Feature Section


Chu T’ien-wen: Winner of the 2015 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature

Chen Jingrong

The Newman Prize for Chinese Literature is hosted by the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-China Issues in honor of Harold J. and Ruth Newman.

Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文 (Zhu Tianwen) is one of the mst prominent screenwriters and fiction writers in contemporary Taiwan. She was born in 1956 into a distinguished literary family: her father is the celebrated military writer Chu Hsi-ning 朱西寧 and her mother, Liu Musha 劉慕沙, is a translator of Japanese literary works. The three girls born into this family all grew up to become writers.

Chu T’ien-wen and her younger sister, Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心, started writing at age sixteen when they were high school students, and immediately became best-selling authors in Taiwan. When Chu T’ien-wen was a junior in the Department of English at Tamkang University, she cofounded The Threes journal (Sansan jikan 三三集刊) and The Threes Bookstore Publisher (Sansan shufang 三三書坊) with her sister and friends.

Chu’s early works in the 1970s and early 1980s consist mainly of sentimental short stories about adolescent life or essays expressing her longing for China, the “motherland.” In 1983, directors Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 and Chen Kun-hou 陳坤厚 invited Chu to cowrite the script for Growing Up (Xiaobi de gushi 小畢的故事), one of the founding films of the Taiwan New Cinema movement. This led to Chu’s longtime collaboration with Hou Hsiao-hsien on almost all of Hou’s films.

In this section, readers will find Michael Berry’s interview with Chu, in which she discusses her early literary career; her mentor, Hu Lancheng 胡兰成; her award-winning novel Notes of a Desolate Man (Huangren shouji 荒人手記); and her career in screenwriting and collaboration with director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Berry’s interview was originally conducted and published in Chinese in his recent book Boiling the Sea: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Memories of Shadow and Light (Zhuhai shiguang: Hou Xiaoxian de guangying jilu 煮海時光:侯孝賢的光影紀錄).

Chu’s collaboration with Taiwan’s New Cinema directors had a profound influence on her literary style. In the mid 1980s, Chu shifted her focus from the imagined homeland (that only exists in traditional Chinese culture) to the socio-historical reality of contemporary Taiwan. Her 1990 short story collection Fin de siècle Splendor (Shijimo de huali 世紀末的華麗), in the words of scholar Ban Wang, “captures the spirit, smells, colors, textures, and, above all, the genie of Taiwan urban life,” and was widely acclaimed by critics. Her first novel, Notes of a Desolate Man, won the China Times Million Dollar Prize for Fiction in 1994. In 2008 Chu published her second novel, Witch’s Brew (Wuyan 巫言).

Chu was awarded the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature in 2015 for her remarkable literary achievements. She is the first woman to win the prize. This special section begins with Margaret Hillenbrand’s statement nominating Chu for the Newman Prize; followed by Ban Wang’s tribute to Chu, which he delivered at the Newman Prize award ceremony at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, on March 6, 2015; and the translation of Chu’s acceptance speech, which she also delivered in Norman.

When Chu came to the University of Oklahoma to receive the Newman Prize in early March 2015, she participated in the Chinese Cinema Salon funded by the Presidential Dream Course on Chinese Cinema. Two other prominent scholars on Chinese cinema, Ban Wang and Yingjin Zhang, joined her.[1] During the Chinese Cinema Salon, Chu T’ien-wen asserted that she is a woman but never a feminist. While the word “feminism” cannot be used to label Chu, her writing consistently follows a feminine tradition, or a “goddess” (nüshen女神) tradition, that was imparted to her by her literary mentor, Hu Lancheng, and also her early literary idol Eileen Chang 張愛玲, whom she never met.

In 1996, when David Der-wei Wang asked Chu to write a preface for the edited collection A Flower Remembers Its Past (Huayi qianshen 花憶前身), Chu wrote an extremely long one consisting of eight essays totaling approximately 50,000 characters. Together they were titled “A Flower Remembers Its Past: Remembering Hu Lancheng in Eight Essays” (“Huayi qianshen: ji Hu Lancheng bashu” 花憶前身: 記胡蘭成八書). These essays focus on Chu’s interaction with Hu Lancheng between 1975 and 1981, which, according to Chu, was a “past” that laid the foundation for her present literary career: “My later writing career is nothing but the chewing, swallowing, rewriting, and appropriating this past.” [2]

Two out of those eight essays, “On Confessions” (“Chanqing zhishu” 懺情之書) and “On Myths and Riddles” (“Shenhua jiemi zhishu” 神話解謎之書) have been translated for this special section. These essays are precious documents that reveal Hu Lancheng’s distinct literary, philosophical, and aesthetic thoughts; the sansan (the threes) cohort; the Chu family’s interaction with Eileen Chang and Hu Lancheng; and Chu T’ien-wen’s unique “feminine” cultural position. In these memoir essays, readers will find coordinates to situate Chu T’ien-wen in the larger map of Chinese literature and culture.

—Ping Zhu

[1] The Presidential Dream Course on Chinese Cinema was taught by Ping Zhu in spring 2015. Chu T’ien-wen participated in the Chinese Cinema Salon as a special guest on March 5, 2015, and answered many questions raised by OU students and faculty.
[2] Chu T’ien-wen, “A Flower Remembers Its Past: Remembering Eileen Chang and Hu Lancheng” (“Huayi qianshen: Huiyi Zhang Ailing he Hu Lancheng” 花憶前身:回憶張愛玲和胡蘭成), in Re-reading Eileen Chang (Zaidu Zhang Ailing 再讀張愛玲), ed.  Joseph S. M. Lau et al. (Jinan: Shandong huabao chubanshe), 312.

Ping Zhu is an assistant professor of Chinese literature at the University of Oklahoma. She serves as a deputy editor of Chinese Literature Today and contributing editor of World Literature Today. Her new book is called Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature and Culture. She has published in Gender & History, Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, Comparative Literature and Culture, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, and Visual Anthropology. She is currently coediting a volume to be titled “Maoist Laughter” with Jason McGrath and Zhuoyi Wang.

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 2

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Table of Contents







  • 3 Editor’s Note
  • 4 Contributors
  • 98 Chinese Literature in Review
  • 108 Pacific Bridge

THIS ISSUE’S ART: “Seductive Evolution of Animated Illuminations, 2013.” By Shih Chieh Huang. (Modification of fifteenth-century Renaissance period Murano glass chandelier. Combined with micro controller, computer cooling fans, LEDs, garbage bags, and plastic shrink wrap.) Image courtesy of the artist.


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