Yaoguai literature primarily refers to the wave of original writing based on supernatural folk stories that has emerged in Taiwan since 2014. The adaptation of folk legends into fiction, of course, has a long history. Examples from the Japanese colonial period include Kho Peng-teng’s (許丙丁) The Lesser Investiture of the Gods (小封神) and Haruo Sato’s (佐藤春夫) The Legend of the Fan (女誡扇綺譚). More recently there has been Wang Chia-Hsiang’s (王家祥) Mô-sîn-á (魔神仔) and Li Ang’s (李昂) Visible Ghosts (看得見的鬼). It is only in recent years, however, that the trend of repackaging these folk tales has gained steam, with source materials ranging from the scary stories we all heard as children — “The Tiger Aunt”, “Mô-sîn-á,” and stories about water spirits — to more obscure stories from ancient texts such as “The Lantern Monkey,” and “The Sister of the Bamboo Stool.”
These legends have been around for ages, so why has this new trend of supernatural literature suddenly taken hold?
The answer can be traced back to the Sunflower Movement. For young people in Taiwan, the Sunflower Movement was not just a political movement — it was a cultural awakening. The generation that grew up after the end of martial law were shocked to discover how little they knew about their own culture. This generation was also anxious about its own lack of cultural impact. They had not yet had any pronounced impact within the cultural sphere, nor did they have any highly successful representatives within mainstream media. As a result, it was a generation that could not recognize its own image in the available media, which compounded the sense of being disconnected from their own culture.
Traditional tales of the supernatural were a medium that just happened to be suited to resolving both of these problems.
The term yaoguai was translated directly from the Japanese yokai, which refers to a class supernatural entities that include spirits and monsters. Originally Taiwan did not have a literary framework for these kinds of stories. Adopting the Japanese terminology connects the genre to a thread that runs throughout Japanese culture. Yokai is one of the deepest roots of Japanese folk tradition, and remains one of the most vital subjects in fiction and manga. Born in the 80’s and 90’s, the Sunflower Movement generation were obsessed with yokai, having grown up reading Japanese manga. By the 2010’s they had matured and developed their creative talents while remaining hardcore fans of manga. Before their cultural awakening they had been content to consume Japanese yokai stories. But after their cultural awakening, they couldn’t help but ask: does Taiwan have its own yokai?
Indeed, Taiwan does have yokai, or, in the Taiwanese context, yaoguai. The current yaoguai craze got started in the area of textual research. Books like Yaoguai-ism by Taipei Legend Studio and Yaoguai Taiwan by Ho Ching-Yao helped to establish that yaoguai not only existed in Taiwan, but that there were quite a lot of them!
From the moment they were published, these first books of yaoguai research were adopted as reference works by Taiwanese youth. Being familiar with yokai culture in Japan, they knew that after research comes creative work. Demonstrating the existence of yaoguai source material in Taiwan was merely the first step. The critical issue was how to use these sources to create outstanding works of yaoguai fiction, thereby bringing Taiwanese culture and history to the attention of more readers.