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Taiwan Literature as a Window on the Paranormal

The 2018 Enchanted Taiwan . Ghouls & Goblins: A Special Exhibition of Taiwanese Horror Fiction was the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature’s first paranormal-themed exhibition. Photo provided by NMTL
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The mysteries of the universe, changes in the natural environment, and the origin of humankind have, since the earliest of times, been deemed beyond human explanation and comprehension, and thus been relegated to the realm of imagination and fantasy. When human understanding has failed, the paranormal has not infrequently been used to “explain the inexplicable.” Folk stories and myths, infused with paranormal creatures and spirits, successfully play upon our darkest fears about what lies beyond the familiar and easily understood.

Sea-bound isolation; exotic environment and topography; and a changing pastiche of experiences through the Age of Exploration, Ming / Koxinga Kingdom period, Qing Dynasty rule, the Japanese Colonial Period, and beyond have all contributed to Taiwan’s uniquely rich and diverse paranormal heritage. Ghosts, ghouls, and other residents of “shadowy realms” have long inspired creativity in both oral and literary media and opened new and boundless realms for the literary imagination. However, the process of social modernization has already led to the irreversible loss of many traditional tales of the bizarre and paranormal. Today, Taiwan’s unique paranormal heritance continues to be overlooked, dismissed, and increasingly forgotten by mainstream society. Noted Taiwanese folk literary scholar HU Wan-Chuan once exclaimed: “It is simply a fact that students at all levels of education today know little or nothing of traditional Taiwanese folk stories such as “Hu Gu Po (Auntie Tiger).” The number of students nowadays who are able to give a faithful retelling of this tale is few indeed. Those who have heard the story of “The Snake Man” are even fewer, and those who are able to narrate it to others are fewer even still.” Taiwan is steadily losing not only its folktale and myth legacy but also the fertile soil of the local culture.

CHANG Ki-Ya, Illustration in Monsters of Taiwan: 3 Centuries of Fantasy Fiction – Monsters, Ghosts, and Gods on the Loose. Image courtesy of Linking Publishing Co.

Although many today presume the paranormal genre in Taiwan to be the fruit of cultural borrowing, Taiwan’s rich paranormal cultural heritage is actually very much homegrown. Stories long shared in hushed voices across the Taiwanese countryside were in past centuries written into literary form by scholars, travelers, and others, with each author subtly shaping the narrative with his own perspective and opinions. For example, SUN Yuan-Heng (1661- ?), a government official and scholar who had spent time traveling through the island, thought the seas to be rife with monsters and Taiwan to be rife with beasts. He was the first poet-scholar to write about Taiwan in the framework of magical realism, describing it as a “demon-haunted island.” During the Japanese Colonial Period (1895-1945), Taiwanese and Japanese folklorists applied cultural anthropology principles to their collection and organization of paranormal stories from throughout Taiwan and its various ethnic groups. Their efforts were the first attempt to record in written form the rich folklore tradition in this genre of Taiwan’s many indigenous Austronesian tribes. In the arena of folk literature, the ballad emerged as a major format for preserving and transmitting paranormal tales. These and many other examples demonstrate clearly that paranormal literature is a genre than simply cannot be overlooked in any study of Taiwan literary history.

The Development of Paranormal Literature in Taiwan

1. Dark Clouds Take Shape: Taiwan under the Ming & Qing Dynasties (1662-1895)

In Taiwan Waiji (Events on Taiwan), JIANG Risheng described the “fire crocodile.” This creature reportedly was covered in glimmering (fire-like) scales of gold and lived in the depths of the Taiwan Strait. Image courtesy of NMTL

Scholar-officials living or traveling through Taiwan during this period recorded the island’s strange stories mostly in classically written poetry or formal reports. Regularly published local records of “disasters and propitious events” included reports of strange omens accompanying disasters and rumors of odd and bizarre goings on. In his Taiwan Waiji (Events on Taiwan), JIANG Risheng (1692- ?) painted a vivid literary picture of the “fire crocodiles” that were then terrorizing the Penghu Archipelago. In a similar vein, LIN Hao(1831-1918), in one of his “disaster and propitious event” accounts in Dong Ying Ji Shi (Records of the Eastern Sea), recounted the story of a “man-faced oxen” monster that had accurately predicted the 1862 TAI Chao-Chuen Incident. Omens and forewarnings of coming troubles fit comfortably into a Confucian framework of governance in which political change could be expected to be predicated by changes in the heavens and the earth. These paranormal stories resulted from the far-fetched analogies of the reality, and this romanticization of strange and far-flung territories during this period reflects a “center-periphery” approach to cultural interpretation.

2. Enriching and Surveying: The Japanese Colonial Period (1895-1945)

Working to consolidate control over its new Taiwan colony, the Japanese Government convened the “Rinji Taiwan Kyūkan Chōsakai” (Provisional Committee on Surveying Customs and Traditions in Taiwan) in the final years of the 19th century. This massive endeavor to investigate and record the island’s diverse cultural landscape introduced contemporary folklore research and cultural anthropology methods to Taiwan. The effort led to the long-disdained and little-appreciated folk religious practices and paranormal stories of the island’s Han Chinese population being treated and considered scientifically by researchers such as Iwao KATAOKA, Seiichirō SUZUKI, and Fukutarō MASUDA and to the first-ever writing down of traditional indigenous (Austronesian) tales of the paranormal by researchers such as Kanori INŌ and Yūkichi SAYAMA. Their work provided a critical foundation and inspiration for future authors writing in the paranormal genre. This period also saw scholars investing significant energies to organize and further clarifying these writings in journals such as Minzoku Taiwan (Taiwan Folklore, edited by Toshio IKEDA and Takeo KANASEKI) and in books like A Collection of Taiwanese Folk Literature (1936) by LEE Shying-Chuang. Also, Japanese authors such as Mitsuru NISHIKAWA and Haruo SATŌ, inspired by the curiously odd and exotic nature of their country’s Taiwan colony, began weaving Taiwan-inspired paranormal elements into their novels and other literary efforts. SATŌ’s Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan (Jokai ōgi Kidan), in particular, may be viewed as the genesis of modern Taiwan horror fiction.

Newspapers were the primary media of mass communication during the Japanese Colonial Period, with papers such as Taiwan Nichinichi Shinpō (Taiwan Daily News) regularly running stories about odd and unusual occurrences, which satisfy the public’s curiosity for the paranormal. The earliest-known account of ‘mong-shin’ (wild animals possessed by devilish spirits) appeared in the Taiwan Nichinichi Shinpō in 1901 in an article entitled “An Encounter with the Devil”. “Water ghosts” were the most regular paranormal entities encountered in stories from this period. HUNG Tie-Zhu, writing under the nom de plume “the Master of Wild Fox Zen” regularly published stories about strange happenings in the Tainan area in a column in the Sam-lio̍k-kiú Tabloid (1930-1935).

Yūkichi SAYAMA and Yoshihisa ŌNISHI, Seiban Densetsushū. Photo courtesy of NMTL

3. Withdrawal into Reluctant Lethargy: the 1950s to 1970s

After Japan’s defeat in World War Two, the Allied Powers assigned authority over Taiwan to the Republic of China. After declaring martial law in 1949, the new government banned the publication of anything touching on paranormal topics, which effectively halted public research into homegrown paranormal stories and traditions. However, beyond the prying eyes of Taiwan’s new authoritarian rulers, many scholars, of which LIAO Han-Chen, WANG Shih-Lang, HUANG Deshi, and YANG Yun-Ping were some of the earliest, continued in secret to build on the research accomplishments of the previous decades.

In the public square, the liām-kua (narrative songs) format took over as the primary medium for sharing and preserving local stories of the paranormal. Narrative songs were sung in Taiwanese (holo) by local folk artists in either the “qi zi diao” (seven-word tune) or “jiang-hu tune,” typically accompanied by yueqin (a four-stringed lute) or daguangxuan (a two-stringed fiddle). The songs carried messages steeped in moral lessons and ethical values. Even paranormally themed narrative songs such as “Lintou Jie (Sister Lintou)” and “Yueli” moralized on the importance of doing good.

CHOU Cheng To Reach Taiwan. Photo courtesy of NMTL

4. Reemergence and Renaissance: 1980s to 1990s

From the 1980s forward, Taiwan became increasingly open to and influenced by outside cultural influences. Contemporary author SIMA Chungyuan’s popular works in the Chinese “ghost story” genre rekindled public interest in the horror genre and fueled the popularity of “soldier ghost” stories among young-adult readers in the 1990s. The Western “gothic horror” genre gained traction in during the 1960s. The many gothic romance novels translated and sold during the 1980s and 1990s, together with thriller movies such as those directed by Alfred HITCHCOCK, planted Western horror trends firmly into Taiwanese hearts. Japanese manga comics, including their vibrant horror subgenre, rose to dominate the Taiwanese market in the 1970s, while Japanese Kaidan (ghost story) novels and movies enjoyed an explosive burst of popularity in the 1990s, paving the way for creative efforts by young Taiwanese in this and related genres.

Beginning in the late 1980s, political and social reforms inspired the growth of nativist cultural movements. Researchers once again began tracing the threads of paranormal culture through folk traditions and the island’s history. Apart from rebooting the effort to organize and identify related stories and citations in the historical record, new field research was launched throughout Taiwan to save what was left of the island’s fading memories of paranormal legends. One illustrative example of this is HU Wan-Chuan’s comprehensive investigative efforts in Kaohsiung, Changhua, Yunlin, Taichung, Tainan, Miaoli, and Taoyuan Counties. Similarly, as indigenous groups reconsolidated their respective identities and heritages, indigenous authors and scholars stepped up to record each tribe’s myths and legends. Paelabang DANAPAN (SUN Ta-Chuan) planned and edited a compendium of myths and stories from Taiwan’s ten major indigenous tribes under the title Taiwan Indigene: Meaning Through Stories. Husluman VAVA’s The Vital Spirit of Mt. Jade: The Oral Myths of the Bunun Tribe covered such iconic stories as “The Black-Eyed Sun” and the flood myth “Brave Toad and the Red-Whiskered Bulbul.”

5. A Rich Tapestry of Polychrome Threads: 2000 and Beyond

In more recent years, research on paranormal literary traditions has gone mainstream, with scholars diligently picking through the historical record to shed light on the remnants of Taiwan’s paranormal heritage still languishing in the shadows. Genealogical knowledge engineering was adopted to bring into much clearer focus a complete picture of Taiwan’s paranormal cultural landscape. Works from this period include LIN Mei-Rong and LEE Chia-Kai’s exploration of folk religious beliefs in An Anthropological Imagination of Mô-sîn-á, Taipei Legend Studio’s local cultural stories of the paranormal in Original Stories of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2016), and HO Ching-Yao’s thoroughly researched catalogue of paranormal protrusions into the historical literary record in A Three-hundred-year Record of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2017).

HO Ching-Yao, A Three-hundred-year Record of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2017). Image courtesy of NMTL

Creative writers began drawing on these stories for inspiration, creating a whole new genre of modern paranormal literature. One standout example is WANG Jia-Xiang’s Mong-Shin (2002), which adopts a historical novel framework for its imaginings on the diminutive, dark-skinned Ta’ay of indigenous Saisiyat legend. GAN Yao-Ming’s Killing Ghost (2009) and LIEN Ming-Wei’s The Green Cicada (2016) are each inspired by the authors’ experiences growing up, and frame memories of rural Taiwan within the context of curious, otherworldly mysteries inspired by local stories of the paranormal in Shitan (Miaoli County) and Toucheng (Yilan County), respectively. Indigenous authors have also woven threads of the paranormal and magical into their works, helping to establish indigenous literature’s distinctive character. Representative works include Badai’s description of traditional shaman culture in the Puyuma village of Tamalakaw in Witch Way (2014) and Neqou-Sokluman’s creative story set against the backdrop of a Bunun legend about a great flood in Palisia Tongku Saveq (2008). Furthermore, paranormal stories and perspectives that are distinct to Taiwan have been embraced in popular literature. CHI Yu-Ling’s novel Lintou Remembrances, for example, creatively draws on earlier literary traditions surrounding the ghostly tale of “Lintou Jie.” While a compelling story about a wandering, hungry ghost, Lintou Jie is also an emotive critique of land expropriation issues.

This post-millennial flowering of paranormal literature in Taiwan reflects the vigorous rise in Taiwanese consciousness among the nation’s youth, who are working to identify and define the true outlines of Taiwan’s cultural framework through awareness and understanding of local folk heritage. The paranormal is rooted in and nourished by traditional society and, as such, is a highly authentic facet of cultural heritage.

6. New Directions and Interdisciplinary Cooperation

Told and retold across generations, tales of the paranormal have been a steady source of inspiration and creativity, while crystalizing for posterity the more shadowy aspects of local culture. Ensuring that these incredible tales remain vital today helps ensure their continued, positive impact on literary creativity and imagination.

Paranormal literature today should root firmly in both literary-historical research and creative writing, cross-pollenating with the illustration arts to present narrative tales of the paranormal in colorful and engaging comic books (manga) and illustrations. The genre should also extend its tentacles into multimedia and popular gaming formats, spinning off a plethora of new tabletop and video games, movies, graphics, and more, since the stories, framed by definitively local themes and characters, help capture the true breadth and depth of Taiwanese paranormal culture. Taipei Legend Studio’s illustrated novel Legend Has It, for example, has spawned a commercially successful new tabletop game, with plans to develop a smartphone game app as well. Repackaging paranormal tales as visual media is a way for Taiwanese literature’s transformation, which is competitive in the film and television industries, as evidenced by recent hits like the horror movie The Tag-Along (2015) and the television miniseries The Teenage Psychic (2017).

A Few Final Words

Akru, Literary Lass—HUANG Feng-Zi (2014). Image courtesy of Akru

It has been said that “Nations lacking tales of the paranormal are bereft of culture.” This underscores the vital importance to folk culture of paranormal stories and traditions, which not only show how a culture views life and the world but also offer a window on local history and experiences. It is hoped that today’s growing body of paranormal literature (Taiwan’s unique intellectual property) will become ever-more closely enmeshed with various fields of artistic creativity in order to generate new and innovative opportunities for Taiwan literary reproductions—and much more as well.

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WANG Chia-LingCurrently working as an exhibition planner and organizer at the National Museum of Taiwan Literature (NMTL)’s Exhibition and Education Division in Tainan City, Taiwan, she has expertly planned and executed over 20 exhibitions.
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