Branching out: Chinese American literary studies in Taiwan.

Author:Shan, Te-hsing
Position:1H Paper
 
FREE EXCERPT

Some of the writings are also, or rather, especially, autobiographical or autocritical, in the sense that I speak of my own identity not as a theorist but as a practicing writer. As a general rule, I do not like to confuse the two roles, but sometimes it is necessary .. to turn to one's own experience....

--Umberto Eco, Introduction to On Literature

While the "Branching Out the Banyan Tree" conference focuses primarily on the branching out of the Chinese people and their culture in America, this paper tries to address another direction of "branching out," namely, the spread of Chinese American literary studies from the United States to Taiwan. As a deeply involved observer-participant in the institutionalization of minority literary studies in Taiwan, I am here to offer a "witness report" on the development of this branch of American literature on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, hopefully, without too much self-indulgence.

Like everywhere else, English and American literary studies in Taiwan used to focus on mainstream literature at the expense of works by minority writers. As an MA student at National Taiwan University in the late 1970s, the only minority text I read was Invisible Man by the African American novelist Ralph Ellison, and it was in a seminar on modern American fiction. No trace of any Asian American writer was to be found. In other words, English students of my generation were totally ignorant of Asian American literature.

The early 1980s witnessed the beginning of the publication of Chinese American literature in Taiwan. "The Albatross Exorcised: The Rime of Frank Chin" by Joseph S. M. Lau [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], then a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was published in Tamkang Review in Fall 1981. (1) Appearing in an English journal devoted to Chinese-foreign comparative literature, this paper marked the beginning of scholarly publications on Chinese American literature in Taiwan. The first Chinese paper, "Understanding and Misunderstanding: The Mutual Description of Immigrant Writers and the Writers of the Chinese Descent" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] by Marion K. Hom [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] was collected in the Festschrift in honor of the eighty-second birthday of Vincent Yu-chung Shih [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], in 1982. Although some papers did appear afterward, Taiwan's academic climate was not yet ready for this emergent literature. Moreover, most of the publishing scholars were neither based in Taiwan nor trained in Asian American literature.

It was not until 1987, when Lin Mao-chu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], the first PhD specializing in Chinese American literature, returned to Taiwan that Taiwan could claim to have a scholar trained in Chinese American literature. From the title of the doctoral dissertation Lin submitted to the University of Minnesota--"Identity and Chinese-American Experience: Study of Chinatown American Literature since World War II"--it can be clearly seen that the author focused on the identity issue and literary expressions of post-war Chinatown. (2) A comparison of this dissertation with the first book published in the field, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (1982), by Korean American scholar Elaine H. Kim, (3) showed that Lin's methodology was similar to Kim's, though he focused more specifically on the experiences and literary productions of the ethnic minority with which he was more familiar.

Five years later, the second PhD on Chinese American literature, Hsu Li-tsui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], also graduated from the University of Minnesota, with her dissertation on "Images and Identity: Chinese Americans in Euro-American and Chinese American Fiction, 1970-1989." (4) The title showed that "identity" was still one of her loci, the other being "images." The scope of her research expanded from Chinese American literature to Euro-American. In addition, three characteristics could be discerned: genre-wise, this study focused on fiction; time-wise, it concentrated on a more recent period, namely, 1970-1989; and theme-wise, it dealt with one of the longtime concerns of comparative literature, namely, the study of images and/or mirages. Both Lin and Hsu taught at universities in Taiwan and went on to write academic papers on Chinese American literature.

The 1990s witnessed the rapid growth of Chinese American literature both in the United States and in Taiwan. At that time, the study of Chinese American literature was often included in minority discourse or postcolonial discourse. A lot of dissertations focused on the issue of ethnicity and gender. Young scholars who graduated from U.S. universities in the first half of the 1990s, such as Kate Chiwen Liu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], Pin-Chia Feng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], Chiung-Huei Joan Chang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], and Iping Joy Liang ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), are all female and have become the new blood in this emergent field. (5) These U.S.-trained scholars were one of the two main forces devoted to Chinese American literary studies in Taiwan in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The other force came from academic institutions in Taiwan itself, especially from the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica (hereafter abbreviated as IEAS), which is the only area studies institute in Academia Sinica, the highest research institution in Taiwan, Republic of China. IEAS covers a wide variety of disciplines, including literature, history, philosophy, legal studies, political science, sociology, and education. With sufficient budget and complete academic autonomy, Academia Sinica encourages team efforts to pursue intellectual excellence and unique contributions to the academic discourse. In order to capitalize on the particular speaking position of English and American literary researchers in Taiwan, one of the major projects was targeted at Chinese American literature, with Lee Yu-cheng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], Ho Wen-ching [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], and me as members.

Choosing to undertake this research project was by no means accidental, as it closely related not only to our bicultural or transcultural backgrounds, but also to our previous research. As a student of English and comparative literature, Lee has been a pioneering scholar in Jewish and African American literature, and has applied his expertise in ethnic American literature and comparative literature to the study of Chinese American literature. Trained as an Americanist, Ho's study of William Faulkner had already touched upon race issues. He has also published comparative studies on African American writer Toni Morrison and Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston. Also trained in comparative literature and American literature, I have been working on American literary historiography since the late 1980s by investigating the shifts and trends in American literary canons, literary histories, and literary anthologies. The Reconstructing American Literature Project of the 1980s, which took on literary study from the perspective of race and gender, left an indelible impression on my mind. Moreover, as a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellow at University of California, Irvine, from 1989 to 1990, I offered a course on the comparative studies of Chinese and American narratives in the spring quarter of 1990. One of the textbooks I used was Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976). Among the thirty-odd students I taught, about half of them were of Asian descent, and they were especially interested in the Chinese intertexts appropriated by the author in her work. Historically, it is also interesting to note that I attended Amy Tang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] book tour for her first book, The Joy Luck Club, and the title of her lecture was, significantly, "Finding a Voice in American Literature." Based on the above background, the three of us decided to embark on this new exploration by making use of our "intersectional as well as transgressional speaking position" (6) in the hopes that we might carve out a niche of our own and generate significant dialogues with scholars at home and abroad.

In order to lay a firm foundation for the newly emergent field and to attract the attention of scholars and students in Taiwan, we decided to hold conferences. Altogether, three national and two international conferences took place in ten years. In the history of IEAS, this series of conferences was one of the most consistently focused conferences on a chosen topic in a specific area. Moreover, in order to facilitate exchanges with scholars abroad, each of the national conferences also invited a representative Asian American scholar from the United States to present a paper. (7)

The choice of the conference themes was based mainly on the following considerations: to highlight the characteristics of Chinese American literature, to make connections with current scholarly trends and social concerns, and to provide an open forum and discursive space for interested scholars and students at home and abroad. In order to achieve the above-stated goals, the theme of the first national conference, held in February 1993, was "Cultural Identity" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], because this was a significant issue not only in the context of Chinese/Asian American literature, (8) but also as...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP