ZHU TIANWEN, A.K.A. CHU T’IEN-WEN (1956— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

ZHU TIANWEN, A.K.A. CHU T’IEN-WEN (1956— ). Fiction and screenplay writer. One of the most talented writers from Taiwan, Zhu Tianwen was tutored, along with her two younger sisters, by their father, Zhu Xining, a writer and editor, and by Hu Lancheng, a litterateur with exquisite sensibilities, who taught them classical Chinese literature and shared the family’s love for the writings of Zhang Ailing, with whom he lived in Shanghai in the late 1930s. The Zhu sisters grew up surrounded by books and were encouraged to write. While still in high school, Zhu began publishing stories in the literary supplements of Taiwan’s major newspapers. Early in her career, she wrote about the experience of growing up in Taiwan, vividly portrayed in stories such as “Xiao Bi de gushi” (The Story of Xiao Bi), “Tongnian wangshi” (Childhood Memories), and “Beiqing shijie” (The World of Sadness). Yanxia zhi du (A City in a Hot Summer), which includes 14 short stories written in the 1980s, marks a new direction in Zhu’s writing. In a somber tone, these stories comment on the alienating effects of modernization on the city of Taipei and its residents.

Greater critical acclaim came to Zhu with the publication of “Shiji mo de huali” (Fin de Siècle Splendor), which describes the high fashion and modern lifestyle of the protagonist, a former model, and her hopeless love affair with a married man. Zhu’s real achievement in the story lies in her ability to create a lingering sense of loss and sadness without succumbing to sentimentalism. The extravagant language she uses in the story also befits the complexity of a cosmopolitan character. Similar in theme and style is her more recent work, Huang ren shouji (Notes of a Desolate Man), an award-winning and richly textured novel about a gay man trying to come to terms with his alienation from society while dealing with the impending death of his best friend who is suffering from AIDS. It is a cerebral book, packed with ruminations about Levi Strauss, Michel Foucault, T. S. Eliot, and other famous Western thinkers and literary personages, because the hero is steeped in Western culture as well as Chinese traditions. Homosexuality, though a focal point of the novel, serves only to highlight the dilemma faced by a highly educated, keenly sensitive Taiwanese intellectual in his inability to reconcile all the contradictions inherent in modern life. Like “Shiji mo de huali” and Huang ren shouji, Wu yan (Words of the Witch), Zhu’s most recent book, examines modern life by centering on the complications of human relationships. Rich in its range of characters, the book is similar to a colorful Yamato-e painting, with its long scroll of scenes continuously and delicately illustrated.

Zhu is also an award-winning screenplay writer. She has worked extensively with Taiwan’s eminent director Hou Hsiao-hsien on a number of internationally acclaimed films. Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai) and Tongnian wangshi (Childhood Memories) are only two of the many collaborations between them. She is also an editor for Sansan jikan (The Threes), a literary journal, and Sansan shufang (The Threes Press), both founded by her and her sisters after she graduated from the English Department of Tamkang University. See also ZHU TIANXIN.