Poems speak to the spirit of a people; novels tell tales of a society. However, as digital images and books proliferate and as the public shift their preferred method of reading and writing, it appears that poems and novels have ceased to play the roles they once did.
Many cultures and countries are making an effort to keep their literature, and their culture of reading and writing, alive. On World Book Day in Spain, men give women a bouquet of roses, and women give men a book in return.
This is by no means limited to Spain. It has become an international phenomenon, and is promoted by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Letter Writing Day in France was initiated by the nation’s postal service and is designed to highlight that writing is the essence and soul of culture. The message is, why not write a letter, or even send a postcard. Connect to people with words written in your own hand and recall what it means to receive a letter from a loved one.
Under Japanese colonial rule, Taiwan enjoyed a rich and vibrant culture. Reading extensively, acquiring knowledge and giving oneself a rounded education were how young people used to better themselves. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), former presidential adviser Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) and agricultural economist Liu Ching-jui (劉慶瑞) are all examples of this culture.
Lee majored in agricultural economics; Peng studied political science; Liu, law. These three were bastions of Taiwan’s pre-war elite. These people had a voracious appetite for books when they were in high school, be it literature, philosophy, social science, art or science. However, this tradition was demolished after the end of World War II.
With the arrival of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came the 228 Incident, the White Terror era and an extended period of martial law. Literature and reading and writing were not a good fit for the prescriptions of the KMT party-state rule, which viewed such activities with considerable suspicion.
Fault was found with knowledge; fault was found with learning; and anyone non-compliant with the party-state system was perceived to be guilty. It was not only Taiwanese, it was also Chinese who came from China with the KMT: All were subject to fetters and bars on their thoughts and writing.
The intellectual elite during the Japanese colonial period, who were conversant and wrote in Japanese — the language in which they were educated — either met an untimely end during the 228 Incident or lived in fear of their new masters.
The desire for enlightenment which the intellectual elite once aspired to was beaten down, with many academics subjugated to the party-state rule, enslaved to the whims of an immigrant foreign power.
Martial law was eventually lifted, but from this emerged not the transitional justice hoped for, but mass consumerism instead. The public was assailed not by political, but by commercial masters. Writers became anathema.
Chung Li-ho (鍾理和) and Yeh Shih-tao (葉石濤) had cause to wonder whether their native literature had made any mark on their spiritual soil.
The annual Golden Tripod Awards exists to stimulate the creation of, and engagement in, literature. In order to unravel the political problems of the past and move beyond the problems we face today, there needs to be more of an awareness of how deeply problematic national reconstruction and social restructuring is.
In the end, this will be the savior of our home-grown literature.
Lee Min-yung is a poet.
Translated by Ethan Zhan and Paul Cooper
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