Sun, Mar 05, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The sweet sound of the mother tongue

A member of the ‘translingual generation,’ poet Tu Pan Fang-ko wrote in languages imposed on her by the Japanese and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regimes, but turned to her native Hakka after the lifting of martial law

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Tu Pan Fang-ko, third from left in back row, poses for her high school graduation photo.

Photo courtesy of National Central Library

March 6 to March 12

Last month, the family of the late poet Tu Pan Fang-ko (杜潘芳格) donated 340 manuscripts to the National Central Library. The three languages these documents were written in — Japanese, Mandarin and Hakka — represent Tu Pan’s literary journey through Taiwan’s turbulent history.

Living through the Japanese and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regimes, the political climate dictated what language Tu Pan wrote in for most of her life. It wasn’t until she was in her 60s that she began to use her native Hakka.

Writers like Tu Pan are often included in the “translingual generation” (跨語言的一代), a term coined in 1967 by poet Lin Heng-tai (林亨泰) to describe those who were educated in Japanese but were forced to pick up Mandarin under KMT rule. He specifically referred to those who came of age under the colonial government’s Japanifcation policy, which officially began in 1936.

“When Japanese rule ended, we were in our 20s. Unlike the older generation who may have had some exposure to an education in Chinese, we were strictly educated in Japanese since childhood. While we were no longer forced to speak Japanese, it was the language we were most comfortable writing in. We had to be determined enough to make another shift, which was to learn Chinese,” he wrote.

A National Museum of Taiwan Literature publication states, “This was especially problematic for writers, as they lost their rich vocabulary, grammar and ability to express complex thoughts. Many stopped writing, and others had to study for years before they could write in Chinese.”

But like other members of this generation, being forced to use a new language did not dampen Tu Pan’s literary passion.

“If you ask me why I write, you might as well ask me why I live,” she said in a 2004 interview with Ink Literary Monthly (印刻文學生活誌). “My words have a life of their own … they simply appear, and I’m compelled to write them down.”

Born on March 9, 1927 to wealthy and educated parents, Tu Pan’s family moved to Japan when she was an infant. They returned when she was about six years old, and enrolled in Japanese schools up to the college level. Her work is shaped by many conflicts in her life — being bullied by Japanese schoolmates, questioning the role of women in society, defying her parents’ wishes by choosing her own husband and losing several family members in the 228 Incident.

The KMT banned writing in Japanese in 1946, and Tu Pan did not publish anything for more than a decade. She was also busy helping her husband and raising seven children during this time. In 1966, she published her first Mandarin poem, written in Japanese and translated by fellow writer Wu Cho-liu (吳濁流).

Most of her early works in Mandarin were translations of Japanese originals. Lee Yuan-chen (李元貞), a professor of Chinese literature, writes that they often suffered at the hands of various translators, who were often male and did not grasp the nuances of the female perspective.

“This is one of the reasons she wasn’t as influential as she could have been,” Lee writes. “Such is the fate of many members of the translingual generation.”


After the lifting of martial law in 1987, Hakka intellectuals founded Hakka Affair Monthly magazine (客家風雲) and held a “Return My Native Language” (還我母語) march on Dec. 28, 1988.

Tu Pan was never fully comfortable writing in Mandarin, and Japanese remained the main language she used during the creative process. One day, however, she noticed that “some verses started to naturally form in my native Hakka.”

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