Tue, May 27, 2003 - Page 3 News List

Taking the nation's literature to the nation

While the country's literary figures have been grappling with the concept of `Taiwanese conciousness' for years, veteren writer Yeh Shih-tao has been busy working to define it

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Yeh Shih-tao, left, receives an honorary doctorate from then president of National Cheng Kung University Weng Cheng-i in 1999.


No country can stand without its own literature. Taiwan cannot be a country without Taiwanese literature. So says Yeh Shih-tao (葉石濤), the country's first writer to declare that all serious Taiwanese writers must have "Taiwanese consciousness."

The term "Taiwanese literature" first appeared in 1920, when a group of Taiwanese intellectuals founded the magazine Taiwan Youth (台灣青年雜誌) in Tokyo, said Yang Shun-ming (楊順明), editor-in-chief of Avant-garde Publishing Company.

Yang, whose company's major publications are of Taiwanese literature, believes the literature is influenced by the abundant canon of Chinese literature.

What is Taiwan literature? The question has echoed in the hearts of Yeh and his fellow writers for years.

Yeh was born in Tainan in 1925, 30 years after the Ching government ceded the island to Japan after losing the 1895 Sino-Japanese War.

Born to a family with a rich literary background, Yeh entered primary school at the age of eight but had begun reading Chinese classics when he was six. He received a Japanese education as a teenager, since Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire.

He wrote his first novel, The Matsu Festival (媽祖祭), when he was 16, although it was not published. He wrote his first published novel, The Letter from Lin (林君寄來的信) -- in Japanese -- when he was 19.

Since then, Yeh's work, mainly novels and literary criticism, has frequently graced the pages of the nation's newspapers and literary press.

The prolific writer and avid reader's literary odyssey began at an early age. While attending Tainan's most prestigious junior-high school, he was introduced to a range of foreign literary works, much of it French, through Japanese translations.

Youthful interest

Yeh was 20 when Japanese rule in Taiwan ended with its defeat in World War II. Six years later, his interest in books by Chinese communists, including a work by Mao Zedong (毛澤東), led to his imprisonment by the KMT government in 1951 on treason charges.

Yeh had been a prolific and passionate writer before his imprisonment. When he was released three years later, his creativity seemed to have been stifled by fear and the brutal treatment he had suffered in jail. He did not write again until 1965.

The works of the 10 years before his imprisonment -- from age 16 to 26 -- are a rare source of images of the lives of the people during the 1930s and 1940s. Very little other high-quality literature emerged from those years.

Yeh did not formally start writing again until 12 years after his release. But once he picked up his pen he seemed unable to put it down again. Between 1968 and 2001, he published 42 books, including fiction, prose, criticism and translations.

He first introduced the term "Taiwanese consciousness" in his 1977 commentary An Introduction to the History of Native Taiwanese Literature (台灣鄉土文學史導論), published in a local magazine.

In an interview with the Taipei Times, Yeh explained the concept and why it is so important to the country's writers.

"We were born in Taiwan. We grew up on this land and eat the food produced here. Shouldn't we identify ourselves with this land and its people?" Yeh said.

"To have Taiwanese consciousness is to regard Taiwan as our collective identity. A writer cannot write if he does not identify himself with his own people and land," he said.

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