Blazing as Fire: A Love Story Before Dawn (Book Review)
Book review by Christine Chow.
How should we comprehend Taiwanese literature under Japanese rule (1895-1945)? What was the meaning of literature for Taiwanese writers at that time? Furthermore, how could we evaluate the significance of their works? For those who are interested in the above questions, the latest published book by Lai Hsiang-yin（賴香吟）, A Love Story Before Dawn: Taiwanese Literary Landscapes under Japanese Rule（《天亮之前的戀愛：日治時期台灣小說風景》）(2019), might be a better-than-expected invitation.
Born in 1969 in Tainan, Lai Hsiang-yin (1969- ) started writing from a very young age. After studying at the University of Tokyo, she sequencely published three highly acclaimed collections of short stories, Walking to Another Place（《散步到他方》）(1997), Landscape in the Mist（《霧中風景》）(1998) and Island（《島》）(2000). After a long break, Lai returned to literature with the award-winning book, Afterwards（《其後それから》）(2012), which is inspired by her friendship with Chiu Miao-chin （邱妙津）, the figurehead of Taiwanese lesbian literature who died in 1995. Following this return, two more collections of short stories were released in 2016 and 2018 respectively. The former, A Fond Farewell（《文青之死》）, has encompassed writings on themes of memories, mistaken feelings and regret. And the latter, The Translator（《翻譯者》）, was the most ambitious attempt ever for Lai to record and respond to the shared life experience of her own generation – the Fifth Grade of Taiwanese writers.
For loyal readers of Lai Hsiang-yin, A Love Story Before Dawn is actually a belated gift – it is an edited collection of her serial articles on China Times（《中國時報》）, first published in 2006. Lai has long been a fond reader and researcher of Taiwanese history and literature since graduate school. At that time of writing these newspaper articles, names like Yang Kui（楊逵）, Chung Li-he（鍾理和）and Lai He（賴和） were hardly heard nor known by the general public. Positioned herself as a pioneering introducer of these writers, in this book, Lai minimized the usage of complex scholarly jargons. Instead, she chose a much friendlier approach of storytelling and literary reviewing, with detailed information of the writers and their works being discussed. Being a writer herself, Lai was more-than-sensible of picking the most compelling part out of a literary work (or using Walter Benjamin’s magical word: the aura of it). From her precise and perceptual depiction, we can then have a glimpse of the good days and the bad days of 14 Taiwanese writers, as well as their sometimes gloomy, sometimes glowing literary worlds. As these writers grew up and started their career at different times, Lai was capable of showing a relatively broad spectrum of Taiwanese colonial literature, with various structure(s) of feeling of the writers themselves.
“Everything has been changed!”
It might be challenging for today’s young generation to imagine life under the rule of Japan in Taiwan. Lai put Wu Zhuo-liu（吳濁流）(1900-1976) at the opening of the book to underscore the consciousness of Taiwanese writers manifested in this special period of time: “Everything has been changed!”（「一切都改變了！」）The sentence was the first dialogue of Wu’ well-known novel, The Orphan of Asia（《亞細亞的孤兒》）(1956), extracted from a scene where the protagonist’s grandfather was memorializing the old days in front of his little grandson. And it happened to be like a signal or a prophecy, of what Taiwanese intellectuals would experience in the not-too-distant future.
Prior to the 1920s, classical Chinese poetry and prose were the primary modes of literary expressions in Taiwan. Writers were Confucian scholars, while many of them distinguished themselves in the Qing imperial examinations and thus acquired wealth and social status (Huang, 2013). Nonetheless, since Taiwan was ceded to Japan after the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the colonial government consequently transformed the administrative and civil educational systems in Taiwan. The protagonist in The Orphan of Asia was among the first generation to undergo the transition from traditional Chinese education into the newer, modern Japanese one. For that matter, language being taught in school was now Japanese instead of ancient Chinese. Wu Zhuo-liu described the protagonist’s new school with a special and unprecedented scent. It was everywhere: from his teachers, classmates, and the brand-new books and desks. What exactly was it? In the story, we were told that it came from Japanese soaps – a symbol of “cleanness”. But Lai has pointed the actual answer out for us – it was the scent of “Japaneseness”, in other words, the scent of “civilization” (Lai, 2019, p. 15-17).
Facing these new challenges, many Taiwanese scholars attempted to preserve their usage of national language together with their national dignity. Through establishing Chinese columns on Japanese newspapers and magazines in Taiwan, they had experimented writing in vernacular Chinese (instead of classical Chinese), hoping to animate Taiwan’s literary field. In this book, Yang Shou-yu（楊守愚） was an example (see Lai, 2019, p. 22-25). Even so, this freedom of expression was taken back by the colonizers in 1937, the year when the second Sino-Japanese War broke out. On the other hand, those who were primarily educated in Japanese schools started to use the colonial language as their main medium of thinking and writing without choices. Their life experience was rather distant from the previous generation, as we will see in the following part.
Lung Ying-tsung and the “silenced” ones
Among Taiwan’s Japanese-fluent writers, Lung Ying-tsung（龍瑛宗）(1911-1999) was one of the most accomplished. In contrast to earlier generations, Lung’s literary career was first inspired by his Japanese teacher and the collection of ancient Japanese poems Man’yōshū（《萬葉集》） . In Japanese literature and culture, Lung discovered an imaginary, colourful world which later helped him develop his unique way of expression. In his prize-winning debut short story, “A Small Town Planted with Papaya Trees”（〈植有木瓜樹的小鎮〉）(1937), Lung vividly illustrated a portrait of a discontented, pessimistic Taiwanese intellectual Chen You-san（陳有三）of the Japanese colonial period. Similar to Lung’s own conditions, even educated Taiwanese were allowed to hold official posts, their salaries and standard of living were hardly comparable with their Japanese counterparts. Through depicting the mind and heart of Chen You-san, Lung raised doubt about the future of Taiwanese intellectuals – what were the goals of knowledge, if any? Where could Taiwanese intellectuals find their place of belonging under this repressive structure of race, class and culture? In Lai Hsiang-yin’s eyes, “A Small Town Planted with Papaya Trees” should be categorized into Taiwan’s initial literary practice of modernism in the early 20th century, which accurately revealed the social and mental conditions of wartime Taiwan (Lai, 2019, p. 135-136).
Nevertheless, this generation of Japanese-fluent writers (including Lung) and their works were soon wiped up by history. When Japan surrendered in 1945 and was forced to give up all colonies, the destiny of these Taiwanese writers was then redetermined by the winners in the war. Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China in the same year, however, Lung found himself incapable to share this “victory” with a more genuine heart. In fact, he had too many questions remaining unsolved – what did it mean to be a “Chinese”? Had war officially ended? If yes, what could be the reasons for constant social unrest in Taiwan? Would there be more destruction awaiting? Little by little, Lung lost his space to publish Japanese literary works. Lai Hsiang-yin grasped his confusion and hopelessness as follows:
When Japanese columns were gradually cancelled by newspapers and finally being prohibited, he[Lung] was already not that surprised. Again, he thought, Destiny still wants to fool him around. First, [usage of] Chinese was abolished, and now, it’s Japanese. They were being flipped over, being chased and expelled by a hand from outside, by a group of people […]. This time, however, he was no longer favoured by the flow. He was no longer the young student being accomplished with his Japanese talents, but a middle-aged man who could not speak fluent Mandarin. (Lai, 2019, p. 143) (Translated by Christine Chow)
It was not until the 1970s that colonial literature (in Japanese) was re-discovered in Taiwan. After 1945, those who were fluent in Japanese were nearly “silenced”. They could no longer express themselves with their most proficient language; they were not permitted to. On this account, Lung put his passion for literature (the “pathetic toy”, as Lai told us) aside. Once again, he made himself a quiet salaryman (in reality, he stuttered a lot when speaking) so that he could barely support a family. In the obedient state of living, he and his own generation had hidden their past for half a century. Lung might be one of the luckier ones. He was able to continue writing in late 1970s (this time in vernacular Chinese) and had earned back his literary reputation before the end of his life. Many others, however, might not have had this chance.
Glowing talents and their pitiful falls
In the last part of this book, Lai Hsiang-yin did an interesting and inspiring juxtaposition of three writers: Weng Nao（翁鬧）, Osamu Dazai（太宰治）(1909-1948) and Chiu Miao-chin（邱妙津）(1969-1995). People who are fond of modern Japanese literature must be familiar with Osamu Dazai. And Chiu Miao-chin , as mentioned above, was an iconic figure of modern Taiwan literature. She was also well-known for her deep affection for Osamu Dazai’s works. Who was Weng Nao, then?
Surely, Weng Nao (1909?-1939?) was not the most thoroughly studied writer of Taiwanese colonial literature. He did not have many works left, and we do not even have his exact birth and death dates. Nonetheless, Lai has figured out surprising similarities between works of Weng Nao and Osamu Dazai, as well as their personalities and life events. The birth year of Weng Nao was generally assumed to be 1909, same as Osamu Dazai’s. They were outstanding yet rebellious students in secondary schools. Coincidentally, they both started their literary career in the year of 1933 – “Osamu Dazai” was first used as a pen name, while Weng published his first poem “Feelings from the Seaside in Tamsui” in a Tokyo magazine Formosa. Interestingly, Formosa was initiated by Taiwanese students including Cheng Wen-huan（張文環） and Wu Yong-fu（巫永福）, who also left their marks in Taiwan’s literary history. When Weng later arrived at the city, this publication had been terminated. Still, Weng remained active in the Taiwanese literary field. In 1939, his last work “The Harbour Market”（〈港町〉）published on Taiwan New People’s Newspaper, one of the most influential newspaper in the 1920s and 1930s in Taiwan. As a counterpart, Cheng Wen-huan published his works on it too.
Despite their striking writing talents, the two young men have lived a lonely and awkwardly difficult life. Wherever they were headed, poverty and sickness just ghostly followed. There is no evidence that Dazai and Weng had met each other. Yet, when Lai showed us some collected sentences from their works, we found it confusing to distinguish the two writers. Between the lines, there laid so many contradictions and tensions between self-approval and self-denial, love and hatred, hope and despair. Perhaps Dazai and Weng were pessimistic yet passionate about life and humanity. They did not feel ashamed to express their clumsiness, madness and sexuality. On the contrary, they tried to expose it all. In this matter, Chiu Miao-chiu could be considered as an echo to them, even half a century had passed.
“A Love Story Before Dawn”（〈天亮前的戀愛故事〉）(1937) was originally a work by Weng Nao. This romantic and “demonic” short story was categorized in the “decadent” literature in Japanese colonial period, seeking sensual beauty in the strange and ugly (Liao, 2013). In this story, a male protagonist, who was assumed to be the personification of Weng Nao, was giving a long monologue about his own sexual awakening, his two failed love stories, his doubt on modern civilization, and loneliness to a young lady, who was very likely a Japanese prostitute. It started with the following sentences:
I want to be in love. With all my heart, I want to be in love. For love, I would be more than happy to devote the last drop of blood of mine, and the last piece of flesh from my body. Love deserves it. (Lai, 2019, p. 244) (Translated by Christine Chow)
This affectionate confession was not just for love’s sake. It was also a desperate call for self-realization. Soon turning into a 30-year-old man, the protagonist spent the whole night exposing his past to his potential lover. However, in spite of his strong desire, he did not hold her in his arms before dawn. He could not have done so. When time’s up, he told her that he had to leave for work. “Many stories are still being stuck in my chest,” he gently promised to the crying lady, “I will tell you everything if I can come to see you again…” (Lai, 2019, p. 239)
It was perhaps a racial problem between the protagonist and his lover – how could colonizers and the colonized cross this barrier and reach each other? Likewise, when Chiu Miao-chin was handling with similar topics of love and self-realization in her works, the barriers were then constructed of gender, sex and social discipline (Lai, 2019, p. 244). In reality, Weng Nao disappeared from the public at the age of 30. Rumors said he died alone in Tokyo. And at an even younger age of 26, Chiu Miao-chin committed suicide in Paris. Both born and raised in Changhua county in Taiwan, Weng and Chiu, who never returned to their homeland, could not have waited to see their sunrise. But still, they had devoted their youth and everything to literature. As Lai concluded at the end, by reading their works, readers at any epochs would definitely be struck and surprised at the brightly burnt ashes of their lives (Lai, 2019, p. 249).
More than politics: What has literature taught us?
From the title, we can see that Lai Hsiang-yin has devoted A Love Story Before Dawn to Weng Nao and other Taiwanese writers in the colonial period. After more than a decade, the names discussed above are much broadly discussed and read by the general public, which gave Lai confidence to publish the book. On top of that, it is a belated answer to her own generation as well.
Literature was inevitably intertwined with politics, especially in colonial Taiwan. For these Taiwanese writers, writing was never just writing for art’s sake – there were constant struggles over their literary practices. Which language should they use? Being one of the colonized, what kinds of content should be written? Should writers be more honest and “romantic” about their own dreams and desires, or should they use writing as a method to resist reality? What could be the possible consequences if they happened to challenge the authorities – fines, confiscation, imprisonment or even worse, say, a death penalty? Besides, the act of reading these works can be equally political. What were the reasons to prohibit the colonial literary works in Taiwan before the end of 1970s? Why were they re-discovered then? Last but not least, for today’s readers, how can we understand and evaluate these distant writers and their works?
For Lai Hsiang-yin, the seek for subjectivity of Taiwanese literature is constantly an important question. She and her own generation were raised in the late 1980s when martial law in Taiwan had just been lifted. At that time, they were desperately absorbing foreign knowledge, theories and literature that flooded Taiwan. On the other hand, the colonial Taiwanese writers were not fairly concerned, despite the fact that they might have considered similar questions of Taiwan’s literary subjectivity and the future of the island, possibly as much as Lai’s generation did.
In a conversation with two other Taiwanese writers, Lai once mentioned the anxiety about time that her generation had (Lai, Tong and Huang, 2019). Do they still have enough time to think and to write? Is it guaranteed that Taiwan’s literary field can exist in the future? As a generation which lacks the depth of history and life experience, where will the necessary “nutrients” for their writing lay? By rereading the endeavours and defeats of the colonial writers, A Love Story Before Dawn then became a personal and private conversation between Lai and her seniors. Meanwhile, by rewriting the seniors’ life events and the marks they left in Taiwanese history, this book is a sincere memorial for their “love stories before dawn” as well. These people, with their love and passions, had almost vanished in history without a trace. But now, as Lai had shown us in this book, they were once as bright and blazing as a fire (Lai, 2019, p. 256).
Undoubtedly, the above questions can be difficult and controversial to answer. For Lai, however, literature is not just about politics, nor mere historical materials to be studied. Literature is always more than that. Once we are patient and compassionate, once we can try to “consider literature by literature”, we may finally put politics aside and thus meet these writers and their works face-to-face. As I believe, the book itself, too, is more than an invitation to open the door of Taiwanese colonial literature. In fact, it represents a genuine expectation from Lai Hsiang-yin (and her seniors) on the present and future generations. Sunrise is coming soon, and it is time to think about literature and the essence of it; about the past and future of this island; about love, passions and failures; and mostly importantly, about the meaning of both personal and our shared lives.
Details of the book reviewed
A Love Story Before Dawn: Taiwanese Literary Landscapes under Japanese Rule
By Lai Hsiang-yin
Taipei: INK Publishing. 2019.
Huang Mei-E. 2013. “Taiwan Literature under Japanese Colonial Rule”. Source from https://entoolkit.culture.tw/literaturetheme_73_82.html?themeId=82.
Lai Hsiang-yin. 2019. A Love Story Before Dawn: Taiwanese Literary Landscapes under Japanese Rule. Taipei: INK Publishing. （賴香吟：《天亮之前的戀愛：日治台灣小說風景》，台北：印刻文學，2019年。）
Lai, Tong and Huang. 2019. “Conversation of Three in Berlin: Lai Hsiang-yin, Tong Wei-ger and Huang Chong-kai discussing Taiwanese Literature, Literary Field and Writing. ” Source from: https://ent.ltn.com.tw/news/breakingnews/2791572.（賴香吟、童偉格、黃崇凱：〈柏林三人談 － 賴香吟、童偉格、黃崇凱談台灣文學、場域與寫作〉）
Liao Shu-fang. 2013. “A Love Story Before Dawn: Synopsis”. Source from https://entoolkit.culture.tw/literatureinfo_79_254.html.
Liao Shu-fang. 2013. “A Small Town Planted with Papaya Trees: Synopsis”. Source from https://entoolkit.culture.tw/literatureinfo_79_257.html.