Tuesday, December 26, 2017



Book of Cord by Leona Chen
(Tinfish Press, Hawai’I, 2017)


Taiwanese identity is being erased every day: by China’s insistence that Taiwan is a “renegade province,” by the unwillingness of the Kuomintang party to admit to the crimes committed during their decades of rule over the island, and by the loss of Indigenous land, language, and culture.. To declare “I am Taiwanese American” is to write into that erased space. It is to assert that Taiwan is a nation, to testify to its history, and to bear witness to the traumas its people carry. Leona Chen’s declaration of herself as Taiwanese American is a radical act—as she says: “a political statement with profound implications.”

I’ve discovered from personal experience that too many Americans, when asked, misidentify Taiwan as either Thailand or a province of China. Very few works about Taiwan have made it into the American literary sphere: Pai Hsien Yung’s Crystal Boys, Li Ang’s The Butcher’s Wife, Wu Ming Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes, and a few other scattered works. Taiwanese American writing, even five decades after the first wave of Taiwanese graduate students immigrated to the US and put down roots, is just starting to come into being.

Like many identities, what constitutes the identity labeled "Taiwanese" is contested. Laying claim to it are the Han Chinese, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, and people who are a mixture of Japanese, Han, indigenous, and Dutch ancestry. Chen’s poetry attests to the complexity of that identity. Many readers may not understand what’s at stake in Chen’s declaration of herself as Taiwanese American.

The convoluted history of Taiwan and the political fictions enacted by a number of countries (including the US) makes Taiwan’s story difficult to condense. The strange political dance of interested parties has led to a wide-ranging misapprehension of Taiwan’s status.

Taiwan is an island of roughly 14,000 square miles and twenty-three million people that lies a little over a hundred miles off the southeastern coast of China. In the 1600s, it was colonized by both the Spanish and the Dutch. After a forty-year occupation, the Dutch were driven out by pirate and folk hero Koxinga, a Ming Loyalist of Chinese and Japanese descent. He established a kingdom that ruled Taiwan for twenty years.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Taiwan was considered the hinterlands of the Qing empire, under the jurisdiction of Fujian province. In 1885, it was ceded to Japan under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the Sino-Japanese War.

Taiwan remained a Japanese colony until 1945. Japan instituted a Japanization movement, which included enforced Japanese language use and the eradication of native religions. Even today, those remaining of the generation who came of age before 1945 speak Japanese more comfortably than Mandarin. The Japanese also waged a violent campaign to “subdue” and “civilize” indigenous groups. Their strategies were modeled on America’s methods of dealing with indigenous peoples.

The departure of the Japanese as part of the terms of their surrender at the end of World War II carried with it hopes that the incoming Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang or KMT) administrators would bring the freedoms absent under colonization. Instead, Taiwan was greeted with a second occupying force of people who yet again spoke a different language and had their own plans for the island.

The KMT, who had just been at war with Japan for eight years, were suspicious of the Japanese educated and influenced Taiwanese, and an animosity and distrust took root, culminating in a 1947 massacre of 10,000-30,000 Taiwanese, many of them of the educated professional class. The number ranges so widely because the extrajudicial executions were not documented (except by the grieving families, who had no answers and no recourse until the lifting of martial law four decades later), and many of the KMT records on the event have yet to be opened. The massacre—called the 228 Massacre—marked the beginning of what is called the White Terror, a decades-long reign of fear in which tens of thousands of Taiwan’s citizens were jailed or executed for not properly respecting the dictatorship of Chiang Kai Shek, for suspicion of communist sympathies, and for a number of other political crimes.

In 1949 two million KMT soldiers and their families fleeing the Chinese Communists arrived in Taiwan. Chiang Kai Shek declared Taiwan the base of the Republic of China and set about formulating a plan to “retake the mainland” from Mao Zedong.  Martial law was declared and stayed in effect until 1987.

Today, Taiwan is a robust and independent democracy, headed by a democratically-elected female president. Voter turnout rate has peaked at 82% (66% in the last election). Women politicians make up 38% of the legislature (compared to roughly 20% for the US). It has a constitution and a passport. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders ranks it as having the most liberal press in Asia (on the overall ranking, Taiwan is only two slots behind the United States). Yet China still insists on claiming Taiwan as a “renegade province,” and the US is careful not to disrupt this fiction while still selling arms to Taiwan to defend itself against China. Taiwan is not a member of the UN or the WHO, and cannot fly its own flag at the Olympics.

Despite the legacies of colonialism, authoritarianism and violence, and the looming shadow of China’s threat, Taiwan’s story is one of resilience and hope. This is a narrative I see in theBook of Cord.

Chen’s poetry incorporates family, culture, tradition, martial law history, and her indigenous Ketagalan background, revealing a multilayered Taiwan. Her poems acknowledge the legacy of trauma that has defined Taiwanese identity and that Taiwanese Americans carry with them. Her poems are rich with references that call home, comfort and bitter memory to Taiwanese Americans: tiger balm, Kavalan whisky, salted roe, “Spring Wind,” the zhuyin fu hao transcription system, the devastating 921 earthquake, the 228 Massacre. The history she depicts is implied and embodied, making it emotionally accessible to readers unfamiliar with Taiwan’s history and deeply affecting to those who are familiar. This is a powerful inscription of an effaced history.

The Book of Cord is a beautiful and important contribution to Taiwanese and American literature.


Shawna Yang Ryan is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Water Ghosts (Penguin Press 2009) and Green Island (Knopf 2016). She is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Asian American Literary Review, Lithub and the Washington Post. She is a 2017 recipient of the American Book Awards.

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