Sun, Aug 11, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The great literature war

The debate over Taiwan-centric nativist literature boiled over in August 1977, with the government leading attacks on such writings as pro-communist and divisionist

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A scene depicting rural life in Taiwan in the 1960s, a common topic for nativist writers during the 1960s and 1970s.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aug. 11 to Aug. 17

In August 1977, writers Peng Ke (彭歌) and Yu Kuang-chung (余光中) went on the offensive against nativist literature (鄉土文學), accusing the genre’s writers of harboring communist sentiments. This turned the debate political and pushed the nativist literature war toward its high point.

Nativist literature started gaining popularity in the early 1970s and referred to a genre that sought to realistically depict the lives and sentiments of ordinary people in Taiwan, reflecting their daily struggles as well as elements of local culture and society.

Peng, then-editor in chief for the state-run Central Daily News (中央日報), struck first in a lengthy article titled: “Without humanity, how can there be literature?” (不談人性, 何有文學?). He warns that focusing too much on social problems would foster class divisions and perpetrate hatred. He compares using social class to dictate literature to using social class as a political tool — clearly referring to the tenets of the hated communists in China.

Yu lays it out even more directly. In the first sentence of The wolf is coming (狼來了), he scathingly accuses nativist writers of promoting “worker-peasant-soldier arts and literature” (工農兵文學) championed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東).

In the ensuing months, numerous articles and publications slamming nativist literature appeared, with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) even hosting a literary summit to address the issue. Curiously, it was the military who “ended” the war during the National Army Literary Arts Conference (國軍文藝大會) in January 1978.

THE DEBATE BEGINS

There was little room for nativist literature in Taiwan before the 1970s. Starting in the 1950s, the ruling KMT exerted strict control over the literary scene, seeing it as another avenue to promote and maintain anti-communist sentiment. Taiwan-born writers also struggled because they were not familiar with the state-imposed Mandarin.

Under US influence, and also for anti-communist purposes, up-and-coming writers championed Western-style modernism during the late 1950s and well into the 1960s. Nativist literature publications, such as Taiwan Literary Arts (台灣文藝) founded by writer Wu Cho-liu (吳濁流) in 1964, started appearing in the mid-1960s. These works often focused on rural life, depicting realistically the modest lives of every day Taiwanese.

While the term had been gaining popularity throughout the 1970s, sources generally agree that the debate began with contrasting arguments that appeared in the second issue of Cactus Magazine (仙人掌雜誌) in April 1977. Author Wang Tuoh (王拓), who later became secretary-general of the Democractic Progressive Party (DPP), detailed the turbulent times in the early 1970s that led to the popularization of the genre: the explosion of patriotism and social awareness through the movement to protect the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), the diplomatic disappointments of Taiwan leaving the UN and both the US and Japan getting chummy with China.

This led to a surge in nationalism, a shunning of American and Japanese imperialism and a growing interest in issues revolving around the everyday life of regular people. Wang wrote that nativist literature should examine social injustices and show support and empathy for the less fortunate.

“This literature should be rooted in the land and society and accurately reflect people’s lives and hopes. It shouldn’t just depict rural life, but also include everyday urbanites.”

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