A Creative Wellspring Uncapped: The Fictionalized History of Taiwanese Yaoguai


2017 / October

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Scott Williams

Pop culture has undergone a “monstrous” renaissance in recent years, with books like The Lord of the Rings, films like Twilight, cartoons such as Spirited Away and Yo-kai Watch, and even mobile games like Pokémon Go all incorporating fantastical elements. Why have fantastical creatures (called yao­guai in Chinese) proved such a creative wellspring? Does Taiwan have such creatures of its own? Fans of traditional monster stories have begun combing through historical documents for information on these creatures, long banished to the fringes of academic study, and are trying to explain their charms to others.


While a graduate student in literature, novelist Ho ­Ching Yao studied historical novels about Taiwan. But Ho was also very interested in mainland China’s and Japan’s very entertaining alternate histories. Hard at work on his own historical novels, he wondered: “Is there more to Taiwanese history than sad and bloody conflicts? Is there any way to make our history more interesting to ordinary people?”

Meanwhile, a group of former members of the fantasy clubs of National Taiwan University and National Cheng­chi University were establishing the Tai­pei Legend Studio. Confronted by modern society’s focus on order and efficiency and its rejection of different modes of thinking, the studio’s members yearned to loosen society’s strictures and create more space for the imagination. They felt that fantastical creatures could provide a doorway to their dreams.

Winnowing wheat from chaff

But, for all that Taiwan’s traditional culture is filled with gods and spirits, the island doesn’t have much in the way of a “yaoguai culture.” It’s not that Taiwan has no fantastical creatures, it’s just that orthodox historians and folklorists haven’t paid them much heed. But Taiwan’s more than 400-year-long documentary history is littered with heterodox ­discussions.

As with mainland China’s The Classic of Mountains and Seas and Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, and with the Greek myths, turning these stories into a creative resource requires that they first be collected and compiled. Recognizing that it is the repeated use of such stories by later generations that gives rise to a yao­guai culture, Ho and the Tai­pei Legend Studio have made it their mission to pioneer Taiwan’s largely untouched fantastical terrain.

In 2016, the Tai­pei Legend Studio published Taiwan’s first literary history of fantastical creatures, ­Yao-Guai Matters. The book integrates fiction and reference material, and includes original short stories that have each of its 49 fantastical creatures encountering people in the modern world. Co-author Kao Pei-yun explains: “We took the kind of stories that seem like they would have taken place in a rural village long ago, and put them into a modern setting to see what would happen.” Luo ­Chuan-­chiao adds: “We didn’t want to make it seem like yao­guai were things from that past that no longer exist.” With the book’s publication, the modern summoning of Taiwanese fantastical creatures had begun.

Ho himself has moved on from integrating fantastical creatures into his fiction to exploring the literary history of Taiwanese yao­guai. His Taiwan Monster Story, published in early 2017, offers an encyclopedic take on the 229 appearances of fantastical creatures in Taiwan recorded in books and newspapers from 1624 to 1945.

Ho incorporated yao­guai into his novels Fantasy Alley and Monster Maze, and describes these rich cultural assets as a “goldmine” and a “treasure trove” for artists. He says, “Rather than just revitalizing a cultural asset for my own use, I’m hoping to encourage talented people to incorporate yao­guai into a variety of fields, like television, film, comics, tabletop games, and mobile games.”

Ho and the Taipei Legend Studio are like farmers who have laboriously tilled the soil and are now waiting for their harvest. Having banded together with their friends to talk about Taiwan’s yao­guai stories and strengthen the underpinnings of Taiwanese fantasy fiction, they hope to build the fertile soil necessary to nurture the genre.

Speaking through monsters

The marginality, creative possibilities and just plain fun of monsters enable writers to write them however they like.

As Ho says, “People read for entertainment. The process is an adventure that ends in quiet reflection.” He is using yao­guai as a new way to “package” historical novels and make them interesting for ordinary readers, and also as a means to reexamine the land where he lives. The Legend Tai­pei Studio is using yao­guai to push past the real world, pose challenges to our modern way of life, and open up our imaginations. ­Chiaos, on the other hand, is an illustrator who has created a new model for his business using his drawings of Taiwan’s yao­guai. He says that with his new approach, he’s aiming to please himself rather than others.

After collecting and studying a number of yao­guai, ­Chiaos chose 20 that he liked, including Ali­ka­kay, a star-trapping, child-eating figure that appears in the legends of Hua­lien’s Aborigines, and Sio-hong, a hot, dry wind that is a feature of the climate around Ping­tung’s Mt. Dawu. He then interpreted them in his own artistic style, producing characters that he used to create postcard books and fold-out books.

The initial success of his designs led to opportunities to cooperate on more diverse projects. Taiwan Monsters Brawl, a tabletop game he developed with game designer Erich, is a case in point. ­Chiaos tweaked his character designs for the game, making them more over-the-top and cartoony, and increasing the saturation of the colors to the kinds of levels used in ­commercial ­applications. The unique game concept attracted a great deal of interest when he and Erich raised funds for it online, and the game itself went on to sell like hot cakes, validating ­Chiaos’ strategy of building a brand around Taiwanese yao­guai.

A beautifully diverse island

In addition to being a resource for the creative and cultural industries, Taiwan’s yao­guai can be viewed through the lens of cultural research. The Japanese folklorist Ku­nio Ya­na­gita used his studies of Japanese yo­kai (“yao­guai”) to understand the past, present and future of the Ya­mato people. As Taiwan continues to hurtle into modernity, its yao­guai provide a great way to observe and grasp its national character and culture.

Ho says that while writing Taiwan Monster Story, he skimmed through large numbers of documents and historical materials written by people of many different ethnic backgrounds, including German, French, Swiss, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, and Aboriginal. The fact that each inscribed their own imagination on Taiwan has helped give rise to Taiwan’s eclectic cultural character.

Ho says: “Taiwan’s yao­guai come in all shapes and sizes, reflecting Taiwan’s all-embracing nature. The exchanges, compromises and conflicts between those different ethnic groups gave rise to a syncretic maritime nation. That was my biggest epiphany from completing Taiwan Monster Story.” Similarly, today’s immigrants and migrant workers are bringing legends of their own to Taiwan, where they are converging into a single larger stream and enriching our cultural imagination. Tracing the thread of Taiwan’s yao­guai casts our island’s amazing diversity into brilliant relief.                          

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