An Island Has No Boundary

by    /  November 12, 2014  / No comments

The Taiwanese poet Li Minyong.

The Taiwanese poet Li Minyong, center, with Tienchi Martin-Liao, right. Photo provided by author.

“An island surrounded by the blue ocean has no boundary.
An island under the bright sky has no boundary.
Who are they
Building the bastion of iron to delimit boundaries?
The barbed wires
Restrict the yearning for long voyages.
The boom nets
Restrict the hope of flying free.”

– Li Minyong (translated by K.C. Tu)

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

The Taiwanese poet Li Minyong is always concerned with issues that are ahead of his time. To him, a poet is a harbinger who foresees an oncoming threat. Born in Gaoxiong, southern Taiwan, in 1947, Li belongs to the post-World War II generation of Taiwanese poets. When the island was liberated after 50 years as a Japanese colony, the Taiwanese people celebrated and embraced their Chinese saviors. Soon, however, they found out that the new mainland ruler, the Kuomintang (KMT)-led Republic of China, was an uncivilized and even more brutal colonial power than the Japanese. Two years after China took control of Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek‘s soldiers massacred numerous Taiwanese civilians in what became known as the 228 Incident. Tens of thousands of people died in the bloody crackdown on the anti-government uprising. The 228 Incident left a deep scar on Taiwan’s modern history. It marked the beginning of the White Terror period in Taiwan, where thousands of the island’s political dissidents were imprisoned, killed, or otherwise eliminated for real or perceived opposition to the KMT party. Around 140,000 of Taiwan’s social elite were jailed, including doctors and lawyers. Others went underground, and a few escaped into exile in Japan or China. This extremely dark chapter in Taiwanese history lasted four decades, until 1987, when martial law was finally lifted and Taiwan became a democratic country. It achieved not only economic success but also a free election system. In 2000, during their second direct presidential election, the Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian was elected, the first time an opposition party candidate won over the KMT.

Even though the United Nations does not identify Taiwan as an independent country, the quality of life in Taiwan is rated far superior to China, more equivalent to Singapore. Yet potential threats from China still stir up feelings of unease. On the one hand, Chinese trade and flourishing tourism from mainland visitors bring enormous economic benefits to the island. On the other, Taiwan’s economy increasingly depends on China. Assimilation under big brother China is visible and worries the middle class very much. The poet Li Minyong is among those who see Taiwan’s economic attachment to China as a critical issue.

Li’s work is deeply rooted in the local culture of southern Taiwan, where he grew up, and conveys his strong sense of Taiwanese identity. He began to write while he was in college, publishing Yun de yuyan (Voice of the Cloud), his first poetry collection, in 1968. In the following decades, he worked as editor-in-chief and publisher of the influential bimonthly Bamboo Hat Poetry Journal. (The waterproof bamboo hat, worn by peasants, is a symbol of agricultural Taiwan.) Although he earned his living through working in business, Li devoted himself to literature. However, the challenges writers faced in post-colonial Taiwan were hard. Political suppression under a new ruler was accompanied by a shift in language, custom, and identity, throwing the Taiwanese into an intrinsic struggle. When Taiwan was returned to China at the end of World War II, the complex history of Taiwanese culture, tradition, and language did not get a chance to fully re-establish itself before newcomers imposed Chinese orthodoxy on the island. These introduced beliefs included the assertion that because the Taiwanese language (Taiyu) is “only” a dialect, it should be abandoned and that, because Taiwan is one of big China’s provinces, all Taiwanese are Chinese. I grew up in Taiwan as a Chinese transplant from the mainland, and like everyone on the island, I was brainwashed by the Kuomintang doctrine.

As a native Taiwanese, Li Minyong and his compatriots struggled and survived in the political and cultural crevices. Through the Li Poetry Group, they established a Taiwanese identity and found their own language and history. Their mainland colleagues, like the famous poets Yu Guangzhong and Zhou Mengdie, sang songs of homesickness and dreamed of China’s past glory. Although the hostility between China and Taiwan has decreased in the new millennium, a new threat is emerging. The big Chinese empire continues to claim sovereignty over the island. In his poem “Floating Beacon,” Li Minyong speaks out with the voice of the Taiwanese:

“I have lost my nationality——
It is not my fault
Nor my wish
My scar
Deep as the ocean floor
Has been gathering
The darkest sorrows of the world
My burning desire
Is to feel the shore
And to soak in love
But again and again
The shore has appeared and disappeared
The banishment has been lifted and re-imposed.”

(translated by William Marr)

Poet Li Minyong represents Taiwan’s positive spirit. Although inspired by the Taiwanese literary tradition, his work manifests his solidarity with his poetry colleagues. He is also connected with international literature, his favorite poets being Milosz, Brodsky, and Seifert. He is also involved in significant social and political movements, in particular: efforts to expose the truth of the 228 Massacre, protests against the nuclear industry, and establishing justice for victims of political suppression. There is no “sound and fury” in his poems; instead, they are graceful and full of peace. His poem “Memorandum” may provide the best description of his inner world:

“In the promised land of a poet
Leaves and flowers decorate the banner
Serenade, not the song of crusade is blown by horn
Sorrowful while the seasons change
Weep out of pleasure
Love to every word
I tailor the fitting dress for the language.”

This poem also represents the mind of the young Taiwanese, who demonstrated their political maturity during the Sunflower Student Movement this past spring.

Will the rationality and goodwill reflected in Li’s work be enough to help the Taiwanese people survive? History will be the proof.

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