The book that built the Lien family

By Ku Er-teh 顧爾德  / 

Fri, Feb 06, 2004 - Page 8

Just when the family assets of Lien Chen-tung (連震東) and his son Lien Chan (連戰) became a hot election campaign issue, a dissertation written by academic Lin Yuan-huei (林元輝) five years ago once again circulated on the Internet. The paper, A Study of the Formation, Transition and Significance of Collective Memory, with Lien Heng (連橫) as an Example, was initially published in Taiwan: A Radical Quarterly in Social Studies. Marvellously, and in depth, the paper introduces Lien Heng, Lien Chan's grandfather and

author of the book General History of Taiwan, which is

the Lien family's most precious asset.

The 30,000-character paper tells the reader that, during the era of Japanese occupation, both Lien Heng and Lien Chen-tung worked for a pro-Japanese newspaper. It also tells how Lien Heng eulogized the colonizers in poems, and how hard he tried to invite colonial officials to write a frontispiece inscription and an introduction for his book at the time of its publication. When the colonizers had objections to the book's contents, the great historian readily followed the good advice and revised it.

The Yatang Bookstore, set up by Lien Heng, claimed it did not sell Japanese-language books, but was hired by the governor's office to procure Chinese books and materials for its "southern studies" (the study of China and southeast Asia).

To increase revenue, the Japanese extended special permission to the opium trade at the end of 1928, ignoring the health of the Taiwanese people. This drew protests from the Taiwan Commoners Party (台灣民眾黨) and medical associations across Taiwan, as well as the New People Association (新民會) in Tokyo. The colonizers mobilized their hack academics and gentry to defend it. Lien Heng also wrote a lengthy opinion article supporting the colonial government's policy. The article was published in the Taiwan Daily News (台灣日日新報), a hack newspaper of the Japanese. For this, Lien Heng was despised by Taiwanese society, ostracized by cultural circles, and expelled by the Oak Tree Poetry Society (櫟社), Taiwan's top poetry club. "Feeling that he had no footing among the Taiwanese people," Lien took his family and left for Shanghai.

After arriving in Shanghai, he took refuge in another power center. He handed over his son to Chang Chi (張繼), a powerful figure in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). After Lien Heng's death, World War II ended and the KMT government was in need of some introductory information on Taiwan as it took over the region. Lien Chen-tung hurriedly approached the Commercial Press for a reprint of the General History of Taiwan. Only the frontispiece inscription written by a Japanese official was missing from the new edition.

The KMT central government came to Taiwan after the 228 Incident. To win over the Taiwanese, propaganda officials like Chang Chi-yun (張其昀) extolled the virtues of Lien Heng and promoted him as a representative of the Taiwanese spirit. The media discussed him, cultural groups held symposiums to commemorate him and school textbooks told of events in his life and featured his articles. Lien Heng was deified.

Using his father's reputation, Lien Chen-tung also nudged his way into the Citizens' Reform Committee in 1950. He was the only Taiwanese in the 16-member committee. This is where the legend of the Lien family's wealth began.

Lin's paper discusses how "collective memory" is formed. To serve the interests of Lien Heng and his son, as well as those in power, Lien Heng was transformed from a man of letters dependent upon the Japanese colonizers into a great historian of the Chinese national spirit. Through textbooks and government propaganda this manufactured image became the Taiwanese people's collective memory of Lien Heng.

Should we condemn the KMT for "using" Lien Heng to rule the Taiwanese? Lin offers a more well-rounded explanation: "It was not just that Lien Heng was used; he himself was a culprit who used others (like Chang Chi) and the nationalist sentiments of people in the motherland. Exactly because Lien Heng and his son were culprits, the KMT, while `using' Lien Heng, was in reality also being `used.'"

The Lien family's wealth was built on one book -- the General History of Taiwan, which created enormous wealth as it was skilfully used, first by Lien Heng and his son and then by the KMT regime.

Who says culture is useless? Officials who want to promote the "cultural and creative industries" should first study the legend of Lien Heng and his son.

Ku Er-teh is a freelance writer.

Translated by Francis Huang