maybe they'd somehow be able to put him on my chest and I could get a little bit of what I had hoped for. But no, after a few minutes, they whisked him off out of the room! What? Where is he going? Well can his dad at least go too? When can I see him? There was so much going on that affected me and no-one was communicating with me, and that drives me up the wall on a normal day when I can stand up, chase after people and politely (or otherwise) voice my opinion. Being effectively pinned to the table just made the whole episode unbearable. With the nurse by my side and the anesthetist now back in the room, I had the chance to find out that I would now have to go into the recovery room for a couple of hours, this seemed like a huge waste of time, and more time away from my baby. I think I really was not aware, or had not yet comprehended, that I had just had major surgery and need some level of recovery.

I had read so much on natural births, breathing techniques, labour positions and so on, but I hadn't read anything at all about epidurals or C-sections. The doctor following me for the past month had told me many times with my healthy pregnancy, 'you can do natural.' I had no reason to assume otherwise I would need a C section so I had done no research and had no idea about the procedure. Maybe that was my fault. They do also say in all the books to be prepared for all eventualities and I, ignorantly and naively assumed everything would go my way.

Finally I was lifted off the operating bed and onto a wheeled bed and taken into the recovery room, which turns out is the room that Nico had been left at the door of. He wasn't supposed to be allowed in there but with me still crying and, I'm told, still shaking at that point, I must have looked quite the state, so the doctors let him in, briefly. I'm sure it didn't make it any better for Nico after waiting anxiously all this time to then see me like that. I tried to ask him about the baby, had he seen him? Yes he had but they wouldn't let him in the neo-natal either! So all this time poor papa had just been helplessly pacing the corridors. In the midst of trying to talk I had probably worked myself up so much, and it turns out it's also a post C-section side effect, I had to suddenly vomit. Try vomiting when your stomach has just been cut open. Luckily I was still under some effect of the pain relief, but I was retching and couldn't really move so I just tipped my head to the side (not unlike baby does now when he spits up), and although they cottoned on I was about to puke, they didn't get to me with the dish in time, so I promptly threw up beside my head on the bed and all over the cables of the blood pressure machine. Oops. I mouthed an, 'I'm okay,' to Nico who, although always calm on the outside, was probably mildly freaking out on the inside. They soon shooed him out of the room and I, under the influence of the pain relief or just exhausted from a day that had started at 3am with regular contractions, soon passed out.

They'd told me I'd only have to stay there half an hour but when I woke up I'm sure it was more like an hour and a half that had passed, though I had lost track of which hour we were up to. Regardless, they told me I could now go back to my room so I was happy with that. You remember you're in a developing country when in order to move me they have four people lift me off the bed on to a stretcher of cloth and two wooden sticks on the floor. Then two guys, who lucked out by getting the giant 80 kilo foreigner heave as they pick me and shuffle to the wheeled stretcher outside. Unfortunately for them there wasn't far to push me before they had to take me off again and carry me up the stairs (no lifts in this hospital). They then placed me on the floor in my room and needed Nico's help to lift me back up onto my bed!

Finally, after what seemed like a life time of labour, around 10pm on Tuesday May 6th, 2014, Nico carried in the tiny little bundle, and I got to finally meet my baby Diego Luca Guang-Zhe Pollet.

Thursday, 23 December 2010 18:01

Translating Modern Chinese Poetry

Jessica Marinaccio is a masters student reading Chinese Literature at National Taiwan University as well as the English Secretary at the Academia Sinica. In this video she talks about her thesis, which details the circumstances of the first anthology of modern Chinese poetry translated into English.

Friday, 27 January 2012 13:53

The Genesis and Development of Aboriginal Literature

The literary creations of Taiwan Aborigines, from a global dynamic to a local level; From the first authors of the Japanese language to the expression of a collective “I” in Mandarin; Genesis, definitions, formats, topics and actors.

About two weeks ago, I was invited by the organizers of the Workshop of Doctoral Students in Chinese Studies (CECMC) to give a paper on my PHD thesis. Since 2010, I’ve been enrolled in the Doctoral School of Arts, Humanities and Languages at the University of Provence, among the LEO2T team (Far East literatures, Texts and Translation), and under the supervision of Noël Dutrait. I had previously written a Master's thesis on this subject between 2002 and 2005.

My field of study throughout this project has been that the formation of "those" literatures (press, cultural magazines, anthropological publications, fiction and poetry, etc.), their themes, and the profile of their actors are closely related to the social reality around them. Therefore, first of all I returned to the general context of Taiwan, its history and its various ethnic and cultural components. The population of the island is 23 million and the Aboriginal population is only 500,000. The majority of people are of Han ethnicity.

Then, I shed light on the term "Aboriginal Literature" which in fact covers two realities: the first is the “oral” literature of these peoples (myths, legends, ballads), and the second is the “written literature”, which appeared later due to the lack of any true scriptural system among them.

These literatures emerged during a process of democratization on the island, which began around the lifting of the martial law in 1987. Indeed, the political demands of the Aborigines which were expressed at this time show their cultural renaissance. Taiwan experienced several waves of invasions between the fourteenth and twentieth century’s, and from these encounters with foreign civilizations unpublished, hybridized and modernized cultural expressions were coined. These marked the start of a subjective representation of these people.


I was also able to establish a short history of the aboriginal literary creations, since the beginnings of the Japanese colonization (1895-1945.) Starting with the first authors of the Japanese language (who were mostly composers of songs) to the writers of Mandarin expression from the late 1960s to the present. The extreme diversity of those texts also led me to understand why I had decided to work exclusively on the novelistic and poetic productions. Consequently, I was interested in the controversy over the definitions that were given about these authors in Taiwan: sometimes called "native writers" or "native literary creators" in academic texts. It seems that the questions of their "blood", the themes they deal with in their writings, or the linguistic tools they use (Mandarin, romanized or sinicized mother languages, etc.) are respectively put forward by the leading observers of this literature (writers, literary critics, researchers, whether they are Aboriginal or Han). Following this, I recognized the institutional framework of these creative productions (aboriginal literature prices, editorial relays), and briefly analyzed the lines of force that emerged from their literary and sociological reception (analysis of the literary prices posters, the generic division in "songs-poems’, “prose” and “novels”, or "traditional literature" and “literary creations in mother tongue," etc.).

Talking about aboriginal literature without mentioning the content of these texts was inconceivable. So I declined the major themes that appeared regularly in them, all genres included, and emphasized how these writings seemed to be "caught between a crossfire”: the critique of the Taiwanese society and its globalizing modernity, which destructs the cultures of these peoples, mixed to a reconfiguration of the oral tradition by writing (myths, legends and songs translated into Mandarin, or transcribed in romanized and sinisized native languages, etc.), or to a form of ethnical promotion by praising the alternative lifestyle, supposedly closer to nature, that the Aborigines knew before the arrival of the first foreigners in Taiwan.

The brevity of the exercise didn’t allow me to quote all the authors in this literary field (33 writers were officially registered in 2008); so I only presented some of the Paiwan poet Monaneng’s work. He’s an author/activist whose writings largely reflect the struggles of the indigenous activists in the 1980s (rectification of the name of these peoples, from "mountain compatriots" to "Aborigines", the denunciation of prostitution in which aboriginal young girls were constrained to take part, etc.). His collection of poems in Mandarin was the first to be published in 1989.


Among the other topics which are frequently raised are the "mountains" and the“ocean”, i.e the environment that would be natural to these peoples. Two authors, among the most famous in Taiwan and around the world, almost systematically articulate their stories around these aesthetic constructions:

The work of the Bunun Topas Tamapima, who was born in 1960 and is the author of three collections of texts, regularly highlights these "mountain forests" as a narrative framework in his stories, the traditional hunting to which his people are devoted, the various taboos of this practice, the relationship of his tribesmen to nature, and their misunderstanding of the modern world that changes their ancestral way of life. However, we can observe throughout his publications a kind of emancipation of the topics related to his people, which gradually converge towards a more collective dimension. There is an interaction between people from different groups and also with the evocation of demands which are common to "all" the Aborigines.

Syaman Rapongan is a Tao author who was born in 1957 on the Orchids Island, a small island off the southeastern coasts of Taiwan. In his stories, he talks about his return to his native island, his quest for re-learning traditional uses of his people (making boats, the art of fishing, etc.), but also of his difficulties in reintegrating among his own people: he is seen as an assimilated Aborigine who had been abroad for too long from their ocean culture. Syaman Rapongan retraces a true identity pilgrimage throughout his fishing expeditions, his relationship with the sea and fish shoals, or his interaction with the ancient Tao.

The second part of this paper allowed me to provide an update on the state of my research, during which I could make a short visit to Taiwan in September 2011. This was not my first visit as I had lived there between 2001 and 2003.



So I spent the first year of this research translating the latest collection of texts by Topas Tamapima, Lanyu xingyi ji 蘭嶼行醫記 (Memories of a doctor on the Orchids Island), which was published in 1998 and has recently been adapted to the television. In this book, he traces, through very short texts, his experience as a doctor at the dispensary of the Orchids Island. He also talks about the results of the meeting between him, the doctor/hunter of the mountains, and the Tao of the ocean. My presentation at the PHD students Workshop also allowed me to justify the choice of this book (his novelty and visibility), as well as the literary interest that represents its translation (autodiegetic narration that illustrates the "look" of an Aborigine on what surrounds him, the double han and aboriginal viewpoints of the author, etc.). I spent 1500 hours on translating this text of 253 pages into French (123 pages in the format of an academic work). Whilst completing this translation, I also gathered various documents on my subject, and established contacts with other researchers in Taiwan, the United States (Berkeley) and Canada (Manitoba).


Finally, I retraced the one-month stay I made in Taiwan in 2011 September. It wasn’t really a "field" in the ethnographical sense, but rather an "impregnation". I hadn’t visited Taiwan for 8 years and I think I needed to re-evaluate things, to remember who those Aborigines were. They are the common man shown in this literature, rather than the intellectuals who write these texts. So I did a tour of the island and visited:

1. The National Museum of Taiwanese Literature of Tainan, in the south of the island, where I could see a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Taiwanese literature in native languages (Hakka, Minnan or Austronesian languages);

2. The dispensary of Ch'angpin in Taitung, in the east of the island, where I found Topas Tamapima who I had last seen in November, 2003. I filmed a one-hour interview with him, where we had a casual conversation about his work, his life, his work as a doctor, his views on politics, the situation of his fellows and about Aboriginal literature. I also had the opportunity to meet Professor Tung Shu-ming at the University of Taitung, who is the author of one of the first PHD thesis on this literature, and who gave me a lot of advice and documentary sources;

3. Orchid Island where I visited all the places described by Topas in his latest collection of texts. I met his former colleagues at the dispensary, interviewed the staff of the nuclear wastes treatment factory, and interacted with the local people. Beyond the advantages to this passage of visiting the island (i.e. to help me to better understand the subject of my translation), the collection of different opinions on Topas also made me avoid to praise his personality and the reasons which led him to write. Separated by five years of inactivity and more than 10 000 miles from the subject of my research, I realized how much I would have stumbled upon this pitfall if I hadn’t made this visit.

4. Taichung, where I met the American-Taiwanese professor Hung Ming-shui who, before his retirement, taught a course on this literature at the University of Tunghai. We exchanged an extensive amount of information over a whole afternoon, after which he gave me the personal notes he had made on these texts, and a long article on this literature;

5. In Taipei, where, after a long interview, I was able to recover data and books from Lin Yi-miao. Lin is the chief editor of the Publication Society of the Mountains and Seas Culture, a publishing company that relays the arts and cultural activities of Taiwan Aborigines. Next, I went to meet the Paiwan poet Monaneng who agreed to be filmed during the interview. He also performed some of his poems in front of the camera.

At the end of this paper, I collected some questions from the public, which enabled me to wonder about some pre-existing analytical categories in Taiwan that I had pursued. I figured that it was imperative to deconstruct them to avoid falling into essentialization. Those questions also allowed me to understand the importance of being in regular contact with ones research supervisor, to measure his expectations, but also to clearly define an initial question, a methodology and research axes. While I was mostly considering my subject under a anthropological, sociological and literary perspective, one of the public comments made me realize the importance of the delimitation of my field and the approach under which I intended to study it. The draft plan of my PhD thesis is structured around three parts:

1. The authors and the texts

2. An annotated translation of "Memories of a doctor on the Orchids Island"

3. The reception of this literature in Taiwan

These three parts are organized around two major questions, according to a historical and literary approach:

- What "view" do those authors express?

- How is it reflected in their backgrounds, their texts and their reception?

The responses will help us to understand more sufficiently the following problem:

What can develop from the meeting of these "view points"? What is its literary and symbolic significance, both at a local and a global level?

Taken from a report of the meeting at the EHESS (School of Graduate Studies in Social Sciences) on December the 13th, 2011, from 17 to 19 pm

All photos by C. Maziere

Read here the original report in French


Thursday, 31 October 2013 13:50

Water in Classical Chinese Literature

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and one of the longest rivers in the world. The Yellow River is the second biggest river in Asia and the sixth biggest in the world. Both are the most important rivers in the history, culture and economy of China.

Ever since the early history of China, the water of the Yangzi was used for sanitation, irrigation and industry. The vastness of the river meant it was often used to mark borders and was an important consideration in war tactics.

The Yellow river is seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The most prosperous civilizations in the history of China were mostly situated along this river. Therefore, it is not surprising that images of water are apparent in ancient Chinese culture and particularly in Chinese poetry.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013 07:57

Publishing Debate part 2: Are you sure we're still really free?

The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement is a mirror into a possible dystopian future, in which appears a undemocratic Taiwan, lacking in freedom. Regardless if you're for or against the opening up, the publishing industry should take this opportunity to reflect on their own problems.

By Sharky Chen (the head of commaBOOKS Publishing House), translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photo by 楊忠銘.

Sunday, 06 October 2013 16:19

Publishing Debate part 1: Greater Freedoms Grant Greater Power

The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement does not, nominally at least, extend to the publishing industry, but it has unleashed an explosive debate in the publishing industry. Those in favour and those against both agree that 'freedom' is at the heart of Taiwan's publishing industry and that it's a value that must be upheld, but they hold opposing views of the effect that the implementation of the agreement will have on the industry. This special two part series allows two publishers on opposite sides of the argument to air their views, giving the reader a fuller picture of the possible advantages and drawbacks that the agreement will bring. The second article is available here.

What does the publishing industry really have to fear from the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement?

By Octw Chen (A long-time publishing industry insider), translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photo by 楊忠銘.

Under the pressure of China's large capital is Taiwan left with no other option and destined to go under? The strong "soft" power of the vital and diverse space cultivated by publishing freedom might just exceed our expectations...

Are we really seeing things clearly when we talk about the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement?

A new debate has broken out in Taiwan surrounding the signing of the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement. What's interesting is that it was in the publishing industry that the controversy first blew up, despite the fact that this industry has no direct relationship to the content of the agreement. Despite the fact that the publishing industry wasn't one of the industries under discussion in this agreement, some of the topics discussed are very interesting and deserve further discussion. However, it's necessary to first state that what follows is limited to the publishing industry and that this essay is unable to make a more comprehensive judgment on the merits of the trade agreement as a whole, or to state with authority what effect it will have on other industries.

According to the views expressed by Hao Mingyi in his piece 'We have less than 24 hours left', which was the subject of much debate, Taiwan's publishing industry is a model for cultural industry that will quickly be swallowed up and obliterated when the market is opened up. Publishers on the other side of the strait need only kill us softly with cash injections and these 'essentially small scale, micro-industries' will 'all be outgunned, unable to escape going under or being bought out'.

Is this true? Is the publishing industry in Taiwan really so weak that it can't even withstand one blow? This assertion really is rather horrifying and it certainly serves the function of scaremongering well, the only unfortunate thing about it though is that it does nothing to explain the status quo.

In a creative and innovative industry it's hard to succeed just with capital

It's true that we have countless micro-publishers. We also have a publishing market that is the most liberal, fortified and competitive in the history of the Republic of China. However, because of this, in the best-seller lists, it is the small to medium sized publishing houses that are strongest when it comes to innovation, influence and competition.

In the 2012 top hundred overall bestseller list, the hundred books came from forty-four different publishing houses. This would be hard to imagine in a country like the United States – the bestseller list in America is the province of six major publishing groups (Oh yeah, that's right, now there's only five!) – the fact that Taiwan's bestsellers aren't concentrated in a few publishing houses is testament to the fact that no one publishing house in Taiwan enjoys market dominance.

The bestseller list has another peculiarity, which is that small to medium-scale publishing houses feature prominently, making up more than half of the total, with even a few legendary one-man publishing houses. These small- to medium-scale publishing houses have little fear of the capital of larger-scale publishing houses and they even outperform them by quite a margin in the bestseller rankings.

'Is this particularly out of the ordinary?' you might ask. Of course it is. This is indicative of the fact that Taiwan's publishing industry is still based on innovation and creativity and that you can't dominate the market with just capital. There have been competing investments from Hong Kong, Japan, the UK and the US in Taiwan's publishing market, but no single publishing group or foreign investor has achieved market dominance and no foreign investor has been able to use their vast capital and resources to defeat the innovative and creative small- to medium-scale publishing houses.

This is the simple reality of Taiwan's publishing market since the end of Martial Law in 1987.

The assertion that Taiwan's publishing market is too unconstrained, that it lacks security and as a result is too easy to infiltrate or 'invade', not only demonstrates an inability to understand the status quo, but also an ignorance of the way a free system functions.

The publishing market is already a healthy ecosystem

If Taiwan's publishing industry is defenseless, why hasn't it been monopolized by a major publishing group? I my opinion, this is because of publishing freedom. In Taiwan nobody can stop you starting up a publishing house or starting a publishing branch of your company or even just striking out on your own as a self-published author without need of a company, you just need to apply to the ISBN centre of the National Central Library for your own ISBN – you can even call them up to complain if they're not quick enough about it.

As this industry is so simple, in the past few decades many people working in the publishing industry have resigned their posts at big companies and starting out in their own micro-publishing house, making waves in the book market with a lot more capacity for innovation than bigger companies. This is an industry that is impossible to monopolize, because the industry allows for new people and companies on the scene, not only in terms of the lack of a structural hierarchy but also in terms of the ability to do business. You don't need to have a lot of capital to play the game and there's no burdensome entrance fee. The top hundred bestsellers' list tells us that you can make an impact on the bestseller list with just your own individual intelligence and hard work.

You'd be hard-pressed to find another industry in Taiwan that values individual creativity so much, and this is all due to the individual transactions of the readers as they choose this book or that. Anyone seeking to dominate the market wouldn't be able to do it just by buying up all the existing publishing houses, they would also have to pay off all the editors to prevent them from setting up shop themselves. How can one clamp down on the freedom to start one's own business? And how also, can one dictate reading preferences to readers on a national scale? If capital could warp preferences when it comes to buying books, then the top hundred bestseller list should, by rights, be dominated by big companies.

I believe that Taiwan's publishing market is already a healthy eco-system, it is strong enough and determined enough to withstand 'invaders' from abroad, these 'invaders' could even be said to strengthen the industry by challenging it. This is the truly formidable power of Taiwan's publishing industry.

The best defense is in not erecting walls around ourselves

In an article in Next Magazine under the title 'A great place for reading', Zhan Hongzhi, the founder of Cite Publishing stated, 'Historically, the places where there was most freedom to print and publish often became the places were cultural renaissances took shape amongst a diverse range of voices.' Such was the Dutch enlightenment, wherein many French and English thinkers, because their views were proscribed in their own countries, were forced to publish their most important works in the Netherlands. Freedom and openness pushed the Netherlands to be a country at the forefront of European thought at that time, attracting a talented elite, allowing this small Western European country to cut a formidable figure on the seas in competition with the English and the Spanish. Dutch navigators were more or less engaged in global trade even then.

Freedom and liberty forged the Netherlands' golden era, likewise, publishing freedom is an extremely valuable soft power for Taiwan. It represents not only the collecting together of ideas, but it serves to awaken our minds – only places where there is publishing freedom will win the recognition of intellectuals.

What's most startling about the viewpoints that have been put forward concerning the publishing industry amidst the controversy surrounding the trade in services agreement is that these commentators seem to see Taiwan's clear strength as its weakness. The firm ground of freedom is seen as unable to withstand even one blow. When we should be upholding freedom, we instead build a high wall to cut ourselves off. This viewpoint is blind to the reality of the publishing industry, and underestimates its strength. If this viewpoint becomes the popular one, then that is a pity for Taiwan and if it goes further and becomes government policy, than that will be a tragedy for Taiwan – as our greatest advantage will be destroyed by our own hand.

We do need to protect Taiwan's publishing freedom, but the best way to do this is not to build ourselves a greenhouse, that will, on the contrary, destroy competition within the industry. The best line of defence is to continue to give free reign to competition, only then will the industry continue to cultivate publishers with determination, who will, when unhappy, be able to go their own way and start up influential independent publishing houses. To ensure that the eco-system continues to be balanced, innovative, free and diverse, this is the only way in which we can safeguard Taiwan's publishing industry.

Monday, 26 August 2013 14:38

Impromptu on Chopsticks and Cuisine

While directing an immersion program in Blois, France for American students from a Midwestern university, I have become friends with some of the French host families, who invite me to their home for dinner from time to time.  During one of those evenings, the hosts and I were sitting in the veranda surrounded by a small and lush garden, while the evening breeze was filled with the familiar scent of climbing honeysuckle.  They told me how pleased they were of the student I placed with them that year.

- Compared to Korean students we had before, Americans are so much easier.

I became intrigued, and asked why.

- The Koreans seemed so uncomfortable, poor things.  Imagine, since they did not have their chopsticks, they often dropped their forks and knives, and that makes them so embarrassed.  With the Americans, their culture is much more similar to ours, and they get more easily used to what we eat.

It had never occurred to me that switching from chopsticks to forks and knives could be such a dramatic challenge.  Growing up using chopsticks, I do not even remember the first time when I ate with a fork and a knife.  So direct and intuitive, it is one of those things that I fancy we do not need to “learn”.  My embarrassing secret is that I actually do not hold chopsticks quite so “correctly”, although I use them “fluently”.  It is barely noticeable, so my parents did not become aware until I was in third grade. They went into a panic mode attempting to correct it, but by then it was too late to change my habit.  My father signed in frustration:

- If you cannot even learn this, what else can you learn?

Decades later, I told my father what he had said to me. He had completely forgotten it and by then could not care less about how I held my chopsticks.  We both laughed.  He did not know how lucky he was though, because I remained a Chinese daughter, or else I could have blamed him for scarring me for the rest of my life with his negative comment about my learning ability. I have stopped telling my American friends as jokes certain things that my parents said to me, because instead of finding them funny, they were invariably horrified.

When my daughter Lydia was three, we took a family vacation in China. At Pudong airport in Shanghai, my sister-in-law came to pick us up and we all got into an airport shuttle bus.  We had barely sat down when Lydia said something in delight that astonished me:

- We all have black eyes and black hair!

I had never thought she would notice such details, but then I realized that appearances did matter.  In a primitive way, it may be the first thing that determines how comfortable we are with others.  Children are just more candid in verbalizing what we feel deeply inside and may go into great length to mask.  Rebekah Nathan, an American anthropology professor, spent her sabbatical year as a freshman living in a college dormitory (Cornell University Press, 2005).  She observed that students typically socialize along racial or ethnic lines, and while most of them reported having at least one close friend of a different race, very few of them actually do.  Perhaps Lydia’s generation will improve, because she regularly gets together with friends from nearly all the ethnicities in her high school. 

During that trip, Lydia and I spent several weeks in my hometown in Sichuan.  While eating in a crowded restaurant with my sister and brother-in-law, Lydia suddenly pointed to the chopsticks people were using:

-  I want that too!

Up to then she had been using only spoon and fork.  Worried that she would make a mess in public, I suggested we first start at home, but she insisted on right there and then.  She had always seen her dad and me eating with chopsticks at home, but did not show any interest until she was in China, with a roomful of people who were using them.  For me, this incident shows the powerful human desire to conform to the social environment surrounding us.

The poor Korean students in the French host family were in an unfamiliar environment for which they may not have been fully prepared.  Their discomfort was likely greater than that of my American students, because of greater differences between home and host environments, such as lack of chopsticks, or left unspoken, different physical appearances.  American students do not have as many visible differences with their French hosts, which makes them easier to fit in, at least at the beginning.

When I was a student majoring in French at Peking University in the early eightieth, our language instructors spoke beautiful French but had never been exposed to French cuisine, having received their degree during the Cultural Revolution.  Once they told us a story about how they had been invited by the French embassy for a banquet and came back still hungry.

- Only five dishes! We thought there must be more to come, so we ate very little when we were served a dish. Then they took each one away! By the time we realized there would be no more, we were still hungry. The food looked beautiful, but did not taste as good as Chinese food.

In a Chinese banquet, people usually take very little when a dish is served, because you can expect a table full of dishes.  It is always a good idea to save room for more and you can go back later because all the dishes stay on the table. 

My instructors’ misadventure stemmed from the fact that they did not know how a French meal was structured.  They did not complain about forks and knives, which must have been the easy part for which they were prepared.

However, as tempting as it is to believe that cuisines that use forks and knives (such as American and French) are more similar with each other than with those using chopsticks,  allow me to be contrarian here and explain why I think, beyond all appearances, it is easier for Chinese than for Americans to adapt to French cuisine.

Except for people who refrain from pork for religious reasons, where would you find more people who agree with the French that “tout est bon dans le cochon” (everything is good in a pig)? Generally speaking, like the French, Chinese from most regions eat tripe, offal, and giblets, and do not need any adjustment faced with andouillette, boudin, tripes, cœur, rognon, langue, gisier, which I do not even want to translate into English. Foie is more acceptable, at least in certain circles, because of the prestige of foie gras, although it would be wise not to translate it as “goose liver paste”, the way it is rendered candidly in Chinese without shocking anyone. There are even many Chinese recipes for cervelle – most Americans would be “totally grossed out”. There is certainly a much higher percentage of Chinese people willing to taste the tête de veau.  Like the French, Chinese tend to have their meat from a greater variety of sources than Americans. In Sichuan, frogs and rabbit are common sources of meat.  How about eating a whole fish? That is commonplace for most Chinese but a monumental task for most Americans.  Chinese and French share the same taste in pastries, and most of them would find American pastries much too sweet.  When I follow a French recipe for dessert, I put exactly the same amount of sugar, but use less than half with an American recipe.

Mayonnaise can serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between American and French cultures.  American and French mayonnaises have the same name, but taste so different that when you like one, it does not mean you would like the other.  The same goes for mustard.  If you enjoy French salad, do not ever, ever choose “French dressing” when you eat in an American McDonald…Between the two cultures, so similar on the surface, there are undercurrent of differences which anthropologist Raymonde Carroll devotes an entire book to analyze (Evidences Invisibles).  Just as outward differences may prevent people from recognizing the profound resonance that unites them, apparent similarities can also lead to bitter misunderstandings, because they make people least prepared to deal with their real differences.  

In fact, regardless of our background, we can always learn to enjoy a new cuisine, especially if we understand its language and culinary culture.  In terms of French cuisine, there is a great variety of dishes from different regions, which makes it possible to find what we like and gradually expand our food repertory. When I first learned to make French dishes, I started by watching my friends and helping them in their kitchen, and realized that our ways of cooking were based on very similar principles.  Our own taste can evolve as we explore different foods, embracing new ones or giving up others harmful to our health.  For me, yogurt and cheese are acquired tastes.  While I continue to enjoy spicy food, unlike my friends who stay in Sichuan, I do not need to put chili peppers in nearly all the dishes because I have learned to appreciate other types of flavors.  Being true to ourselves does not mean to remain unchanged.  Let our heart be free, and then we can choose the ingredients of our life and create our own recipes.   

Drawing by Bendu

Friday, 27 September 2013 17:45

Thinking outside the box: Inventing words and Chinese variants in Taiwan

When reading in Chinese, particularly literature and academic essays on literature or on certain blogs, you'll notice that the author uses combinations of words that don't exist in any dictionary as compounds - this practice, known as 「造詞」(zaoci), is frustrating when one is first trying to get to grips with academic writing or blogs, but eventually you start to appreciate the wit and creative charm behind it. If you've ever read The Meaning of Liff you'll get an idea of what this achieves and the possible comic effects.

This can be done for several reasons.

The first is to translate a foreign concept (or what was once only a foreign concept) into Chinese, many of these are simple but amusingly to the point, examples include 無政府主義 (no-government-ism) as a rendering of 'anarchism', 天主教 (master-of-the-heavens-religion) for Catholicism, or 利己主義者 (interest-self-ism) as a fancy way to say 'egotist' or for someone who subscribes to a self-interested ideology. A lot of these subsequently end up in the dictionary. More recent and artistic examples of this kind of word include both 「多音交響」(duo1yin1jiao1xiang3) "many-tones-symphony" and 「眾聲喧嘩」 (zhong4sheng1xuan1hua2) "many-sounds-clamouring" which attempt to render Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "heteroglossia" into Chinese. These are usually found in academic articles and the source language equivalent is normally still placed in brackets behind the word to indicate that this is an experimental attempt. These words are also often translated differently in mainland China and Taiwan. 

Another form of zaoci, however, is simply to create a new word by blending aspects of existing words. This form is more interesting and harder to identify, but can sometimes catch on and enter common usage. The technique is generally taking two words (normally consisting of two characters each) and taking one character from the first and one from the second to make a new word. These examples are quite hard to find, as they are essentially invented by the individual on the spot. Here's a short list of some of the more artful ones that I've discovered so far, feel free to add more in the comments box.

1. 「索愛」(suo3ai4) which blends 「索討」(suo3tao3), "to ask for", with 「愛情」(ai4qing4), "love," to mean someone who acts in a cutesy manner to try and get what they want - a near synonym for the mainland Chinese term 「賣萌」(mai4meng2) and the term 「撒嬌」 (sa1jiao1).

2. 「魘醒」(yan3xing2) which is an abbreviation for 「從夢魘中醒來」, "waking up from a nightmare".

3. 「熹亮」(xi1liang4) which combines 「熹微」, "the faint sunlight just after dawn" with 「光亮」(guang1liang4), "bright", to get a synonym of 「微亮」(faint light).

4. 「憤罣」(fen4gua4) which combines 「憤怒」 (fen4nu4), rage, and 「罣礙」(gua4ai4), worry, to mean a rage born of worry.

5. 「離聚」(li2ju4) which combines 「離散」(li2san4), "disperse", and 「相聚」(xiang4ju4), assembly, to mean when an assembly disperses.  

 Using variants is another way to make your writing more aesthetically pleasing (and also dictionary/foreigner proof). A variant is essentially another way of writing a certain character in Chinese which makes no significant change to its meaning. Some have been lost to standardization, but many are still commonly used - both versions in different settings and registers of writing. A common example is 「角色」 vs 「 腳角」. Another is the 「台」 in 「台灣」and 「舞台」 vs 「臺灣」 and 「舞臺」. Sometimes the variants are interchangeable in every combination like 「台」; at other times the variant can only be used when the word forms a verb or a noun, for example, my colleague Jiahe talks about the difference between 「鋪」 and 「舖」 below: 


Another colleague, loathe to appear on camera, gave me this explanation of the difference between 「掛礙」 and 「罣礙」, which the Ministry of Education online dictionary states to be the same, meaning that here, 「掛」 and 「罣」 are variants of each other:


(Translation: I originally learned to write this word as 「罣礙」, the 「罣」meaning "stuffed up or congested", I interpreted this as one's heart being congested or stuffed up with some worry. However, later I discovered that 「掛礙」was a more common way of writing this word, with the 「掛」 meaning "worry" or "concern". Moreover 「掛」is easier to write, so people are more likely to write the word as 「掛礙」。The two forms of the word can be used interchangably according to the online dictionary of the Ministry of Education. This is because language is essentially just down to convention.)  

 In this second interview, I had the mainlander of the office, Yingying, discuss the variant pairs 「分/份」 and 「姐/姊」:


My interest in this subject really started when I changed to using the Cangjie input system - which is an entry system based on visual components of each character (if you're using a computer in Taiwan, these can be found on the bottom left corner of your PC's keys, or bottom right of your Mac's keys) : 

日 (sun radical) + 月 (moon radical) = 明 (bright) for example

Although it's slightly more complicated to learn, it's helpful in getting characters to stick in your head - but as a side effect of this entry system - sometimes strange looking characters pop up when you get a stroke in the wrong sequence, like the long list that appears when you type a sound in pinyin as shown below:


In writing my thesis the title of the play I was discussing includes the character 「間」written 日弓日, but if you put an extra 弓 on the end, then you get 「闁」, a rare archaic variant of the character 「褒」 - meaning to praise. A mistroke in writing 「且」 written 月一 (and) gets you a variant of 「冉」 which is as follows: 「冄」 written 月一一. This is essentially the same as when you're typing in Zhuyin or pinyin and you have to sort through a list of weird characters, but in Changjie you generally only get one character with each combination you type, except on the rare occasions that two characters share the same canjie code, as above. Regardless if you're interested or not in the different ways to input Chinese characters, this really got me interested in why different people chose to use different variants in different situations. Have you found any interesting characters, variants or new invented words, if so feel free to let loose on the comments section! 



Tuesday, 16 April 2013 15:00

A Tale of Three Lands

Everybody thought she was a lucky girl, set for life. She worked at the small library of this huge and important boiler factory, one of the few young people there with a college degree, from a nearby provincial university. Her boyfriend, a young engineer in the same factory, was known to be gentle and attentive. They would get married when they qualified for "late marriage". The only quibble people could find was she cared too much about her appearance, compared with other Chinese women in the late fifties: she wore her silky black hair in two long braids, had a light mauve summer dress with elastic collar and dark mauve polka dots, even her jacket was fitted because she made alterations... But she had the redeeming quality of being really friendly, always smiled before speaking. Her warm presence made the library one of the favorite gathering places for the employees' lunch-time breaks.

Then came the "Hundred Flowers Movement." People in the entire country were encouraged to criticize the Party and the government. Meetings after meetings were held to pressure people to contribute to socialism through their criticism. She really did not have much to say, spending her days in the library with her nose in the books. When pressed, she finally said one thing: a famous poet from their province wrote better poems in the twenties, but his most recent collection of 101 poems, which he wrote in 10 days, was simply full of slogans. By writing more slowly, he might be able to produce socialist poems as beautiful as those written by Pushkin. Nobody in the factory paid much attention at the time to her bookish comment, which in the end got her into trouble in so many ways: praising poems written before the "Liberation" over those written after it, a foreign aristocrat over a socialist Chinese poet, and slowness over high speed. She was designated a "rightist", dragged from meetings to meetings to be criticized and humiliated. She lost her job in the library and was assigned to work in the cleaning crew. Her boyfriend disappeared from her view and publicly announced that he "had a clean break" with her. When running into her, people looked aside when they did not have enough time to walk away. For the first time in her life, she found herself in complete isolation.

The day Soviet expert Alexander walked towards her, she caught sight of his eyes looking straight at her before she had the time to turn hers away, and their blue gleam shone upon the darkness of her life. He used to go to the library frequently during breaks and had always felt a special connection with her. Knowing that she had fallen into misfortune by praising Pushkin, he came to her defense. Like before, they managed to communicate with his little Chinese and her little Russian; every new word or phrase they learned seemed to bring them closer to each other. When he read to her one of Pushkin's most famous poems "If life has deceived you", although she did not know enough Russian to understand the original much beyond the title, she was so familiar with its Chinese translation that she wept, bitterly.

After a few weeks though, he was called to a meeting with the Party secretary, and the director of the Women's Union came to see her. In order not to "damage international relation between two brotherly countries", they either needed to get married or avoid contact. They were by then inseparable and agreed to be married. Their marriage improved her situation. She stayed in the factory while other "rightists" were sent into exile in the countryside or the border provinces. Alexander enjoyed the warm weather and lush landscape of this picturesque southern town. They forgot themselves in the nearby bamboo forest dotted with ponds dyed green by bamboo reflections. When spring arrived, they immersed themselves in the clouds of peach blossoms on the hills, and ocean of undulating golden rapeseed flowers in the fields, under the splendid luminosity of the southern sky.

When the Great Famine (officially called the Natural Disasters) hit in 1959, they were largely spared thanks to the special treatment afforded to the Soviet experts and were even able to help her parents, but they could not have foreseen the split between the Soviet Union and China, and the abrupt withdrawal of all the Soviet experts. There was no choice but to follow Alexander back to his country. From the day she unfortunately talked about the Chinese poet and Pushkin, she felt like a small train driven by an invisible and silent conductor, never knowing where would be her next station or what landscape she would encounter. Alexander went back to the aviation plant where he used to work, in a mid-sized city near the Ural Mountains. They arrived in summer when the weather was mild. She gazed at this hilly city by a river, a tributary of the famous Volga, and was determined to make it her new home.
- We will go downtown so that you can get a haircut and buy some new clothes, he said the next morning.
- Haircut?
- Yes. There will be a gathering with friends and co-workers tonight.

bendu009decv11He was looking at her braids. He used to enjoy playing with them. He never had to change his hair or clothing styles while in China. Then it occurred to Anna that he was in China as a Soviet expert and she came to his country as his wife.
As weeks went by, Anna made increasing progress in Russian and met more people. Each new person encountered was like a new word endowed with its multiple meanings and shifting forms, wrapped around a sentence and surrounded by a paragraph, except that words do not look back at you and judge you, making you feel clumsy or awkward. They patiently wait for you and welcome you to discover their hidden messages. She started to work a few hours a day in the library of the city's technical school, completing simple tasks such as dusting the shelves and reshelving the books. Shy and meticulous, Anna felt a great satisfaction working in the library.
Then winter set in, and it seemed never-ending. Anna had never seen anything more than a few flurries that melted as soon as they hit ground, but now snow blanketed the entire mountains and the city, while the river was frozen, and gusty bone-piercing wind made her stumble as soon as she stepped outside. Before winter was over, she received her older sister's "last letter": Their parents had died during the continuing Natural Disasters. Food had to be rationed; there was not enough even for blameless people, not to say a family with a rightist relative who left for an enemy country.

As Anna spoke more and more Russian, Alexander was losing the little Chinese he had acquired over his years in China, as if the more she moved towards him, the more he was drifting away. To make matters worse, none of the doctors they consulted was able to determine the cause of their infertility. Meanwhile, the relationship between their two countries – yes, China still counted as Anna's country even though she could no longer go back to it and had nothing there to go back to – worsen, until the border disputes escalated into a military confrontation in 1969. Alexander lost his security clearance as a senior engineer in the aviation plant and was reassigned to teach in the technical school where Anna by then worked full-time in the library circulation department. They started to have those silly arguments which left them both upset and frustrated, even though she never knew how they started or why they mattered. She tried to make peace by apologizing.
- I am really sorry to have made you angry.
- If you know you were wrong, why did you do (say) it?
- Until you became angry, I did not realize it mattered.
- Are you trying to justify yourself?
- No, I am really sorry.
- How many times have you done the same thing? You always apologize, but there is never any improvement.
- I would be happy if you apologized just once.
- Are you apologizing or you want to make me apologize?

Anna realized when Alexander became angry there was no way to bring him around. Words were useless. The only thing she could do was to wait, for hours, days, or weeks. Patience was what she needed. She was grateful that he always returned home. She had nowhere else to go, and the small apartment felt so much warmer when he was there, even in silence. She would sit quietly close to him, but not too close. By observing him she could tell how a storm was gradually fading, and when a faint ray of sunlight was about to reappear. She learned to stop digging, stop talking as soon as she sensed a small trace of upset in him. She would watch him while he looked away, and her eyes would try to tell him how grateful she was, and how sorry she was to have messed up his career, his life. Marriage is a box. You feel safe inside not only because of where you are, but also because how people think of you: since you are so neatly "arranged" they would not wonder about you, try to figure you out, or project their inquisitive gaze on you. A natural librarian, Anna liked things neat and tidy.

The year Gorbachev visited China, Alexander had a stroke. He suffered speech loss and partial paralysis, with the ability only to move his left arm and hand. Anna retired from the library to take care of him. She learned to understand what he wanted by looking into his eyes and, in the most unexpected way, she finally felt her heart at peace. Words can hurt. Now that they could no longer talk with each other, they were safer than ever before. She would hold and stroke his left hand, let time drip away in the sand of eternity. To paraphrase Rilke with a twist: their story consists of two solitudes that met, warmed and comforted each other. For about a year, his condition fluctuated. One day, he fell asleep and never woke up again.

bendu 007dec11Anna continued to live in their small apartment. A year later, the Soviet Union dissolved. With inflation skyrocketing year after year, Anna's small pension became barely enough for bread and butter, while breathtaking changes were occurring all around her: highways, tall buildings, and new stores sprang up before she even noticed when the constructions had started. The worst part though was the weather, the monotony of seasons. She dreaded winter even in summer, as if she were waiting for the other shoe to drop. She felt like she was on a train, a preprogrammed automated train, which circulated predictably from short summer to long winter, very long winter, with snow everywhere, and gusty bone-piercing wind. What if she jumped off?

On a late summer day when she could already feel a slight coldness in the breeze, she walked by a newly opened travel agency, which displayed attractive photos of faraway lands. She had her eyes set on one place: tropical islands surrounded by the warm blue ocean, luxuriant forests with splashing waterfalls, cascades of unknown rainbow-colored climbing flowers and abundant fruits: mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts... no winter, no visa required for Russian citizens. The native people on the pictures somehow bore resemblance to her.

She sold her apartment to a crafty developer who had been pestering the residents of the building where she lived, and went back to the travel agency. She bought a one-way ticket to the only place she had ever chosen.

Drawings by Bendu


Monday, 18 March 2013 17:34

In Praise of Readers

This essay was initially inspired by Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness". It was gratifying, upon reading it, to realize that I had been spending my (too little) leisure time in ways that he might have approved. While I find Russell's essay illuminating, I am not worried about repeating his thinking though, because the distance between my mind and that of a great philosopher remains insurmountable. My praise does not involve a concept, however tangible, but a familiar figure, the reader.

Let us celebrate the readers in us, who chose to read the books that to some extent raised us and shaped what we have become. The books we choose show us alternative ways of thinking and life in distant lands, different from the immediate surroundings where we happen to be confined. They provide opportunities for us to exercise our freedom and to follow the path we otherwise might not have imagined, beyond what is obviously within our reach. It is readers who grant true existence to books, whose meanings remain in virtual state, waiting to be activated and constantly renewed. By readers I mean those who give their books undivided attention, the gift of attentiveness, and who enter a book with the willingness for dialogue, communion and transformation. Such readers may be in the process of becoming an "endangered species" in a world where an abundance of distractions compete for our attention. We are always in danger of losing the readers in us, because temptations lurk everywhere, even, or perhaps more so, for those of us who apparently chose reading as part of our profession: reading for summaries, in order to select elements to fit a pre-established theoretic framework, reading with little joy but the pressure of publishing... For several years I did not have time to read any new books unrelated to my research projects, and quite a few colleagues, reputable scholars in my field, made the same confession. It then dawned on me: it is less important for me to study an author's marginal notes than to read the books that he would have enjoyed had he been my contemporary.

Books worthy of our attention may require more than one reading in order for us to appreciate its value, as we grow with each of our re-readings. Over the years, the books that I reread have taken on the role of friends who accompany me in my meandering trajectory. One such example is Flaubert's Education sentimentale. When I first read it, as a teenager avid for any books I could get hold of, in a Chinese translation, I was struck by the beautiful and moving image of Marie Arnoux but rejected Frédéric Moreau as a feeble, indecisive and useless person, and to some degree, this novel as well. In my subsequent reading, enriched by years of learning French language and literature at Peking University, as I gained knowledge on its literary history and acquired its tastes, and coupled with my own experience and observations in the world of emotions, I came to appreciate the truthfulness and complexity of feelings as expressed in Flaubert's language. Later, when I spent a year in Paris through an exchange program between Boston College and the École Normale Supérieure, my familiarity with the city helped bring to life numerous scenes in the novel that previously I had only imagined, making me more sensitive to individuals' fate through historical changes, complexity of their particular situations, and their solitude facing the inevitable passage and damage of time.

Reading nourishes writing. It is through intimate knowledge of tradition that we can create something truly innovative. A young man once told me that he would like to be a writer. When I found out that the last book he read was a required one from his high school, I encouraged him not to write immediately, but first to read. Given the abundance of book productions, the world would be a better place with one more reader and one fewer writer, who, like the spider from Jonathan Swift's essay, weaves elaborate yet fragile webs out of thin air. The bee would be a more fitting metaphor for a writer who produces tasty honey with a fertile mind nourished by numerous flowers encountered through his wandering journey. On the other hand, in the bee's fanciful flight may lack gravity or pain (except what it inflicts on other creatures who accidentally come into contact), an often necessary creative dimension. The silkworm, a frequently adopted metaphor in Chinese literature, can complement the bee's shortcoming. Its fidelity is exemplary: feeding on a single substance, mulberry leaves, and producing, with the dedication of its entire being, a unique cocoon for silk. If we could somehow imagine a strange animal which is partly a bee and partly a silkworm, it could make an appropriate metaphor for a great writer.

Readers not only fulfill the meaning of existing texts, they can be part of the creative process as well. Few authors write without readers in their mind and even those completely disillusioned against their contemporaries place their hope in posterity, readers to come. In some cases, a writer probably would not have created a work without the existence of a special reader; this may be true for all creative works such as music and painting. A Chinese legend illuminates such a rare bond: Bo Ya, a consummate player of Guqin, an ancient seven-stringed music instrument, had a privileged listener, Zhong Ziqi, who perfectly understood his music, his mind and his heart. When Zhong passed away, Bo Ya broke his instrument in distress and ceased to play music for the rest of his life. In Chinese tradition, this legend is typically used to illustrate one's faithfulness to a rare friend who truly knows his mind (zhiyin), while some might reproach him for having such an exclusive taste that only one person was able to fully appreciate him. There is, however, the possibility that even if he had tried, Bo Ya simply would not have been able to play the instrument at the same artistic level he had attained in the company of his soul mate. Bo Ya, therefore, was not only faithful to his friend, but also to the idea of art that he chose to uphold. Considering that he must have played his instrument for many years prior to his encounter with Zhong, his ultimate renouncement also reveals the intensity of pain associated with an irreplaceable loss. The reader can thus be a metaphor for the selective person whose intelligence, receptiveness and resonance become instrumental in the creative process. To the extent that each of us can be viewed as a "work in progress", we can all benefit from the "reader" whose presence allows us to fully discover and achieve the unique potential in our being. The reader, in this sense, is not a passive recipient, but an inspirational partner, and people can be mutual readers to each other.

There are ways for the act of reading to become a collective event shared by many readers. Blois, France, a beautiful historical city by the Loire River and my home away from home, hosts an annual literary prize awarded to a first French novel published in France, the Prix Roblès. Reading committees are formed throughout Blois, the department of Loir-et-Cher, and worldwide, currently including Europe, Africa, North and South America, perhaps one day Asia as well? From March to the Award Ceremony, usually held in June, readers choose a winner out of 5 or 6 books selected as finalists by a committee composed of librarians in conjunction with the Académie Goncourt. There are two or three public forums led by literary critics where foreign committees can participate by sending their comments. Each committee has only one vote, and therefore needs to hold discussions and arrive at a consensus. The actual voting, full of suspense, is held in the morning of the award ceremony, a televised event followed by book signing. Since Prix Roblès takes place during my annual stay in Blois, I have witnessed how the Blésois were engaged in the selection process, caring deeply about its outcome and showing up enthusiastically at the Award Ceremony and the Book Signing. This year, I finally decided to take the time to form a committee with francophone colleagues at my university. At the time I write this essay, I am waiting for the books to arrive at my home across the ocean, mountains and rivers. I look forward to this shared reading experience, anticipating it to generate echoes that amplify the joy felt by readers in Blois and all over the world, each in our own corner.

Illustration by Bengua

Tuesday, 05 March 2013 16:59

When did we all turn into a bunch of numbers?

Good afternoon everyone,

It's the time for the Wednesday experience sharing session once again. When this time comes around, everyone surreptitiously breathes a sigh of relief that the week is already half-over do they not? Thanks to everyone for staying this late to hear a younger colleague share with you how to calculate accurately the C/T value of your life. I see a lot of people have come, a lot of whom are older colleagues with substantial experience under their belt, you're not only higher up in the company than me, but you've also been here a lot longer, you've worn out a lot more swiveling chairs than me too, so you're probably curious about two things, the first is as to why it's me standing here today, the second is as to what C/T value is.

The two questions actually have the same answer.
The answer is my wife.

My wife is Jian Mei-en who has just been promoted to head of her section. We joined the company at the same time, and now I'm still at the same level as a rookie, but she's already set the best sales record 13 weeks in a row, raised her unit's performance by 0.5 percentage points, and after just a year and a half in the job the completion rate of every project she's worked on has increased by an average of 45%.

How was she so successful, you might ask? It's because found a way to raise her C/T value. At this point, you're probably even more curious as to what C/T value is? How can it change our lives?

OK, thanks for the applause. If we want to understand what C/T value is, we have to start from C/P value. I assume you all know what C/P value is: capability/price. The higher the performance of a product, and the less funds you need to invest, the higher its C/P value. As for C/T, this ratio was invented by my wife. One explanation of C/T value is that T = time and C = capability, then if we invest less time but are highly capable, then the figure we get will be larger. You're probably thinking that this is stating the obvious. The less time you spend, and the more you get done, the more effective you'll be. The pursuit of a high C/T value is what every company looks for in their prospective employees. The problem with this is, however, how to reduce the time value.

Please take a look at the screen. This is my daily schedule from when I'd just joined the company:

7:00 Get up
8:00 Walk out the door
8:30 Clock in
12:00 Lunch break
14:00 Work meeting
18:00 Off work
19:00-22:00 Leisure time
22:00-00:00 Prepare the following day's reports
01:00 Bedtime

If we consider that today is Wednesday, then the leisure time we might change to 'sharing session', this is the highlight of my otherwise dull week, everyone loosens their ties, changes into casual shoes and exchanges their feelings about work, be they important or not. However, as everyone looks at this schedule, I suspect you'll all be thinking that this is a model for a low C/T value. It's perhaps typical of how a new employee would organize their time. There's so much time wasted at each stage. 

But what I want to tell everyone is that so called 'waste' is necessary. Although this is my schedule, my wife's was the same. Man and wife are often in sync in this respect. From getting out of bed to getting to work, they stick together, if one of them forgets something the other one will wait for them, one to two hour delays aren't out of the ordinary. If you go to eat lunch together then you're going to take two hours from 12 to 2, but I'd like to ask, if your boss offers to treat you to a nice meal would you be able to refuse? Sitting at your average restaurant on the street you'll spend around an hour and a half. Considering that everyone else will go, if you stay behind at the office, do you know what they'll say about you? Not even just that, aren't you curious what the office gossip is? I'll can tell you now, in just two hours over lunch you can get a fix on the gossip in each department, isn't that well-worth the investment? Another thing is in regard to leisure time in evening. To be realistic about things, we live with my mother and she loves watching local TV dramas in the living room, would you feel OK asking your wife to tell your aged mother to turn the volume down or turn the TV off altogether? It's hard not to watch along with her, and everything else naturally gets put off until later. Not to mention, if I'd known on this particular Wednesday that I would be making a presentation to you today, would I have needed to stay up for the last few days preparing this flashy powerpoint? This is not just a problem of numbers. With a calculator, you can switch between different currencies and units of measurement, with excel, you can accurately predict the output value of different projects, after all the struggle of getting into this company, you know that you'll get your end of year bonus that will be four times your monthly salary and a performance related bonus on the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Spring Festival, and that your life is worth almost a hundred days holiday per year, and as your position in the company rises, all this will be adjusted accordingly; but lots of things cannot be so accurately calculated. Tell me, how can one put a value on the relationship between husband and wife? Is it as simple as just dividing everything by 2? Now tell me, how would you would plot the emotional exchange and cost of care of watching a local drama on TV with your mother for two hours on a profit loss statement?

However, how can we change things?
The answer is C/T Value.

I don't know how she came to the realization. One morning I woke up and the other half of the bed was empty. There was still the depression of her body left on the mattress. I shouted her name, but there was no answer. On the dining table, however, there was some warm milk. My suit pants had been ironed and were hanging on a chair, and my briefcase was ready by the door.

It was just her that was missing.

I thought I should give her a call on her mobile phone, but when I picked up the phone I realized I remembered my own number, I remembered her employee number and account, I remembered our company's Business Registration Number; but somehow I couldn't remember her mobile number.

When was it that we became just bunch of numbers?

When I eventually got to the office, as soon my head was through the door, behind the partition, wasn't she sitting there typing out a report in front of her computer like it was the most natural thing in the world?

Her eyes were gleaming as she turned her head. She said that she'd found a way to increase C/T value.

'The secret is to get up out of bed two hours earlier and to eat lunch an hour later.'

What? I stuttered. That's the secret of increasing C/T value? Get up two hours earlier? Can that be the secret to success?

It was only some days later that I understood. It was all as simple as that. However, at the same time, it wasn't as simple. I had misunderstood what she meant.

There is another way to interpret C/T value, C = Customary and T = Time. The slash in the middle indicates separation. So it means essentially to stagger your time from that of everyone else.

She got up two hours earlier than I did, so she did everything before me. Heating the breakfast, getting everything prepared, sorting out everything to be done during the working day. In comparison, I got up later, so I couldn't delay her, I couldn't try to sweet talk her. I could only follow in her footsteps, without my interference, she got things done a lot quicker.

She also misses the rush hour, and gets to work a little earlier, as well as this, as I'm not with her, or anyone to bump into her, she doesn't have to engage in the customary small talk and greetings on getting to the office, so she gets her work done a lot quicker. At lunch, she avoids the normal lunch hour, and doesn't have to undergo the hobnobbing of socializing with colleagues, which increases her productivity even more.

And what about the evening? To get up two hours earlier the next morning, she would have to go to sleep earlier, so there's no way she can even think about watching a local drama that starts at eight in the evening. Mum understands that she has to get up early the next morning, so turns the TV down so as not to disturb her, then without even washing her dishes, she goes to bathe and heads to bed. So just as I'm off work for the evening, her day is already over.

Oh, that's right! That's how my wife came to invent the time machine.

If one just reduces one's contact with other people, and don't let trivialities influence your mood or your state of mind, then everyone can increase their productivity. Her life is 2 hours earlier than everyone else's, and she wastes an hour less for lunch. Adding it all up, she lives in a time zone with a 27 hour day.

'You can do it with me,' she offered. 'Let's go to bed together,' she said. If it had been before, I would have probably assumed she was hinting at something a little more sleazy; but to tell you the truth, this is the first time on this planet that those words have been uttered in such a matter of fact, business-like tone.

'But,' I scratched my head, I could give up watching TV with my mum; but it would be more difficult when I got off work, what was I supposed to do for fun? It didn't really seem possible. And what would happen if my mates invited me to lunch the next day. If I stayed in the office on my own, I'd probably have no friends after a few days.

I'm tired after a long day's work, it's important to have a bit of time to wind down, no?

But the light in the room was already off. She'd gone off in her time machine again.

What I'm trying to say is, figures are funny things. My wife has the best sales in the company for a record 13 weeks running, she has raised her section's performance by 0.5 percentage points, and her personal productiveness has risen by 45%, she has a high C/T value and has successfully changed her life; but you don't know what she had to give up in exchange for this.

For example, my wife and I in a typical day only get a chance to talk about our household duties around the water cooler at work. What about after work, you might ask? Please! I'm lucky if I get off at 8, and by that time she's already asleep. We talk more at the office than at home. She missed this meeting, look at us here, we're having a little drink and chatting, as well as the entire day... the entire week's work, we found the time to relax and have some fun, maybe we can even head somewhere else later, then tomorrow we'll cradle our hangovers in the rush to clock in for the day, and spend our morning staring at the computer screen doing nothing but wishing the hangover would dissipate more rapidly. And my dear wife will already be making headway into Thursday or Friday. Wednesday has already gone altogether for her and I'm still here. I know, I'm losing my wife bit by bit. If I'm lucky, we'll continue to live under the same roof, but the date line will run through the middle, she is the letter C, and I'm the letter T. There's something between us, a forward slash, keeping us forever apart. I don't know where to find a time machine that will be able to balance our C/T values.

Ok, buddy, I'm not trying to laden you all with my sorrows. Wasn't that a song, 'Don't cry for me, Argentina.'? This is just what I wanted to share with everyone today, if my wife can be this successful, then why can't everyone? If my wife gets more time by avoiding the morning rush hour and having to interact with everyone by getting up on average two hours earlier, then why can't all of you?

No, I'm not joking, I'm saying, what if we all got up two hours earlier, and ate lunch later? That way, everyone could be successful. Or rather, we would successfully bring my wife back. Think about it, if some of us can come earlier to the office, and eat lunch later, it doesn't even have to be everyone, one or two will suffice, then they can go and chat to my wife at that time, it's best if you get her talking about C/T value. When she realizeds she can't avoid people and that she's surrounded by socializing once again, she'll start to get nervous, and the only way to raise her C/T value will be to bring everything forward another hour.

If my wife continues to bring her time forward, then I can remain still? Or if I push things backward, the effect will be even better, she's already getting up two hours earlier, if she gets up even two hours earlier than that? And I go to sleep four hours later, then, she'll be pretty tired, I'll be tired too, but it should be OK, her day would be about to start, and my evening will be just about to start, maybe we could meet in the middle, on a Wednesday that's also not a Wednesday, in that fold in time, then we could meet again, I could invite her to spend a little time in the time I'm in.

That's what I've got to say, and it's also a request, thank you to everyone who was willing to give up their Wednesday evening to spend it with me. If it's possible, I hope next Wednesday, we can meet again and that we can bring our partners with us.

chenboqing-1Born in the Summer of 1983, Sodom Chen obtained his Masters from the Graduate of Taiwan Literature. His work has been awarded the World Chinese Science Fiction Prize for a science fiction novel, the World Chinese Young Writer Prize for Taiwanese Literature, the China Times Literature Prize and the United Daily News Literature Prize. He also published the novel Little City (xiao chengshi) under the penname Ye Fulu (葉覆鹿).

Text translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart (to view the Chinese, you might have to change the language option)

Photo © Pony Pei, Licensed by Pumpkin Creative Co., Ltd - Caption: Using action to treasure your female coworkers will mean it will be easier to possess her Holy Mary-like expression.



Friday, 28 September 2012 11:56

Aboriginal Literature Inside Out

In this video, I discuss my views on Taiwanese aboriginal literature, my encounters with famous aboriginal writers Topas Tamapima and Monaneng, and the place indigenous literature occupies in the Pacific and the world.

From an academic point of view, many aspects of Taiwan have already been studied all around the world. Aboriginal issues are really suffering from a severe lack of recognition in Western countries, even if some other specialists like Scott Simon are emerging, they depart only from an anthropological and political starting point. I’m probably one of the very few western researchers who work in this field through written literature, and I think it really represents a great value for our knowledge of this field. It’s also a way to ensure that all the work which have been already been put in by researchers like Elizabeth Zeitoun, Josiane Cauquelin or Véronique Arnaud will be continued.

Readers in Mainland China can watch it on youku here

Written version of the interview

Can you tell us about your academic background?

So, between 1999 and 2005, I read Chinese Studies at the University of Provence in France and I lived in Taiwan for two years, between 2001 and 2003. Then I did a Masters degree for which I wrote a dissertation about the contemporary written literature of Taiwanese Aborigines. In 2010, I decided to continue my research in this field by starting a PHD thesis in the same university, under the direction of Noël Dutrait who has supervised me since the beginning of my studies.

What was the subject of your Masters dissertation?

Despite the fact that there were already some indigenous writers like Gao Yisheng or BaLiwakes, who were mainly songwriters under the Japanese colonization, a true indigenous written literature in Mandarin had started to appear around the lifting of the martial law at the end of the 80’s. In 2003, an anthology devoted to indigenous writing was published. It brought together the most representative indigenous writers of Taiwan and their work, consisting of 7 volumes which were structured around the three major literary genres that are novels, poems and essays. These texts often took the form of original fiction, traditional myths and legends or a mixture of the two. The dissertation I wrote for my Master degree was a work of synthesis about all these writers and their texts. I also translated four novels written by Topas Tamapima, the first indigenous writer of the post martial law generation. I interviewed him for the first time at the end of 2003 in his dispensary in the county of Taitung. At this time, I also met Sun Dachuan, the current minister of Aboriginal Affairs, who helped me a lot.

What are you going to discuss in more detail in your PHD thesis?

A lot of research has already been done in this field in Taiwan. But there is almost nothing in western countries, except a few works in English by scholars like Terence Russel, Darryl Sterk and John Balcom. However, most of the works in English I’ve read are just translations and don’t really analyze the contents of indigenous literature.

By attending some conferences in Western countries about Taiwan, I realized that most of people were mainly interested in the substance of these texts. So I’ve decided to shed light on the viewpoint that was expressed by all these writers in their background and their texts. This is the first part of my dissertation which tries to summarize the background and the major texts of the 33 indigenous writers who are officially identified in Taiwan by the online data base of the Mountains and Seas Publication Society. By “viewpoint“ I mean the perception of the world around them. In the second part of my dissertation, I try to compare this viewpoint with the viewpoint that is expressed through the literary and sociological reception of this indigenous literature in Taiwan.

The final part of my thesis is an annotated translation in French of the last collection of short stories written by Topas Tamapima and which were published in 1998. Its name is Memories of a doctor on the Orchids Island and it retraces the experience of the author as a doctor on Orchids Island at the end of the 80’s. This translation helps to analyze the “viewpoint” of an indigenous writer throughout one of his works. We can see through this translation the mobility of the author’s viewpoint because in those short stories, Topas always seems to be caught between his professional status as a doctor, whose field is Chinese medicine, which was originally foreign to the indigenous people, and some collective reminiscences which constantly remind him as to the defense of all the Aborigines against Han society. So, the aim of my research is to see what arises from the meeting of this multiplicity of different viewpoints.

During your research, you met the two famous indigenous writers - Topas Tamapima and Monaneng. Can you tell us more about those meetings?

The first time I met Topas was at the end of 2003. At this time, I still was a Masters student and I was already writing a dissertation about the indigenous writers of Taiwan, which focused especially on the works of Topas Tamapima. The meeting was very fun and friendly; It was at his dispensary, Changpin, on the southeast coast of Taiwan in the county of Taitung. I asked him some questions about his background, his childhood, about some novels he wrote and which I had translated into French for my Masters degree dissertation. The second time I met him was in 2011, it was still at his dispensary. He didn’t remember our first meeting. It was a bit frustrating for me. I interviewed and filmed him for an hour. We had a deep discussion about everything, indigenous literature, what he thought about the current state of aborigines in Taiwanese society, his political viewpoint and his experience as a doctor on the Orchids Island amongst other things.

The meeting with Monaneng was a few weeks later in his massage room in Taipei. We talked about his background and his writing too. In front of my camera, he read one of his most famous poems. Its name is ‘When the bells start to ring’ and it talks about young indigenous women who become prostitutes. The meeting with him was really touching.

Is the Pacific represented in Topas and Monaneng's writings? How?

To me, the Pacific is absolutely not at the heart of their writings. Their writings were born around the lifting of the martial law and I think Topas and Monaneng were particularly concerned about the plight of the indigenous people. They mainly criticize the clash between indigenous cultures and modern civilization which was imported by the Han people. They don’t talk about the Pacific, maybe indirectly like in Memories of a doctor on Orchids Island in which Topas describes the ocean culture of the Tao and the sea which surrounds Orchid Island.

Do you think that TW aboriginal literature fits into the TW literature ? And into the idea of the common Pacific literature?

When the true indigenous literature in mandarin started to appear around the lifting of martial law, I mean with regular and homogeneous publications, not like the works of some indigenous writers like Lifok O’Teng or Kowan Tallal which were very underground, quite sporadic and isolated before the 80’s, at the beginning this true indigenous written literature was just another symptom of an identity and a cultural crisis among Taiwan Aborigines. I mean, although the idea of writing novels or poems as an indigenous writer was also promoted by some Han writers and intellectuals, the first indigenous texts in mandarin were just a global reaction to the critical situation of Taiwan Aborigines. But during the 90’s, it’s true that this literature began to be institutionalized with the creation of some specific literary prices which were also organized by the Council of Indigenous Affairs in Taiwan. From that moment on, this literature began to be indirectly instrumentalized by public authorities,for example, if you analyze the posters which promote these literary prices, you can realize that one of their goals is to increase the diversity of Taiwanese literature. So, at the beginning, indigenous literature didn’t belong to Taiwanese literature, but it has been progressively included in it as another aspect of the literature of the island.

It’s difficult to say if Taiwanese indigenous literature fits into the idea of a common Pacific literature. Of course, some writers like Syaman Rapongan describe the Pacific. But I think, I mean, as far as I have progressed in my research, I think that Taiwanese indigenous literature belongs more to a “world indigenous literature” rather than to a “Pacific literature”. You know, even if the contexts are very different, the content is very similar in the writing, for example, some Native American writers or some Australian indigenous writers also criticize colonization, the destruction of a modern civilization over their original culture, the destitution of their tribe, as well as some social problems they encounter like alcoholism or poverty. I mean, in my opinion, the common point is more social than geographical in what we call the “minorities literatures”.

What is the benefit of your research for the study of Taiwan?

From an academic point of view, many aspects of Taiwan have already been studied all around the world. The Aboriginal issues are really suffering a severe lack of attention in Western countries, even if some specialists like Scott Simon are emerging, he approaches his research from an anthropological and political perspective. I’m probably one of the few western researchers who works in this field through written literature, and I think it is of great value for our knowledge of those issues. It’s also a way to ensure that all the work which have already been done by French researchers like Elizabeth Zeitoun, Josiane Cauquelin or Véronique Arnaud will be continued…





Friday, 11 May 2012 15:20

The Line Between Humans and Animals in Literature

Huang Zong-Hui, Professor of Languages and Literature at National Taiwan University discusses Kafka's 'Report to the Academy' and Roald Dahl's short story 'Pig' and how the concepts of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism function within literature to define the shifting boundaries between the human and the animal:

Wednesday, 18 April 2012 15:49

The Sound of a Falling Angel in the Night

Original text by Lolita Hu taken from her collection My Generation, translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart. Art by Arvid Torres. Lolita Hu (胡晴舫) was born in Taipei and graduated from the Foreign Languages Department of National Taiwan University and went on to get her masters in the Theatre Department of The University of Wisconsin. In 1999 she moved to Hong Kong. She writes cultural criticism as well as short stories and essays. Her works have been published in the media in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. She currently lives in Tokyo.



Dim light is cast by the dragon-head-shaped wall lights, the pulse of electro shakes the entire space, comfy sofas divide the room into different nooks and crannies for people to drink in, pink nylon and muslin hang from the ceiling to the floor, prints of hundreds of bored faces are faintly discernible upon it. It could only be the hottest spot in Beijing this weekend.

Every three months a new nightclub appears in Beijing, and everybody trips over themselves to go there. The nightclub will normally be in a hutong, a dilapidated courtyard style house or a factory that's about to be demolished. The same people every time scurry along to explore the new bar, they spout their cigarette smoke while telling you in lofty tones how the music in this new place is cool. After three months have passed, if it's not that the style of the music has changed, or that the building which houses the club has suddenly been demolished by the city government, then it's that it loses popularity for no particular reason whatsoever. Another bar opens, it's also housed in an old factory, a hutong, or a traditional courtyard style house, wherever it may be, it always sounds incredibly cool.

Everyone vies with one another to be the first to spread the news. Then, at the new bar you meet the same familiar faces who recommended the old bar to you so enthusiastically.

When someone mentions the old bar, it's as if they're talking about a has-been celebrity. It's so passé, they say. I don't even know why it was so popular in the first place, it's only logical that it's become as out of fashion as it should have been in the first place.

It's Friday night at 2am at the hottest bar of this couple of months, situated in the Sanlitun area. She has drunk quite a lot, but she's still quite sober. She came with a friend who had a song twenty years ago which was popular throughout the whole of Beijing but who never followed it up with any other songs, when meeting a stranger he would always say "I'm so-and-so, do you want to buy me a drink?'. She would stand next to her friend, then not long after that she would ditch him, and sit down next to an immaculately dressed foreigner.

She wants to shoot a documentary. It's only a remote dream, remoter still in China. She is a single girl from Sichuan, without any money, without work and without connections. She only has herself. She tries to write during the day, but as the evening draws near, her literary talents are not sufficient to resist the tide of loneliness, she recruits a few friends to go drinking with her. Her lips press closely to the foreigner's ears as she whispers to him, what should I do, tell me, what should I do. I want to shoot a documentary, but I don't have anything.

There are countless young girls just like her in Beijing. From every corner of the country they come, to study, or in search of career opportunities. Their hometown is far behind them, their imagination of themselves is the most important luggage they carry. They are young but they grow up quickly, they have a strong sexual appetite, and white jade skin, they have a baffled lost expression and a naive, homely smile. In the bar, they thirst for the kindness of strangers as flowers thirst for the rain, they'll snuggle up to any stranger who is willing to listen to their dreams. Because only outsiders are willing to take her seriously. During the day, she walks around this city of hers, that is at the same time not her own, her black haired and yellow-skinned compatriots would think at most that she was an unrealistic country girl, not willing to work despite having no money and without any professional skills, who can't even find a man to marry her. Her so-called "artistic ambitions", are nothing but an excuse for her lethargy, something she uses to fool foreigners at bars. In the end all she wants is to marry a glassy eyed, white-skinned foreigner, allowing her to escape to distant climes.

Louis Aragon, a French poet who was part of the Resistance during World War II, once said, "L'avenir de l'homme, c'est la femme" (the future of man is woman), here 'man' can be understood to mean the more general idea of 'humanity'. When society develops to its pinnacle, it will be along the road of effeminization. The status of women and the rights they are able to acquire in any society have always been the benchmark of civilization. The more esteemed the status of women and the greater the extent to which they are held as the equal of man or his superior, the more advanced a society is held to be. This is because the evolution of civilization is actually the process of society’s effeminization. Characteristics traditionally attributed to women, like peace-keeping, compromise, equality, selflessness, the ability to listen, forgiveness, concern for the education of the next generation, respect for etiquette and a love of the arts, are all particular to developed societies; on the other hand, the characteristics traditionally attributed to men carve out an image of a more primitive society, such as bellicosity, conquest, violence, ego-centrism, factionalism. Men brag about being the innovative force of progress, however, it is the care and prudence of women that stabilize a society, and articulate its cultural basis. Effeminization is equivalent to advanced civilization, it represents a maturity in both the material and spiritual realms. In an age when India has many female MPs and female business leaders, in China female CEOs and female officials are still few and far between. The rate of suicide for Chinese women is still the highest in the world.

She also came here for the music. She says this as her practiced hand unbuttons the foreign man's shirt. The guy buttons it back up. She leans close to his body and says something else. The music is too loud, no-one else hears what she says, but they see the foreigner suddenly blush. The buttons are undone again. Then buttoned back up again. Opened. Buttoned. The fourth time it happens the guy relinquishes the struggle.

It's three in the morning now, everyone is getting up to go home. As my taxi turns from the small alley on to the main road, I catch a glimpse of her locked in an embrace with the foreigner underneath a towering poplar tree.

Her face obscured in the darkness of the night.

The Chinese original is available (with slight differences from the collection version) online here.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012 15:57

The Oceanic Feeling

All marine ecosystems are in constant flux, affected by external influences and short-term disruptions as well as by seasonal cycles. Those who live within an oceanic environment necessarily see the world in a different way from those who dwell in the plains, highlands or mountains. Sudden and unexpected changes foster the representation of distant divine beings whose behavior is unpredictable; the sense of uncertainty generated by the environment encourages flexible strategies, rather than linear thinking. Nowhere is this truer than in the Pacific Ocean, which covers a surface larger than the one occupied by all land areas, and which accounts for eighty percent of the islands of the globe.

In the Pacific world, the ocean is the continent: the sea constitutes the natural environment for all forms of life, it is also the vector of communication... A writer from Tonga, Epeli Hau'ofa (1939-2009) has spoken of a "sea of islands', a sea that unites rather than divides, a sea that is a lived story: for the ocean moves and breathes in those born on its banks like the salt in the sea and the blood within the body. The immense ocean also dwells within the narrow limits of a human body, allowing man to travel into himself in the same way he embarks for finding other islanders.

All this may remind us of what the writer Romain Rolland called, in his correspondence with Freud, the"Oceanic feeling.” Through this expression he was trying to encapsulate a feeling of infinity that goes beyond all structured religious belief. Nowadays, Romain Rolland’s “Oceanic feeling” has become little more than a footnote in the history of religious psychology. Freud was not very appreciative:  "How foreign to me are the worlds in which you move! Mystique is as closed to me as music” he wrote to Rolland – who replied, "I can hardly believe that mysticism and music are foreign to you. I rather think that you are afraid of them, as you wish to keep the instrument of critical reason unblemished.”

Going a step beyond Romain Rolland, one may say that the presence of God in the soul is like the triumphant sound of the waves - and this “like” means two things at once: first, it speaks of the universal nature of spiritual experience; and second, it recognizes the fact that no comparison can account for the way God makes himself present within the depths of man. What the Oceanic feeling helps us understand is that joy arises in our soul always as something nascent. The joy that comes like the light of the day within the darkness of our depths is sung and evoked by the movement of an ocean everlasting and yet nascent, by the rhythm of the waves engraving and erasing their writings on the sand with a finger trembling and yet assured. Eventually, the Oceanic feeling lets us glimpse the mystery of the birth of God within the soul: a gift eternally offered – and always new.

Illustration by Bendu

Tuesday, 24 January 2012 15:27

Back to Sade: The Voiceless Model!

The ambition of these lines is humble. They propose a return to Sade. Simply this! What a pretentious project one might say! Since Sade cannot be, let us say for over a quarter century, considered as a disenfranchised person. This is, essentially, the daring side of our project: to show that despite all the “noise” and because of this din itself, Sade is still a voice crying out in the wilderness. Obviously, he is not really mute or voiceless, but he is mostly ignored (silenced) even by the very people who claim to make him speak. Then, it will be for us to show by this example, the cacophony that may indicate a silence, that is to say an act of concealment. The apparent excess of voices hides necessarily the repression of others.

The 20th century might be described as Sade’s century. Sade is part of the very limited circle of cursed thinkers and writers, so he was, and somehow nowadays still is, part of the disenfranchised. Thus, it is during the last century—an action initiated in the previous one notably by Guillaume Apollinaire—, that the Divine Marquis was recognized (not without a certain hypocrisy still alive today)—that he has been recognized as a writer and was published in the collection La Pléiade of Gallimard’s Editions. However, as previously mentioned, this coming-out from the underworld of Sade and his work does not mean, in any case, an ascent to heaven. But just a move to purgatory. Moreover, the popularity of Sade is also an evidence of his silence, he became an excuse, a space for invention... He is used to broadcast the voice of others, notably of those who pretend to speak about him, whereas in fact they simply amplify their own voice. This does not matter ultimately, because, as St. Paul said about Christ's words, if someone recognizes it as a useful vehicle for their own ideas, it helps more or less to the diffusion of the work.

Indeed, the Sade whose authors usually praise is that of Juliette, the symbol and embodiment of their project. Thus, everyone can find a part of themself in this figure who is, in fact, not the voice of the voiceless, but rather that of the system. While her sister, Justine, on the other hand is the archetype of the disenfranchised—that the Divine Marquis wanted to highlight and which haunted him throughout his life to the point of writing multiple versions of the eponymous novel—, is ignored or reduced to silence.

Sade is the author of the voiceless, of which Justine is just one example. His so-called moderantism, in the midst of Terror during the Revolution, for which he was thrown into prison, escaping from death thanks to a miracle whose mystery still remains unknown, and his radical opposition to the death sentence and the defense of the right to life at the peril of his own, stand as testimony to this. He expressed elsewhere in a famous statement his attachment to life, to humanity. In a letter to his wife, dated February 20, 1781, we can read: “Yes, I am a libertine, I designed everything one can imagine in this genre, but I certainly did not do anything I designed and will probably never do.

Juliette's voice is ubiquitous and dares to say anything, similar to the role she assigns to philosophy: “Philosophy must say everything,” as she exclaims one day in a macabre surge. A perverse pretension not a subversive one, because all cannot be said. A totalitarian claim, precisely because it pretends to reveal everything about the being both in terms of the genotype and the phenotype. This pretension ignores that there is “sayable” and “unsayable” to repeat Wittgenstein. This perverse will of no borders— has nothing to do with subversion which is Sade’s project, and the favorite protest weapon of all—, was only intended as “hailing” [arraisonner/Gestell] and thereby becomes “biopolitics”, i.e. a manner of policing life, then of speech, conscience, and casuistry...

Moreover, if subversion is Sisyphean—“a hundred times on the job”—, then perversion on the other hand conforms to chaos! It willingly confuses human values, the policing of life and political ambition—of a horde of wolves who think only to their selfish and egocentric happiness.

Nature has created man that he should do nothing but play upon the earth; it is its dearest law, it will always be that of my heart. Too bad for the victims, they are necessary, to destroy everything in the universe, without the profound laws of balance, it is only through crime that nature continues, and regains its rights removed by virtue. So, we obey it by indulging in evil; our resistance is the only crime it should never forgive us: oh! my friends, convince us of these principles; in their exercise are all sources of human happiness. (Sade, Histoire de Juliette, La Pléiade, p. 1257)

Willful refusal to speak is a sacred right. Which does not mean playing a mute but rather implies a silent speech, a protest. This refusal is also a dialogue, even under the guise of a monologue. This dialogue is in fact an apparent monologue because of its indoctrination and regimentation. Indeed, refusing to speak when someone is compelling one to do so, is a reclamation of one’s own voice and in this way one can regain one’s Promethean dignity. A refusal to speak is a speaking voice, while a voice forced to speak is still disenfranchised. Resistance constitutes the voluntary act of speaking. Auto-censorship... therefore reflects a political position. It is similar to the famous Stoic—antic—epokhē (ἐποχή). Suspension of judgment has never meant an absence of judgmental but a modulation of the “speakable” and its opposite.

And what if the escalation of the sayable and the visible in Sade was, in fact, the very absence of these? Sade’s work itself swarms with voicelessness. Those who are put forward, are not necessarily the ones that are highlighted. In describing the world as it appears, Sade does not say that we must accept it as such. For a long time it is the phenotype rather than the genotype that has been praised in Sade’s œuvre. The easier road to take!

Sade’s œuvre, obviously, is full of violence, the most violent violence, and the most socially unacceptable forms of violence. It is the literature of “evil”, both in the facts described but also in terms of what is inconceivable and unimaginable in this realm. However, the escalation of violence of any kind describes a world not of resignation but the opposite. It represents a silenced world, the one we want to prevent from being, from speaking, from becoming visible, from accepting and considering the voices of others (the victims) as speech rather than just noise.

In this particular art of writing and describing belonging to Sade, it is easy to see in the protagonists that occupy the front of the stage the heroes, or even the heralds of the author. However, it is not in the visible—which is in fact an illusion—neither in the usual hubbub that must be found the real heroes and heralds, but in the silence of those the hubbub prevents from expressing themselves. Thus, the work of Sade is a living picture of what constitute the effects of indoctrination and confinement. This is what symbolizes his love of castles, forests and dark places—a kind of hell. Accordingly, it reflects a particular anthropological notion, a tragic and pessimistic view of society and the politics that rule it. However, his writing is a call never to give up the right to defend one’s own rights, the right to be taken into account, against all odds, wherever you come from.

This society Sade criticizes is similar to the one which Rousseau denounces when he says: “Nature has created man free but everywhere he is in chains.” The author of Justine does not escape from this situation. His imprisonment had no other function than to make him shut up, to prevent him from speaking. To silence him, is not that of what police policy is so capable? Thus, there is no voicelessness without this evil strategy of considering or reducing as noise the voice of another. All issues concerning noise is political, since it is a conscious or unconscious denial of a right to consider someone or a group of people as part of a city—a right to isegoria. “The kingdom of God is forced and only the violent can take it by force.” The kingdom of God, this “City of God” is not an afterlife—distant from us. It is here. Here! But it cannot be conquered by divine providence, but rather only in battle—a permanent struggle. It is through positive violence that can be enacted within and without, it is not evil. No offense to Weber, but it is this violence that is legitimate!

Monday, 01 August 2011 14:07

Modern Drama in Taiwan: A Mirror for Taiwan’s paradoxes

Born out of 1980s’ Taiwan, modern drama nowadays is often based on Western theatre, including French, English, German and American contemporary drama. The work of playwrights such as Kantor, Koltes, Duras, Bond and Müller has been adapted to the Taiwanese stage over the course of the last few years. Experimental performances, dealing very openly with themes like sex and violence, love and loss, and homosexuality reveal the paradoxes that are lived by Taiwanese society, struggling between tradition and modernity.

Social issues in Modern Theatre: the weight of tradition on the individual

Modern dramatists born before the 1970s worked more with social issues than the younger generation. Chen Chia Yin [鄭嘉音], director of Puppet & its Dubble, who is involved in theatrical workshops for children in Tainan, explains that ‘the older artists were more concerned with political issues because they lived under martial law and did not have as many rights as artists today. […] So, in their artistic work there were attempts to claim more freedom and struggle for social change, which made it a lot more provocative. After Taiwan became a democracy there was a significant shift in the role of the social dramatist’. Since the 1990’s, theatre in Taiwan has increasingly represented the ordinary lives of common people; performances attempt a realistic rendering of the effect of history and social changes on Taiwanese families over the course of the last century, rather attempting to tackle contemporary political social issues.

The older generations of dramatists focus more on the subjectivity of a Taiwanese specific history, which had often been oppressed and ignored by the KMT military dictatorship. Playwright Wang Chi Mei [汪其楣], a retired professor at the National Taiwan University of Arts in Guandu, who has worked a lot with the deaf, focused her own theatrical research on Taiwanese women who had fought for civil rights and liberty. Her latest performance relates the story of the first Taiwanese woman who was both a feminist and a communist, the mother of Taiwanese independence, Hsieh Hsueh-Hung [謝雪紅]. She studied communist philosophy in Russia and fought the Nationalists in Taiwan but had to flee to China because of the military regime. Professor Wang’s struggled to find further information about Hsieh’s life and she has stated that ‘these are important parts of Taiwan history put to one side by scholars, it is Taiwanese artists that had to find out about her and tell her story’; For Wang, ‘the most important thing is to discover Taiwanese roots and not just mimic Western drama. Taiwanese artists need to be aware of the specificity of their own situation.’ She once attempted to stage a Western play but found the experience unsatisfying: ‘the Western way of thinking is different, more conceptual than the Chinese one and Taiwanese adaptations are rarely successful in rendering these concepts. It was only when she concentrated her research on Taiwanese history that her she was able to progress as Taiwanese artist. There are many figures from Taiwanese history that can act as examples to the younger generation in their attempt to assert their own rights.

However, in recent years few dramatists are committed to social or political issues or portraying the lives of historical figures: they are more interested in the more mundane themes and the history of everyday life. The Village, produced by Stan Lai [賴聲川], tells the story of those Chinese soldiers who followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in the 40’s/50’s. Posted in Taiwan “temporarily”, they spent decades waiting for their homecoming to China, and lived in ‘villages’, attempting to recreate their imaginary of China in Taiwan. Through the depiction of three generations living in this village, Stan Lai poses questions about this way of life, by showing how the younger generation’s choices lead them to more freedom than their parents. Many Taiwanese have Chinese ancestry and so can identify with the characters in the play. Although this play can be classified as ‘realistic theatre’ in that the art direction is very ‘sensitive and emotive’ and the actors embody the characters in a very natural way. The realistic narrative is underwritten with the experience of Taiwanese society making the audience focus more clearly on the emergence of the individual and his place in contemporary society.

The connection between society and the individual is a significant subject for the generation of dramatists currently in their 40s. The Creative Society’s last show Have Wok, Will Travel, presented last winter at the National Theatre’s Experimental Theatre, tells the story of director Katherine Hui-ling Chou’s [周慧玲] mother. She focuses on the main character’s emotions, letting the spectator feel the bold joy of her mother when she worked for the Army and contrasting this with the gloomy unhappy temper she keeps in her married life. To portray this change of temperament, which parallels the two distinct periods of Taiwan history, Chou incorporates dance into her performance based on martial arts, directed by her choreographer in a very poetic and sensitive way. This is interspersed with more realistic dialogue, which break through the magic of the dancing parts. The play poses seems to question if our life choices are dictated by the society we live in or if true self determination is possible. Her plays often combine tradition with modernity, as far as the stories she writes deal with changing times and places and how this affects the psyche of the characters. In He is my wife, he is my mother, based on an ancient story, Chou relates episodes of a man’s life, set in the periods before and after the Communist Revolution, in China and Taiwan respectively. The play is composed of two parts, a very dreamy first part and a very realistic second part to which seems to work to present what is strange as normal. She questions the weight of a social tradition that pushes one to live a conventional life. The protagonist, a man who casts off his masculinity to become both a “wife” to his lover and a “mother” to his lover’s son, chooses finally to let his lover’s son live in a homosexual relationship against established convention. This can be seen as a parallel to determination of the eponymous protagonist of Sophocles’ Antigone to bury her brother in contravention of King Creon’s command. In both plays the will of the individual acts in direct opposition to convention.

For members of the older generation of art directors, traditional Chinese culture and the daily realities of family life seem to be the starting point in describing the changes in Taiwanese society, and the paradoxes inherent in a modern society that still espouses some very traditional social and family values, as well as the difficulties for that an individual experiences in trying to live their own life according to their own values: this realist modern drama accurately depicts how difficult it is for Taiwanese to cast off the burden of traditional values that they never chose to carry, but which are still, whether consciously or not, anchored deeply in the Taiwanese sense of self , despite the yearning for a shift in these values.

Emotions and Entertainment in Modern Taiwanese Theatre

It is human relationships rather than social issues, however, that capture the attention of the younger art directors such as Baboo Liao [廖俊逞] or Hsu Yen Ling [徐堰鈴] from the Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group [莎士比亞的妹妹們的劇團]. These younger directors often adapt German, English and French Literature. Themes such as love, sexuality, violence, intimacy and gender predominate, reflecting the concerns of the younger generation. Avant-garde theatre deals with individual issues more than with social issues as confirmed Chen Chia Yin has confirmed: “The young artists don’t ask the same questions as the older generation: they are used to living in freedom. For them the ego is more interesting as a subject matter than society at large.” The politics of modern drama are less assertive and pushy than before; acting has come to the forefront with more surrealist and burlesque styles of theatre becoming more popular. Derrick Wei × Der Schönste Moment [魏雋展獨角戲《最美的時刻》] adapted from the novel by Michael Cornelius and directed by Baboo Liao [廖俊逞], a younger generation director, for example, although it confronts some social issues, with its ironic presentation of the modern way of life and its veiled criticism of the Taiwanese work ethic, it focuses mainly on the inner questioning of the protagonist. Alone in his toilet, which seems to represent for him a cage, he recreates the world of his thoughts, making love with a puppet or imitating Michael Jackson. The puppets, made with latex, were created by Chen Chia Yin, and represent the different parts of the anti-hero’s psyche. The stage design symbolizes the main character’s loss of self. The director gives a very modern treatment to the theme, in that as well as the dialogue it is the physical movements of the actor that give life to the play. Realism is abandoned for a more figurative representation, combining fantasy and humor, making the play closer to Avant Garde Theatre. In comparison with Modern Drama from the West, theatre in Taiwan is not as conceptual: retaining very visual stage techniques based on emotion and feeling. Western literature appears to be a good source material for Taiwanese artists in understanding and exploring the complexity of human nature. Hung Hung [鴻鴻], a contemporary director and poet explains “it is very thrilling and interesting to work on Western literature because it deals with deep emotions and inner feelings”. Western literature leads Taiwanese directors to ‘express their feelings in a new way’ even if in some of their adaptations, they face difficulties in showing inner violence or intimacy between characters because of Chinese culture.

Ann Lang [郎祖筠] adapted Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues last summer in an attempt to make Taiwanese women more aware of their bodies, in particular their vaginas, and asked renowned artists to take part in the performance. She asked Lai Pai Hsia [賴佩霞] to roam about naked on stage and that was a challenge for the naturally timid singer to act this part. In Taiwanese education, ‘one never talks about sex, many women don’t like their vagina and don’t know their body: they even don’t know how to get pleasure in their sexual relationships’ says Ann. As Chia Yin clarifies, ‘the parents raise their children to be hard workers and respect their familial and social duties. In family, we don’t speak about such affairs. Sex is taboo.’ This gives one an insight into why many young directors explore the Western literary canon. Baboo Liao has staged Heiner Müller’s Quartett, a play based on Dangerous Liasons written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, which tells the story of two libertines, Madame de Merteuil and Valmont, and their sexual search for pleasure as well as their perverse relationship with each other. Even though the show was not well received, its interest lies in the presentation of their complex Sado-Masochistic relationship with each other: although they compete to prove whether man or woman is more capable of being a true libertine, they both fall into the trap of love and suffering. It shows the deep intricacy of human nature, its desires and contradictions. Many young artists seem to be interested in understanding this topic, all too often absent in Chinese literature or in everyday life.


Hsu Yen Ling [徐堰鈴], in her shows, deals essentially with feminine issues. In Tracks on the Beach and Drifting, adapted from Duras’ Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, she focuses on Lol, an eccentric woman that cuts herself off from life after her lover abandons her for another woman and she falls into apathy’. Hsu Yen Ling, also a famous actress in Taiwan, asked the actors to ‘search the feelings in the deep of their heart and express them in new ways’. This way of teaching, allows actors to act in a more corporal way; which is really different from French acting. French directors focus more on acting with words than on acting with the body. Take Care, her last show, which was performed in July 2011 at the Guling St. Avant Garde Theatre, questions the increasing number of abandoned animals in Taiwan and asks us how to take care of the other, telling the story of a lesbian couple, one a veterinarian, the other a teacher, and the difficulties they face in their jobs and in their sex life. The play is a comedy, and comedy seems like a good approach to help us reflect on these issues. Taiwanese directors do not appear to draw a dichotomy between comedy and tragedy. They often include funny elements to relax the atmosphere and combine tragic moments with humoristic ones. In France, humor is often considered as material for low class theatre audiences and this is confined to a very comedic style. Bluesy Lee – Welcome to the 70s [李小龍的阿砸一聲], performed by Shakespeare Wild Sisters’ Group in May 2011 at the National Theatre, relates the 70’s in a very visual way, with surrealist screenings and grotesque acting. It mocks the bad acting of the superhero and soap opera style movies on TV, as well as portraying with delicacy the beautiful love story between 7 and 11 and the tragic one between deaf Teresa and her lover in a very Taiwanese style.

The main difference between French and Taiwanese Modern Theatre reflects a deep cultural difference: French culture distinguishes and separates comedy and tragedy and is based around a thought out idea; on the contrary, Taiwanese Theatre incorporates different styles and its focus lies on feeling. Taiwanese modern drama is more emotional, either it is realistic or surrealist or deals with social or individual’s issues. Directors and actors have a more sensitive and expressive working behavior. Amazingly, the strength of their shows resides in the powerful feelings they dare to express on stage, a strength of feeling that is seemingly absent from their own lives. This creates a paradox, wherein Taiwanese modern drama is freer than Taiwanese modern society. Another main difference is that the audience and artists are more curious and open about certain issues when they are portrayed on the stage, especially homosexuality. To conclude, even if Taiwanese artists use western writings as material to understand human nature in a deeper way, they don’t need to copy Western arts, as sometimes their work can appear less structured and overdetermined. In France, we have lost this strain of emotional thinking and Taiwanese modern drama still touches one’s heart: yet if one does not speak Chinese, one still can garner an understanding of the plot of most Taiwanese shows.

Thursday, 24 March 2011 22:10

Locating a promise land: from Taiwan to Oceania, from History to Literature

The young scholars session at the Mapping and Unmapping the Pacific conference held at the National Central Library, Taiwan gave three promising young scholars the chance to present their highly original work. Yedda Wang was part of a group of Asian students invited by Leiden University's Encompass program to study the history of Asia through Dutch colonial archives. She is a scholar trying to break through Western academic traditions and find her own way. In her speech Yedda introduced her past and current thesis projects and gave anecdotes lamenting the obstacles to her own historical direction.

Alternative (for readers in China)

Taiwan and Oceanian islands share quite a few things in common. In text-based fields such as history (archives) and literature (literary works), one is provided with ample examples of such points of convergence. Islands from both regions are plagued with colonial memories, though of different spans and under different powers; indigenous peoples from both regions consisting of many languages and cultures are mostly non-literate and thereby represented by others but themselves in written materials; and since mid-20th century, locally-born scholars, writers, activists et al. start to challenge in multiple ways the danger of stories produced not entirely from within but undoubtedly about them. The fact that these dots of land share such a diversity of both colonial and postcolonial experiences holds great promises to historical and literary studies especially on such themes as the transformation of indigenous societies, representation, identity, agency, the other, the writing of history et cetera. In other words, there is a promise land of convergence to be located. Based upon the same author’s previous studies in Leiden, this essay intends to show how history and literature in combination may contribute to the understanding Taiwan and Oceania, and how this understanding of Taiwan and Oceania, either taken as separately or symbiotically, may further enlighten about certain abovementioned themes.

The Stranger-King

In history, Wang’s research into Indigenous-Dutch relationships on 17th-century Formosa invites readers to reconsider a concept as the Stranger-King, developed in Oceania, for the explanation of colonial relationships:

Alternative (for readers in China)

Notions of time

Alternative (for readers in China)

In literature, Wang’s study of Patricia Grace (Maori) and Syaman Rapogang (Tao) stresses how contemporary indigenous writers, with their eyes on present post-colonial indigenous societies, have provided insights into the study as well as the writing and rewriting of the other. Their craft is worthy of consideration and their products can very well be the sources for historical studies. For an indigenous society, the past is never far from the present. A dialogue between colonial history and contemporary indigenous literature will therefore help us locate the promise land.

Photo: Lee Tian-hsiang

See Yedda's article about Lanyu author Syaman Rapongan, A subaqueous loner

Friday, 25 February 2011 00:00

A Song for the Spring Goddess Sahohime

If one were to imagine someone's life as the changing seasons, the aboriginal Tsou tribe musician, Gao Yisheng, could be said to have missed out on the plentitude of summer's harvest and skipped straight into the bleakness of autumn and winter.

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Monday, 07 February 2011 00:00

Taiwan's publishing industry needs South East Asia

The future of the Taiwanese cultural creative industry lies not in the East or the North, nor does it lie in the West. It lies in South East Asia.


South East Asia as Taiwan’s economic and trade partner

Since the beginning of 2010 the Taiwanese government has been busy trying to sign the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China and therefore hoping to enter the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) market via this agreement. This shows the close connections between South East Asia and Taiwan as economic and trade partners and how important the market is to Taiwan’s economic development.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010 19:13

A subaqueous loner—Syaman Rapongan

Maka sagaz ka mo katowan.[1]
-May you have the soul of great fish.

Syaman Rapongan[2] (b. 1957) is a contemporary Tao (or Tawo)[3] writer in Taiwan. Since his debut publication in 1992, he has brought Chinese-language readers literally back to Tao-speaking people on Pongso no Tao (Island of Man)[4] on the west rim of the Pacific Ocean. This indigenous writer’s blue-water literature (poems, myths, essays, short stories and novels)[5] has often been praised by Taiwanese literary critics as one of the few windows to the beauty of tidal waters running about and especially on the east coast of the island. His special contribution includes introducing an undersea perspective, enabling many lively scenes below sea level to surface, publicizing Tao values and a worldview of simple and harmonious coexistence with nature, confronting the disadvantaged reality of his people in an uncompromised way, as well as creating a poetic language combined with Tao and Chinese.[6] Although unlike another Taiwanese writer of the sea, Liao Hong Ji,[7] Syaman Rapongan may not feel motivated enough to establish an arayo (dolphin fish) preservation society, trumpeting the love of nature as its archangel, neither does his culture teach him to see the ocean (and its marine resources) as some object for conquest, a manly act particularly testified by The Old Man and Sea of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), or as some traffic artery for moving peoples and goods, another piece of past fully annotated by early modern European Expansion literature.[8] No call for preservation; no laud for human intervention. Instead, in Syaman Rapongan’s writing of the sea, one sees deep affection, “…a feeling, a way of life that is simple, primitive, humble, and unaffected”.[9]

To borrow the expression of ‘an undersea perspective’ from Chang, I personally feel tempted to say that seeing Syaman Rapongan as someone who finds peace with his home environment, ancestral culture and eventually himself after returning from years of urban wandering is too abbreviated a cliché, a real ‘perspective above sea level’ that, on the one hand, seriously undermines his struggle to find that peace, and on the other, rather naively predicts (if not already advertises) a positive outcome.[10] Returning to one-self, or termed in another fashion rebuilding one’s identity, is never a Snow White fairy tale; one does much more than waiting for some white-horse rider, a prince savior. Neither is it a personal matter to be figured out behind a closed door. The people closest by are often heavily involved. For Syaman Rapongan as well as for many other indigenous intellectuals who have tasted similar bitterness, the process concerns much more than that. The alienating from one’s identity often starts much earlier than the literal departure from home with a shabby suitcase, and the end of restoring it is still somewhere out there, yet to be reached but may very well never be found. In short, far beneath the peaceful image created by Syaman Rapongan’s sea literature, there lies the real battlefield where this subaqueous loner[11] struggles to rebuild who he truly is. And this essay serves to highlight the writer’s identity struggle by constant references to his sea literature.

When He Was Shi Nu-lai (施努來)

Before the late 80s, there was no Syaman Rapongan but a young man bearing a Chinese name: Shi Nu-lai. Being the only son to a very traditional father who believed that a real Tao man should excel at traditional production skills such as “building dadalas and houses, catching flying fish, catching dog fish, telling stories, singing chants”,[12] Nu-lai was often told the tales and myths about Tao by his father and mother. Usually at the eve of the day, Nu-lai was also found amidst his uncles and other men from the village at someone’s gazebo, listening attentively to their sea adventures and chants of ancient songs. By the age of ten, he already knew the difference between oyud (the fish for women) and rahet (the fish for men), so he would not feed his little sisters with the wrong fish served in the wrong utensil.[13] In other words, the boy Nu-lai was like any of his forefathers on the Island of Man, given the kind of education that would make him a real Tao in the future.

However, what his forefathers did not experience in their childhoods was the power of another kind of education to which the young Nu-lai was fully exposed. In addition to the delicious stories from his parents and uncles, he was also told by primary school teachers to “become a teacher in the future, so that [he] could teach these ‘savage kids’ on Lan-yu and ‘civilize’ them”. So did the priest at his junior high school tell him the same thing: “be a priest, tame those savages on your Lan-yu island who know nothing of God, and make civilized men out of them”.[14] Nu-lai was utterly confused; why were there two very different interpretations of his people? Looking at Chinese veterans drinking sorghum liquor inside the only grocery store on the island, he asked himself who were these people; watching strange ships sailing by his island either from the east to the west or vice versa, he wondered where they were going.[15] The idea of a whole new wide world outside his small island gripped Nu-lai’s mind, never let him go, and eventually brought him with his aspirations and ambitions away from the Island of Man.

Against his father’s wish, young Nu-lai left Lan-yu at high-school age to pursue his dream, a college education. At his graduation from senior high school, he had a chance to enter three different colleges without taking the compulsory entrance exams. However, he refused them all because he believed indigenous students could rely on their own, instead of on governmental preferential initiatives, to get permission to any college. After doing years of odd jobs in manufacture and transportation as well as years of self-study, the young man proved himself and passed the exam to the Department of French, Tamkang University. By this time, according to Chiu Fei-hsiang, Nu-lai “had experienced all sorts of setbacks in life…In his eyes, nothing should be taken ‘for granted’”.[16]

Besides attending university, Nu-lai was also a wholehearted participant in urban indigenous movements that kicked off since early 1980s. Issues from land, autonomy, education, social justice, name rectification, to anti- nuclear-waste facilities on Lan-yu were among the most important appeals to the Taiwanese government at the time to redress the social and economic disadvantages of its many indigenous groups. Like his fellow indigenes, Nu-lai was deeply provoked by the frustrations with these movements—namely the suppression from the authority, the disagreement of goals among the indigenous activists, and the gap between the indigenous activities and their home communities[17]—into rethinking his tie with his mother culture, and finally making the decision to return to the Island of Man.

The Making of Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安)[18]

9“Soon after returning, Shi Nu-lai started his struggle with officials from the household registration, had his name in the end officially rectified as Syaman Rapongan, and started quietly to build a house for his small family”.[19] It was already in the late 80s, and the way back home was extremely difficult for the man who left as an innocent child filled with dreams but returned as a frustrated grownup. In the cities, his friends didn’t regard him as ‘cooked’ (Sinicized or Chinese) enough[20]; his critical attitudes and later frustrations also prevented him from becoming an urban insider. Back home, however, the obstacles to reintegration were unexpectedly much more formidable.

In the first few years, Syaman Rapongan could not speak fluent Tao; nor did he have many experiences of male collective activities such as lumbering in the mountains and going to sea. Besides, he was neither physically fit for manual labor nor mentally as calm as a mature Tao was supposed to be. In one word and in the word that gnawed at him, he was ‘degenerated’ by Tao standards. In order to detach himself from the stigma, he went to the sea almost every day to dive and to fish, sometimes with his uncles or cousins and always despite the weather conditions. The more he practiced, the better he became in maneuvering his homemade spear gun as well as his breath and the larger amount of fish he was able to bring home and offer to his family.[21] He also followed his father and uncles to the mountains to learn everything about the building of canoes.[22] Without a doubt, he worked very hard to be reborn a Tao man. “This is what I am after,” he said, “to build up my social status by labor (traditional work), to go deep into my culture’s civilizing process with labor, to live and share with my people the food from nature, to clear myself of the stigma of being Sinicized, and to allow my repressed proud to come back to life”.[23] This, as he thought then, was the way back to his mother society and his true identity as Syaman Rapongan.

What he did not expect, perhaps, was the series of protests from his beloved family against his excessive love affair with the sea. Worrying about his safety, his mother proposed to his father that they should hide his spear gun; his woman asked him to make real money and spare time for their children; his children complained that he was the laziest father in the world who didn’t make a penny for them; even his father who was so glad to find his only son did not forsake the traditional way of life would dissuade him from going to sea, threatening that he and his mother would not share his catch and they both have decided that he should go to Taiwan to make money for the family. They have had enough sea food.[24] “The entire family”, Syaman Rapongan said, “wanted to kick me out of the house, just because I don’t make money but go diving in the sea every day.”[25] He was very torn, very confused. He came home to stay away from the frustrating and kindless urban environment, but now his home wanted to spit him out of his sea and out of his way back to it. As much as he wanted and worked to be a Tao by living as a traditional Tao, the cruel reality once again set back his plan, as if it were taunting at his naiveté. The way back is not that easy.

This family dispute ended in a compromise: Syaman Rapongan would do any job as long as his family did not force him to leave his island.[26] But life goes on, so do various kinds of struggles and compromises. As his newest novel, Lao Hai-ren (2009), shows, the writer is now more aware of the dangers on the way to rebuild his identity and knows better how to translate those dangers through written words. Like the writer himself, the three main characters in his Lao Hai-ren, Ngalomirem, Tagangan and Zomagpit, are in-between people who try to survive towering waves created by clashes between modernity and traditionality. Also like he himself, they all choose to return to traditionality, the deepest bottom of the sea, to build their own philosophies of life. Again like he himself, however, they all appear like losers in the eyes of others, a psychopath, a zero-king, a drunkard, and an irresponsible family man. They have anger, they complain, and they feel confused.[27] But they continue; they are not there yet, but they are going.


10As Syaman Rapongan puts it, the sea “has always accepted…will never abandon…After all, the sea itself has neither periphery nor center”.[28] Being ultimately inclusive and rid of discrimination, it allows generations of peoples from all over the world, including Tao, to weave their own tales of life at sea, be they tales of forceful conquest, precarious journey, or simple survival. For Syaman Rapongan personally, the purpose of writing the sea is to “[continue] the education given to me by fathers and grandfathers…[and] to appreciate the sea with ‘serenity’”.[29] He was told many stories during his childhood; then he left these stories behind for a long while, thereby a certain way of life that later proved to be the closest to his heart. It was not until his return and his deliberate devotion to live as a real Tao—to build the dadala[30] his fathers used to build, to row on the sea where his fathers used to row, to dive in the sea where his fathers used to dive, and to catch the fishes his fathers used to catch—notwithstanding protests from his loved ones, that he finally found one meaning behind these stories, saying that, “So, as it turns out, they told me so many stories precisely because they expected me to become a ‘writer’ in the future”.[31] It further supports that the sea and the writing of the sea have come to be the center of his life.

Just as the writer still has much to speak about his people, home-island and home-sea, the person Syaman Rapongan is also on the way to peace with himself and reality. For him, the process of rebuilding a true identity, both personal and national, is far from completion. In Lao Hai-ren, he admits that the serenity of his fathers and grandfathers still remains beyond his reach: “But, I have not yet reached their [his fathers and grandfathers’] level, the level of seeing the world with true ‘serenity’ that is to be learned from nature”.[32] By returning to his personal identity crisis, cultivating in the Tao way of life, observing carefully both his people and the world, employing the language and knowledge acquired outside his own society, and explaining the course of reality through his sea-soaked eyes, Syaman Rapongan is still striving to obtain that serenity.

The 2000 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Gao Xing-jian, especially emphasizes the personalness of a writer in his or her lifelong pursuit of truthfulness. According to Gao, truthfulness is the ultimate criterion for literature that is worthy of all efforts and sufferings. A writer should reduce him- or her-self to the state of commonness, deprived of all privileges and powers so that he or she could produce a relatively unaffected observation of the world, a real testimony to life.[33] Likewise, Syaman Rapongan from another corner of the world is also pursuing a similar course and is in fact doing much more than that. He does not, will not, and actually cannot stop at sensational self-masturbation. As one of the few literate intellectuals on his island, he has too much to do. He wants to document the traditional way of life of his people, to redress the faults committed both voluntarily and involuntarily by former anthropologists, to ponder about how and why his people has been devastated by imposed modernity, and to propose a possible way out of their social and economic impasse.[34] In him, we see a subaqueous loner talking about the sea, but behind his lonely back, the shadow of an island always looms large. He is a literary writer with an activist mentality.

Not only does the sea provide Tao people with food so that they do not starve, but it also creates space for them to connect culturally so that they do not merely survive, walking on their land like alien zombies. The sea holds to the key to the material and mental life of the entire people. As the soul that went before Syaman Rapongan’s body[35] told him, “My son, you must learn to love the sea. It is because of the sea that we can exist as a people”.[36] This is how important the blue water is to Syaman Rapongan. His dear wish, as he puts straight forwards in one interview, is “to build a true literature based on a true life, and to build this island’s sea philosophy based on this true literature”.[37] That indeed is his calling as a Tao and a writer of the sea. Toward that goal, he is still marching.

Major Publications (with brief introductions)[38]

Ba-dai-wan de Shen-hua 八代灣的神話》 (Myths from Ba-dai Bay). Taipei: Morning Star Publishing Co., 1992.—Syaman Rapongan’s first book; a collection of myths and his personal reflections on contemporary Tao; divided into two parts, with the first on myths, and the second on personal reflections.

Leng Hai Qing Shen—Hai-yang Chao-sheng Zhe 冷海情深—海洋朝聖者》(Deep Love for Cold Sea: The Oceanic Pilgrim). Taipei: Unitas Publishing Co., Ltd., 1997.—A collection of short stories about Syaman Rapongan’s life on Lan-yu; the book marks the writer’s constant struggles with himself and his family because he voluntarily went unemployed and devoted himself solely to the ocean as a bare-hand diver in order to explore Tao civilization and find the meaning of life. The book also marks the writer’s initial identity transition from a Sinicized man to a real Tao who embraces the value of physical labor and learns to cultivate the art of story-telling. The book was the Annual Reading for 1997 by United Daily News.

Hei-se de Chi-bang 黑色的翅膀》 (Black Wings). Taipei: Morning Star Publishing Co., 1999.—Syaman Rapongan’s first novel; it questions the future of Tao people through the characterization of four young men (Kaswal, Gigimit, Jyavehai and Ngalolog) Should they run rigorously after the tempting ‘white body’ on the land or wait patiently for the arrival of ‘black wings’ on the sea? Although this appears a rhetorical question, Syaman Rapongan reveals that the conflicts are severe and their impact profound. This novel won Wu Zhuo-liou Literary Award in 1999.

Hai-lang de Ji-yi海浪的記憶》 (Memory of the Ocean Waves). Taipei: Unitas Publishing Co., Ltd., 2002.—Another collection of short stories; divided into two parts, with the first on the countless ties between Tao and the sea (six stories), and the second on Tao’s staunch fights against foreign influences. Experimenting boldly with different genre and languages, the writer combines verses with prose and juxtaposes Tao and Chinese languages. As another Taiwanese writer and critic, Song Ze-lai, points out, Syaman Rapongan deliberately defamiliarizes his language and syntax in order to praise traditional Tao values and to guide his readers, especially Tao, back to the original way of living, far from influences of Chinese culture and modern civilization.[39]

Hang-hai-jia de Lian 航海家的臉》 (The Face of a Navigator). Taipei: INK Literary Publishing Co., 2007.—Also a collection of articles; it continues the oceanic theme but exposes more of Syaman Rapongan’s personal battles with modernity or traditionality and his pursuit of prosperity or return to innocence.[40] Calling him-self a nomadic soul, Syaman Rapongan knows there may be no end to his battle. His course is a romantic one, without any definite plan. Nor will his beloved sea offer any answer or guidance. Nevertheless, consolation can be found in sweet solitude and family understanding. Syaman Rapongan’s first attempt at trans-Pacific navigation with a Japanese captain and five Indonesian crew members is also included here.

Lao Hai-ren 老海人》 (Old Ama Divers)[41]. Taipei: INK Literary Publishing Co., Ltd., 2009.—Syaman Rapongan’s second novel; highly praised and awarded (The Wu Lu-chin Prize for Essays, Chiu Ko Publishing Co. Annual Selection in 2006). Instead of following the previous semi-biographical direction, Syaman Rapongan focuses on three outcasts on his island, Ngalomirem, Tagangan and Zomagpit, whose pretty names fail to bring them pretty lives. Ngalomiren is regarded as a psychopath, Tagangan a miserable student though a brilliant octopus-catcher, and Zomagpit a hopeless drunkard. Through these figures, Syaman Rapongan portrays how Tao society stumbles between traditionality and modernity, and how broken the society has become in both material and mental terms as its humble and simple way becomes recognized again. In spite of a slight hope for reconciliation, this way back to the humble and simple Tao world is arduous, sometimes painful, and fully filled with regrets. My favorite.

Final Note: So far, all of Syaman Rapongan’s books are only available in Chinese. Nevertheless, English translation of some of his stories can be found in certain anthologies of contemporary Taiwanese literature.

(Photos, in order of publication: Pan Hsiao-Hsia, Lin Chien-Hsiang and Tomo.Yun)

[1] A Tao saying. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 111.

[2] Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安), a name of Tao (see Note 3), literally means ‘the father of Rapongan’. Tao people change their names at least three times in life. Take a boy named Rapongan for example. He’s called ‘Si Rapongan’ throughout his child- and single-hood. After his first child (Sumalud) is born, his name will be changed to ‘Syaman Sumalud’ (the father of Sumalud); so will his wife, who for instance is called ‘Si Maveivou’ before her marriage and maternity, change her name to ‘Sinan Sumalud’ (the mother of Sumalud). Once the couple has their first grandchild (Tagangan), they will both be called, ‘Syapen Tagangan’, the grandparents of Tagangan. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 235, note 17. In this essay, since neither syaman nor rapongan could stand alone as a meaningful reference for the writer, his name will always be fully cited when necessary.

[3] Tao or Tawo (Da-wu, 達悟), also known as Ya-mei (雅美), is one of many indigenous peoples that fall currently under the jurisdiction of Taiwan government. Being officially recognized, Tao is entitled to legally protected rights in culture, language, education, employment, etc. Nevertheless, due to a persisting influence from main(is)land Taiwan, the island Lan-yu has witnessed a steady outward flow of its people, mainly Tao, and thereby, the loss of Tao language, culture, and traditional livelihood. At the same time, the scandalous introduction of nuclear waste facilities in 1970s has also put the island’s people under lifelong threat. It was one of the issues that triggered numerous Taiwan indigenous movements in 1980s. These together compose the background to Syaman Rapongan’s embarkation upon a literary career (see When He was Shi Nu-Lai). According to the 2009 census, Tao population numbers 3,748, nearly 0.8% of Taiwan’s total indigenous population (see Council of Indigenous Peoples). Tao is well-known for its oceanic culture, dadala (Tao joined-log canoe, see Note 32), flying fish festival, traditional attire (male T-back and silver cone-shaped hat), female hair dance, et cetera. It is known that Tao and the Ivatan people on the Batanes Island in the Philippines share cultural and linguistic ties. Trade was in the past a custom between the two peoples. See Syaman Rapongan’s ‘The Story of Syapen Mitoli’, Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 195-204.

[4] Lan-yu (蘭嶼), Orchid Island and Botel Tobago all refer to the small volcanic island lying approximately forty-five kilometers to the southeastern coast of Taiwan. The island is home to Tao (see Note 3), who call it by the name of ‘Pongso no Tao’, Island of Man. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 191, note 8.

[5] For Syaman Rapongan’s works, see Major Publications (with brief introductions).

[6] See Chang, Rui-fen, ‘The Course of Pen and Oar—Reading Syaman Rapongan’s Memories of Oceanic Waves in Summer (筆與槳的方向—夏日讀夏曼·藍波安《海浪的記憶》)’, UNITAS《聯合文學》, 2002 (215). Also, Sun, Ta-chuan (a.k.a. Palabang), ‘Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安)’, Taiwan Indigenous Voice Bimonthly《山海文化雙月刊》.

[7] Liao Hung Ji (廖鴻基, b. 1957) worked as a seafarer and fisherman at his early teens. His life on the sea later becomes a source of creation that enabled him to produce literature especially about the relationship between fish and men. His characterization of that relationship resembles Hemingway, since he focuses on the brutal struggle of force. Liao is also the founder of ‘Kuroshio Ocean Education Foundation’ (黑潮海洋文教基金會), who is now devoted to the study of whales and the preservation of oceanic environment and culture.

[8] Recall the famous line in The Old Man and the Sea: “Man is not made for defeat…A man can be destroyed but not defeated”. For literature on the sea as a route of transportation, see Exploiting the Waters (Crayenborgh 2010, 17th edition), edited by Yedda Wang and Daan Elders.

[9] See Chang’s ‘The Course of Pen and Oar’.

[10] See the short paragraph on the front cover of Syaman Rapogan’s Hang-hai-jia de Lian for example: ‘After spending much of his youthhood wandering in Taiwan, finally, Syaman returns to the island Lan-yu, living with his people, building dadalas to go to sea with them, diving into the ocean to catch fish, watching the waters, pondering, and changing into a real Tao man’ (在台灣流浪了所有的青春歲月/終於,夏曼回歸蘭嶼這座小島/與部落的人一起生活/造拼板船出海捕魚/潛海抓魚,望海思考/成為真正達悟族的男人).

[11] A subaqueous loner, 海底獨夫, is Syaman Rapongan’s favorite nickname. See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 220: ‘Like a loco talking to himself along the way, sandwiched between the dark sky and pitchy sea, I priggishly called myself a member of the arrogant subaqueous loners’ (我像瘋子一樣,一路上自言自語的,黑暗的天宇和黑暗的海洋夾著一位,自以為是「海底獨夫」的狂傲份子。)

[12] In Chinese:會造舟建屋、捕飛魚、釣鰭魚、善於說故事、吟誦詩歌……。 See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p 99.

[13] See Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 172-177. Also, Lao Hai-ren, p. 17.

[14] In Chinese for the first:將來當個老師好好教育你們蘭嶼這些「野蠻」的小孩成為「文明人」; for the second:將來當神父馴化你們蘭嶼那些不認識上帝的「野蠻」人成為「文明人」。See Lao Hai-ren, p 16.

[15] See Lao Hai-ren, p.15, and Hang-hai-jia de Lian, p. 7.

[16] In Chinese:[努來]已嘗遍人生的挫折……在他的眼裡,已經沒有什麼事是「順利」的了。See Chui, Fei-hisang (邱斐顯). ‘Literary Brave-heart Syaman Rapongan, Embrace the Dream of Flying Fish’ (文學勇士夏曼·藍波安 擁抱飛魚之夢)’. New Taiwan《新台灣新聞週刊》, 2006 (530).

[17] See Kuan Hsiao-yong (關曉榮). ‘From Shi Nu-lai to Syaman Rapongan’ (從施努來到夏曼·藍波安), Preface to Syaman Rapongan’s Leng Hai Qing Shen 《冷海情深》, pp. 5-9.

[18] ‘The Making of’ indicates that it is still an ongoing process.

[19] In Chinese:返鄉後不久,施努來經過一番與戶政人員的鬥爭後,正式改名為夏曼·藍波安,開始默默地為自己的小家庭建造家屋。See Kuan’s ‘From Shi Nu-lai to Syaman Rapongan’, p. 7.

[20] See Lin, Chien-hsiang (林建享), ‘Interview with Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安訪談)’, Literary Landscape Episode 9《文學風景》第九集, Public Television Service, Taiwan 公共電視.

[21] See ‘The Oceanic Pilgrim’ in Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 97-129.

[22] See ‘The Kuroshio and the Family Canoe’ in Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 49-68.

[23] In Chinese:這就是我所要追求的,用勞動(傳統工作)累積自己的社會地位,用勞動深入探討自己文化的文明過程;與族人共存共享大自然的食物;廢除自己被漢化的污名;讓被壓抑的驕傲再生。See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 148.

[24] See Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 11, 14, 43, 122, 183 and 211.

[25] In Chinese:全家人……都要把我趕出家門,只因為我不賺錢,只因為我天天往海裡潛。Ibid, p. 212. Syaman Rapongan’s struggle is especially obvious in ‘No Complaints…No Regrets’, Leng Hai Qing Shen, pp. 205-220.

[26] This is not to say Syaman Rapongan never visits Taiwan. He finished his MA program at the Department of Anthropolgy, National Tsing Hua University, and is now a PhD student at the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Cheng Kung University. He certainly visits Taiwan, but Pongso no Tao is always his home.

[27] See Hao Yu-hsiang (郝譽翔). ‘The Moving Life of an Oceanic People: Syaman Rapongan’s Lao Hai-ren (海洋民族的動人生命:夏曼·藍波安「老海人」)’.

[28] In Chinese:海洋終究一直在包容…當然也不可能拋棄…畢竟海洋本身是沒有邊陲,也沒有中心。See Lao Hai-ren, p. 21.

[29] In Chinese:[延續]父祖輩們給我的教育…用「寧靜」觀賞海。Ibid.

[30] Tao dadala (達悟拼板舟) is often translated into Lan-yu dugout or canoe, a type of light and narrow wood boat made by hollowing a single tree trunk like a monoxylon (Greek μονόξυλον, mono- single + xylon tree). Although this translation appears appropriate in terms of the materials and functions of the boat, it might still mislead people into thinking that dadalas are made of single tree trunks. According to professional studies and Syaman Rapongan’s stories, however, dadalas are actually made of 21 or 27 pieces of logs from different types of trees, such as Longan or Syzygium for the bottom, Neonauclea for the keel, breadfruit for the gunnel, and so on. Therefore, it is better to translate a dadala into ‘joined-log canoe’ or simply keep the Tao name ‘dadala’. See Wang, Ya-Ping,  ‘Study the Wisdom of Tao dadala based on the Collections of Union Catalogs (從聯合目錄藏品了解達悟族拼板舟(dadala)的智慧)’, Cyber Island E –Paper 《數位島嶼電子報》, 19.

[31] In Chinese:原來他們跟我說許多的故事就是要我將來當個「作家」。See Lao Hai-ren, p. 21.

[32] In Chinese:然而,我還未進階到他們用「寧靜」看世界,在自然環境裡萃取「寧靜」的層次。Ibid.

[33] See Gao Xing-jian’s (高行健) Nobel Centennial Symposia Lecture, ‘Le témoignage de la littérature’ (The Testimony of Literature)’, delivered on December 5th, 2001. A Chinese version has also been prepared by Gao and published by Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University. See Gao, Xing-jian, ‘The Testimony of Literature—Seeking Truthfulness (文學的見證—對真實的追求)’, NTU Studies in Taiwan Literature 《台灣文學研究集刊》, 2006 (2): 165-174.

[34] See Lin, ‘Interview with Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安訪談)’.

[35] ‘Souls that went before one’s body’ is a special Tao phrase; it means one’s deceased fathers. See Hang-hai-jia de Lian, p. 26, note 1. Sometimes, the deceased fathers or forefathers are also referred as ‘bodies that went before one’s soul’. See Lao Hai-ren, p. 23 or p. 176.

[36] In Chinese:孩子,你要養成愛慕海洋的性格,因為海洋的關係,才有我們這個民族。See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 113.

[37] In Chinese:從一個真實的生活,去建構一個真實的文學,而這個真實的文學也企圖去建構這個島上的海洋哲學。See Lin, ‘Interview with Syaman Rapongan (夏曼·藍波安訪談)’.

[38] For an introduction of Syaman Rapongan and his encounter with the Martinique-born Francophone writer, Roland Brival, see Lu, Nancy T, ‘Orchid Island’s Syaman Rapongan Lives and Writes in Praise of the Ocean’.

[39] See Song, Ze-lai (宋澤萊). ‘Strange Rhetoric and Group Guidance in Syaman Rapongan’s The Memory of Waves’ (夏曼·藍波安小說《海浪的記憶》中的奇異修辭及其族群指導), Research in Taiwan Studies 《台灣學研究》, 2007 (3): 16-33. Song doesn’t agree with Syaman Rapongan’s idea of returning to the traditional way of living. In his opinion, indigenous peoples should study more and learn more about capital economics. These are their ways out of present economic and social disadvantages. However, I don’t think Syaman Rapongan says the traditional way of living is the only way either. He knows clearly that diving is not the only future for the next Tao generations. For young people, the purpose of learning the traditional production skills is to understand the value of the life of their ancestors, to keep them aware of their Tao identity, and to offer them room for reflection upon their life journey. See Leng Hai Qing Shen, p. 118.

[40] ‘Return to Innocence’ is also the title of a 1994 chart-topping single by Enigma, an electronic musical band founded in Germany. This success was particularly polluted when it was found out that parts of an Amis chant, ‘Jubilant Drinking Song’ (飲酒歡樂歌), produced by two Amis elderly singers Kuo Ying-nan (郭英男) and Kuo Hsiu-chu (郭秀珠), were sampled without their permission. Amis, a.k.a Pangcah, is the largest indigenous group in Taiwan.

[41] Ama divers (あま) are Japanese divers, who are famous for collecting pearls or abalones in coastal waters. Since the three figures of Syaman Rapongan’s second novel also make living by collecting different kinds of marine resources, it is more appropriate to translate the title of his second novel to ‘Old Ama Divers’ than to the literal ‘Old Sea Men’.

Friday, 25 September 2009 21:14

After the Winds of War

In 1971 the American Herman Wouk published his epic novel about the Second World War, The Winds of War. The novel (later a mini-series starring the late Robert Mitchum) deals with the early years of the war, before America’s entry into the conflict. Through the eyes of an American Navy officer named Henry and his family we are provided the landscape, physical and political, of Europe as the war breaks and boils. The story is a treat: it gracefully weaves a private meeting with Mussolini in Rome, an encounter with a nationalistic German waiter in Berlin, a Jewish wedding in Poland and a private talk with Churchill. There is, however, a rather striking disruption in the narrative. Towards the very end a new element is introduced, that of Asia. A minor character offhandedly mentions the Japanese to another. Most of the major characters suddenly find themselves in the Pacific after years of storyline that have them in Europe. Without acknowledging this, the book ends with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

What may be most surprising is that Herman Wouk served in the US Navy during World War II and spent his war in the Pacific theatre. Yet, when it came time to “throw a rope around the Second World War” (his words) his focus was almost exclusively on Europe in explaining how the war came about. In this I believe that Wouk was a man of his times. America in the 20th century most often poised itself towards Europe. This is understandable as the world economy was for so long centred around Europe and as most Americans can still describe themselves as of European extraction. But all of this may be changing as we speak. The day may come – it may be here already – when Europe is no longer where Americans instinctively face.

I have spent a large part of my adult life overseas, all of it in Asia. I first came to Europe a month ago, less Ernest Hemingway than Henry Miller. Let me first state the utterly obvious: Europe is amazing. All the tales are true and, if anything, understated. I am at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, in a town that dates back to the Roman era. I would challenge any sentient or sensible being to sit by one of the canals with a strong coffee, Paris only hours away by rail, enjoying Dutch hospitality in the autumn sun and not be enchanted. It really is not possible, absent a strong will otherwise.

But as wonderful as Holland is it has roughly the same population as Cambodia and it is simply dwarfed by its former colony, Indonesia. And Europe can no longer rely on economic superiority to command attention; the rising powers of Asia have seen to that. Europe is changing from the inside as well. The streets of the major cities are filled with immigrants from Africa and Asia and their European born children. It is reasonable to wonder if Europe should still receive the attention Wouk gave it, or if after years of immigration Europe will even be recognizable as we understand it from the 20th century. These are large questions, and any certain answers are far beyond an outsider who has been here very scant time. But I can hazard a guess and it actually is a very hopeful one.

I do not think that the splendour of Europe is found in any set of fixed traditions. I think it is to be found in a place that not only gave birth to the Enlightenment but lives by it still, by a European tradition that produced the culture of today. I see the children of immigrants and the children of native Europeans accepting one another in a way that is very familiar to my understanding of American idealism and I see it transpiring in a way that does not seem to sacrifice the European sense of self. Europe is responding to the changing economic world by binding itself ever closer in the European Union which as a unit rivals India, China, and the United States. In short, I think that the corrective to Wouk’s focus on Europe is not to discount this vibrant place but to recognize the vitality of other places, to embrace a multi-polar world and not simply to shift to a different uni-polar one. What will become of Europe? I think it will be here for dazzled newcomers to ask that question of it for a very, very long time.

Illustration from movie poster ’Lady Kungfu’ on the website

Friday, 20 March 2009 21:50

Literature, sci-fi, imagination

From literature to science

I developed a passion for science very early on in my teens and saw them as a realm of infinite possibilities.

My brother was the one who helped me realise it. I have to acknowledge it, because I was so unkind to him most of the times. It so happened that he loves to read Sci-Fi novels, and I being the ever-so competitive one, would read them after him… My favourite ones are the oldest, the novels by Jules Verne. Jules Verne’s novels are works of imagination but they are also startlingly accurate anticipations of modern times. I loved reading Paris in the 20th Century : it described air conditioning, auto mobiles, the Internet, television, and other modern conveniences very similar to our real world counterparts. How was he able to imagine all that? Another favourite of mine is From the Earth to the Moon, which is strikingly similar to the real Apollo Program, as three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula and recovered through a splash landing. In the book, the spacecraft is launched from "Tampa Town"; approximately 130 miles from NASA’s actual launching site at Cape Canaveral, or so have I read. And in other works, Verne predicted the inventions of helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and other devices. He also predicted the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not discovered until years after.
Jules Verne is indeed. my hero. When I am told I am too dreamy or imaginative I simply shrug my shoulders. If you want to have new ideas where are you going to find them, except in your dreams and imaginations? I am now convinced that humankind owes much more to dreamers than to hopeless realists… I had tried to convince my maths, physics and biology teacher - not an easy lot, I tell you, as they were so hopelessly realistic…

From helicopters to guitars

OK, I might owe a little more to my elder brother than I am willing to admit. In fact, when we were growing up and were both seen as rebellious, sulky teenagers, we felt much closer to each other than ever. He had developed a passion for music, and played in a band, having convinced Dad and Mum to buy him an Ovation guitar. Thanks to him I now know how the guitar was invented and it makes me even more convinced that imagination is the world’ s driving force – only teachers and parents refused to recognise it.
The first Ovation guitar was developed in 1966 by Charles Kaman. Kaman, an amateur guitarist from an early age, then worked on helicopter design as an aerodynamacist and founded his own helicopter design company, Kaman Aircraft, in 1945. His corporation soon diversified, branching off into nuclear weapons testing, commercial helicopter flights, the development and testing of chemicals, and helicopter bearings production. But in the early 1960s, financial problems due to the failure of their commercial flight division forced them to consider expanding into new markets, such as entertainment and leisure. Coincidentally, Charles Kaman, still an avid guitar player, became interested in the making of guitars. Using his background in aviation engineering, Kaman designed a rounded-bowl back, hoping to improve the flow of sound through the guitar, and developed a new top bracing system. Finally, although he kept the idea of using a wood soundboard, the body and sides of the guitar were manufactured of composite. Since that time the company’s main focus has been acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars.
Applying helicopter’s technology to guitar-making... not bad at all.

Imagining discoveries

The history of science is fascinating, and I dreamt of the life of scientists and inventors the way I did of witches and wizards as a little girl.
When you look at the way science has evolved throughout the ages, you realise that when comparing theories to observations, scientists encounter more and more anomalies, which cannot be explained by the theory alone. When enough anomalies have accrued against a theory, science is thrown into a state of crisis – scientists become restless and sleepless, their wives can no longer bear their sudden shifts of moods, coffee no longer tastes the same as before, they rely on chocolate to struggle against anxiety, and so on... During this crisis, new ideas are tried. Eventually a new theory is spelled out, after epic battles. And it is always the ones who see nothing new to be imagined or discovered whom ultimately look like the fools. Take poor Lord Kelvin who, in 1900, stated, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." Five years later, Einstein published his paper on special relativity, which challenged Newtonian mechanics...

And more…

The more I progress in my studies, the more I am convinced that imagination is the Empress who reigns over all Sciences.
Did Copernic not need imagination in finding out that the earth turned around the sun rather than the reverse?
Did Pasteur and others not need imagination in deciding that “all life comes from life” rather than relying on the widely accepted theory of spontaneous generation?
Was Einstein not the best artist of the 20th century when he came up with the theory of relativity?
One of my favourites is Lavoisier. He showed that respiration was essentially a slow combustion of organic material using inhaled oxygen. He also showed that, although matter can change its state in a chemical reaction, the quantity of matter is the same at the end as at the beginning of every chemical change. These experiments supported the law of conservation of mass, which Lavoisier was the first to state. It is not for these discoveries that French revolutionaries beheaded him however.
I have yet to speak of Lamarck, Darwin or Mendel… To me, these people are the most imaginative artists that humankind has ever known- the real dreamers.

Image by C.P.


Thursday, 27 September 2007 18:39

Love taught me not to love

In his article Falling In and Out of Love, Bob discusses love, or, better, about how to control one’s feeling… French literature gives us famous examples of thwarted loves due to State reasons (’Berenice’ by Racine) or moral necessities (’The Princess of Cleves’ by Madame de Lafayette). In each case, love does not triumph at the end but has to be sacrificed in the name of what must transcend the only selfish and individual desire or feeling… They all tell stories of renouncement; fewer are the stories that describe the pain felt after breaking up.

Why is it so difficult to let go a lost love and especially a love that one knows full well it is not suitable? Proust gives his own explanation of that phenomenon: “Talking about love, it is easier to renounce a feeling than to give up a habit” (’La Prisonniere’). Indeed, the narrator in the book, despite thinking for a long time about breaking up with his lover, once she’s gone before his call, just feels a great emptiness and the irresistible desire to go after her…

In ’The Dangerous Liaisons’, Madame de Tourvel just dies after receiving the famous letter sent by Valmont but dictated by la Marquise de Merteuil, “Angel, this is not my fault…” Indeed, when a relationship ends, whose fault should it be? Who should bear the responsibility? At least one should know that people are not just here to do their bidding.

The end of a love relationship is like a small death. In French, we are used to saying “to do the mourning of a relationship” to describe the fact that someone has to come to terms with having split up. Indeed, it is not only the loss of the loved one that makes the situation so painful but also the loss of the comfort, the reassuring sensation of not being alone to face and discover the world…

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