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The Most Controversial Figure in Taiwan - Li Ao

Li Ao is an outspoken thinker who played a leading role at the turning point of Taiwan’s history... He is a man of wisdom and always a step ahead of us, discovering problems we would never be aware of and concepts we dare not speak… Fundamentally, Li Ao's pursuit of truth attaches thinking with independence and freedom...

                                                     -- Prof. Chen Shengcai, Li Ao researcher


Li Ao the Writer


Li Ao is a prominent Taiwan writer, outspoken TV commentator, historian and lawmaker. He is well known by mainland intellectuals for his satire, sharp commentaries and poignant criticism. Li was born in the city of Harbin in Northeast China and grew up in Beijing. At the age of 14, he moved with his family to Shanghai and from there to Taiwan in 1949.


In high school, Li was a star student. However, the prodigy suspended his schooling in his senior year -- he was disgusted with the "suffocating" education. In 1959, he enrolled in National Taiwan University (NTU) and studied Law and History. After graduating, he served as a reserve army officer for year and a half. He then went back to the History Research Institute for additional studies. But he soon decided to drop out before ending up as a scholar, and developed a reputation as a tongue-in-cheek "lunatic" when he began writing articles that revealed the dark side of the school and said he was not happy about studying there any longer.



Li was credited for his contributions to the democratic movement in Taiwan between the 1960s and 1980s. In 1963, Li's first publication, Monologue under Tradition, came out. In the book, he expressed his distinct philosophical differences with mainstream and traditional values by quoting widely from historic materials.


Li was the editor-in-chief of Wenxing magazine in the 1960s, which promoted democracy and personal freedom. The audacious writer was in sharp opposition to Kuomintang authorities. He was jailed by the infuriated Kuomintang government for more than eight years. Throughout the 1970s, Li received great international attention for as a political prisoner.


After his release, Li continued to publish magazines and newspapers, still highly critical of the government. In the 1980s he also sponsored numerous other anti-government magazines. Ninety-six of his books were banned in Taiwan before 1991.


He is considered by some to be one of the best Chinese writers today. He wrote at an amazing rate -- for ten consecutive years he wrote one book per month on average without interruption. His novel, Mountaintop Love, about a mother and daughter who fall in love with the same man at different times, solidified Li's status as a serious novelist.


Another Li novel, Martyrs' Shrine: The Story of the Reform Movement of 1898 in China, about the beginning and the failure of the Hundred Days' Reform, earned a Nobel Prize nomination. Li also published his autobiography in 2001, revealing more than 10 personal romances.


Works by Li Ao


1) Martyrs' Shrine: The Reform Movement of 1898 in China


Martyrs' Shrine: The Story of the Reform Movement of 1898 in China gained Li nominee of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000


Martyrs' Shrine: The Reform Movement of 1898 in China is based on the events of the Hundred Days' Reforms' movement. It has as its main characters several of the leading Chinese intellectual and political figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - Kang Youwei, Tan Sitong, and Liang Qichao. As the novel progresses, the reader is swept into the tumultuous events of 1898 and the Chinese struggle for political reform.



The more-than-100,000-word novel was written in the early 90s. The writer integrated into the writing his own experience of a thought pursuer through ups and downs and life as a dissident politician facing numerous lethal risks and dangers. Martyrs' Shrine: The Reform Movement of 1898 in China is considered to be one of the most important Li works.


Li penned his sharp thoughts on history and philosophy in this novel, making it more like a dissertation. And the characters in the novel are the real historic figures that left an unforgettable influence of varied degrees on China's history. In his writing, Li does not seem to follow the traditional format of novel writing, plot knitting and building up of characters. Instead, dialogue is exploited throughout to present events in what characters stand out and the plot is unfolded. What's unique is that each piece of dialogue also serves to reflect Li's own commentary on history.


2) Mountaintop Love


Mountaintop Love took Li as long as 17 years to conceive and four months to finish. Li Ao regards this 330,000-word novel as one of the most important works he has written and claims t he rendered all his thoughts and concepts to it.



Mountaintop Love is about a mother and daughter who fall in love with the same man. At the age of 20, the mother goes to a room on the mountain to meet her lover. Thirty years later, her daughter comes to the same room and meets with the same man without any semblance of an idea that her lover is the man of her unacquainted mother who dies of an amniotic fluid embolism. She succeeds the life and love of her mother and is kept unaware of the fact at the end of the book.


3) Red 11


Red 11 is Li's newest novel is written is black humor, recording to some extent his own experience in prison, in effect, written in tears of blood.


In the story, a 38-year dissident writer is put into prison in Taipei in the last 70s. The learned respectable writer chats with inmates about and comments on numerous unjust cases in Taiwan. It also expresses Li's resentment of the dark history of discords and conflicts in the Kuomintang Party.



"The debts are to be paid back," Li says, "which I've never failed to remember."


The Firm and Pungent Critic - Li Ao the Politician


Li participated in the "presidential" election in 2000 as candidate for the New Party. Li usually takes the role as the political gadfly, and his campaign was largely symbolic. He took the election as an opportunity to "educate" people in Taiwan. Both he and his party publicly encouraged people to vote for James Soong to the point of stating during the "presidential" debates that he was not planning to vote for himself and that people should vote for Soong.

Since the 2000 presidential election, Li has bitterly spoken against Lee Teng-hui for corruption. In October 2004 Li ran in the December 11 legislative election as a non-party candidate in the South Taipei constituency, for which he was subsequently elected in the last winning place. He took office on February 1, 2005.


Li believes that the reunification of China is inevitable and at one point advocated immediate surrender. He thinks that if reunification came earlier, it would be more beneficial for Taiwan.


Li has never shied away from opportunities to receive publicity. In the late 90s, he began to host television shows aired on a couple of TV stations.



In Li's eyes, there is nothing that cannot be divided by winning and losing categories. Arm with rich historic knowledge, Li stands out on the political stage and doesn't miss any chance to debunk lies and exaggerated claims made by politicians. "I'm not a common soldier," Li states. "I'm an ambitious, affirmative, energetic and happy soldier. I will bitterly hurt my enemies in their heart."


Li has never begrudged his pungent criticism of Taiwan's politicians.


About Chen Shuibian


Li bitterly spoke against Chen Shuibian soon after he won the legislative election late 2004. "Chen Shuibian ruined the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland. His guidelines are absolutely wrong. Now that I have won the election I will make full use of the chance to tell people the benefits of the idea of 'One country, two systems'."


About Democracy


"The real heroes are always alone, just like me. But there's the slightest possibility for candidates like me to win the election. Because they won't fully rely on a political party or succumb to the powerful, nor will they solicit votes by shaking hands, parading in a campaign van and bothering the electorate for votes by telephone. Nevertheless, if candidates as excellent and capable as I am not elected, the system and the election themselves will be under suspicion. So I was elected, but as the last one on the list. It's the only way that all parties could accept."


Li Ao in Quotes 


"Everybody will call others a son of bitch when enraged. But I'm not satisfied with such curses. I'll go further and offer evidence to explain they really are son of bitch. That's why they say I'm a firm and pungent critic. "



"There are two types of characters in Martyrs' Shrine: The Story of the Reform Movement of 1898 in China, Tan Sitong and Liang Qichao. When the reform failed, the two faced different destinies. Tan was brave and died as a martyr while Liang chose to escape to Japan. Yer the enemy, the Qing Dynasty, collapsed in the end. Liang, in some ways, was successful in beating his enemy. So being a martyr was valued little. I prefer to be a fighting soldier. I'm an ambitious, affirmative, energetic and happy soldier. I will bitterly hurt my enemies in their hearts."


"An old saying has it that an official who does not conduct himself well will make life impossible for the people he serves. But I will do things in a reverse way. I won't make life possible of those muddleheaded officials when I come into office."


"Try to be a brave man if you have the chance to avoid being dastardly; try to express a true self when masks can be thrown away; although no egg stays unbroken when a nest is overturned, I hope I'm not the egg which is worst broken…"


(chinaculture September 30, 2005)

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