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Dying Books and Broken Wieners

A descendant of Chinese mainland immigrants to Taiwan, writer Luo Yijun talks with NewsChina about how disease, alienation and cultural identity influence his writing, as well as the predicament of literature in the age of the internet

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

Luo Yijun and his novels Daughter (left) and Tangut Inn

Taipei-born Luo Yijun is a born storyteller.  

Writer and friend Zhang Yueran admires how Luo can take a trivial experience, like getting lost at an airport, and weave it into an exciting story. “When he starts to narrate life, it is not memory that he activates, but imagination,” Zhang said.  

“So never believe anything he says,” she added, with a laugh.  

Born in 1967, Luo is hailed as one of the most significant writers in contemporary Taiwanese literature. His work focuses on the Chinese diaspora and the feelings of cultural estrangement as a descendant of Chinese mainlanders. 

Luo’s latest novel, Kuang Chaoren (2018) was published on the Chinese mainland in July 2020. The book was initially inspired by an “unspeakable hole” that grew on his body. Luo turned his medical condition into a metaphorical story of trauma, anxiety and spiritual disorder.  

Broken Wieners
Between 2008 and 2018, Luo Yijun published three full-length novels: Tangut Inn (2008), Daughter (2014) and Kuang Chaoren (2018).  

The overexertion has taken a toll on his health. Over the past decade, Luo has dealt with diabetes, insomnia and a herniated disc. In 2017, he fainted in a park from a heart attack. It was a near-death experience that made him fear that his days were numbered.  

Then in the winter of 2016, he discovered an abscess on his scrotum. It had a foul stench. “The whole experience was Kafkaesque. I ran all over seeking treatment for three months, but the hole wouldn’t go away.” 

Though deeply troubled, Luo let loose his imagination. “I imagined the hole was part of an alien attack on Earth. They tried to open a wormhole but it ended up on human crotches. These mysterious holes are what create anxiety and shame,” Luo told NewsChina.  

Luo said his condition inspired his latest novel, Kuang Chaoren, initially titled “Broken Wiener Superman.” The title Kuang Chaoren draws inspiration from a character in Rulin Waishi (The Scholars) by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) author Wu Jingzi. A masterpiece of satirical realism, The Scholars is a scathing take on the Confucian-based civil service system and imperial examinations.  

In the novel, Kuang is an innocent village boy who works hard to support his parents. His filial piety and industry catch the eye of a local official, who sees potential in the young boy and takes him to the city to study. However, as Kuang becomes more deeply intrenched in the circles of literati and scholars, he slowly becomes a shadow of his former virtuous self.  

With imagination and humor, Luo’s Kuang Chaoren creates an uncanny fictional world that connects tradition and modern, East and West, reality and fantasy. Luo collages the characters of The Scholars and the Monkey King, the protagonist of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) classic Journey to the West.  

The book’s “broken wiener” concept is a metaphor for trauma. “What is a broken wiener superman? Picture an injured superman in your mind and imagine there is a conspicuous hole on his crotch. It becomes a vulnerable cavity, an entrance for traumatic experience, an obsession with pain,” Luo writes in the chapter “Beheading.”  

Luo uses the “hole” to symbolize the tumultuous teardown and rebuilding of Chinese culture that started with the New Culture Movement (1915-1923). Led by young Chinese intellectuals, the movement sparked a wave of sociopolitical ideas that critiqued traditional Chinese culture and Confucian values and exalted Western ideas, which advocates believed were key to revitalizing China into a strong, modern nation-state. Ever since, intellectuals have struggled to reconcile Chinese tradition with modernity, East and West, self and the other. 

“The inner soul of so-called modern Chinese has been ground, punctured and bombed by the West, or the modern, for over a century. The self has long been mutilated into an unrecognizable state after all sorts of humiliation and harm,” Luo writes in the chapter “The Places I’ve Been.” 

Child of Aliens
With ancestral roots in Wuwei, Anhui Province, Luo sees Yonghe, where he lives, as his “temporary hometown.” 

Now a district of New Taipei City, Yonghe was once a town of new arrivals from the mainland. The town had labyrinthine lanes lined with buildings from the Japanese occupation (1895-1945). 

When he was a kid, Luo saw the mainlanders as “aliens.” They spoke in dialects that sounded foreign to him. While wandering through the old lanes, the boy would observe these “aliens” playing chess, chatting and humming the hits of pop songstress Teresa Teng. It was not until Luo went to university that he realized he was also a child of aliens.  

Luo claims that unlike writers of his father’s generation, who witnessed drastic social and political changes, his generation had an “experience deficiency.” 

He has always admired mainland writers such as Ah Cheng and Liu Zhenyun, who present Chinese society in a realistic and penetrating way through personal experience. But Luo’s own writing has no trace of 19th-century social realism, rather it is influenced by 20th century modernism and postmodernism.  

Luo’s writing is introspective, often delving into subjects such as alienation, loneliness and identity crises. He compares himself to the crow in Aesop’s fable “The Bird in Borrowed Feathers”: He greedily absorbs all kinds of stories, whether from reading or others’ experiences. 

David Der-wei Wang, professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University, describes his style as “pseudo-autobiographical intimate narratives constituting a relay race of fragments, filled with uncanny and decadent imagery and undergirded by an immoral worldview.”  

While at college, Luo devoured modern literary classics by big names such as Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Italo Calvino, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo. His extensive reading was the foundation for his dedication to Western modern literature.  

Luo also borrows stories from others. He loves to drink with all sorts of people, hear their stories, and blend them into his own writing.  

“Novelists have the strongest sense of roleplay,” Luo said. “They can switch roles according to situations.” He quoted Czech writer Milan Kundera: “Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.” 

Luo attributes the themes of alienation and migration in novels such as Tangut Inn, which combines science fiction with postmodern literature, and the quasi-autobiographical We, to feeling like an outsider while growing up in Taiwan.  

He spent four years writing Tangut Inn (2008), during which he suffered three bouts of depression. The book weaves the history of the Tangut people’s mass exodus after Mongol leader Genghis Khan conquered the Western Xia Kingdom in the 13th century through the story of protagonist Tunik, whose grandfather and father fled to Tibet after the end of Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). As the two storylines intersect, they conjure experiences of fear, trauma and exile.  

Luo said the descendants of mainlanders will eventually assimilate completely and their community will fade away, sharing the same fate of the Tangut people who built the Western Xia Kingdom.  

Many readers see a continuity in Luo’s writing. Some have commented he “has been writing the same book his whole career.” Luo takes it as a compliment. 

“It’s a pretty beautiful line, isn’t it? I’d like to carve it on my tombstone,” he said. 

Luo Yijun and his family

Animators and Lady Gaga
Luo spent his 20s transcribing modern classics, etching the lines into his mind. Luo calls the decade of transcriptions his “martyrdom” to literature. He also sacrificed his health. To some extent, the writer believes his health issues are linked to his profession.  

He noticed that many of his writer friends also suffered from afflictions in middle age. Huang Jingshu, for instance, has a neuromuscular disease. Hong Kong writer Dong Qizhang suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. Others like authors Qiu Miaojing, Yuan Zhesheng and Huang Guojun committed suicide.  

Luo called writing fiction an “extreme sport” that eventually leads to “occupational injuries.” 

“Writing modernist literature is a practice that goes against the classic idea of humanity, nature, time and space,” he wrote in a letter to Dong Qizhang. “Modernist writers are a group of people who expose themselves to extremes - like astronauts checking the route of a spaceship in outer space, or firefighters in exposure suits fearlessly entering ground zero, or divers plunging down into the depths of the oceans. 

“Inevitably, splitting our personalities and ripping out our hearts over the long term become occupational injuries. For extreme athletes, knees, ankles, elbows, wrists and shoulders wear out. But for us, the wiring in our brains and hearts are fried from trying to swallow the world’s nightmares.” 

Luo insists on writing with pen and paper. When he was still healthy, Luo liked to write in cafes rich in artistic atmosphere. He would drink three lattes over an entire afternoon. After his health worsened, he would write in hotel rooms rented by the hour.  

“They’re basically hook-up hotels. Men would go there with prostitutes. I was like an old monk, spending countless afternoons in these rooms, writing. The women’s voices - intertwined with sadness, pain and ecstasy - penetrated the walls, but I was unmoved,” Luo said at a book event in Beijing in August 2018.  

“Imagine a man who went to one of these hotels every day, wrote for four hours serene as a priest, and left nothing but an ashtray of cigarette butts. The whole thing was freaking absurd. But I was extremely focused there. I had the spirit of an athlete,” he said. 

But Luo is facing a different kind of literary martyrdom in the age of the internet and technology.  

In Taiwan, publishing does not pay the bills. Many of Luo’s peers and younger writers disappear from the scene after publishing one or two books. Many choose to remain bachelors as they cannot support a family on their meager royalties.  

“The internet has diluted, even dismantled, the nuanced, layered and complicated human emotions that generations of fiction writers dedicated to describing. All the sentiment, sorrow and compassion, like a firework show, explode into nothingness,” Luo told NewsChina. 

“Basically, writers are no longer the spiritual spokespeople of society. Animators and Lady Gaga are,” he said. “But I still aspire to bring back the younger generation’s hopes for literature.”