With tensions rising across the Taiwan Strait, the links and divisions between China and Taiwan have rarely been so charged. It’s often assumed that literature in China and Taiwan shares a common root, but the reality is much more complicated.
Just take a look at the bestsellers. In China the lists are dominated by contemporary classics. Writers already familiar to English-language readers who are currently riding high in the Chinese charts include Liu Cixin with his science-fiction trilogy The Three-Body Problem, first published between 2008 and 2010, Chi Zijian with her 2005 story of the nomadic Evenki clan, The Last Quarter of the Moon, Yu Hua with a story of China’s troubled 20th century, To Live, that first appeared in 1993, and even Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan with their 1961 revolutionary classic Red Crag. In Taiwan, the fiction lists are full of more recent titles, especially those exploring Taiwanese identity such as Kevin Chen’s 2019 Ghost Town, the maximalist story of a Taiwanese family with a gay son who runs away to Berlin, or Li Kotomi’s 2021 Island Where the Autumn Equinox Flowers Bloom – a novel set in a world ruled by women which the author wrote in Japanese and then translated into her native tongue. There isn’t a single title currently featuring on bestseller charts in both China and Taiwan.
Maybe this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – after all, while most authors in China and Taiwan write in Mandarin Chinese, they write in different scripts. Taiwan and Hong Kong still use traditional Chinese characters, but simplified Chinese has been the standard script on the mainland since the 1950s.
Taiwanese readers turn to books imported from China when their traditional Chinese counterparts do not exist, or when the versions in simplified Chinese are cheaper. And established authors from the mainland such as Mo Yan, Wang Anyi and Su Tong sign deals with Taiwanese publishers for traditional Chinese editions of their novels. Politically sensitive books that are banned in China, such as Yan Lianke’s 2005 critique of corruption, Serve the People!, or Ma Jian’s 2020 stinging satire, China Dream, can be published in Taiwan, as can the 2000 Nobel literature laureate Gao Xingjian.
Things aren’t quite so straightforward the other way around. Book censorship in China limits the circulation of books from Taiwan, and since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president in 2016 Taiwanese authors have found it increasingly difficult to strike deals with publishers on the mainland.
As tensions have increased, a debate has started in Taiwan over stricter regulation of publications from China. In 2020 the children’s book Waiting for Dad to Come Home was banned after local politicians said it was “Chinese propaganda”, with the minister of culture suggesting that the Chinese Communist party and the People’s Liberation Army are producing “propaganda material” rather than “books”. President Tsai has also warned that China is conducting “cognitive warfare”, accusing the Chinese government of “using false information to create disturbance in the minds of people”.
But literature in both China and Taiwan goes far beyond their shared Han Chinese culture. For example, the half-Hui and half-Tibetan author Alai presents a Tibetan story through a magical realist lens in his 1998 novel Red Poppies, while the ethnic Mongolian author Guo Xuebo takes the reader to the Horqin wilderness in his collection of four novellas, The Desert Wolf. Or in Taiwan, Sakinu Ahronglong follows a man as he tries to reconnect with his Paiwan identity in Hunter School, and Syaman Rapongan from the Tao tribe of Orchid Island puts the non-human centre stage in The Eyes of the Sky, which opens with a fish directly addressing the reader.
In his 2023 new year address, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested that “people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are members of one and the same family”. Contemporary fiction tells a richer and more varied story. Politics and literature may be inseparable in the Chinese-language literary world, but perhaps literature can offer a land of freedom where the writers and readers on both sides can transcend contested boundaries and reach beyond themselves.
16 January 2023
- Ya-chun Liu is a lecturer in Chinese at the University of Leeds.