The Eng-Lite Program Lecture Series: Talk No 5


Topic:Toward an Oceanic Taiwanese Imaginary: Syaman Rapongan’s Sea Writing and Liao Hongji’s Cetacean Narrative

Lecturer:Pei-yin Lin, Associate Professor,Head of the School of Chinese, The University of Hong Kong

Host:Hsin-Chin Evelyn Hsieh, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University

Venue: Online

By Conrad C. Carl

The Eng-Lite Program Lecture Series continues and we are delighted to have Professor Pei-yin Lin here to give us this semester’s inaugural lecture. As the title suggests, today we take a deep dive into Taiwan’s oceanic past and present. This is where Lin is determined to find the elements necessary to propose a distinct oceanic imagery for Taiwan.

Conceptions of Taiwan have historically been continent- or land-centered after the heyday of the Age of Exploration and especially under the Kuomintang’s rule. The ocean was only considered in certain contexts, for instance, as an element for national defense during the Cold War period. Lin traces back the attempts to conceive of Taiwan in oceanic terms to the 1990s. Du Zhengsheng’s concept of “concentric circles” to rescue Taiwan from China-centric historiographies, Peng Mingmin’s call for an “oceanic Taiwan” as part of his election campaign or Wu Micha’s idea of re-mapping Taiwan are all calls for an oceanic Taiwanese imagery but as Lin points out, they are all predominantly political in nature. Ecological concerns or the relationships with Indigenous epistemologies are—if at all—only marginally included. Lin, then, turns to literature to look for more profound iterations of this oceanic reconceptualization of Taiwan—and strikes it rich in the works of two staples of contemporary Taiwanese literature.

Syaman Rapongan 夏曼・藍波安 (1957) is the first main point of reference for Lin’s elaborations. Syaman Rapongan spent most of his life on Orchid Island 蘭嶼, home to the Tao people that he himself belongs to. His semi-autobiographical writings are always intricately linked to this place and the vast ocean surrounding it. A clear motif guiding all of his works is the attempt to strike a balance between modern and traditional forms of life. This is specifically true for his book Floating Dreams on the Sea from 2014. Here, Syaman Rapongan narrates several stages of his early adulthood, from leaving home for a senior high school education in Taitung, the sailing trip to the Southern Pacific Ocean, the expedition to the Moluccas and his life in Taiwan during his preparation for the university entrance exam until resettling on Orchid Island. Syaman Rapongan, as Lin explains, spells out his project in many different ways. While he is indeed advocating a form of native science that can be understood as an appreciation of the Tao people’s local knowledge, he remains pragmatic about the conflict between the “old and new.” He navigates these interfaces with great concern specifically for the need to cultivate the ability to feel and relate, two actions that have been put in jeopardy throughout modernity. A common thread in his writings is the identification with the underprivileged and the emphasis on transcultural alliances, specifically with the Global South. Further recourses are being made both to Chadwick Allen’s “Trans-indigenous” framework and Epeli Hau’ofa’s We Are The Ocean, providing Lin with the terminological tools to grasp Syaman Rapongan’s “uneven realism” in his continued pursuit of a Tao life sensibility that is multi-sourced, animist, non-lineal and always bound to the oceanic presence.

The next author Lin considers is no unknown name either. He appears in numerous scholarly articles about animal writings, nature-oriented literature or travel writing. But since most of his works take place either on or in the ocean, no discussion about Taiwan’s oceanic literature would be complete without him included. We are talking, of course, about Liao Hongji 廖鴻基 (1957). Initially having caused furor in the literary world of Taiwan with his poetic essays about the lives of fisherman (published as Fishermen 討海人 in 1996), most of his numerous later writings focused even more on what Lin calls “cetacean narratives.” In other words, dolphins, wales and porpoises are the forces that shape the parameters of his narratives. Lin reads this as a continuous but never-ending attempt at self-discovery. Under Liao’s pen, the tension between the “human world” and the “cetacean world” that the reader perhaps perceives at the outset of those stories becomes the affective bearing for Liao’s discovery of identity that champions de-anthropocentrism through the cetacean vision. And the cetacean vision is at every moment also a window into the oceanic vision. Lin emphatically points out the processual and affective layers that are central elements to Liao’s oceanic vision. Dolphins and whales are inspiration and impetus for Liao, who reverses the human-marine animal hierarchy, ultimately contributing to a form of self-discovery where the “self” has long lost its anthropocentric and isolated veneer.

Professor Lin summarizes the most crucial contributions of Syaman Rapongan and Liao Hongji for  oceanic Taiwanese imagery as follows: While the former provides an elaborate critique of Han’s cultural hegemony that was historically land-bound to, then, propose a transcultural alliance bound by oceanic visions and affects, the latter’s focus is rather located at the interplay between the human and the cetacean resulting in a reconsideration of nonhuman marine actors in the quest for identity, both on the individual and the collective level.

Lin extends the conclusion into other, often troubled waters. The oceanic imagery of Taiwan allows us to revisit questions as they pertain to the discourse of colonialism in Taiwanese history, Taiwan’s self-image in present but also in future times and even to potential frameworks for Taiwan’s literature, e.g. ecocritical literature and world oceanic writing. We thank Professor Lin very much for her rich and insightful talk and are excited to see the research her discussion sparked in the future.