'Writing is Border Crossing'

Taiwan's first culture minister describes life under martial law following the end of civil war in China.

2012.08.24
taiwanese-children-305.jpg Children in Taiwan, 1962.
Roger Viollet

Taiwan’s Minister of Culture, Lung Yingtai, currently on a trip to the U.S., spoke recently to the Asia Society about her early years growing up  under martial law in Taiwan, which has been governed separately from mainland China since the National KMT government of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists. Also a celebrated writer, literary critic and public intellectual, Lung's 30 books are widely read and published throughout the Chinese-speaking world, and read in pirated form in mainland China, which bans them. Lung was appointed as the island's first ever culture minister in May, and is on a mission to promote a sustainable peace across the Taiwan Strait, which divides the two sides in China's civil war:

[In] the tiny fishing village I grew up in, in southern Taiwan ... our mother's home ... was [near] the ocean, which is the Taiwan Strait. At night I could hear the splashing of the waves, mingled with the brushing sound of coconut leaves, and in summer we would have a lot of typhoons ... I would sit on the beach, watching the sunset when I was a teenager. However, the thought of ... what is on the other side of the Strait, even the  thought never occurred to me, strangely enough. My imagination was cut off, as if the sea were the ultimate, unquestionable, and finite end of the world ... Isn't water supposed to be something that connects you to the rest of the world? It's not supposed to be a wall.

Martial law lasted all the way until 1987 ... Taiwan has a coastline that is exactly 11,039 kilometers long. Under martial law, all coastlines are military zones, which means that, as children, you are not supposed to play in a military zone ... When a wall has a gate or a checkpoint, or a strait has an operating ferry, then you might call it a border. But when there is neither gate nor checkpoint, nor ferry, it's probably called the end of imagination. It stops you, right there.

When I have a chance to review my writing ... I find that ... my writing is very much defined by the Strait. I wrote about the funerals held after the fishing boats disappeared in the typhoon ... During those years, in order to prevent the people, especially the fishermen, from contacting the other side, the fishermen were not allowed to carry on board proper radio systems, and the result was that life was made very precarious, only partially due to natural circumstances, and politics played a part as well in the loss of life ... To guard the possible advances of the enemy, land-mines were placed all along the beaches, and you know what that means for children, that means you're not supposed to play there.

It dawned on me that writing about the Strait is in itself a form of border crossing; the act of writing is in itself the ferry that carries me to the other side, to find explanations, to walk the paths untrodden and forgotten; to unleash my own imagination, which was stopped before.

Reported by Zi Jing for RFA's Mandarin service.

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