A History of Taiwan Literature

Ye Shitao

Translated, Edited, and Introduced by Christopher Lupke

Reviewed by Po-hsi Chen

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2023)

Ye Shitao, A History of Taiwan LiteratureTranslated, with introduction and epilogue, by Christopher Lupke. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2020. 404 pp. ISBN: 9781638570035 (paperback).

In 2022, Yeh Shih-tao, a Taiwan Man 台灣男子葉石濤 (dir. Hsu Hui-lin 許卉林) was released, marking a rare occasion where a documentary about a Taiwanese literary writer hit the big screen. The film’s subject, Ye Shitao (1925–2008), was a renowned novelist and literary historian. In the previous year, Christopher Lupke’s much-anticipated translation of Ye’s A History of Taiwan Literature 台灣文學史綱 was awarded the well-deserved MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature. Before its translation, this book was long considered a must-read for students interested in pursuing a degree in Taiwanese literature. Given the relatively marginalized status of Taiwanese literary history in English-language curricula, Lupke’s contribution is significant. Although a general history of Taiwan can be taught by using Wan-yao Chou’s A New Illustrated History of Taiwan,[1] a similar resource for literature was not available until this translation was published. Moreover, before Lupke’s translation, there was no comprehensive book in English that systematically covers the history of Taiwanese literature from the late imperial to the post-martial law period.[2] In the English translation, Ye’s original text is bookended by Lupke’s detailed introduction and an epilogue that chronicles the post-1987 development of Taiwanese literature.

The English version of Ye Shitao’s landmark work highlights the power of translation in facilitating the transnational circulation of knowledge. Prior to Lupke’s translation, A History of Taiwan Literature was translated into Japanese in 2000 by Nakajima Toshio 中島利郎 (chapters 1–2) and Sawai Noriyuki 澤井律之 (chapters 3–7), with extensive translators’ notes and annotations totaling over 120,000 characters. In 2010, the Japanese translators’ notes were then translated back into Chinese by Peng Xuan 彭萱 and published along with Ye’s original book. It is commendable that Lupke translated both Ye’s original notes and the Japanese translators’ annotations into English, and it will be interesting to see how his English translation is in turn received by Taiwanese readers and critics, completing a full circle of cross-cultural exchange.

With the benefit of hindsight, readers today may find Ye’s book lacking in depth, but it is important for us to understand the political straitjacket in which it was written. In the introduction, Lupke notes the historical significance of Ye’s book, which was published in 1987, the year martial law was lifted. In other words, Ye’s comprehensive research was completed during the martial law period, when publications were heavily censored and speech strictly limited. The seven chapters each focus on a different historical period. The first two chapters deal with literature old and new. Chapter 1, “Transplantation of Traditional Literature,” traces the appearance of Taiwan in Chinese history and the writings of late imperial Chinese literati and literate landowning class in Taiwan. Ye observes that traditional literature written by Qing officials was detached from local realities in Taiwan as an immigrant society. As these officials only served short terms in Taiwan, their works exoticized the Taiwanese landscape without acknowledging the lived experiences of the commoners. Likewise, the literate landowners, whose status was bolstered by the feudal economy and the civil examination system, sometimes also failed to account for the lives of peasants and indigenous people (31–32). This trend continued in the Japanese colonial era, where the same landowning class gave in to the relative social stability brought by the early stage of Japanese governance. Hence, their literary works remained disengaged from the experiences of the commoners and rarely opposed the colonial regime (36—37).

This Marxist perspective continues in chapter 2, “The Advent of the Taiwan New Literature Movement.” Ye divides Taiwan New Literature into three stages, starting with the nascent stage (1920–1925). During this time, the major conflict was between the Wilsonian idea of national self-determination and the socialist movement (83—84). According to Ye, the parliamentarian movement led by bourgeois intellectuals was too moderate to address the struggles of the peasants, which were not fully exposed by Chinese-language writers until the mature stage of the New Literature (1926–1937). Although their realist fiction offered social critique, it sometimes came at the cost of aesthetic exploration (94). The limitation was overcome by writers who mastered the Japanese language, such as Yang Kui 楊逵 (1906–1985) and Lü Heruo 呂赫若 (1914–1950). Their integration of Western literary techniques in realist fiction created works on par with their Japanese contemporaries (99). However, this combination of humanitarian concerns and aesthetic appeal was suppressed during the war period (1937–1945), when literature was co-opted by Japan’s all-out military mobilization (119).

Chapter 3 examines the latter half of the 1940s. Though a relatively short chapter, it deals with a distinct period (1945–1949) when writers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait could engage in direct communication. Their discussions centered around the restructuring of Taiwan literature following half a century of colonization. While mainland writers acknowledged the anticolonial resistance present in Taiwan New Literature, they also emphasized the need for Taiwanese literature to be reintegrated into Chinese literature, thereby overlooking Taiwan’s distinct colonial experiences. While the brief cross-Strait interaction foregrounded Chinese nationalism and the distinctiveness of Taiwan’s colonial experience, the conflicting views between the two sides remained unresolved and continued to be a source of debate in the following decades.

Chapter 4 focuses on the 1950s, a decade often characterized as a literary dark age dominated by anticommunist literature. During this time, mainland and local writers alike were disconnected both from China’s left-wing literary development since the 1930s and from local experiences in Taiwan. Civil war veterans—similar to the Qing officials sojourning in Taiwan—were nostalgic for their home in China. Mainland writers were not the only ones trapped in this vacuum. Local writers who had grown up learning Japanese faced the challenge of refamiliarizing themselves with Chinese creative writing. Moreover, the fear of persecution during the White Terror often led many of these writers to abandon their literary pursuits for other careers. In chapter 5, Ye’s analysis of literature in the 1960s reflects the same pattern of multiple disruptions. The 1960s were dominated by “horizontal transplantation” 橫的移植 (i.e., Westernization) rather than “vertical inheritance” 縱的繼承 (i.e., Sinicization). Second-generation mainland modernist writers found themselves alienated from both the anticommunist officialdom of the 1950s and Taiwan’s colonial experiences. Western modernism became a recourse for these writers to express their “rootlessness and exile,” which is the subtitle of the chapter.

Chapters 6 and 7, which focus on the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, can be seen as Ye’s concluding remarks on the “nativist literature debate” 鄉土文學論戰 in which Ye himself played a significant role. The drastic change in the Sino-American relationship in the 1970s led the ROC government to recognize Taiwan as its permanent base. As Taiwan became increasingly isolated on the international stage, its economy, by contrast, became more deeply intertwined with global capitalism. Literature also had to drastically adjust itself to respond to these new realities and the growing call for democratic reform. Ye portrays 1970s nativist literature in Taiwan as standing “shoulder to shoulder with others in the Third World who had experienced exploitation, those who opposed colonization and economic exploitation from abroad and the corruption of the government bureaucratic structure from within” (307). Chapter 7—another short chapter covering the years 1980 to 1987—serves not so much to contextualize the 1980s as to expound Ye’s idea of an established “Taiwan literature.” After briefly discussing the commodification and visual adaptations of literary works in the 1980s, Ye concludes that “[w]ith the arrival of the 1980s, writers in Taiwan were finally successful in establishing ‘Taiwan literature’ in its own name, publicly declaring that literature produced in Taiwan should be called ‘Taiwan literature’”:

Since the political system and the economic and social structures were all different, and since both the views of nature and of social customs were not completely in accord with that of mainland China, Taiwan literature obviously had a rich local heritage and unique creative mission. (344)

Although Ye appears to emphasize the independence of Taiwan literature here, according to the Japanese-language commentary, as Ye revised A History of Taiwan Literature, he removed statements such as “Taiwan literature is a branch of Chinese literature” and became “more emphatic regarding the independent nature of Taiwan literature” (Lupke 353–354).

The fraught relationship with Chinese literature, as Ye reiterates throughout the book, continued to impact his framing of Taiwanese literary history. The opening paragraph of the book, which may seem to provide irrelevant details, is worth closer scrutiny:

Taiwan is situated on a continental shelf in the East Sea. During the Palaeozoic Era, some 220 million years ago, land first protruded from the sea to form an island. At the time, the central and southern parts of what are now China were covered by a vast sea. During the Mesozoic Era, the central and southern parts of China emerged from the sea to form the mainland as it now exists. This was also the first time in which Taiwan and the mainland were attached (15, emphasis added).

It is unconventional to begin any national literary history with prehistory. By referencing the geological knowledge that centers on Taiwan, Ye’s imagery implies that Taiwan emerged before it was connected to the mainland. While Ye does not dispute the fact that “from the geological times to the prehistoric era, geographically, genetically, and historically, Taiwan has been connected to the mainland” (16), when interpreted symbolically, the temporal sequence appears to inform Ye’s prioritization of Taiwan’s uniqueness over its connection with China.

That said, Ye does not fall into geological determinism. This geological reference is fluid and perhaps paves the ground for Ye’s conceptualization of xiangtu 鄉土 throughout the book. While Lupke and other scholars mostly translate xiangtu as “nativism” (or sometimes as “local”), I personally prefer translating xiangtu most literally as “native soil”—to retain the connotation of “soil.”[3] Literary scholar Lü Zhenghui 呂正惠 notes that the idea of xiangtu in Taiwan’s native literary debate stemmed from the concept of Scholle (soil) in Germanic literature. During a period when Germany was not yet unified, many Germanic writers focused on the regional characteristics of their hometowns, with an emphasis on the rural countryside over cities.[4] In the German context, the agricultural native soil symbolizes a homeland unadulterated by the racial Other, and this caution against an Other resonated with KMT anticommunist literary critics.[5] For these mainland writers, the xiang (homeland) in xiangtu referred to their hometowns in China under the threat of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For instance, anticommunist writer Peng Ge 彭歌 wrote:

When our people are struggling for freedom and survival together, our “anti-imperialism” is first and foremost against communist red imperialism. An evil force, represented by the CCP, is now challenging us. “Anti-imperialism” without “anticommunism” fails to grasp current global affairs. If “anti-imperialism” only opposes American and Japanese foreign capital, isn’t it shifting our focus away in an unskillful manner?[6]

In the debate, the term “native soil” was highly flexible and could be aligned with different political beliefs. Writers from across the ideological spectrum—anticommunists, pro-independence, and pro-unification—found native soil a common denominator. Right-wing critics, for example, constructed native soil as a sacred homeland that needed to be defended against the CCP. The native soil camp eventually split into two groups: Taiwan nativists (e.g., Ye Shitao, Wang Tuo 王拓 [1944–2016], etc.) and pro-China critics (e.g., Chen Yingzhen 陳映真 [1937–2016], Yü Tiancong 尉天驄 [1935–2019], etc.). Chen Yingzhen argued that Ye’s “Taiwanese consciousness” 台灣人意識 advocated “separatism” 分離主義 and suggested that the anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist sentiments expressed in Ye’s Taiwanese consciousness should be seen as part of “Chinese consciousness” 中國人意識, considering the larger context of China’s broader historical struggles.[7]

Although Ye Shitao’s concept of nativism or native soil literature is productive in shaping the framework for Taiwan’s literary history, it can also be restrictive. In his “Introduction to History of Nativist Literature in Taiwan” 台灣鄉土文學史導論 (1977)—a prelude to A History of Taiwan Literature—Ye draws inspiration from the South African writer Nadine Gordimer’s definition of African literature as “writing done in any language by Africans themselves and by others of whatever skin color who share with Africans the experience of having been shaped, mentally and spiritually, by Africa rather than anywhere else in the world.” Gordimer calls this “Africa-centered consciousness.”[8] Building on Gordimer’s definition, Ye defines Taiwanese native soil literature as literature “written by Taiwanese (Han Chinese and indigenous peoples residing in Taiwan)” that places “Taiwan as the center.”[9]

Ye’s nativism may have caused him to be dismissive of diasporic writers because they did not center Taiwan in their works, such as Zhang Wojun 張我軍 (1902–1955) (89) and modernists who “lost their sense of national identity” (273–274). This selection criterion can also be self-contradictory. For example, fiction by Zhang Ailing 張愛玲 (Eileen Chang)—whose works, according to Ye’s standards, were not “literature written by Taiwanese people” and did not “take Taiwan as the center”—was discussed at length due to her “strong following in Taiwan” (222). However, the middlebrow writer Sanmao 三毛 (1943–1991), who enjoyed immense popularity but did not center Taiwan in her writing, receives only fleeting reference (340).

Although Ye was critical of the disengagement of exile writers from Taiwan’s lived reality and colonial experiences, he also showed sympathy for their struggles with the multiple historical ruptures that led to their uprootedness. Lupke is accurate in his observation that Ye did not use the History “as an opportunity to seek revenge against political adversaries” (10–11). Quite the contrary, I find Ye’s most empathetic comments often come in his analysis of authors not in his camp, as in the cases of anticommunist literature and modernist poetry. Nor does he discredit a genre based on its ideological position. For instance, he takes Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon as an example to show that anticommunist fiction can also exhibit “a sharply critical and richly humanistic style.” The problem with Taiwan’s anticommunist literature, he argues, was that it “became little more than a supplement to government policies” (215). In other words, all genres should be considered, as long as they do not sacrifice aesthetic and ethical exploration for political ends.

Ye’s literary critiques go beyond simple categorizations such as nativism or realism. He delves into the various wounds inflicted on Taiwanese literary history, including colonialism, the Chinese Civil War, and the Cold War, which resulted in a lack of literary and intellectual sources. Under these circumstances, anything could be used to fill the gaping holes left by these historical traumas. Although Ye was against anticommunist literature, he acknowledges that it to some extent “preserve[d] the nationalist spirit” (296). Although he criticizes wholesale Westernization, he holds that “continuing to absorb and incorporate Western literature . . . could enhance the profile of Taiwan literature” (296). Despite his support for nativism, he cautions against an “overemphasis on realism” that rendered poetry “superficial” (312). Ultimately, A History of Taiwan Literature strives to strike a balance between all literary camps and techniques.

Lupke’s translation mostly remains faithful to the original, occasionally supplying additional details, such as the meanings of Lai He’s original and pen names (88). If anything, the title could be translated as An Outline of Taiwanese Literary History, as “outline” 綱 was the term preferred by Ye.[10] In addition, Lupke could have been as adventurous as his Japanese counterparts, who added recent discoveries not known to Ye Shitao when he wrote the book. For instance, Lü Heruo’s death was a “mystery” in Ye’s time (116), but we now know that Lü died from a snakebite in 1950 when hiding in the mountains from persecution due to his involvement in the postwar underground communist movement. In another case, Ye writes that the Cultural Revolution lasted eight years, instead of ten, which the translator could have corrected (257). Also, readers would benefit from more common usages with names: for example, Tsi-an Hsia (or T.A. Hsia) instead of Xia Ji’an. For a foundational sourcebook, it would also be helpful for readers if the authors’ names and book titles mentioned in History were accompanied by transliteration and their original Chinese characters. These concerns aside, A History of Taiwan Literature is a valuable addition to the English-language scholarship on the history of Taiwanese literature.

Po-hsi Chen
University of Cambridge


[1] Wan-yao Chou, A New Illustrated History of Taiwan. Trs. Carole Plackitt and Tim Casey (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 2015).

[2] In terms of translated primary materials, The Columbia Sourcebook of Literary Taiwan, ed. by Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, et. al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) is a great collection.

[3] See also Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, Modernism and the Nativist Resistance: Contemporary Chinese Fiction from Taiwan (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

[4] Lü Zhenghui 呂正惠, “Xiangtu wenxue yu Taiwan xiandai wenxue” 鄉土文學與台灣現代文學 (Native soil literature and modern Taiwanese literature). In Wang Zhiming 王智明, et al., eds.,  Huiwang xianshi, ningshi renjian: xiangtu wenxue lunzhan sishi nian xuanji 回望現實.凝視人間:鄉土文學論戰四十年選集 (A look back at reality, a gaze at the human world: edited volume on the 40th anniversary of the native soil literature debate) (Taipei: Lianhe wenxue, 2019), 236–37.

[5] Ritchie Robertson, “From Naturalism to National Socialism (1890–1945).” In Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, ed., The Cambridge History of German Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 333–34.

[6] Peng Ge 彭歌, “Butan renxing, heyou wenxue” 不談人性,何有文學 (Without humanity, literature wherefrom?). In Yü Tiancong 尉天驄, ed., Xiangtu wenxue taolun ji 鄉土文學討論集 (Discussions on native soil literature) (Taipei: Yuanjing, 1980), 246.

[7] Chen Yingzhen 陳映真, “Xiangtu wenxue de mangdian” 鄉土文學的盲點 (The blind spot of native soil literature). In Ibid, 97.

[8] Nadine Gordimer, “The Interpreters: Some Themes and Directions in African Literature.” The Kenyon Review 32, no. 1 (1970): 9.

[9] Ye Shitao, “Introduction to History of Nativist Literature in Taiwan.” In Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, Michell Yeh, and Ming-ju Fan, eds., The Columbia Sourcebook of Literary Taiwan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 286.

[10] Peng Ruijin 彭瑞金, “Taiwan wenxue shigang Riyi zhujie ban chuban xu” 《台灣文學史綱》日譯註解版出版序 (Preface to the Japanese translation and annotation of A History of Taiwan Literature). In Ye Shitao, Taiwan wenxue shigang 台灣文學史綱 (Kaohsiung: Chunhui, 2010), 4.