Existential Considerations

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Coming to the end of my Laidlaw research project, it struck me how much I have learnt and experienced in these two summers. I spent last summer reading works from writers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan in the 1950s – when the war had ended and the concepts of existentialism began to spread from the West to the East. The authors I studied were among the first to create works that reflect on the purpose of the merciless wars and of the life after the wars. They were heavily influenced by the newly translated works of Sartre and Camus at that time; and there was a pervading theme of existential angst, imprisonment and authenticity. This summer, I have been looking at more recent works from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. I think it would be right to say that these are more cheery and hopeful, and with more varying writing styles, yet they reflect on the very same themes with a modern twist.

In order to find out how exactly the contemporary lifestyle and mentality are, I travelled to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan this summer. I went to talks, exhibitions, and had the privilege to read the reformative journals that changed the literary landscape of Taiwan back in the 1950s.

“Manuscripts of Luofu” taken at the Literary Materials Research and Service Centre in Taipei.

Among the three places, what really fascinated me was Taiwan. Taiwan had what we now call an economic takeoff back in the 1980s, which came at a high price not only in industrial pollution and environmental degradation but also in people’s psyche. I had focused on the aftermath of the Second World War last summer, but I have found lasting and profound impact of it in today’s literature. What really stuck with me were Huangfan’s short stories. There are themes of artificial beauty, the game of money, the frauds in love, indifference, immorality, the unpalatable truth, and ultimately, the absurdity of them all. His stories revolve around poor souls – people that are poor not only in the material sense but also in their spirits. They suffered from a terminal illness called emptiness, caused by the deprivation of free will and of what they were used to. Some of the stories I read were about decadence and succumbing to whatever comes along, which were similar to the post-war literature. However, there were also new and thought-provoking ideas of choosing your own path, of finding your way in the claustrophobic – not only physically but also spiritually – living space. There is this motif of fighting against the oppression of social norms and ideologies, and to have individuality in a world where people act as if they are made from the same mold in the same factory.

All the works I read during these weeks echoes Sartres’ “Hell is other people”. Although these works are heavily influenced by western philosophical concepts like that, I feel that each author captured the contemporary society and the predicament in his own way. Most of the time they are staged in a highly urbanised environment. However, it is obvious that the existential notions are ubiquitous – betrayals, pitying each other for being in the same boat, losing free will, fighting against oneself over an immoral decision. Everyone just wants to find a way out. There is no absolute right or wrong, or mistakes or judgments. It is a brewing pot of alienation and survival.

“You could choose to laugh, or you could choose to bury yourself in the darkness.” This line pretty much sums up what the readers would feel from the works. The short stories and novels I have read are written for those who are alienated, who cannot keep up, who are perplexed, depressed, anxious, rejected or at a loss for what to do. They are not works of venting or complaining about the contemporary society but journeys of exploration. They are a reflection of the social phenomenon, a portrayal of the modern man’s plight – the emptiness and powerlessness, and an attempt to find a way out of the predicament.

I am very grateful for this opportunity to examine the post-war and modern literature. It has always been an area that I find intriguing. I am indebt to the Laidlaw Scholarship for giving me a chance to really study this from both a philosophical and psychological perspective through literature. I have read about finding salvation in an unforgiving world for two summers now, and I genuinely wish you all the best towards that.

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