| EN

The Age of Supernatural Monsters Roaming the City

Legend Has It, a board game developed by the Taipei Legend Studio. The images here are two of the cards that Nofi painted specifically for the game. Image provided by Nofi
TEXT HSIAO Hsiang-Shen
Latin American LiteraturemodernityReconstructing the Paranormal

The following literary movement may serve as an appropriate entry point for us to grasp supernatural monsters as well as the imbroglios over them.

In the 1960s, the global literary circles were shaken by a mysterious and powerful earthquake with Latin America as its epicenter. Known as the “Boom Latinoamericano” (Latin American Boom) in the literary history, this movement had woven its magic spell over the occidental literary scene, making “magical realism” thenceforth a proper noun, a lexical entry of the world literary history. Such a sui generis literary style or inner logic stunned the Occident without doubt, and it was even regarded as important by the groves of academe in Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Taiwanese writer SHENG Hao-Wei once told me that “magical realism is less valued in the Occident than in Taiwan.” In a sense, Taiwan’s colonized past and incomplete modernization may be the reasons why it sets great store by magical realism. Like brothers scattering in all directions, colonies tend to empathize with one another. Resembling the key figures in the famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), these colonies have been haunted by the ghosts of the deceased, sharing a grim fate from which escape is nowhere on the horizon.

It is strongly reminiscent of the underlying philosophy of Greek tragedy: character is destiny. The term “predestination” implies little more than the historic recurrence as a consequence of human cultural psychology. Human beings are born irrational, after all, and that has prompted us to probe in the external environment and eventually formulate an expedient philosophy of life rather than analyze and judge everything with the power of reason. We repeat this process in an endless loop, as if we were malfunctioned machines trying to eke out a humdrum existence. This process nonetheless embodies the accumulated wisdom of generations. Predestination, namely immortal ghosts, has become central to our thinking as we’re resigned to a specific cultural logic.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by García MÁRQUEZ is an iconic novel of magical realism. Photo by Jose LARA; Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Sīmā (Boundary) of Modernity

Much to our surprise, these ancient ghosts are deprived of their immortality in the contemporary city, a place shrouded in the brand-new spell of modernity. The new logic of life continues reproducing itself via the urban structure. The city per se becomes quoad hoc the production machinery of contemporary ghosts who in turn seize the urban spaces and send their ancient counterparts into exile for good. To put it another way, the inmates have taken over the asylum.

How did these “new ghosts” enter the contemporary city, and how were the “ancient ghosts” expelled from it? The answer may lie in García MÁRQUEZ’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. In this classic work of magical realism, BUENDÍA, Sr. is an influential figure in Macondo, a nascent town whose history is so short that no funeral has been held there yet. Later, the central government sent an administrator to this town as a means to flex its political muscle. To protest against the government’s action, BUENDÍA, Sr. intruded into the administrator’s office, articulating that “we don’t need any judges here because there’s nothing that needs judging.” Then he drove the administrator out of the town. In the end, the administrator stayed in the town by permission of the locals. At that time, the locals had their own Weltanschauung and way of conduct. The overarching power of the central government had been kept out, and the officials were allowed to stay only when they yielded to the locals.

The Japanese colonizers’ urban planning signaled the dawn of Taiwan’s modernization, and Taiwanese people’s lifestyle was profoundly changed thenceforth. This illustration is the layout of Tainan City modification in 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The early Taiwanese society shared a similar ethos. In his book The Invisible and Visible Taipei (2010), SU Shuo-Bin explicated the “opacification” of a local society in Taiwan under the rule of the Qing Dynasty. The term “opacification” here insinuates the chronic inability of China’s political traditions to take root in local societies and govern them scientifically. Therefore, the system of rules that the locals followed was not so much central government-imposed as subject to the restrictions of their living environment. But how could people bring local order out of the government’s chronic inability? Would it be a state of utter chaos? Of course not! Influential figures such as wealthy merchants and the gentry tended to set local affairs in order, which means that an opacified society is unlikely to descend into lawless chaos. The only question is that the “laws” governing the society were not necessarily that enacted by the Great Qing Empire but that established by the locals’ consensus and enforced by the influential figures. In fact, the reason why local armed confrontations were so serious in Taiwan at that time was not only that the government was impotent vis-à-vis regional factionalism, but also that the former harnessed these armed confrontations as a means to weaken and suppress the latter. It reflected that the government had no authority over the private sector. Local administrators treated the locals as potential enemies, adopting a non-intervention policy regarding their armed confrontations to reduce their threat to the court.

However, the recalcitrant local rhyme and reason exactly served as the cradle of magical realism that cannot be arbitrarily summarized as “superstition,” be it family histories written with kaleidoscopic subjective opinions and unscientific accounts, prophetic dreams, sign-indicated meanings of life, traces left by supernatural monsters, or possession by paranormal entities. Every Weltanschauung which is tenable sometime and somewhere must make some sense, and the only problem lies in the outsiders’ inability to decipher it. As Western colonizers sailed across the ocean and conquered foreign territories, they on the one hand disparaged aboriginal beliefs as superstition, and on the other hand introduced theirs about demons and apparitions into their colonies. For us, as Taiwanese, it is worth contemplating why we are more familiar with and supportive to Christian beliefs rather than our traditional ones, and why we devalue our temple fairs and pilgrimages yet treat church choirs with sympathy. Is this because Christian beliefs are more “reasonable,” or is there an invisible force at play?

The Japanese colonization and science-based governance of Taiwan marked the dawn of this island’s modernization. The land was precisely measured and the concept of urban planning was introduced. However, as the Japanese colonizers determined the way to construct the cities, local factions had forfeited their power of discourse and rights over policy-making. The public order thus infiltrated the private sector through “city” as the hardware in a top-down fashion, and thenceforth altered the locals’ logic of life.

One may wonder why I regard urban planning as hardware rather than merely a policy. Previously, for instance, there would be no village without a temple serving as the center. The temple square used to be the primary venue for social intercourse. Many night markets located in front of temples evolved exactly in this historical context. Unfortunately, these temples were either demolished or relocated in the name of urban planning, which inevitably entailed a lifestyle modification. As a consequence, the new lifestyle replaced the old one. As public parks, modernized markets, department stores and cinemas emerged one after another, magical realism had been deprived of its nourishment. Even if magical realism metamorphosed into any new form, it had no option but to camouflage itself with rationality and order. Beginning with magnificent, awe-inspiring imagination, GAN Yao-Ming’s magical realist novel Killing Ghost (2009) nevertheless lost its magical aura in the course of the plot when it touched upon the contemporary. It is probably because the ancient order suffers the fate of being expelled by modernity, and is ergo compelled to withdraw into an obscure corner of the city where recognition of it is beyond the bounds of possibility.

GAN Yaoming’s Killing Ghost (Aquarius) and Badai’s Witch Way / Shamanic Voyage (Ink).

As a matter of fact, “modernity” has a figurative meaning of departing from traditions. In this world, all the nations, ethnic groups, and traditions, regardless of their numbers, can be unified under the single, rational, and homogenous concept of modernity without exception. Globalization and global village are two recent incarnations of such an ideological conviction. Indeed, the Internet, media, and contemporary material hardware have substantially empowered people to fulfill this dream. The occidental states who set the agenda have already made fine division of labor and liberated individuals from traditions and clans by virtue of their impressive economic growth. To put it another way, individuals are nourished not so much by kinship as by the institutions of all stripes closely connected with the urban hardware. It is hardly surprising that the Occident was quite amazed at but had no sympathetic response to magical realism, a literary genre relying heavily on ethnic history, locality, and cultural psychology. In contrast, Taiwan’s sympathetic response to magical realism was perhaps a result of its modernization forced by the colonizers. Taiwan’s modernization was by no means a conscious initiative. Modernity has overwhelmed traditions due to the island’s past as a colony, which inevitably ruled out the possibility of the head-on confrontation between the two forces. Such haunting regret and bitterness have become magical realism incarnate. Traditions still lurk beneath the surface of modernity, waiting to break through it.

We may wonder why some people oppose modernity. The vanity fair-like contemporary world is exactly a product of modernity. Isn’t it a convenient and comfortable sphere?

But, we may reframe the question as follows: Are convenience and comfort enshrined as the supreme value?

Paranormal Phenomena and Taiwanese Subjectivity

MVRDV, a global operating architecture and urbanism practice based in the Netherlands, staged its exhibition The Vertical Village in Taiwan in 2012. Featuring the streetscapes comprised of row upon row of tall buildings and large mansions in several major Asian cities like Taipei, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul, this exhibition treated the following question as its point of departure: “Can you distinguish between these streetscapes?”

The so-called “modern cities” may really be stereotyped and repetitive replicas that have neither traditions nor distinctness. Perhaps we could not distinguish between the streetscape images provided by MVRDV had it not been for their captions. It is such a tradition-breaking gesture that expelled supernatural beings. However, if our traditions died out, can we still recognize our destinations amidst the dazzling neon lights? Can we still affirm our identities and the backgrounds we’re from?

An illustration of a toilet apparition painted by KATSUKAWA Shun’ei in Rekkoku Kaidan Kikigaki Zōshi (1762).

Masao HIGASHI, a renowned Japanese spirit-tale editor, coined the concept of “Horror Japanesque.” He believes that Japanese spirit tales have a profound heritage of Japanese culture; to wit, Japanism. According to Kunio YANAGITA, the father of Japanese native folkloristics, Japanese apparitions tend to haunt the city around midnight (01:45 a.m. specifically), while occidental ghosts are free from such a limitation. Differences thus exist between Japanese and Western supernatural monsters, even though their predecessors are commonly the spirits of dead people. This is only one of many examples of “Japanism.” The class of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore has been transliterated into “yōkai” in the western world, because it is a portmanteau word carrying complex connotations that cannot be translated literally and should be distinguished from other synonyms like “monster” in order to prevent misunderstanding. It indicated that the term “yōkai” has distinctive cultural attributes, which is also a manifestation of Japanism. In that case, can we clarify the concept of “Taiwanism” by discussing Taiwanese supernatural monsters, as the craze for them sweeps the contemporary Taiwanese society?

Healing the Wounds of Modernity

In The Way of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters Studies (2019), I argued that supernatural beings are the incarnations of native memories and ethnic cultures. Addressing “Taiwanism” by discussing supernatural monsters appears to be a logical leap. Nonetheless, the spirit tales in Masao Higashi’s sense refer not only to folklorists’ records but also to writers’ works.

However, the latter’s representativeness of the Japanese culture remains questionable. For example, the plot of The Holy Man of Mount Kōya (1900) by Kyōka IZUMI seemed to be the appropriation of “The Inn Owner Named Sanniangzi” (editor’s note: a Chinese folk tale included in Records from East of the River by Xue Yusi in the Tang Dynasty). How can such an appropriated tale embody Japanism? Haruo SATŌ’s Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan (1925) was based on the popular folklore in Tainan, Taiwan, with a strong overtone of paying tribute to American writer Edgar Allan POE. Did it reflect any dimension of Japanism? Doubts notwithstanding, we could discover their uniqueness if we pore over their contents. For instance, the plot of The Holy Man of Mount Kōya not only unfolded from the perspective of a monk in Mount Kōya, but also modified the twist of turning humans into donkeys in “The Inn Owner Named Sanniangzi.” Wasn’t such an interpretation a cultural mirror in the author’s mind that reflects different appearances of the same thing? The argument that it is a manifestation of Chinaism rather than Japanism is nothing if not ridiculous. Besides, Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan served as an observation on “an archetype of Chinese folklore” from the Japanese perspective, which mirrored and simultaneously redefined Japanism. The core perspective is determined not so much by the event scene and the tribute receiver as the narrator of the story.

Spirit tales, whether contemporary or not, more or less radiate a quaint aura, and that’s just part of their charm. They are the haunting ancient ghosts in One Hundred Years of Solitude incarnate. But how can we relate ourselves to history, since the wheel of modernity has deported supernatural monsters? On top of that, tolerance for history is even not an option at all as far as our city is concerned. Historic relics may reduce themselves to ashes through “spontaneously combustion,” and excavators may “accidentally dig up wrong places,” rendering historical buildings vanished for good. What the city needs is nothing but modern structures of sole specification—this vision is nibbling away at ancient dreams. It will be too late when we recover from our numbness, because, by the moment, we are little more than Alzheimer’s patients who don’t recall anything and even can’t distinguish between ourselves and others.

Therefore, one of the ways to cope with “Taiwanism” is to help supernatural monsters ensure their survival in the city, which will in turn enrich the city’s potential and diversity. As supernatural monsters roam the city in a non-quotidian fashion, they intend not so much to leave it in ruins and await the return of the ancient storm as to seek the harmonious fusion of tradition and contemporaneity. Today, modernity proceeds with humility. It no longer sweeps through everything mercilessly, but opens the city gate for distant memories and offers them lavish hospitality.

We should not pin all our hopes simply on curious tales given the decline in numbers of those who are able to narrate them. In spite of that, supernatural monsters have not only crossed the boundary established by modernity, but also explored new possibilities in the city via contemporary artists’ interpretations. Actually, this kind of attempt is thick on the ground but many of them are beyond the public line of sight. To take some particular instances: a majority of LEE Chiao’s works were inspired by folklore; WANG Jia-Xiang’s Mong-Shin (Goblinoid) (2002) classified the forest apparition in Taiwan as the Negrito with a touch of sci-fi comedy; GAN Yao-Ming re-interpreted spirits and monsters with fertile imagination and powerful metaphor; and Badai ingeniously blended witchcraft and historico-cultural investigation into his works. The list is not exhaustive. For those who are familiar with Taiwanese paranormal literature, it is not a subject of sheer novelty.

The supernatural monsters outside the literary mainstream have the power of discourse now. For instance, the Taipei Legend Studio published Original Stories of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters and Records of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters. This photo shows a corner of the Taipei Legend Studio. Photo by Anpis Wang

In recent years, the stronger Taiwanese identity has directed the attention of the masses other than literature buffs to local spirits and supernatural monsters. The successive publication of related works—Report on Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2015) by the Flâneur Culture Lab, Original Stories of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2016), Records of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2018) and The Way of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters Studies by the Taipei Legend Studio, as well as A Three-hundred-year Record of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2017) and Atlas of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters (2019) by HO Ching-Yao—has empowered the supernatural monsters who were previously outside the literary mainstream to make their voices heard. Modernity and colonizers deprived Taiwanese people of their self-identity, and their protest finds expression in such “return of ancient ghosts.” We must let supernatural monsters roam the city if we’re going to heal this psychological wound.

“Yao-Chi City, Taiwanese Paranormal Literature and Contemporary Art Exhibition,” a meticulously choreographed event by the Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-LAB), serves exactly as a pilot experiment of this healing process. Titled “Yao-Chi City” and featuring the transdisciplinary fusion of literature, contemporary art, illustration, sculpture and parade that ooze an alluring, paranormal aura, this exhibition shatters the stereotype of modern cities by juxtaposing history and contemporaneity as well as mainstream and periphery; that is, “[concentrating] a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant,” as MÁRQUEZ wrote in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Only by doing so can we bring back our forgotten memories and recognize our own reflections in the twinkling neon lights of the city.

TEXT HSIAO Hsiang-Shen
Latin American LiteraturemodernityReconstructing the Paranormal
Hsiao Hsiang ShenA novelist and a member of the Taipei Legend Studio. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the Department of Chinese Literature, Soochow University, and his master’s degree from the Department of Philosophy, National Taiwan University. Apart from being a member of the Digital Tribe Project administered by the Center for Indigenous Studies, National Taiwan University and the convener of the Youth Creative Workshop on Fantasy Literature and Games at the Taipei Literature Festival, he assisted the National Taiwan Museum in curating the special exhibition “Islamic Life and Culture,” and curated the special exhibition “Enchanted Taiwan.Ghouls & Goblins: A Special Exhibition of Taiwanese Horror Fiction” hosted by the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, as well as the exhibition “Yao-Chi City, Taiwanese Paranormal Literature and Contemporary Art Exhibition” by C-LAB. He published several books such as The Murders in Mandala (2015), The Incubation of Stellar Spirits (2016), and The Return of Kimtshai (2018). He is also a co-author of Original Stories of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters, Records of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters, The Way of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters Studies, and Apocryphal Stories about the Splendid Island (2017).
Monsters and Postcolonial Taiwan Reinvention of Folklore Tradition in the Works of Fevervine Dance Theatre
Folk legends and rumors such as “Sister Lin Tou” and “Mô-sîn-á” eventually became part of the representation in the official context of Taiwanese history. Whereas trends and crazes for monsters prevail in the literary world, few theatrical pieces thematizing monsters and the mythical in folklores are seen in Taiwanese contemporary theater.
Post-colonialdocumentary theatreReconstructing the Paranormal
Taiwan Literature as a Window on the Paranormal
Ghosts, ghouls, and other residents of “shadowy realms” have long inspired creativity. However, the process of social modernization has already led to the irreversible loss of many traditional tales of the bizarre and paranormal.
Yao-Chi CityReconstructing the Paranormalparanormal literature
Future Library for Cultural Experiments: A Reflection on “Yao-Chi City” as a Bridge between Literature and Art
A shift can be seen in what “Yao-Chi City” handles in terms of bridging between literature and art: How can contemporary art get involved in the world of contemporary paranormal literature?
Yao-Chi Citycultural experimentReconstructing the Paranormal