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In 1977, debates erupted between officially sanctioned writers who supported the Oppose Communism/Remember the Motherland policy and outsider writers who yearned for a nativist Taiwan literature. This Nativist Literature Debate, the single most important debate in the history of Taiwan literature, validated the nativist writers as an important cultural force, and deeply impacted politics and society in ways that foreshadowed the end of martial law a decade later. During the debates, one of the official writers, Chu Hsi-Ning, made an argument which caused an uproar amongst Taiwanese writers because it made evident the degree to which nativist literature was officially suppressed. “What can be said of loyalty to, or the purity of, national culture after this patch of ‘native soil’ was occupied and managed by Japan for half a century?” Chu asked.
The meaning behind this utterance was clear. As far as the government of the time was concerned, Taiwan was a polluted land, a lowly “patch” of “native soil” not worthy of being written about.
It was only after the lifting of martial law in 1987 that this disdain for nativist culture began to slowly recede. This does not mean, however, that nativist writing was immediately embraced. That would have to wait until the first democratic transition of power took place in 2000, handing the reigns of power to the Democratic Progressive Party. With a more native-conscious political party in power, nativist cultural expression gradually emerged in all artistic fields.
In keeping with these political trends, contemporary nativist works in Taiwan have primarily adopted the third definition of nativist literature, with the first and second definitions being of secondary importance. At least some of the concepts of nativist literature can be identified in most literary works of the past 20 years, including Wu Ming-Yi’s (吳明益) The Stolen Bicycle (單車失竊記), Kan Yao-Ming’s (甘耀明) Killing Ghosts (殺鬼), Tung Wei-Ko’s (童偉格) Summer Downpour (西北雨), Yang Shuang-Tzu’s (楊双子) Blossom Season (花開時節), Xiao Xiang Shen’s (瀟湘神) Yokai Dominate Old Taipei (台北城裡妖魔跋扈), Lien Ming-Wei’s (連明偉) Copper Beetle (青蚨子), and Hung Ming-Tao’s (洪明道) Visitors Bearing Gifts (等路). The aesthetics of these novels differ greatly, spanning modernist experimental, social realist, popular historical fiction, and an increasing number of works that seek to recreate the aesthetics of local language use. But despite these differences there can be no doubt that they are all works that address Taiwanese society in the language of Taiwan.
The Stolen Bicycle
“Know thyself” is a famous Greek maxim. However, for most of the first century of modern Taiwan literature, Taiwanese were forbidden from knowing themselves. All too often the price of writing in a native voice was banishment from literary circles and political censure. The culmination of these 100 years of modern literature is that finally we can write our own stories openly and with dignity. Over the course of this century, nativist literature, our most powerful means of “knowing ourselves,” went from being an impossibly remote hope to a fully recognized school of literary practice.
The better we understand the immense difficulty of “knowing ourselves” that informs the background of all works of nativist literature, the better we can appreciate the profound depths of emotion that reside within these distinctively Taiwanese books.