City of Sadness

The Two-two-eight Incident's consequences are shown through victims being taken to the hospital.

Broadcasting connects private and public spheres. Here people listen to the government’s explanation of the Two-two-eight Incident.

Obstructed communication — in the negotiation scene, reliance on different dialects inhibits understanding.

Public events intrude into private life. The wedding is overshadowed by Taiwan's unpredictable political situation.

As he faces the police on a train, the most chilling moment comes when Wen Qing, the mute, utters “I am Taiwanese.”

Time to Live, Time to Die

Ah-Hao enjoys his life in the place where he grows up.

Looking at the body of their grandma, the four sons seem to mourn for the death of their last link to the Mainland home.

With a long tracking shot, the camera follows ...



... Grandma looking for Ah-hao.

Obstructed communication — Grandma and the native Taiwanese cannot understand each other.

Dust in the Wind


The last shot captures the harmony of the village and the familial love between grandfather and grandson.


Hou expresses nostalgia for the familiar, communal traditions of rural life while avoiding excessive sentimentality or idealization of the village.

In this peaceful village, friendly neighbors see Ah-wan off to the army.

Goodbye South, Goodbye

Theme of mobility — Ah-Kao looks at passing train.

Theme of mobility frustrated — in the last shot, the car breaks down.

Ah-kao plans to go to Shanghai to open a restaurant while his lover wants to join her sister in the U.S..

Good Men, Good Women

In the play, the Mainland army arrests a patriot from Taiwan as a Japanese spy.

The actress revisits her memory of her dead boyfriend. Weaving together fragmentary scenes from multiple moments in time and diverse perspective, the film shifts between past and present, reality and illusion.

Millenium Mambo

Vicky and Hao-Hao see no future in their love.

This beautiful shot captures Vicky’s youthfulness, pleasure-seeking nature, and desire for freedom.

Young people celebrate the new millennium at a party with drugs, getting lost in the delirium. Hou turns to explore Taiwanese identity in the new century.


Under the control of Japan, a Taiwanese puppet troupe performs Japanese plays to make a living. Although the story takes place against the specific historical background of occupation, this film foregrounds the personal and does not offer political criticism, rather focusing on individual experience in the years of Japanese occupation.


Searching for Taiwanese identity: reading June Yip’s
Envisioning Taiwan

by Li Zeng

June Yip, Envisioning Taiwan: Fiction, Cinema, and the Nation in the Cultural Imaginary (Durham NC and London: Duke University Press, 2004).

With a long tracking shot, the camera follows Grandma looking for Ah-Hao. It presents a harmonious view of this small Taiwanese town: big trees, long streets and local people engaged in various activities. A few more long shots of Ah-Hao playing with his friends in the street explicitly link him with the native land and local people. While Grandma tries to persuade Ah-Hao to accompany her to go back to the home in mainland, Ah-Hao enjoys his life at the place where he grows up.

This is how Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film A Time to Live and A Time to Die (1984) begins. It immediately confronts the audience with the question of identity, the question of origin. Where is the real home for the mainland generations? What is the nationality of Taiwanese people? What is “Nation”? How do Taiwanese filmmakers participate in the cultural construction of Taiwanese identity? These are the essential issues that June Yip explores in her book — Envisioning Taiwan: Fiction, Cinema, and the Nation in the Cultural Imaginary.

This book comes at a crucial time when Taiwanese official status becomes an ambiguous and controversial issue resulted from its intense relation with mainland China in the recent years. After the handovers of Hong Kong and Macao, Taiwan becomes the focus of attention.[1] [open footnotes in new window] This book explores Taiwanese identity, articulated, constructed and represented in fiction and cinema. June Yip insightfully sees identity as a process and is constantly shaped by various historical, political and cultural factors.

Thus, she traces cultural construction of Taiwanese identity to the end of WWII when the KMT (the Nationalist Party) assumed the reins of power after fifty years of Japanese control (1895 – 1945), and does an extensive study of Hsiang-t’u (“native soil”) literature of the 1970s and Taiwanese New Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. She observes that as a response to identity crisis at the moment of historical transition, both Hsiang-t’u literature and the New Cinema turn to the native culture and history of the island to bring the distinctive Taiwanese identity to a new cultural consciousness. The difference is that Hsiang-t’u literature takes a “back to the earth” and essentialist approach. In contrast, the New Cinema encompasses the possibility of a more flexible identity that is not confined by the narrow concept of nation.

Yip addresses Taiwanese identity within a broad framework of theoretical discussions on the relation between popular culture and collective identity, the tension between local and global, and issues of exile and displacement. She calls for an understanding of Taiwan as a site where these broader cultural themes are played out in distinct and provocative ways. This book is significant in that it not only uses existing theories to explore cultural representation and construction of Taiwanese identity. But it also self-consciously engages with and thus enriches theoretical discussions on nation, identity, and the role of popular culture through the case study of Taiwanese literature and film. I will elucidate Yip’s key arguments in the following discussion.

Yip divides this book into seven chapters, each with a different emphasis on a subject or a theory. In the first chapter, Yip explores the rise of the nationalist consciousness represented in Hsiang-t’u literature from historical, political and literary aspects.[2] She underscores the impact of Taiwan’s colonial history on Hsiang-t’u literature. During the Japanese occupation period (1895-1945), Hisang-t’u literature emerged as a nationalistic effort to resist forced assimilation into Japanese culture and to preserve the local tradition. The revitalization of Hisang-t’u literature in the late 1960s and 1970s was a nationalist response to neo-colonization — U.S. militarily presence, and U.S. and Japanese cultural imperialism. The rhetoric of nationalism was constructed on the dichotomy of the urban metropolis versus the rural village. In Hsiang-t’u literature, the village is a symbol of resistance against modernization and urbanization which had been forced on the island by the imperialist powers. For example, Hwang Chun-ming’s story “A Flower in the Rainy Night” contrasts a woman’s suffering in the urban city and her eventual happiness by going back to her native village, an idyllic world of peace, harmony and love. In regard to Taiwanese identity in relation to mainland China, Hisang-t’u theorists claimed their devotion to China, and advocated reunion of the mainland and Taiwan.

Yip argues that despite such pronouncements of devotion to an all-embracing Chinese nationalism, their works

“continued to manifest a strong and distinctive regional consciousness, and in their critical writing, they continued to assert Taiwan’s differences from the Chinese center” (41).

This chapter addresses the nationalist consciousness through analysis of intertextual discourses — debates in literary circles. Yip chooses to provide textual analysis of Hiang-t’u fiction to demonstrate her point in a separate chapter, which I will detail later.

In Chapter Two, Yip studies Taiwanese New Cinema in terms of its relation to its predecessor — Hsiang-t’u literature in the 1970s, which plays a significant role in establishing native identity and culture — and its affinity with Third Cinema in Africa and Latin America. Taiwanese New Cinema shares with its literary predecessors a strong sense of place — Taiwan as their home, and as the center. Yip exemplifies the New Cinema’s “native consciousness” through a brief analysis of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films — such as His Son’s Big Doll (1983), The Boys from Feng Guei (1983), and Summer at Grandpa’s (1984). Like Hisang-t’u literature, she writes, Taiwanese New Cinema is

“animated by a nationalist impulse in its devotion to capturing, with sociocultural specificity, the lived experiences of the native Taiwanese people as they try to navigate the tides of historical change” (60).

The affinity with Third Cinema differentiates Taiwanese New Cinema in the late 1980s from Hsiang-t’u literature. Third Cinema started as an anti-imperialist and counter-hegemonic movement. Its early practitioners and theorists embraced the essentialist dichotomies – past versus present, foreign versus native, urban industrial versus rural agrarian society, and the West versus the non-West. As the practice evolves, Third Cinema recognizes the many-layeredness of its own cultural-historical formations and begins to move toward a more complex, less essentialist conception of the national. Taiwanese New Cinema likewise begins with the binary oppositions inherited from the anti-imperialist nationalist rhetoric of Hsiang-t’u literature and then moves toward a more radical questioning of the dichotomy itself. For example, Hou’s early film A Time to Live and A Time to Die contrasts the older generation’s nostalgia for their mainland home and the younger generation’s active participation in constructing their identity linked to Taiwan. His later films like Goodbye South, Goodbye (1999) tend to capture the cultural multiplicity in the globalizing world which weakens the traditional sense of identity attached to the land and local culture. As Yip summarizes,

“If Hsiang-t’u questioned the simple unity of a single Chinese nation by foregrounding Taiwan’s differences from the presumed center of Chinese culture, the critical discourse surrounding it also attempted to construct a coherent Taiwanese nation in its place. New Cinema, on the other hand, moves toward a more radical interrogation of the very possibility of such transcendent wholes. To fully acknowledge the complexity of contemporary Taiwan society, the New Cinema takes a neonativist step to set in motion a 'de-totalizing dialectic'” (66).

Chapters Three and Four deal with issues of memory, in particular, remembering and forgetting. Yip analyzes Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Time to Live and A Time to Die within the theoretical framework of popular memory and autobiography. Yip follows Teshome Gabriel’s view of popular memory as resistance to official history. She offera a good discussion of theories on autobiography, including Phillipe Lejeune, bell hooks, and James Olney. She emphasizes three principles of autobiography: autobiography is a crucial form for the marginalized, whose perspectives has been erased from official history; autobiography “writes the self into history”; autobiography not only presents personal voice and experience, but it can also represent collective experience and identity.

A Time to Live and A Time to Die is Hou’s autobiographical film, in which he depicts the refugee mainlander family’s experience of dislocation and alienation and the second generation’s (his generation's) adjustment to the new home. Ah-hao’s parents and grandmother are alienated from the local people and are always talking about their Mainland home and relatives. They are emotionally detached from their new home in Taiwan. In contrast, Ah-hao and his brothers grow up with the local kids and are embedded in Taiwanese culture. But the younger generation also faces conflicts between their parents’ and grandparents’ memory of their mainland home and their own attachment to this new life in Taiwan. As a film based on the filmmaker’s personal experience and memory, it “writes the self into history.” Viewed in public space by Taiwanese audiences, this film is transformed from personal expression to the collective articulation of a particular group of mainlanders and their children, who struggle with identity anxiety and transformation.[3]

Yip does a textual analysis of Hou’s Taiwan Trilogy: City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), and Good Men, Good Women (1995) to illustrate this director’s deep historical consciousness and his dynamical approach to Taiwan's past. Her analysis is based on Walter Benjamin’s concept of a constructive and interactive principle of historiography and a dialectical relation between the past and present. Benjamin views history as an ongoing process and the writing of history as a constant construction and reconstruction, which is influenced by the political and cultural context of the present.[4] Yip argues that Hou’s reexamination of history is a

“Benjaminian attempt to ‘seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger,’ to illuminate the ‘constellation’ between the Taiwanese past and the Taiwanese present, and to write, as it were, a ‘history of the present’” (88).

City of Sadness is underscored as a milestone piece of Taiwan’s “decolonization and the recuperation of history” (87). Structuring her analysis in the historical context of the transition to KMT rule between 1945 and 1949, the Two-two-eight Incident and the March Massacres in 1947, Yip demonstrates how Hou interweaves public and private memory in the cinematic representation.[5] This film situates the private stories of the Lim family and their friends in this particular context of the historical transition from Japanese Occupation to KMT rule. Cinematic techniques, such as intertitles and superimpositions, are used to juxtapose private and public events. For example, the very first scene juxtaposes the announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender against the birth of a child in the Lim family, thus highlighting the interweaving of private and public spheres.

While City of Sadness focuses on the transitional period, The Puppetmaster moves further back to the fifty years of Japanese occupation. Although the story takes place against this specific historical background, the film foregrounds the personal — the main character Li T’en-luk’s daily life. Li’s memory of the past focuses on ordinary things instead of political events. Yip says that in this way Hou Hsiao-hsien

“meant to search for the essential elements of Taiwanese culture that lie beneath the surface of publicly acknowledged history and beyond ideology” (113).

Good Men, Good Women is more complex in terms of the interplay between past and present, and illusion and reality. It is about a young actress preparing to play the Taiwanese patriot Chiang Pi-yu, who was devoted to the anti-Japanese war and later persecuted by the KMT. This film weaves together fragmentary scenes from multiple moments in time and diverse perspectives: the actress’s life in contemporary Taiwan, her memory of the past experience, and the story of Chiang Pi-yu during the anti-Japanese War and the transitional period. It further demonstrates Hou’s approach to history:

“knowledge of the past — whether personal or collective — is always subjective, shaped by the needs and concerns of the individual writing in the present moment” (121).

In Chapter Five — “Language and Nationhood,” Yip analyzes Hou’s "appropriationist" approach to language. The question of which language should be used in postcolonial writing has been tensely debated. Two essential strategies have been taken — “abrogation” and “appropriation.” The former strategy uses a binary opposition; it involves emphatically rejecting the former colonizer's language and returning to writing primarily, if not exclusively, in an indigenous tongue. Appropriationists do not see the European languages as inherently oppressive and alienating. Instead, they take the colonizer's language and make it their own by hybridizing it with native linguistic and literary traditions. Yip does not espouse binarism or opposition between languages. In the Taiwan context, she disagrees with antagonism between Mandarin and Taiwanese.[6] Nevertheless, she emphasizes the political strategy of abrogation by saying that

“reductive, sentimental, and idealistic though they may be, the emotional pull and strategic efficacy of binary models like these have made them an undeniably important part of the polemics of national liberation in postcolonial struggles around the world” (138).

Yip’s study of Hsiang-t’u literature illuminates the writers’ consciousness of the use of native language in their works.

Yip conceives of cinema as a very effective medium to foreground the dynamic interplay of languages in a heteroglossic postcolonial society like Taiwan, thanks to its capability to record spoken dialect or any type of oral performance directly into soundtracks. She clarifies that language preference and political affiliation are not clearly and inevitably linked. Use of the Taiwanese dialect need not be read as an expression of anti-Mandarin or anti-Mainland sentiments. For example, in City of Sadness, in a scene depicting a business negotiation, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Shanghainese are used. Yip argues that the use of language serves the director’s interest in presenting a critical understanding of the complex dynamics that shape the characters' relationships. Although Yip is right about Hou’s goal to capture the multiple dialects and languages heard in Taiwanese daily life, she nevertheless undermines the political implication of Hou's films vis-a-vis language. For example, as City of Sadness recaptures the critical period of Taiwan’s transition to KMT control, it provides an historical view on why Taiwanese people began to construct an identity different from the one enforced upon them by the new authority from the mainland. Hou’s use of multiple languages, at least in his early films before 1990s, should be read as making this political context clear.

Chapter Six focuses on the depiction of rural and urban life in Hsiang-t’u literature and Hou’s film. Through close reading of Hwang Chun-ming’s literary works — “A Flower in the Rainy Night” and “Two Sign Painters”, Yip argues that Hisang-t’u literature presents a romanticized and nostalgic world of a rural idyll, marked by coherence and permanence, in contrast to chaotic and grotesque urban cities, associated with fragmentation and unsteadiness. Although Taiwanese New Cinema continues Hsiang-t’u literature’s interest in the impact of urbanization on the Taiwanese and in examining the contrasts between country and city, it avoids a simplistic dichotomy. Through a textual analysis of Hou’s three films — Summer at Grandpa’s, The Boys from Feng Kuei, and Dust in the Wind — Yip maintains that though his films evoke a certain degree of nostalgia for the familiar communal traditions of rural life, they avoid excessive sentimentality and idealization of the village.

Hou’s film The Boys from Feng Kuei is a good example of this restraint. The film deals with some boys who leave their village and go to the city of Kaohsiung for a better future. They are gradually disillusioned by the city’s worldliness, corruption and moral laxity. Nevertheless, the film also presents the city as a place of opportunity and educational advancement. Despite difficulty in adjusting to urban life, these boys are determined to stay in the city and try their best to succeed. Unlike Hsiang-t’u literature, Hou’s films do not present a simple dichotomy between village and city. Yip emphasizes that Hou is more concerned with the dynamic interplay between these two poles of human settlement rather than support the country or the city.

The last chapter can be seen as the former chapter’s extended study on Taiwanese identity as it is shaped by modernization, with more emphasis given to shifting identities in the context of globalization. With the increasing flow of capital, people, technology and information across border, how should the Taiwanese redefine their relation to the motherland, the place where they grew up, and the places where they live and work. Is personal identity inseparable from one's past? How should one deal with frequent relocation? These are questions Yip tries to answer.

Caren Kaplan’s concept of “exile” and “displacement” provides the theoretical framework for Yip’s analysis of Hisang-t’u literature and Hou’s film. According to Kaplan, exile and displacement are two responses towards identity crisis caused by social and cultural changes. Exile looks back for a definite past, whereas Displacement embraces a flexible identity — no binary, no limit, no past, and no home. Exile is characterized by

“anxiety and a passionate yearning to recover a sense of wholeness and rediscover some sort of unities, essential identity in a personal or historical past” (216).

In contrast, displacement is

“a recognition and acceptance of the new, of separation and multiplicity” (216).

It responds to the changing present not with anxiety and estrangement but with a willingness to explore the spaces between cultures. While emphasizing the importance of theories of multicultural hybridity, “displacement,” Yip points out the ambivalence beneath its celebratory tone about the destabilization of conventional notion of identity.

On the one hand, alternative models of identity formation are pragmatic responses that attempt to make the best of the given realities of postmodern and postcolonial situations. On the other hand, the emotional tug of stable and comprehensible identities remains strong. Hwang Chun-ming’s stories, such as “The Drowning of an Old Cat” and “Little Widows,” express the longing for a sense of belonging and attachment that is threatened by the encroachment of modernization and globalization. Although Hou’s films look positively at shifting identities, they evoke a general sense of loss.

For example, even though A Time to Live and A Time to Die shows the younger generation’s active construction of identity linked to Taiwan instead of the mainland, it expresses a nostalgic sentiment. The ambiguity is explicit in the film's ending. Ah-Hao looks at his grandma who has passed away without anyone noticing. Ah-Hao’s memory of his grandma is always related to her insistent longing to go back to their mainland home. Gone with his grandma is the search for their roots. Yip does not explore this ambivalent attitude any further. Instead, she embraces the notion of “empty self”:

“given the blossoming multiculturalism and increasing global interconnectedness that are the inevitable results of today’s economic, political, technological, and demographic developments, the notion of a traveling identity does offer a sense of hope and possibility, a pragmatic strategy for coping with the massive cultural challenges and dislocations we now face” (229).

What I find problematic with this rather utopian strategy is that it treats identity simply as an issue of personal choice. Kaplan and Yip seem to suggest that if seeking a fixed past is not possible and can only result in depression or alienation, it would be more positive and healthier to turn to another way, that is, to embrace the freedom of moving to wherever one wants, the freedom of assuming whatever identity one wishes. Nevertheless, putting this option into practice is far from that simple. External elements circumscribe one’s choice. For example, if people in a foreign country cannot get equal treatment, or if a stereotyped identity is always imposed on them by the people or media in that country, how can they embrace the freedom of choosing an identity? People are always in interaction with other people and cultures. Breaking away from their home/ originary culture, people are immediately confronted with different cultures and pressures.

A totally free space of identity choice would be determined by multiple factors beyond one’s subjective preferences. In Gisele Pineau’s novel Exile According to Julia, the narrator grows up in France, but her desire to go back to her native Caribbean homeland is strong.[7] One reason is that she is treated like an Other by French people. This common experience in migrants' life may explain why the emotional pull of traditional identity while in exile remains strong. I do not object to Yip and also Kaplan's positive attitude towards establishing a flexible identity beyond a national boundary. Nevertheless, I consider it more important for scholars to study the social realities that shape people’s sense of identity, and to call attention to the persistent presence of racial and cultural discrimination.

Yip studies how Hou’s film addresses flexible identity in contemporary Taiwan. In most of his films, young people

“embody the tension between the coexisting impulses of exile and displacement: at times they suffer the loneliness and disorientation of the exile, yearning for a sense of belonging and hoping to rediscover a familiar and stable sense of self. At the same time, however, they realize that like it or not they are being reshaped by the multiplicity of cultures they encounter, and they gradually begin to recognize the fresh possibilities that these new and diverse experiences offer” (227).

As I have briefly analyzed, A Time to Live and A Time to Die and The Boys from Feng Guei are exemplary films exploring flexible identities. Hou’s recent film Goodbye South, Goodbye is more representative, showing restless young people drifting through different landscapes and multiple cultures. The protagonist Ah-Kao plans to go to Shanghai to open a restaurant, and his girlfriend wants to join her sister in the United States. For them,

“identity becomes less and less a matter of ethnicity, geography, linguistic heritage, or cultural tradition and more and more a matter of choice” (227).

This chapter incorporates a large body of theoretical debate on exile and identity in the context of globalization. However, Yip needs to clarify her use of the key terms. Yip uses Kaplan’s term of “displacement” instead of “diaspora.” Since there is a large body of works on “exile” and “diaspora,” and since these two concepts are always discussed in relation to each other, it is necessary for Yip to address “diaspora,” or at least to acknowledge her awareness of the existing scholarship on it. As her understanding and definition of “displacement” is quite similar to the concept of “diaspora,” she needs to clarify her choice of this term instead of the mostly used one.

She also needs to validate her application of “exile” to Hisang-t’u literature and Hou’s films. “Exile” usually refers to those who are unable to go back to their homeland because of political or other reasons. All examples of Hisang-t’u literature and Hou’s film — except A Time to Live and A Time to Die — that Yip chooses as texts to study deal with relations between the country and the city. Although Yip briefly mentions “internal exile,” which is not necessary associated with a cross-border situation, she needs to define her use of the key term “exile” before moving into the textual analysis.

Yip concludes her book with an emphasis on multicultural identity and her assertion of Homi Bhabha’s concept of “Dissemi-Nation.” Bhabha argues that nation is an unstable discursive space, a hybrid space whose boundaries are constantly drawn and redrawn by contention between cultures, histories, peoples and authorities. People's traditional sense of unity tied to “nation” is illusory. Based on Bhabha’s theory of nation, Yip states that the question of Taiwan’s nationhood is rather “moot” because

“[t]he Taiwanese people have in may ways already embraced the new globalism — living, working, and creating within an increasingly multicultural and transnational reality” (246).

Taiwanese cinema in the 1990s, in particular, Ang Lee’s films, captures this social and cultural reality. For example, The Wedding Banquet, set in New York City, features several characters different from conventional images of the Chinese immigrant. The main character Wei-t’ong, a Taiwanese businessman with an American passport, is a gay and is happy with his white American partner. His parents expect him to marry a traditional Chinese woman and have children but gradually have to come to terms with the facts of their son's life. As this film questions tradition, it presents a world of cultural diversity where the characters are adjusting to their changing environments.

Envisioning Taiwan is a theoretically engaging book on issues of identity and nation from the postwar period to contemporary times. Structured within a broad theoretical framework, Yip’s analyses of Hsiang-t’u literature and New Cinema provide a comprehensive picture of how Taiwan’s identity is constantly shaped by and adjusted to new sociopolitical realities — from Japanese occupation, to KMT’s discriminatory and harsh control over local Taiwanese, to a more democratic political system after the lifting of the marshal law in 1987, and to an increasingly diverse and mobile world in the 1990s. This book is politically evocative as it sets out for non-Taiwanese readers and scholars the reasons for both Native Taiwanese demands for “formal independence” — represented in Hisang-t’u literature, and the new trend of seeking a flexible and multicultural identity — represented in Taiwanese New Cinema and other films in the 1990s.

I agree with Yip’s primary point that identity is a process, in which cultural production plays a significant role. Even the same director’s films may provide disparate answers to Taiwanese identity at different moments. It would be interesting to compare Hou’s early works like A Time to Live and A Time to Die , with his more recent films such as Goodbye South, Goodbye, and Millennium Mambo to see how his interpretation of Taiwanese identity has changed. Besides Hou Hsiao-Hsien, there are other Taiwanese filmmakers who explore Taiwanese identity from new perspectives, such as Edward Yang and Chai Ming-liang. If it had incorporatd different filmmakers’ works into discussion, this book would have been more complete.

Another conspicuous absence in the book is consideration of works by Taiwanese women directors. Although male directors dominate the Taiwanese film industry, women directors have also contributed to the development of Taiwan cinema. Sylvia Chang is one of them.[8] How do women directors contemplate Taiwanese identity? How do they use cinematic language to represent and define identity? How do their works bring Taiwanese identity into cultural consciousness? Answers to these questions will significantly shed light on gender-related identity and complete the “vision” of Taiwan.

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