If Lai Ho (賴和) is mentioned in Taiwan today, how many people would know who he is? And if he is mentioned on a national university campus or in a high school class today, how many students would know who this great literary man was?
Lai was a writer who made his living as a doctor and is well-known among Taiwanese physicians who share his deep personal feelings for Taiwan as a nation with its own culture and history, distinct from that of China. However, for maybe 90 percent of the population, the name “Lai Ho” probably means nothing.
However, there are movements afoot to revive Lai’s name and the literary gift he left to his country.
In a recent article in this newspaper (“Changhua honors ‘father of national modern literature,’” May 30, page 2), it was written that nearly seven decades after Lai’s death, “his native Changhua County rediscovered the famed figure and celebrated his birthday, which falls on May 28, with a series of events.”
In addition to discussion panels and a concert to celebrate the 118th anniversary of Lai’s birth, the Lai Ho Foundation organized other events in Changhua which made it into all the Chinese-language newspapers’ national editions, and several TV networks aired it too.
So who exactly was this short-story writer and poet, this “father of Taiwanese literature,” this man for all seasons, who died aged 50 after being imprisoned by the Japanese rulers of his beloved, colonized land?
Lai was born in 1894 and died in 1943. “Lai Ho” was a pen name, his actual name being Lai Yun (賴雲). He studied to be a doctor and practiced medicine, but he was also a writer, a man of letters, the man who steered Taiwanese literature in a new direction. However, good luck to you should to try to find any of his writings in a bookstore.
In today’s fast world of FarmVille computer games, YouTube videos, Plurk and cable TV, the life and literary works of Lai have all but been forgotten by the public. This is not good. His name needs to be revived and his work re-examined in light of what has happened since he left this mortal coil.
A few years ago, the Hakka Affairs Council sponsored the English-language publication of a book of 21 short stories by Lai, ably translated by Central News Agency chairman Joe Hung (洪健昭). The book, titled Lai Ho Fiction, has been distributed worldwide via Taiwan’s overseas offices and is available at several university libraries in the US, Britain and Australia.
For most foreigners, the translations are their first introduction to Lai’s works. He has rightly been called “the father of Taiwanese literature” by literary critics because he was among the first to write about life on the island — and for Lai this meant telling stories about daily life under Japanese occupation.
He should not be forgotten. I’ve read his short stories in English and they offer a wonderful look into the Taiwan of the early 1900s. I would encourage all friends of Taiwan to read some of these stories, too.
It’s not FarmVille, but it is real life on the farm in a way most people have forgotten.
As the Taipei Times article noted, Lai was “active in the peaceful resistance movement against Japanese colonial rule, and was twice detained by police for his involvement in the anti-colonial movement. He passed away in 1943 shortly after he was released from prison for the second time.”