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Experiencing Taiwan in Taiwanese Nature-Oriented Literature by Pavlína Krámská

Experiencing Taiwan in Taiwanese Nature-Oriented Literature by Pavlína Krámská

Martin Lavicka03 May 2016Leave a comment


Experiencing Taiwan in Taiwanese Nature-Oriented Literature

Written by Pavlína Krámská (Charles University Prague)

Annotation: The notion of the local, much discussed by the Nativist literary movement in the 1970s, has got another much broader meaning in the environmental literature since the 1980s. It has incorporated the wilderness (荒野), the sea, nature in the cities, all the living and non-living entities into one interconnected community. It has intertwined them not only literarily but also physically. The Taiwanese natureoriented writers who started to rumble through the  countryside, wilderness and cities, to sail on the sea around Taiwan, to observe the habits of birds and animals have mediated their experiences in personal essayistic reflections and fictional stories trying to reshape the Taiwanese imagination of nature through reshaping the posture, movement, sense of place in the dialogue with the Earth beneath their feet and living and non-living entities they have encountered.

Key words: Nature-oriented literature, environmental literature, engagement, body, movement, Tarn Koarnhak, Liu Ka-shiang, Hsu Jen-shiu, Wang Chia-hsiang

The notion of the local, much discussed by the Nativist literary movement (鄉土文學) in the 1970s, has got another much broader meaning in the nature-oriented literature since the 1980s. The nativist authors like Yeh Shih-t´ao (Ye Shitao 葉石濤, 1925–2008) were interested in social reality and depicted the  distinctiveness of Taiwanese local culture. The Taiwanese natural environment and its historical development have naturally played in it an important role. “Xiangtu” (鄉土) and later on “bentu” (本土) in the meaning of native place have been used to create a collective identity intertwined with the history of the island.1 Environmental literature broadened this term when it started to explore the local through the perspective of other living organisms and not only humans. It has strived to build a concept of a large community embedded in the web of mutual relations and has stressed the perception of place as one interconnected organism that includes all living and non-living entities. This paper follows the  rhetoric of body engagement and movement that Taiwanese authors use to achieve the feeling of this perceived unity. Body engagement and movement is characterized as a  process of acquiring skills for the direct perceptual involvement and engagement with nature as described by British anthropologist Tim Ingold.2 I  argue that the concept of acquiring skills is a constitutive part of environmental literature in Taiwan.

The term nature-oriented literature does not point to one literary genre.3 It encompasses non-fiction as well as fiction and is meant to show the wide scope of art production focused on nature in Taiwan since the 1980s. This term was coined by the “second wave” of American eco-criticism that saw a  need for a  broader definition.4 It was introduced to Taiwanese literary criticism by professor of sinophone literature and well-known Taiwanese author of nature-oriented literature Wu Ming-yi (Wu Mingyi 吳明益),5 but there are still more often used terms such as environmental or ecological literature (ziran shuxie 自然書寫, ziran xiezuo 自然寫作 or shengtai wenxue 生態文學)6 in Taiwan. We no doubt need a broader definition for the literature that molded the  perception of nature in Taiwan since the  1980s. Nevertheless, each term has its own history that limits it when implanted into an environment with a  different tradition.7 Since the  environmental literature in Taiwan is a  reaction against environmental degradation, the notion of an ecological crisis and a discussion on environmental ethics and philosophy, this paper uses both of the  terms nature-oriented literature and environmental literature8 as umbrella terms for the contemporary literature that seeks other values in nature than economic ones.

Here I would like to explore the similarities rather than the differences within the  texts written by the  nature-oriented writers of the  older and younger generations9 who wrote their texts already in the 1980s and 1990s and took part in the popularization of the ecological movement and protection of the environment in Taiwan, namely Koarnhak Tarn (Chen Guanxue 陳冠學, 1934-2011), Liu Ka-shiang (Liu Kexiang 劉克襄, 1957), Hsu Jen-shiu (Xu Renxiu 徐仁修, 1946) and Wang Chia-hsiang (Wang Jiaxiang 王家祥, 1966).10 I argue that the newly acquired skills of attentive observing of nature brought a new conceptualization of sensual experience and increased attentiveness towards the environment.

The proliferation of the topics, genres and academic studies concerning the depiction of nature in the literature since the 1990s further opened the  path (both literarily and physically) to exploring and experiencing the Taiwanese environment through bodily engagement.

(to continue reading, please go to our Proceedings from the 8th Annual Czech and Slovak Sinological Conference available for free in iPDF)


1 Nativist literature is characterized by Yeh Shih-t’ao mainly as a literature that originates from the national culture and bears distinct regional cultural characteristics. An author of nativist literature should write about the reality in Taiwan and from the perspective of Taiwanese people and their land:「文化上必須確立承繼民族傳統文化發揚光大的姿勢,積極推 展鄉土色彩的文化。」葉 1987, 140.「儘管我們的鄉土文學不受膚色和語言的束縛, 但是台灣的鄉土文學應該有一個前提條件;  那便是台灣的鄉土文學應該是以『台灣為 中心』寫出來的作品; 換言之,它應該是站在台灣的立場上來透視整個世界的作品。 」Ibidem, 144. For more on the development of nativist literature and the term of the local, see for example Hsiau 2000; Chang 1993.

2 Tim Ingold connects this concept of regrowing skills with the  culture of hunters and gatherers that live in close contact with nature. It stands in opposition to the concept of pasive acceptance of the mentally constructed environment schemata. Ingold 2004 and 2007.

3 According to Patrick D. Murphy, nature-oriented literature encompasses the non-fiction genres of nature writing and environmental writing, and the fiction genres of nature literature and environmental literature. It is the narrative that draws a distinction between fiction and non-fiction: “When narrative and its various aesthetic dimensions drive the  writing of a text, I would prefer to label the text a fiction, regardless of the quantity of information that constructs the message.” Murphy 2000, 7. According to this definition most of the works regarded as nature-oriented literature in Taiwan would be classified as fiction.

4 Buell (2005) distinguishes two stages or waves within environmental criticism: the  first-wave nature-writing-oriented ecocriticism and the  second-wave urban and ecojustice revisionist ecocriticism. The initial environmental turn in literary studies has been more issue-driven than method or paradigm-driven. For the  first-wave ecocriticism, “environment” meant only “natural environment”. It focused on the  narratives of encounter with nature. Whereas the second-wave ecocriticism has broadened its interest and included also the  urban “built environment”. The realms of the  “natural” and the  “human” are seen as intertwined. The narrowly focused first-wave ecocriticism engaged in celebrating nature, berating the arrogance of humanism and formulating a philosophy of organism that would break down the hierarchical separations between human beings and other elements of the  natural world. As second-wave ecocriticism included also the  built environment, the interest of literature-and-environment studies has shifted towards “social ecocriticism” that takes urban and degraded landscapes just as seriously as “natural” landscapes. See also Murphy 2000; Buell 1995.

5 Ziran daoxiang wenxue 自然導向文學. Wu 2006, 5–6.

6 The terms Ziran shuxie 自然書寫 or ziran xiezuo 自然寫作gradually prevailed in the Taiwanese discourse on environmental literature in the 1990s. At the beginning it was used simultaneously with the  terms zhishi sanwen 知識散文, shengtai wenxue 生態文學 or shengtai wenzhang 生態文章 (劉 1996). It is a translation of the term nature writing. This genre played an important role when Taiwanese environmental literature started to constitute in the 1980s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the stress was put on the informative and didactic role of literature. Ziran shuxie therefore should not only convey the author’s own observations and experience with nature, but also use the terminology of nature sciences to achieve objectivity in the description. This was partly a reaction to the genre of reportages (baodao wenxue 報導文學) and the growing number of articles concerning environmental protection (huanbao wenzhang環保文章) that could not provide enough rational arguments for the necessity of environmental protection. Traditional Chinese nature writing (yinyi wenxue 隱逸 文學) and poetry (tianyuan shi 田園詩, shanshui shi 山水詩) were considered to be unable to mobilize people which was regarded as crucial for a quick response to the urgent problems with the fast degradation and pollution. Moreover, it was pointed out that in densely populated Taiwan, it was impossible to avoid city culture as could the authors who pursued a simple life. Nevertheless, in the second half of the 1990s contemplative and fictional stories re-appeared and received more recognition also in the eco-critical discourse. The aesthetic dimension of nature writing has been highlighted by Taiwanese nature writer Wu Mingyi in his paper for the conference at the Providence University in 2005 (吳 2006). Nonetheless, the original motive of the literature – the notion of the vulnerability of nature or ecological crisis and the hesitation of how to deal with it – has not changed. Another source of inspiration brought the literature of indigenous people (yuanzhumin wenxue 原住民文學). Authors like Syaman Rapongan offers an indigenous ecological worldview as an alternative to the prevailing concepts.

7 Academic discussions on the definition and division of Taiwanese environmental literature started in the 1990s. The most celebrated genre was nature writing in the first phase, but the proliferation of the themes and genres led to a loosening and broadening of the definition. 吳 2003, 2005 and藍 2008.

8 There is underway also the  discussion on whether to use the  term environmental literature or ecological literature. Some ecologists point out the  difference between ecology as a scientific discipline and environmentalism as an ideological and political discourse and therefore prefer to use the term environmental. Daněk 2010. On the other hand, the Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák sees ecology itself as a science in the meaning of the Latin word scientia and therefore uses the term ecological. Kohák 2006.

9 The distinction between the older and younger generation in this paper is based mainly on the type of nature writing and the image of the writer itself. The older generation represented by Koarnhak Tarn harked back to the traditional Chinese landscape imagery interwoven with Taoist thoughts. Nature writing was only a part of his work. The younger generation of nature writers usually took part in the  environmental movement, graduated from nature sciences or underwent training in nature sciences and scientific terminology. Nature became the main theme of their books. They usually looked also at nature from the perspective of life in the city and eagerly explored new environmental theories that have been emerging ceaselessly.

10 Koarnhak Tarn was born in 1934. He published his first book in 1969, about one decade earlier than Hsu Jen-shiu and Liu Ka-shiang, and about two decades earlier than Wang Chiahsiang. He wrote about old Taiwan and Taoist philosophy. His artwork written in the 1980s connects the nativist literary movement with environmental consciousness. Within the nature-oriented literature he represents the  trend of return to the  simple life. Hsu Jen-shiu’s book of childhood memories (Jia zai Jiu Qionglin 家在九芎林) published in 1980 is also written in the same way as the nativist literature. He studied agriculture which enabled him to engage in wildlife exploration and protection in the 1970s. Since the 1980s he has been describing his experience and promoting wildlife protection in his books. Liu Ka-shiang studied journalism. We can say that he has been connecting newspaper reports with poetry and fiction throughout his work. He became an ecological activist in the 1980s and called for a more active engagement of nature writers. Therefore, he criticized Koarnhak Tarn’s style of life in reclusion (yinyi wenxue 隱逸文學) in the 1980s. He promoted the interconnectedness of traditional Chinese landscape imagery with western ecological theories. Wang Chiahsiang studied forestry. That was an important qualification for nature writers in the 1990s, when the  scientific approach was highlighted in Taiwanese nature writing. Nevertheless, Wang Chia-hsiang has seen the same importance also in the narrative and has written several fantasy novels.

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