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Updated: Jun 19th, 2019

Reading the Notes of Desolate Man: Zhu Tianwen and Her Postmodernist Talent

Because of the fact that most people prefer to live detached from the rest, as if separated from the troubles and miseries of the rest of the mankind, most of us have no idea of what makes the people living next door. However close people can explore the life of the other and predict the deeds of the rest of the people, there will always be a certain element of secrecy about the other personality and the character of a different person, just because he or she is different – not the same.

It is not a part of you, not someone whose mind you can read like an open book, and not the one whose emotions will lay open to you, like a guiding map to the most distanced corners of the soul. On the other hand, another personality is another riddle, which can be hardly solved by the owner of the soul in question, not to mention the rest of the mankind.

Although the truth which is being spoken about is rather old and well-known, there are very few people who apply it to their everyday life, while most prefer to treat it like a distanced idea, a variation of a mathematical theorem. Most people take this idea for granted, thinking that allowing it exist is the best they can do. Forgetting the basis of what makes understanding and socializing, people lose the touch with each other, still thinking that they are perfectly aware for what is going on right behind their back.

Such self-assurance! Indeed, a man, as a social creature, needs communication, yet he fears it almost to the same extent. This is the point where all misunderstandings root from. The world’s most terrible misconceptions start where a man loses the touch with the reality and starts applying the same evaluation criteria to every person that he or she encounters.

People’s woes rising from the problem of misunderstanding and mistreating people, supposing that they should all be the same is the topic of Zhu Tianwen’s world famous book called Notes of a Desolated Man. exploring the depth of the solitude ocean, the writer gives the audience the idea of what it makes to be different, and what it makes to be in general, the mere human existence comes into question.

The writer tries to see the hidden connections between the world and the personality, unraveling the prejudice of the century and making the simple life truths obvious.

Zhu Tianwen, a Woman Who Sees the Unseen

However hard one might try, it will always be impossible to find out the tiniest fact about a writer. for a writer is a person who is an artist of hiding facts, twisting them so that the rest of the world will never find the loose end and will never be able to pull through the mystic screen of what’s and where’s. The same goes for the Taiwanese writer named Zhu Tianwen, or Chu Tien-wen, she has suggested a new view of the eastern prose for the western countries and the western culture.

Quite unusual picture of the world has put the western philosophy in the limelight for quite a long period of time, which results in the unceasing interest to what the eastern culture suggests, including mostly literature. Gladly accepting the fresh style and enjoying the new impressions, the western audience seems to get more and more involved into solving the mystery of the East, which has been troubling the minds of the Europeans for centuries.

However, Zhu does not make a mess with the reader’s mind. On the contrary, she suggests sincere and open pieces of her heart to the grateful people, sharing her ideas with them as far as she can. Every single work of hers is a small masterpiece which carries the readers away to the place where reality crosses fantasy, and where the problems of the modern world meet the most incredible suggestions of the postmodernist world. Indeed, quite a picture!

The author defines herself as the one who writes simply because there is no other way she can exist. Used to be alone, she does not like much of a crowd, calling herself a caveman who was forced to come into the daylight.

In front of the admiring public, she is the very cavewoman whom she describes herself as. “This all feels so unusual and new to me, and I used to think that only a rock star could create such a big scene,” said Zhu. “But a writer? You know, when you do literature you cannot be farther away from this.” (CriEnglish.com) The prehistoric piece of mankind, she calls the spirits of the ancestors to help her make the people see the obvious. There is no other way she can do it, and she knows it perfectly well.

Living on a Desolate Island: What Is It Like Being Alone?

Since the writer knows so much of what it is like to be alone and desolated even standing in front of the crowd, there could be no other way for her than to write Notes of a Desolated Man. To pit it in other words, she was destined to write the book. Exploring the idea of being left all alone, she goes deeper into the subject, expanding it to the scale of the mankind world in general, applying the idea of desolation to each and every person living on the Earth.

Indeed, the leading character is actually a projection of the writer’s personality. A living protest to the society, the lead is a man condemned yet struggling for his own life, for a piece of world which will make him happier and more humanlike. As a matter of fact, desolating from the society is far from being the sentence passed to the outcast – on the contrary, it is his conscious decision.

With regard to the work of Zhu, it must be well noticed that she makes an accent on the fact that it is actually natural for people to be isolated from each other. The state which her character gets into does not signify something out of the ordinary. It was just that he was unlucky enough to be a man of different sexual orientation, and that made his sufferings of non-belonging to the world unbearable.

In fact, the aspect of being separated from the mankind and the individual loneliness as a part of the total craziness is one of the aspects of postmodernism, as the literary movement which reprints the state of perplexity in which people have trapped in the end of the twentieth century. Fearing the unknown and not willing to accept the absurdity of life, postmodernists tend to create the parallel reality where they can twist the twisted world even more, enjoying the chaos. As it has been noticed,

Postmodernism is much fuzzier in the ECE area, with recent literature emphasizing both continuities and ruptures with Modernism and the historical avant-garde. (Cornis-Pope 546)

The Leading Character: The Splendor and Misery of Being an Outcast

Although the modern world is in fact much netter than, say, the Middle Ages, there are still terrible misconceptions happening between people and peoples, and even between two parts of one and the same man.

The narrator’s opening phrase, which sets the start for the story, runs the following: “This is an age of decadence.” Rather pessimistic statement, it still makes the fact that the mankind has taken off its pink glasses clear. The short phrase sets the right mood for the story straightaway, preparing the reader for a postmodernist journey on a runaway train.

The narrator, Xiao Chao, is quite a complicated person to consider. It is a weird feature of the book that the very first chapters do not even tell his name, or his origin, or his point in general. It is only about his endless motion. Xiao is heading for some destination unknown, and this makes him look in the most post-modernist way, like a man who is detached from the rest of the world by the powerful force of speed, and now exists beyond the time context.

However, that does not mean that Xiao does not depend on the world and its events – on the contrary, the vulnerability of his, increased times because of his being so unusual to the rest of the people and because he feels his being detached from the rest of the mankind is what makes the story whole and complete. It is the specific character who determines the float of the novel in this case.

This character is extremely complicated. On the one hand, his determination to be understood and to breathe in unison with the rest of the people is clear-cut. However, the more insistent his attempts are, the less effect they have, for the more he approaches the destination, the further it detaches from Xiao. Like a prisoner caught in the cell of a size of a carton box, he tries to push through the limits which he has cornered himself.

It becomes clear from the very beginning that the postmodernist mood is what the whole novel is sewn through. The utter denial pushes through the lines of the story, making it clear that Xiao’s character is complicated to the halt, his soul twisted in such a way so that its natural needs and urges should be left way back, while what lies on the surface is the response to the demands of society.

Trying to depict her character in the very best way, polishing every single line of her book so that with each sentence it could describe Xiao better, Tianwen creates a specific spirit of liberty around him, yet emphasizes that this liberty was chosen by the lead unwillingly, just because his nature, craving for more experience, demanded so. It is clear that Tianwen is trying to create the image of a man who gets lost in the modern world, a man who is constantly on the road in search for a better life, for a better fate and for some differences in his life.

The struggle within the character makes him move further and further, as if he was trying to escape from himself. Pursuing his own shadow, Xiao finally finds himself lost and scared, like a child in the woods. With such postmodernist picture of a man as a specimen of humanity, it is no wonder that Tianwen as considered a writer following the postmodernist postulates strictly, though in her own unique eastern manner.

Every single word Tianwen leaves reminds of the grotesque and the misery of the world without a shield, – a postmodernist world where she places her characters. Since she understands perfectly well that a world is a vacuum, she provides a perfect environment for Xiao to live in, a brave new world, where the leading character feels so strange. In fact, Xiao does not belong to the world of the modern people at all. The conflict between the society and a single man has been depicted in a most postmodern style.

Seen as “the showcase for postmodernism East Asian style” (Hillenbrand 58), the story makes the reader feel with every vein and bone that the fears which one faces as he or she treads into the open arms of society are so intense that at rimes they become unbearable. Why cannot the world accept the leading character in Tianwen’s story?

Is it merely because of his non-traditional sexual orientation? Or can there be something else lurking behind the puny face of social morals and beliefs? Once proved to be worth nothing, these morals hunt the unusual people again and again, and there seems no end to this closed disk of injustice.

Such are the specific features of the way Tianwen presents the story that they make the reader forget about the twists of the plot and turn to analyzing the main character’s problems more closely. Indeed, from the very beginning it becomes clear that Xiao knows no rest in his constant traveling. He is doomed to wander in the world in search for the people who can support him, and just as is he doomed to fail his search.

It seems that there is not a single person who can see the depth of his sufferings and his misery. With every single line of his on-the-road notes, Xiao makes it clear that he is as lonely as a man can be, though he is constantly mixing with different people and learning the new things about the new places of his visit. Something that keeps him going makes him remember that he is not the same as the rest of the dwellers, and there is nothing left for him but to grin and bear it.

The Muffled Cries of the Society: Seeing Things

Since there have always been those who adhere to the so-called norms of society and those who either tended to break those rules imposed on them or were unable to keep to these rules, the conflict between the conservative part of the society and the non-conformists will go on for centuries. Despite the topic of the debatable problems changing, the core issue will remain the same, with the society very unwilling to accept those who differ from the rest.

Even the aspects of personal life are taken into consideration when passing a verdict of belonging or non-belonging to the system – or, should I have said better, especially the aspects of personal life? One of them, the question of the sexual orientation, is especially topical for the modern world. As a matter of fact, the fuss about the problem of homosexuality id rather weird to have been risen now, for the modern times are supposed to be known for their tolerance and are even reproached fro the permissiveness and the lack of restraint.

It seems as though the tolerance so appreciated was only a neon signboard for the gullible people to follow. Instead of treating people right whenever they kept with the postulates of the society or not, the people start hunting the ones who do not fit into the frame of their minds.

The book leads the readers through the thoughts of a man suffering from the fear that the specific trait of his will not let him become a member of the society. It is peculiar that Tainwen seems to be one of the first people who have raised the issue of homosexuality in the eastern literature. Finding the term for the phenomenon so that it could sound less sharp, Tainwen explores the image of her character and his woes in detail, allowing the reader sink into the soul of Xiao as well.

Xiao’s melancholic voice narrates his inner contemplations on the loss of Ah Yao, on his relations as homosexual man to the institutions of family and nation, on an extravagant range of euro-American Philosophy and culture – and on Xiao Chao’s own peregrinations through a very contemporary New Park and Taipei City. (Martin 102)

The aspect of desolation comes at this very point. Being unlike the rest of the people and at the same time being forced to communicate with them makes the leading character suffer a serious emotional breach. Xiao feels that he is not one of his kind, and this makes him the outcast.

Torn apart by the death of his only friend and the person who could understand him and take him the way he is, Xiao is no longer connected to the world in which he exists. Indeed, he goes on existing, but this is only the shell of Xiao which eats, drinks and sleeps, while the rest of him has been buried long before he started out on his trip to nowhere.

Digging deeper into the hidden idea of the novel, one can discover the new interpretation of the aspect of homosexuality, which is an idea completely new to the Asian literature and culture. Thus, Tianwen deepens the storyline, discovering the new facets of the life of an outcast in the modern society.

She emphasizes the shattering loneliness of the man who cannot even confine his thoughts to his own relatives, fearing the same monster called misunderstanding. Tianwen has shown how miserable this sort of life can be, a constant hiding from the reality and the social prejudice, which can be substituted only by bringing one’s ideas to the judgment of the society and thus passing him or herself a verdict of death penalty.

Such is the scorn of the righteous that one simply cannot bear it for long. The desolation comes together with indifference to the others, which is bound to broaden into the indifference to the entire life.

Finally, one will stop feeling that there is some sense in his or her life, and the latter will turn into a pathetic existence, which is not worth the woes suffered. As Martin emphasized, “Notes of a Desolate Man constitutes a key site for the public representation of tongxinglian in Taiwan’s contemporary period” (102), and this signifies the social importance of the book.

Like the stories of Zhu Tianwen which possess certain feministic traits, the novel about a homosexual man also explores the problems if the modern society much deeper than they have ever been. It is still unclear what has made the problem so topical for the Taiwan writers, but still there is something that unites every story written by Zhu with the novel about a man who is trying to handle his own loneliness and his being so different from the rest.

Why and how gendering becomes an issue in the history of Taiwan literature is a vastly interesting question from which to approach women’s literature. (Peng-Hsiang 45)

On the contrary, the writer is trying to find the unique way to depict the peculiarities of separate people, transferring these unique features to the entire mankind to make it clear that each person possesses a tint of loneliness in his or her soul. The means which she seeks is the gender literature, where she investigates the problems so acute and topical that one could hardly imagine an Asian woman daring to explore such delicate and ticklish subject.

The fact that Zhu des not hesitate to present her own opinion, but manages to do it in such a tender way that it seems elegant and natural; she and her book “Notes of a Desolated Man” have opened a new door to the people who have been trapped in the dead end of their own specific features.

Among Zhang’s followers, Zhu Tianwen (b. 1956) is probably the most well-known woman writer who has gone through rather different stages to achieve her popularity. Unlike other Taiwanese women writers, she never enacts familiar feminist motifs such as selfhood, economic autonomy, sexual awakening, patriarchal domination motherhood or sisterhood. These issues for her are no longer problems as they are already subsumed under the spectacular decadence termed as ‘postmodern’ by the writer herself. (Peng-Hsiang, 46)

Since the problem of a man with specific background or features of character and physiology finding his or her place in the world has gained the scale of a worldwide problem, what Zhu Tianwen is writing about is of crucial importance. the author has helped the people understand that searching for a piece of one’s own is the task which is not so useless, and even in case nothing has been found, one can be quite satisfied with the process of search. As Wang said,

Works by Zhu Tianwen allow us to assess the way in which native literature actively engages with the psycho-cultural issues of globalization in spite of its apparent aesthetic detachment. This will bring intimate expressions of literary writing to the public sphere of cultural formation. Owing to Zhu’s style and critics’ proponensy to valorize the belles-lettres, the aesthetic and the social dimensions of her writing have typically been kept apart. (371)

Once the story where the key points are the exotic items and the question of struggling for equal rights of all people, the novel turns now into a social drama with the ideas of human’s equality blown into a serious problem which needs decision because of being so acute. While the book deals with the imaginary world, such strong is its imagery that it is transferred into the reality and seen there as one more case of cultural conflicts.

Although the characteristics of exoticism and narcissism have been consistently present in Zhu Tianwen’s fiction since the late 1980s, it is in Notes of a Desolate Man that these two characteristics come to pervade the narrative and become significant elements in the formation of a coherent sense of the self for the novel’s gay protagonist, whose sexual identity is not yet accepted by the society (Mostow 587)

With the efforts of all people joined to protect the rights of those who cannot defend themselves, it is possible to dream of the world of equal opportunities. However, at times building such world can pose certain problems. After all, it is really hard to forget the basics of the humanity and follow the principle of those who are the strongest, not the ones who have the point. Differentiating the latter from the former makes the life experience which each of us has to obtain and to rake into his or her life pattern.

Works Cited

Hillenbrand, Margaret. Literature, Modernity and the Practice of Resistance: Japanese and Taiwanese Fiction, 1960-1990. Leiden: BRILL, 2007. Print.

Martin, Fran. Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, film and Public Culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003. Print.

Mostow, Joshua. S. The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Peng-Hsiang Chen and Dilley Crothers Whitney. Feminism/Femininity in Chinese Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002. Print.

Wang, Dewei and Carlos Rojas. Writing Taiwan: a New Literary History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Zhu Tianwen: I See, I Remember, I Write. CriEnglish.com. Web. Web.

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"Reading the Notes of Desolate Man: Zhu Tianwen and Her Postmodernist Talent." IvyPanda, 19 June 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/reading-the-notes-of-desolate-man-zhu-tianwen-and-her-postmodernist-talent/.

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IvyPanda. "Reading the Notes of Desolate Man: Zhu Tianwen and Her Postmodernist Talent." June 19, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/reading-the-notes-of-desolate-man-zhu-tianwen-and-her-postmodernist-talent/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Reading the Notes of Desolate Man: Zhu Tianwen and Her Postmodernist Talent." June 19, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/reading-the-notes-of-desolate-man-zhu-tianwen-and-her-postmodernist-talent/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Reading the Notes of Desolate Man: Zhu Tianwen and Her Postmodernist Talent'. 19 June.

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