With Taiwan oppressed under authoritarian rule in the 1970s, the literary efforts of then-National Taiwan University medical student Lin Heng-zhe (林衡哲) made one of the first cracks in the closed society of the time by introducing the thoughts of Western philosophers to the nation.
However, this impressive breakthrough — and Lin’s subsequent creation of a series of books that have introduced more than 500 Western classics to Taiwanese over the past four decades — was all due to a teenage crush.
While in his first year as a medical student at the university, Lin said he met a student from the Taipei First Girls’ High School at a bookstore and then again at a concert.
“She was beautiful. Dressed in a pure-white gown, she looked like an angel on earth,” Lin said, adding that he was inspired to emulate Dante Alighieri and write something to show her his love.
Dante compiled The New Life, a collection of love poetry written over a period of about 10 years, to pay tribute to Beatrice Portinari, his lifelong love, in 1295.
Lin decided to write a music critique to get his love’s attention because she adored music.
Over four years, Lin wrote more than 70,000 words of musical critiques before he learned that his crush had someone else in her life.
Devastated, Lin said that at first, he thought his romantic rival had to at least be better-looking, but eventually found that the other man was “as short as me,” adding that he “felt she had chosen the wrong man.”
At the time, he was reading the works of Chinese philosopher and essayist Hu Shih (胡適) and had come across a famous epigram by Hu that said: “Instead of misleading students in class, it would be a greater contribution to translate a world classic.”
Lin said he laid aside his personal feelings, quit all his tutoring sessions and dedicated an entire summer to translating Wisdom: Conversations with the Elder Wise Men of Our Day (當代人物智慧訪問錄) by James Nelson. Once finished, he gave the manuscript to Wen Hsing Publishing, which printed it.
Encouraged by his initial success, he then translated Bertrand Russell’s Portraits From Memory And Other Essays and once again approached Wen Hsing to publish it, but the company’s owner, Hsiao Meng-neng (蕭孟能), told Lin it was best to find another publisher because Wen Hsing was being monitored by the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime.
Lin said he eventually managed to persuade Chang Ching-chi (張清吉), the owner of Chih Wen Publishing, to print a series of books titled Modern Library (新潮文庫), under which he published the Russell translation and others.
The series picked up where Lin left off and over the past 40 years has brought works on literature, philosophy, music, cinema and art by intellectual greats such as Freud, Sartre, Tolstoy, Schweitzer, Kierkegaard, Homer, Plato and Maupassant to Taiwanese readers.
Using the money he earned through his translations, Lin left for the US, but has always kept his home in his mind, even after he was blacklisted by the KMT government for publishing books that had been banned in Taiwan in the US.
Lin said that as a child, he had grown up thinking of China as his ancestral home and place of origin, but after reading The Fig Tree (無花果) by Wu Cho-liu (吳濁流), he started to understand Taiwan and the 228 Incident.
The Incident refers to a brutal crackdown by the then-KMT regime that began on Feb. 27, 1947, against tens of thousands of people — many of them members of the intellectual elite — which ushered in the White Terror Era.