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  • The National Allegory Revisited:Writing Private and Public in Contemporary Taiwan
  • Margaret Hillenbrand (bio)

The idea for this article began some time ago when I gave a presentation on questions of national identity in contemporary Taiwanese fiction at an academic gathering. As soon as I had finished speaking, a well-known scholar of modern Chinese literature who was in the audience shot up his hand and asked in cool tones whether I was familiar with Fredric Jameson's theory of the "third-world national allegory"—and if so, whether I was comfortable with the fact that the focus on national identities in my essay seemed to echo Jameson's infamous paradigm and its "patronizing" take on the literary non-West. As it happens, Jameson's essay, entitled "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" (1986), was one of the very first things I read as a graduate student. It was mandatory reading, as was the brilliant polemic by Aijaz Ahmad—published in the following issue of Social Text—which ripped Jameson's paradigm to shreds. At the time, [End Page 633] I was horrified by the question and hastily tried to distance my essay from the theoretical black hole that Jameson's "national allegory" has become in postcolonial studies. Yet with hindsight perhaps the question itself was, in its own way, just as tendentious. Or to put things another way, perhaps the most basic point Jameson makes in his essay—namely that many postcolonial texts use the story of the individual to tell the story of the nation—is not so very different from Fanon's uncontested and oft-repeated claim that "colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: 'In reality, who am I?'"1 That question resonates throughout cultural practice in the postcolonial world and, inevitably, engenders texts in which this search for subjectivity signifies both for the individual and the ethnonational collective. And if, in fact, an allegorical impulse to "write" the nation does animate many non-Western writings, are there ways of thinking about this impulse that do not lapse into the kind of Eurocentric condescension that so incensed both Ahmad and numerous critics since?

This article sets out to probe that question, briefly in general terms and more extensively as it relates to literary practice in contemporary Taiwan. The discussion begins by charting the mixed fortunes of the "national allegory" since its critical debut, highlighting the paradox between its supposed pariah status and its very real tenacity as both a creative and an interpretive mode in "non-Western" literature. This paradox has kept Jameson's essay firmly in the critical frame, as the rush to polemical judgment has often given way to a tentative rehabilitation of the paradigm that once seemed irretrievably beyond the pale of political correctness. Both the original paradigm and the work of its recent apologists, I argue next, take on new meanings in the case of Taiwan, a place where "postcoloniality"—the linchpin of the entire debate—signifies in extraordinary ways.2 Moreover, narrating the nation has been an all-conquering cultural vogue in Taiwan for the last two decades (at least among elite producers), and both the profusion of texts and their infinite variety beg many questions about the old warhorse of the "national allegory." This article goes on to address these questions, pleading the case for allegory as metaphoric mode and, more particularly, exploring the rich play of meaning showcased in the postmodern and postcolonial forms through which the allegorical impulse now so often manifests itself. Here I argue that the incompatibility that is frequently assumed [End Page 634] between postcolonial allegory (which strives to subject the imperial past to alternative interpretation) and its postmodern counterpart (which is wary of any attempt at truth) is intriguingly resolved, at least to some extent, in the cultural production of contemporary Taiwan. Finally, this article concludes by offering a case study of this postmodern/postcolonial allegory: a close reading of Zhu Tianxin's "Xiang wo juancun de xiongdimen" ("Remembering My Brothers from the Military Compound"; 1992). This text, which explores life in the mainlander residential compounds that grew up after the nationalist decampment to Taiwan, provides...


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