Aug 29, 2012

Taiwan: Seeking Voice Through Literature

Taiwan’s Culture Minister Lung Yingtai’s name cannot be accessed on the Chinese Internet due to her best-selling book on China’s civil war.

Below is an article published by Channel New Asia:

Acclaimed author Lung Yingtai felt the force of China's soft power when she spoke in New York this week on her first trip as Taiwan's culture minister aiming to win friends for the isolated island.

Lung, whose best-selling book on China's civil war is banned by the mainland government, had a firewall put around her name on the Chinese Internet almost immediately after she spoke at the Asia Society on Tuesday [28.8.2012]. She had pleaded, ironically, that culture should not be used as a "weapon."

"Supposedly after the talk, my name was blocked from inside China," Lung told AFP in an interview. "I don't know why. Probably, it has something to do with the use of the word weapon."

Internet users in China confirmed that the name of the minister, who only switched from writer to minister in May, could not be accessed.

In her personal life and as a writer, Lung, 59, has lived much of Taiwan's agonizing drama since the division of China in 1949 between the communist and nationalist camps.

Her parents fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war, leaving behind Lung's baby brother.
When they received a letter from their son in China years later, her parents "whispered in the back room, they cried all night and in the morning they burned the letter," Lung told the Asia Society audience.

Her parents did not dare write back. "During those days, to write to the other side might bring a death penalty," Lung recalled.

In the 1980s, a collection of Lung's essays entitled "The Wild Fire" led to death threats and she moved to Germany for 13 years. The work is credited with helping to end nearly four decades of martial law by the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists in 1987.

Her 2009 heart-wrenching account of events in the civil war, "Big River Big Sea -- Untold Stories of 1949," has sold more than 500,000 copies in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and in other Chinese communities. But it is banned in China.

Now, she is the first ministerial level head of culture in Taiwan, in a KMT government under President Ma Ying-jeou.

Lung is aiming to strengthen Taiwan's film industry -- dwarfed by the resources of mainland movie moguls -- while preparing to negotiate a cultural accord with China and trying to use Taiwan's artistic treasures to win friends abroad with new cultural centers in New York, Paris and other cities.

The ministry wants to open a cultural center in London soon and Lung said she wants to give Taiwanese pop singers and artists a wider international stage.

China does everything it can to isolate the island of 23 million people, which it claims as a renegade province. Lung said world leaders who talk about democracy have let Taiwan down.

Beijing says it wants a cultural accord, but Taipei is reluctant.

The Chinese government controls nearly all film, television, media and writing. In Taiwan, Lung said, 90 per cent is private.

"The message I gave to the other side was that I am also very keen on building up closer cultural relations and I do not at all reject the idea of signing something as long as the agreement, or the accord, brings real results rather than just words," she said.

Lung said she hopes to invite Beijing officials to a symposium in early 2013. She wants to discuss "barriers to cultural exchanges," including intellectual property and censorship and even why Taiwan's national symphony orchestra has to pay a tax to take its instruments into China for a tour.

Many Taiwanese film directors and actors have been tempted to move to the mainland. Political interference has made many wary, however. Gay issues and many political topics are completely taboo.

China banned Taiwan's most profitable movie ever, "Cape Number 7," in 2008. Critics said Beijing frowned at the portrayal of Taiwan's warm relationship with Japan, the island's former colonial master.

Lung said she did not know if she would ever be allowed to go to China as a minister now because of her past as a writer. She also said Ma took a risk naming her.

"It really shows courage from his part, because he knows that I am the dragon type. I have my own mind, my own voice and when a president can tolerate or even appreciate a relatively free spirit like me, I think it is a credit to him," Lung said.

There is a downside to being a minister.

"As a writer I used to criticize others and now I take criticism from others and I can't even talk back," she said, likening the politics to a "gang fight."