Beyond Taiwan, a Writer and Her Readers Discover Each Other
Walls, fences and being overheard beyond walls and fences were the themes of Taiwanese intellectual Lung Ying-tai's May 2 lecture, in which she invited the audience to "sit along with me at the writer's desk." The event, attended by nearly 300 people, was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies.
Published: Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Lung Ying-tai, a celebrated Taiwanese writer and social critic and Hung Leung Hau Ling Distinguished Fellow in Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, received her first reader mail from mainland China while the "storm" of Tiananmen Square was "slowly gathering." She had been unknown there before copies of her essay collection "The Wild Fire" appeared belatedly in 1988–89, first in pirated versions and then in a self-censored, "authorized" edition.
As Lung explained to an audience of nearly 300 on Monday, May 2, in UCLA's Lenart Auditorium, she took important lessons from mainland China's reactions to her early work, lessons that she continues to sort through. Why, she still wonders, did a subsidiary of the Chinese ministry of national security publish the essays? "Subversive forces from within?"
Lung recalls the soft, steady voice that she detected in a letter from a steel worker in Shanghai. The woman wrote to Lung, "You can never imagine how lonely one feels in this country being old, female and poor." Born and brought up after the Chinese Civil War, Lung and her childhood friends had pictured mainlanders quite differently, for example as "frogman" soldiers who would carry knives onto the beach in their teeth, to slit your throat at night.
But reading the Shanghai woman's letter "was like seeing a flash of lightning from the thickest of woods for me," Lung said. "Beyond the dark, sinister, incomprehensible walls, there were people on the other side, with agony and joy, with despair and hope, with shattered dreams and longing…."
Walls, fences and being overheard beyond walls and fences were the themes of Lung's Monday afternoon lecture, in which she invited the audience to "sit along with me at the writer's desk."
"As islanders we were surrounded not by open beaches, but by walls," she said. Responding to lines she cited from Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall," she added, "As a child born after the civil war in 1952, I actually grew up behind walls without knowing who built the wall and to what purpose this wall was built, and who was to be kept in and who was to be kept out."
After earning a doctorate in English and American literature from Kansas State University, Lung returned to Taiwan in 1983 and observed "with adult eyes, anthropological eyes … a society which had become so resigned and docile after four decades of martial law, under which injustice seemed to be the rule of the day."
She began writing her "Wild Fire" column for Taiwan's China Times newspaper "to ask the citizens to organize themselves and to become activists against the status quo." One 1984 essay, "Chinese, Why Are You Not Angry?", hit a nerve, and the title became a catchphrase used to this day. Lung translated a passage for the UCLA audience:
Do not think you are a professor and therefore research is more important. Do not think that you are just a butcher and no one's going to listen to you. Do not think you are a student and not qualified to speak out on social issues. If you don't get angry and stand up today, you and me and our younger generation will become the silent victims tomorrow. If you have any conscience at all, go right this minute to your government officials and say to them you've had enough and you are mad. You must say it clear and loud.
Martial rule in Taiwan ended in 1987. Two years later, Lung was astonished to hear Beijing students on live television reading aloud from the essay.
"'The Wild Fire' was intended for the readership in Taiwan, but I realized that the voice was overheard by the people across the walls, and I thought, they have the same problems as we do over here, and these people are also attuned to read between lines, as we were," said Lung.
Lung went on to write about 30 books for the wider audience, in spite of censorship. Increasingly, she was also being overheard in the West. In 2009, she published the historical work and instant Taiwanese bestseller "Big River, Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949."
Banned in China, the book uncovers personal stories about the Civil War from many vantage points. Among other forgotten and suppressed episodes, it recounts horrors from the Communist army's Siege of Changchun, northeastern China, in 1948. With varying degrees of shame and guilt, witnesses describe the circumstances in which between 100,000 and 650,000 starved to death.
One of Lung's narrators, "surprised that anyone cared to ask about his past," pours out his story over the telephone to a nephew who was also Lung's hired driver on her trip to Changchun two years ago. Uncle Wang guarded a post on Changchun's edge, crying at the sight of starving civilians but obeying his orders to block their exit. His voice was loud on the phone, and Lung overheard his 40-minute testimony.
"Even people in Changchun did not know their own recent past," Lung writes. Her incredulous driver called his Uncle Wang because he'd never heard of the siege. Bronze memorials in the city pay tribute to the People's Liberation Army and the Soviet red army, and Chinese school textbooks for 60 years have treated Changchun as a "bloodless" episode in a glorious fight.
"As a writer, the only thing you can do is continue to sit in front of the desk with hopefully a window open to a larger view," Lung said. "You're never really able to see the true faces of the people on the other side of the fence."