While the author and social critic Lung Ying-Tai is a well-known name in many Chinese-speaking households, non-Chinese readers may need a bit of introduction to the creative work of Taiwan’s first Minister of Culture.
The Taiwanese-born author’s many novels and essays have caused stirs in Taiwan, mainland China and Europe. Her writings reflect upon political and social trends as well as personal milestones. Like her writing style, Lung herself is straightforward, succinct and approachable, and often sparking with intelligence. Critics have characterised Lung and her writings as quick to anger and combative, and she has been accused of writing superficially on topics in order to stir up her fans. Below is a brief guide to her most important works.
Big River, Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949 (2009)
This non-fiction chronicle of the aftermath of the communist victory was published during the 60th anniversary year of the People’s Republic of China. As the victors celebrated, Lung Ying-tai looked back at the history of 1949 from the perspective of the losers as they retreated to Taiwan. The book tells of the struggles and determination of refugees and ordinary people coming to terms with their unpredictable fate.
The author has said she wrote the book with three intentions: “One, to remember the thousands upon thousands who died for one man’s victory. Two, to say thank you to my mother’s generation for the hardships they survived. And finally, to teach young people who do not know about this period of history about it, so they will not repeat it.”
The book received a mixed reception. Taiwanese writer Li Ao published a book the following year entitled Lies of the Big River, Big Sea, accusing Lung’s book of only describing the surface of events, rather than their causes, and of flattering Chiang Kai-shek. But what Li Ao characterised as an untrustworthy writing style was praised by Professor Leo Lee Ou-Fan from the Chinese University of Hong Kong as an integral part of the book, as it pieced together fragments of stories to tell a generation suffering from selective amnesia of how the ordinary people could not escape history.
The Wild Fire (1985)
The Wild Fire is seen as a seminal work of Taiwanese political literature. After returning from studies in the US, Lung observed what she perceived as apathy of Taiwanese people towards environmental pollution, social disorder and a loss of public morals. Chapters such as “Why aren’t the Chinese angry?” and “Isn’t anger useful?” encouraged the public to speak out. Taiwanese poet Yu Guangzhong described the book as a “tornado”, and it sent huge waves through Taiwanese society.
The publication of the book matched the times – after 38 years of the White Terror, political reform and the end of the ban on political parties and the curfew, a society released from oppression was calling for democratic freedoms.
Writing on how she herself dealt with writing in politically-charged environments, Lung said that “there were many non-KMT magazines, but they could only be circulated underground, and I don’t think that is effective. My thinking was: work as slowly as possible, so those in power don’t recognise you are dangerous, and use the best and liveliest writing to influence as many people as possible.”
Grow Up Slowly, Child (2009)
Lung’s works are not all political. From 1986 to 1988 she lived in Switzerland and raised her sons, after which she wrote this book. Through sketches of her children growing up she describes her love for them, while providing a feminist perspective on the conflicts women must negotiate between work and home. In the earlier Oh, Shanghai Men, she dissected the relationship between the sexes by praising the men of that city as liberated, warm and acquiescent to their wives.