Li Ang is best known for her novel The Butcher’s Wife (1983). A feminist take on a sadistic marriage, it quickly became a literary sensation in the Chinese-speaking world and attracted a global readership. The Lost Garden – published in 1990, three years after martial law was lifted in Taiwan – may be a quieter novel, but it is equally striking in its ambitious reach and political slant.
The book opens with a vivid scene: a group of young people walk into an American-style bar in the Zhongshan district of Taipei, bearing signs that read: “Help Charlie . . . Cha-li bing le. Charlie is sick”. After an awkward start, the drinkers in the bar give generously, with one of them mumbling that he is glad to give to Taiwan’s first AIDS case. It is a sharp snapshot of modern life in 1980s Taiwan, which Li Ang plays off against a more traditional backdrop. When the charity collectors leave, they find themselves standing on the pavement in front of a shop window crammed with television sets. Displayed on each is the same image: a renowned Lotus Garden, which has just been restored by a well-known businessman, Lin Xigeng, and his new wife, Ms Zhu Yinghong: “For a brief moment, the thirty-six screens appeared to morph into an enormous garden crisscrossed with endless terraces, pavilions, and towers”. Following this “surreal tapestry”, we are sent back in time to witness Lin Xigeng’s uneasy courting of Zhu Yinghong, the daughter of a prominent family who previously owned the Lotus Garden. Yinghong is a psychologically complex character who finds herself struggling with the restrictions of her class and gender despite the far-reaching social and political changes taking place in Taiwan.
The novel moves gracefully between Yinghong’s childhood – which was privileged but troubled owing to her father’s politics (he was imprisoned in the early days of Chiang Kai-shek’s rule) – and the present day of the book. While there is a distracting, stilted flatness to the portrait of her courtship, which dominates the novel, The Lost Garden is a distinctive contribution to the literature of place, and its translation into English gives welcome access to a country and culture often obscured by its neighbours, China and Japan. In the words of Yinghong’s father: “You must remember that Taiwan is not a copy or microcosm of any other place on earth. Taiwan is Taiwan”.
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