Winner of MLA Award: “A History of Taiwan Literature” by Ye Shitao (translated by Christopher Lupke)

Congratulations to Professor Christopher Lupke (University of Alberta) for winning the MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature for his translation of A History of Taiwan Literature by Ye Shitao (Yeh Shih-tao 葉石濤)!

The following is an excerpt from the introduction:

Ye Shitao was born on November 1, 1925, in Tainan, Taiwan, the son of a land-owning family of southern-Min (Hoklo) ethnicity. He passed away on December 11, 2008. He was educated in Japanese during the Japanese Colonial Era, supplemented by two years in a private classical Chinese school, and eventually graduated from Tainan Normal College. While he studied classical Chinese in school, and spoke Hoklo (Taiwanese) at home and with his friends, Ye did not learn spoken Mandarin Chinese until after the Retrocession. He was primarily educated in Japanese. In this regard, Ye Shitao epitomizes the generation of Taiwanese intellectuals who were suppressed at every stage of their development, by the Japanese when young and by the ruling Guomindang (Nationalist Party or GMD) in their prime. […]

According to Peng Ruijin’s critical biography, Ye began his interest in French and Russian literature in Middle School, and this interest was further cultivated under the tutelage of Nishikawa in the 1940s when Ye served as an assistant editor of Literary Taiwan. As Peng Ruijin relates, Ye developed an expansive sense of world literature during his maturing years, despite the obvious cultural restraints that existed in Taiwan under the Japanese. Ye Shitao resisted the demands of the Kōminka policy and instead did his best to cultivate this more expansive worldview. The experience as an assistant editor of Literary Taiwan gave Ye the opportunity to meet a wide swath of the most important Taiwanese writers of the day, which exposed him to divergent points of view, thematic interests, and stylistic preferences.

            After the end of the war, like almost all Taiwanese intellectuals of his generation, save those who spent much time growing up in mainland China such as Zhong Lihe, Ye immediately found himself without a language of written expression. Japanese was not only no longer serviceable but actually publication in the language was banned for a period. Ye and other Taiwanese of his generation could not write in vernacular Chinese. Thus, like many others, he spent arduous years learning baihua vernacular Chinese so that he could reignite his literary career in a different incarnation. It took him five years, but he eventually resumed his writing. He was imprisoned for three years in the early 1950s for being considered a leftist and for featuring leftist characters in his work, such as in “Red Shoes.” Ye did not consider himself a Communist, although he associated with some. He was actually released from prison early, but the prison experience taught him that under the reign of the “White Terror” there was no such thing as a bystander. […]

Ye’s history is written in seven chapters and covers the period from dynastic China, through the Japanese Colonial Period, and into the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and most of the 1980s. The first chapter is one of the first and most important surveys of late Qing dynasty travelogues on Taiwan, works that describe the people, both the ethnically Han and the members of the Austronesian aboriginal tribes that have populated the island for perhaps 20,000 years or longer. The second chapter, by far the longest and most detailed, focuses on the period during which the Japanese colonized Taiwan. It was during this era that Taiwanese literature first came of age. Although punished by the Japanese if they were to tread too close to political taboos, Taiwanese intellectuals during the Japanese Colonial Period were not deterred by their Japanese overlords. Attempts to harness their work increased during the third stage of the Japanese Colonial Period; still, there were several literary conferences when writers from Japan and even Korea met with some Taiwanese writers. During the Japanese Colonial Period, some Taiwanese writers travelled to Japan for further education or involvement in literary activities. Many journals and newspaper literary supplements were set up during this era. Part of the epistemological turn associated with the late 1980s in Taiwan involved the reassessment of the significance of the Japanese Colonial Period, illustrating the importance that this era eventually had on Taiwan in terms of cultural infrastructure and historical foundation. Though undeniable now, this fact was ignored during the 1950s, 1960s, and most of the 1970s.

It would have been impossible for Ye’s history to appear much before 1987. If he had written it now or more recently instead of then it would have contained more acerbic criticism of the Guomindang-run government. But given the times it is still impressive that he mentioned the notorious February 28th Massacre that occurred in 1947 and the White Terror campaigns of the 1950s. […]

A History of Taiwan Literature is in a sense a historical tablet, completing in effect the historical record of literary events in Taiwan. It does raise some issues regarding the political repression of writers, but the main value of the book in the unusual political climate of its creation was simply the articulation and inscription of a large number of writers whose legacies were ignored for decades because there was a virtual denial or ignorance of their literary worth. This denial was a result not only of what the Taiwanese people (native and mainlander alike) were allowed to read, write, and say, but what they were allowed to imagine their heritage to be. A History of Taiwan Literature coincided with the emergence of a new consciousness that reflected an awareness of the historical legacy of those on Taiwan. The book represented a realignment of attention away from the notion of Taiwan in the shadow of China and toward domestic and internal concerns. Ye’s unstinting effort to share the limelight with other writers in this book, including those of competing camps, will be one of his lasting claims to fame.

A History of Taiwan Literature is obligatory reading for anyone who wishes to master the literary history of Taiwan. I would like to extend that by saying that reading it is essential to those who wish to claim authority over all modern Chinese and Sinophonic literature, understood in its broadest terms. It is the one comprehensive book on the Taiwan literary scene that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who works on literature written in Chinese. Although it may not be the work of an academic scholar, the book itself is an important historical landmark. Ye’s book was the first such historical retrospective and is the most monumental contribution not just to Taiwan literary history but to the notion that Taiwan has a history of its own that is worth articulating in print.

“Introduction,” A History of Taiwan Literature by Ye Shitao, translated by Christopher Lupke, pp. 1–12

A History of Taiwan Literature is available in hardcover, paperback, and multiple digital formats. Order at the Cambria Press website.

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