Book Review: “Masked Dolls” by Shih Chiung-Yu (@BalestierPress)



Instead of chapters, Taiwanese author Shih Chiung-yu’s Masked Dolls is divided into conflicts. In the character Jiaying’s words: “I guess I’m the kind who attracts conflicts but has no idea how to resolve them.” (p.13)

Indeed, at the turn of the century, particularly in Asia’s capital cities such as Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei, it was trendy to chew on concepts such as globalisation and the global village like bubble gums. But conflicts remained like undercurrents even in these globalised, seemingly multicultural and harmonious metropolises. Conflicts exist between old and new, men and women, East and West, past and present, reality and delusion, history and fantasy.

In Masked Dolls, two women meet at a youth hostel in Seoul. Jiaying, Taiwanese, left her British boyfriend in Europe and is now in self-exile, while Judy, Australian, is still traumatised by her failed, abusive affair with a Tokyo-based Chinese man.

Judy observes “how crazy Japanese people are about Western luxury goods…It’s insane how much they worship the West” (p.38), while blaming the “traditional of Chinese intellectuals” (p.39) as a cause of conflict in her relationship with the Chinese boyfriend, who turns violent whenever she disobeys him. Meanwhile, Jiaying cannot understand her father’s emotional ties with the Chinese Mainland, or those of her uncle’s with Korea. To her, the sorrow, regret, resentment, disappointment, dashed ambition and long-lost youthful dreams of the older generations are a permanent mystery.

Then there is historical hostility and (perceived) misunderstanding among the Asian nations and between Asia and the West, something that neither Judy nor Jiaying is able to grasp. As they are joined by more backpackers at the youth hostel – people from Germany, Japan, Holland, South Korea and, of course, America – more conflicts arise. The fact that Zhou, Judy’s Chinese boyfriend, wants her to be his “little Western doll, say you love this Chinaman, say you worship me” (p.103) may be seen as an Oriental empire’s attempt to strike back. Yet in Judy’s eyes, he (China?) “was like a fresh-faced schoolboy when he spoke, an adult’s body but a child’s heart. He had this real mystique”. (p.66)

As these characters take turns to narrate their stories, an almost dream-like reality of contemporary Asia emerges. Which is why Masked Dolls is so relevant to Western readers in 2016 even though the original Traditional Chinese text was published in Taiwan in 2002. An island-nation that has always had an identify problem, Taiwan struggled back then as it struggles now for a “proper” identification. That sense of pride mixed with confusion, of an eagerness for independence without really knowing what to do, of a fierce desire to be embraced while fearing careless rejection, is perhaps best captured in the following words of Jiaying:

We were all literature students at university together. We pored over the modernist works of Lu Xun, Ding Ling, Pai Hsien-yung and Huang Chun-ming. We scrutinised the ancient texts like Records of the Grand Historian, the Book of Songs, Poems from the Song Dynasty, Yuan Verse and the Dream of the Red Chamber. We perused the translated works of Balzac, James Joyce, Ivan Turgenev, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera and Yukio Mishima. Once in a while we studied books in their original language such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Hemingway’s The Killers and Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

We lived in a game of language and words and nursed fervent delusions that one day we too would be like the literary masters we worshipped. We were obsessed with the thought of becoming great writers. We spent our days in raving states of self-pity, believing that our only purpose in life was to create. That world was like a castle built in fairy tales that became tainted, little by little, by the impurities of love and lust, power and fame, which eventually destroyed it. Just like a sandcastle built on the shaky foundations of a beach, crumbling with every lashing wave, until no trace remained. (p.71)

And that sense of self-empowering on shaky grounds is best conveyed through the character Fat Luo, a talented writer who manages to transform “the jealousy, fury, revenge and madness of human nature…a collective memory of humiliation and sorrow” into “a hopeless, heartrending love story…a distorted portrait of ourselves”. (p.228) If a sense of hope may be found among the despicable things Luo has done to those women around him, especially Jiaying, then it is only because he has never given up loving them.


As the characters in Masked Dolls take turns to narrate their stories, it is sometimes hard to tell who is speaking. More importantly, as readers move from one conflict to another, they can sense a subtle disruption in the style of writing, which is mostly fluent but occasionally stuttering. Is this because the book is transformed from Traditional Chinese to English by two translators? Was there not an editor to monitor and maintain the overall literary voice?

But it does not matter, as it is only thanks to the efforts of translators Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland that the story of Taiwan as a fragile nation is now revealed to us. Like Judy, Western readers may wonder about their Chinese counterparts: “What was this constant need to carry the weight of the past, to obsess and agonise over it? Weren’t we living in the time of globalisation and the internet now?” The answer is clearly given by Zhou in the book: “You’re a Westerner, you’ll never understand.” (p.104)

Born in 1968, Shih Chiung-yu had won two major literary awards in Taiwan before publishing her first novel Wedding in Autumn in 1993. Between then and the publication of Masked Dolls in 2002, she worked as a writer, essayist, news reporter and documentary filmmaker. Although Shih was born and raised in Taiwan, her father, like Jiaying’s father in the book, had served as deputy commander of Chinese guerilla troops battling against the Japanese along the Yunnan-Burmese border during the Second World War. Growing up among family members and relatives permanently scarred by war, Shih confesses in Jiaying’s voice:

We heard my father’s grisly stories so many times, the events that led him to abandon his teaching plans and decide to fight instead. “Japanese soldiers tossed babies into the air and then held bayonets up [to] skewer their bellies. Blood and intestines flew out everywhere. The soldiers holding the bayonets would have faint smiles of pride on their faces.”

Or he’d say, “When the Japanese invaded Nanjing, they burnt and looted the city and slaughtered countless people. They raped all women no matter their age, sixty year olds or children were all fair game for them.”

As a child I’d listened to these stories with wide-eyed fascination. They felt like they belonged to some far off world – like Arabian Nights. He told them with little emotion or colour or any sense that they had really happened. They seemed more like the stories adults told to scare you, of child-eating monsters lurking in the dark. (p.107)

It is such childhood ambiguity – things happened but why are they relevant to me? – that has prompted many in Taiwan to question their identity in recent decades. The stories sound so remote and ancient that they are like myths, told by the older generations who are slowly and surely fading away yet still holding on to a distant land as home. In sharp contrast, the younger generations were born and raised in relative freedom and prosperity, having never witnessed war nor tasted bitterness or loss. To them, Taiwan is home. A democratic and independent home is crucial to their survival, for this is all they have.

And these, old and young from a myriad of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, are the wretched and/or innocent dolls illustrated by Shih, their masks being lifted one by one, temporarily revealing their bewildered faces as they become submerged in the merciless tides that are the history of Taiwan and its relations to China and the rest of the world. Then, slowly, the masks resume their positions to cover up all the memories. All the truths and lies become myths, to be briefly cherished and then forgotten by future generations.

In the last pages of the novel, light is revealed at the end of a cold, dank tunnel. As Jiaying walks toward the light, however, she feels “extraordinarily weary” and her eyes begin to close. Her final request to readers: “If, if you see that ray of light, please wake me up, and tell me.” (p.239) While this may be seen as a call for people in turn-of-the-century Taiwan to wake up and find the light, it now has a new meaning thanks to the translation and publication of Masked Dolls in English. Have we in the West found the light, a symbol of hope and warmth? Are we willing to wake up the others and share it with them? The choice is ours.

Transparency: This reviewer is grateful to have received a review copy of Shih Chiung-yu’s Masked Dolls from Balestier Press.



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Book Review: “Masked Dolls” by Shih Chiung-Yu | Journey to the Middle Kingdom

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