Literature | Taiwan

Sex and politics: Taiwan’s last taboos

Taiwan is often portrayed as a model Asian democracy by the West. But how free and open-minded is the country really? Author Li Ang on a question she’s been asking for decades

A middle-aged woman stands in a nondescript doorway. The walls are made of rough bricks with torn old posters. The writer wears a black jacket with the hood up and looks into the camera

Li Ang, born in Lukang in 1952 as Shih Shu-tuan, is one the most prominent voices in Taiwan’s literature 

Taiwan is seen by many as a positive example of freedom of expression in Asia, especially compared to our giant neighbour China. But although we Taiwanese have fought for political freedoms and democracy, it doesn’t mean that there are no longer difficulties.

I’m a writer and have long been considered one of the most controversial voices in the country. Even today, after decades of writing, I wonder where the boundaries of what can be said are and what happens when you cross them. In Taiwan, it is mainly the two themes of sex and politics that have explosive power. Since I am an author, I don’t want to get lost in theoretical explanations. I prefer to choose examples from practice, from my own life.

My family belongs to the “Benshengren” (台灣人), the long-established Taiwanese population. That is, my ancestors had been living on the island for generations when many “Waishengren” (外省人) arrived, that is, Chinese who fled to Taiwan after 1945. When Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) were defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party, he retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and proclaimed the government of the Republic of China there.

During the 228 Massacre of 28 February 1947 and the purges of the KMT rulers, Taiwan’s erstwhile intellectual scene was almost entirely slaughtered - and those who survived were muzzled. When I was born in 1952, martial law was in full force and the KMT had established its one-party rule. What I learned during my school years came from the pens of the Mainland Chinese. We studied the classics of Chinese philosophy and poetry; anything Taiwanese was frowned upon.

“I quickly learned that I could not write with impunity about sexuality from a female perspective”

From the 1968s onwards, hippies were making their way around the world, but in the Taiwan of my youth, I could only live out my own rebelliousness through writing. When I was 16, I published my first short story called “Blossom Time” (花季). It received a lot of attention. In it, hidden between the lines, I described the awakening of female sexuality, which was still considered a big taboo at the time. I read a lot of Sigmund Freud and some existentialists at that time. Certainly this influenced my way of writing. In my novel “Der Gattenmord” (殺夫), I later described all the violations and violence that women have to suffer in a patriarchal society and a system of sexual bondage.

However, I soon had to learn that I could not write about sexuality from a female perspective with impunity. Again and again, people made vituperative speeches about me, called me names and insulted me, even attacking my family.

In many people’s eyes, I was considered a writer who deliberately provoked controversy. To humiliate me, readers sent me women's underwear by post. They wanted to imply that I slept with so many men I had to change my pants more often.

Even at the university where I was teaching at the time, my colleagues banded together against me. Their accusation was that I propagated uninhibited sex, violence and sexuality; someone like me should not be allowed to teach at a university. In opinion pieces in the major newspapers I was labelled a communist. They said I was immoral and wanted to destroy Taiwanese society so that the Chinese communists would have an easier time when they attacked Taiwan.

I read a lot of books from the West and did my Master’s degree in theatre in the US. What I was writing about was no longer taboo in Western literature. But because I lived in Taiwan and sexuality was much more controversial here, my books were trashed. But my roots are in Taiwan, in this very special culture and tradition. Through the different facets of my education, I have become a kind of “bastard”, combining the Western, the Taiwanese and the Mainland Chinese.    

Many people suspected behind my back that an author whose books are so often about sex must be sleeping with countless men herself. That’s why some men looked down on me or asked me with a sour look if they should “really do it to me”. In my youth, I could not defend myself against such attacks. Only when I was much older did I have enough self-confidence to answer: “Yes, I have slept with many men. But I don’t have the slightest desire for a guy like you.” It was only when I stopped trying to prove my unblemished state to others, only when I understood how to fight back, that I gained true self-esteem.   

I continued to write in my style. Despite all the criticism, I believed that what I was writing was artistically valuable. But what I couldn’t understand myself for a long time is why my texts are often so excessively gloomy. That’s why my author friends still call me “the dark Li Ang”.

An example: When I wrote “The Visible Spirits” (看得見的鬼, 2004), an extremely gruesome torture scene sprang from my brain. In the novel, a rebellious prostitute, an indigenous woman from the Babuza tribe, is on trial. The judicial mandarin orders ten deep cuts to be made in the woman’s abdomen. The wounds were to look like ten artificial vulvas to humiliate the woman because of her profession - only one vulva was not enough for such a depraved woman. In addition, her breasts were to be cut open and filled with flesh from her abdomen to resemble the “giant tits” of a prostitute. This is how the woman in my novel is slowly tortured to death.

How could something so bestial have taken shape in my mind? How could I even put something like that on paper? I come from a traditional, “wholesome” family. My father’s business was very successful. As the youngest child in the family, I was pampered by everyone. For a long time, I thought this dark part of my creativity stemmed from the fact that we women had to endure the constraints of male domination in the past and that this left deep-seated scars in us.

“I had been writing against prudishness for decades, but I also had to defend myself against political circumstances”

But I now believe that all my themes stem from the society in which I live. And just as I had to write against the general prudishness for decades, I also had to fight against the political circumstances, the fact that we Taiwanese were denied self-determination.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I participated in the resistance of Taiwanese dissidents against Chiang Kai-Shek’s dictatorship. Although I was not in the front line (because I saw myself mainly as a writer), I contributed money and energy. Together with many comrades, we won the lifting of martial law in 1987, which had allowed the KMT to rule the island for almost forty long years. We fought to make Taiwan as free and democratic as it is now.    

You would think sexuality would no longer be a controversial issue by now. After all, in 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. The younger generations are introducing us older ones to all kinds of sexuality, for example in theatre performances and through literature, without being punished for it. But when it comes to eroticism, have all the covers and taboos really come off? I have the impression that the sexual needs of older women are still taboo.

I dealt with this in my novel “Sex with a Beautiful Man” (睡美男). I have also always encouraged women to free themselves emotionally and financially from dependencies and stand on their own two feet in my long-standing newspaper columns, for example in the “Taiwan Times”. Lately, I have been meeting women more often who tell me how much energy they have gained from my columns.

I was considered an enfant terrible for a long time during my career as a writer. I was often accused of deliberately tackling controversial topics such as sexuality and violence in my novels to cause a stir and become famous. How does it work for someone like me now that we have arrived in a free and open-minded age where many taboos supposedly no longer exist?

When people ask me this question, I like to share an anecdote: In the 1990s, I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Heidelberg. A highly intelligent PhD student asked me: “What will you write your novels about if one day nothing is taboo in your country?” At that time I was still a young writer. I was quite combative and claimed, “No society exists where there are no controversial issues. Only when we address a taboo and witness the reaction to it, do we realise where our problems lie.”

Today, I can write about sex as much as I want, I don’t get women’s briefs in the mail anymore. But another taboo still exists: politics. Even if Taiwan now seems so free and democratic and everyone can supposedly say everything they want to say, that doesn’t mean we do it. At our core, we know what we can do with our spoken word and especially with our written word.  

In the year 2023, Taiwan is no longer about being arrested and imprisoned or having our works censored and banned. No, today the danger is to be held accountable for being unclear about a political reality of the past. 

When we talk about politics, I perceive a deep split in Taiwanese society. The rift runs along the question of whether our nation should now be truly independent, or whether we should aim for unity with Mainland China. But this question is not openly discussed. Why is it not made public what the consequences of one step or the other would be? It cannot be that we find the discussion of this question unimportant!

In the past thirty years, the division into two camps, the supporters of Taiwanisation (台灣本土派) and those of the pro-China faction (親中國派), already cut a deep notch in society. This issue often divides families and circles of friends – and so we don’t talk about it. Precisely our silence on a topic, and in particular avoiding and omitting key facts, indicates that we are dealing with a taboo – and it’s a taboo that we keep hidden deep in our hearts.

I have not addressed this question in any of my works. I am often asked whether I seek truth in my novels and I pose the counter-question: What is truth? I want to put it on paper. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the search for truth is difficult. Your truth is not my truth, and my truth is not yours. I continue to write.

Translated by Martina Hasse and Jess Smee