Nativist literature (sometimes translated as “native-soil” literature) is one of the most representative schools of Taiwan literature, and one of the most difficult to categorize. In the 100 years since the birth of modern Taiwan literature in the 1920’s there have been at least three different concepts of what constitutes nativist literature:
1. Literature written in a local Taiwan language. This normally indicates Taiwanese, Hakka, or the language of one of Taiwan’s aboriginal groups. This definition does not include literature written in the languages of the colonizing powers, namely Japanese or Mandarin.
2. Literature that takes the struggles of the lower classes of society as its subject. This definition carries leftist overtones. Subject matter often focuses on the lives of farmers, fishermen, miners, and urban laborers. Often utilizes the techniques of social realism.
3. Literature that takes Taiwanese society, environment, and/or customs as its subject. This definition places no limit on language use, nor which classes of society are portrayed, so long as it is local to Taiwan. This is a literature with Taiwanese nationalist overtones, clearly demarcating Taiwan as a separate culture sphere from China.
There is some overlap between these definitions, but each prioritizes different core concerns and values, and forefronts the viewpoints of different authors. The first view emphasizes language. The second emphasizes a critique of class structure. The third emphasizes Taiwanese national identity. Yet, in the final accounting, all of them share the implicit yearning for Taiwanese people to describe their own reality in their own language.
Authors and readers from other countries may have difficulty understanding this yearning. An American or Japanese person might not feel the same kind of yearning to use their own language, or to describe their own society, because these are things that already happen quite naturally for them. Whereas, Taiwan has come under outside rule twice in the last century, and during those times it was unimaginable to do things what would seem perfectly natural in other countries.
From 1895 until 1945, when Taiwan was a colony of the imperial Japan, it was impossible for Taiwanese to write about their own society in their own language. Any literary expression of Taiwanese-ness was viewed as political disloyalty. In 1945, control of Taiwan was passed to the Republic of China. At first, Taiwanese people believed they had been liberated from colonization, and could develop their own literature. They didn’t anticipate that the ruling party, the Kuomintang, would lose the Chinese civil war to the communists and be forced to retreat to Taiwan. As part of their plan to retake the mainland, the Republic of China government initiated a Oppose Communism/Remember the Motherland cultural policy that required authors to primarily write on subjects centered on China and Chinese culture. The government hoped that, through the persuasive power of literature, they could instill in Taiwanese people nationalistic feelings concerning the war effort. If, at this time, Taiwanese writers had “written about their own society in their own language” they would have once again been tagged as disloyal, and criticized for abandoning the goal of a unified China.