Lung Yingtai: Culture Can Reveal 'Hidden Wounds' on Both Sides of Taiwan Strait

Writer and public intellectual Lung Yingtai, Taiwan's first-ever Minister of Culture, at Asia Society New York on August 22, 2012.

"I don't feel quite comfortable with the word 'politician'... I'm a civil servant," said Lung Yingtai, distinguished writer and the newly-appointed, first-ever Culture Minister of Taiwan, in a speech to a full house at Asia Society New York last Wednesday evening.

To explain her transition from being a writer to government service, she pointed out that it is an ancient tradition among Chinese literati to be both a writer and a politician/civil servant. To prove her point, Lung asked the audience to name some examples, and the names volunteered included Su Shi, Wang Anshi, Han Yu, Ouyang Xiu and more recently, Wang Meng, a novelist who served as the People's Republic of China's Culture Minister from 1986 to 1989.

Fair enough. Except that Lung doesn't quite fit the image of a Confucius Chinese literati: she is a humanitarian, a mother of two sons, a feminist, and a rebel who in the past three decades has publicly criticized the governments of Taiwan, Hong Kong, the PRC, and Singapore. One might wonder why an uninhibited critical thinker like Lung (who once said that the Chinese language is her passport, and has stated on many occasions that she stands by the insulted and humiliated regardless of their nationality) would be willing to work four times the number of hours, and earn only a quarter of what she used to earn, in order to aid in the cultural enrichment of the Taiwanese people.

Of course, Lung herself sees no conflict between serving the Taiwanese government and helping people in the rest of the world. In her Asia Society remarks, she talked about growing up in Taiwan during the Martial Law period (1950–1987), during which the country's entire 1139 km shoreline was a military zone. The strait, she said, was like a wall that marked the end of her imagination; and today, an invisible "wall of distrust" still divides the people on both sides.

She ended her speech with an anecdote from her latest work, Big River Big Sea: The Untold Stories of 1949 (2009), a book reflecting on the civil war between China's Nationalists and the Communist Party. The story is about a Nationalist teenage soldier who was carrying a French horn while passing through a French checkpoint on the Chinese-Vietnamese border, where his unit was supposed to temporarily surrender all military equipment. As the teenager was wondering what he should do with the French horn, a French officer told him: "Music is not a weapon, so you go ahead!" Over six decades later, Lung wants to tell people on both sides of the strait: "Culture is not a weapon, so you can go ahead!"

Big River Big Sea has been extremely popular in the Chinese-speaking world since its publication in 2009, although readers in mainland China can only smuggle a copy from Hong Kong or download an illegal digital copy. Lung said that through the experience of writing the book, she came to the conclusion that "once you are able to see the hidden wounds of the person you hate..., I don't think you will be able to hate anymore, and that is what people from both sides of the strait should seriously strive to work for."

This post originally appeared on Asia Blog.