Site Home
Contact Us

Li Yongping


Carlos Rojas

Carlos Rojas is an Associate Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University. He is the author of The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity and The Great Wall: A Cultural History, and is the co-editor of Writing Taiwan: A New Literary History, Rethinking Chinese Popular Culture: Cannibalizations of the Canon, and of The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas (forthcoming). He is also the co-translator of Yu Hua’s novel Brothers, and the translator of Yan Lianke’s novel, Shouhuo (forthcoming). .

One of the most ambitious works of modern Taiwan literature, Li Yongping’s 1992 novel Haidong qing (the title refers to a giant mythological bird in the “Eastern Sea”) and its 1998 quasi-sequel, Zhu Ling manyou xianjing (Zhu Ling’s wanderings in wonderland) total more than 1,400 pages (with Haidong qing exceeding 1,000 pages on its own) and are written in a high modernist tradition. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Li’s novels dispense with a conventional plot, and instead are daring displays of linguistic and symbolic virtuosity. Li Yongping, in these works, makes a point of using many unusual Chinese characters, including both classical characters rarely found in modern Chinese, together with vernacular words and expressions found only in the Taiwanese dialect. It is almost as if Li—who was born and raised in Malaysia, received his graduate degree in the US, and currently lives in Taiwan—is attempting to compensate for his own putatively marginal position vis-à-vis China by displaying a mastery of the Chinese language exceeding that of even many highly-educated Chinese.

These issues of margins, centers, and (auto)biography are also key concerns within the novels themselves. Haidong qing, for instance, is loosely structured around the protagonist Jin Wu’s return to Taiwan after having taught literature for eight years in the US (the author himself received his doctorate in Comparative Literature from the US, and subsequently taught literature in Taiwan at the university level for several years, but quit his position in order to work full-time on Haidong qing), and his alienated response to the hyper-sexualized environment he finds upon his return—and particularly the large numbers of underage prostitutes who roam the streets at night, together with the adult men who desire them. Jin Wu befriends a seven-year-old girl by the name of Zhu Ling, whose idealized purity provides a counterpoint to the moral degeneracy by which Jin Wu finds himself surrounded. (In the quasi-sequel to Haidong qing, meanwhile, Jin Wu falls out of the picture, and the narrative focus shifts centers more directly around Zhu Ling herself). Although both novels give considerable attention to these issues of sexuality and maturity, their primary concern is not with sexuality per se, but rather with using tropes of sexuality as an allegorical frame through which to examine Taiwan’s relationship to Mainland China.

Some of the recurring themes in Haidong Qing, for instance, include children searching for their mothers; adult men lusting after young girls, in part because they embody “that sort of motherly love that men are always searching for”; girls using hormone treatments such that they have a “baby’s face and a woman’s body”;together with new mothers standing silently at the windows of their zuo yuezi centers (where post-partum mothers go to “sit out the month” after having given birth), and staring down at a Taipei cityscape below—a cityscape that, with its numerous streets and avenues named after cities and provinces from the Chinese Mainland, may be seen, as the novel itself notes at one point, as a “miniature reflection of Great China.” These overlapping motifs of girls, women, and mothers are significant not only in their own right, but also insofar as they function as symbols of the maturational chiasmus in which contemporary Taiwan finds itself vis-à-vis the Chinese Mainland. For many in Taiwan, China is regarded not only as the island’s “motherland,” but also as a figurative offspring whom Taiwan has already developmentally overtaken.

Just as the perverse, hormone-laden girls with a “baby’s face and a woman’s body” are presented as holding a distinct appeal for many of Taipei’s men, similarly we might speculate that it is precisely Zhu Ling and her friends’ combination of child-like innocence with adult-like precocity that partially accounts for Jin Wu’s emotional attachment to them. This paradox is reflect in one of Jin Wu’s peculiar quirks: namely, his habitual, almost obsessive, practice of checking the watches on the wrists of his young female friends, to determine the time. This seemingly innocent gesture of telling time from young girls’ wrist watches can be seen as metonymically endowing the girls with precisely the same temporal continuity that their own intellectual precocity, and their sexualized bodies, would appear to threaten.

Li Yongping notes the political implications of these interwoven themes of sex and time in his preface to the novel, in which he writes:

Look, the novel describes that great city, located in the dynamic waves of the bright and magnificent Eastern Sea—an impregnable fortress and a base for the renaissance of the “Three People’s Principles.” But notice that all of the street names and road names of that city are nothing more than miniature reflections of the Great China: Xuzhou Zhengzhou Zhangzhou Jingzhou Gangzhou Liangzhou, Luoyang Nanyang Hengyang, Huayin Hanyin Huaiyin, Kunlun Hami Xichang Andong.… Doesn’t it bear an uncanny resemblance to a map of the Chinese Mainland, quiet and at peace, eternally young through the ages? For this reason, Haidong qing, addition to being an allegory, is also a prophecy…

The final line of the preface is technically directed to Jin Wu’s young friend, but could also be directed to Taiwan, or even to its spectral counterpart on the other side of the Strait: “Zhu Ling, I hope that you will grow up well.”