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Mainland Novelist Brings Neglected Past of Taiwan back to Life

In 1895, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) signed The Treaty of Shimonoseki and ceded Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to Japan after losing the Sino-Japanese War. This was the start of Japanese colonial reign that lasted for half a century until Japan surrendered in 1945. Taiwan and the Penghu Islands were then reunited with the motherland.

The period of Japanese occupation is deeply engraved upon Taiwan society, giving rise to some of its most painful memories. For years, many tried to forget the past.

But Yan Yanwen, a 33-year-old woman writer from the Chinese mainland, has stirred up the collective memory of those painful years with her Taiwan Trilogy, the first novels on Taiwan people's resistance against Japanese colonial rule.

Yan began working on the books about 10 years ago. The first novel in the trilogy was published in the mainland in 2001 and in Taiwan in 2003. The second was released in the mainland in 2004, and the last is scheduled to come out at the end of this year or early next year. Negotiations concerning the English edition are also under way.

The response from readers, Yan said, has exceeded her expectations. Among the numerous letters she has received from fans, the most impressive is from a Taiwan poet, who wrote: "Thank you for writing this book for Taiwan. The history (of Japanese occupation) is a painful history. The Taiwan people dare not write about it and the Japanese are not willing to write. If the mainlanders do not write either, then there will be no one else to record the history."

When the idea for the trilogy came to Yan, she was a 23-year-old doctoral candidate working on her thesis. She had eight years' professional training in the field of modern and contemporary Chinese literature and had published hundreds of pieces of literary criticism.

In 1995, she was invited to write the Taiwan and Hong Kong sections of a book on Chinese literature in the 1930s.

It was while writing this book that she began to develop an interest in the history of Taiwan.

"Gradually an excitement hung over me. The two sides across the Taiwan Straits share the same culture. Driven by an impetus, I began to comb all the historical documents I could find about the local history, and with the help of them, came close to the bygone era," said Yan.

Of course it was difficult for a 23-year-old to deal with such a heavy subject, but Yan felt so passionate that she simply could not stop. She devoted the 10 best years of her life to writing the trilogy. While most of her peers were enjoying their carefree lives, she contemplated the notions of land, home and nation.

The extended period spent researching the history provided a solid base for her novels.

"Taiwan people's resistance against the Japanese invasion was very moving and tragic," Yan said.

Upon the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the people of Taiwan were enraged. Taipei residents staged protests by beating gongs demanding a boycott of Japanese goods, engulfing the city with their demonstrations, and many compatriots submitted petitions to the Qing court, swearing "they would rather fight to the death than give up Taiwan."

Military resistance against the Japanese occupation lasted for four and a half months. Between June and October 1895, more than 32,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in more than 100 battles.

"The people in Taiwan are the first batch of Chinese to fight against Japanese aggression. In my opinion, the Chinese nation's war against the Japanese aggression began in 1895. Not the traditionally accepted 1937. Not 1931 when the 'September 18 Incident' took place," Yan said.

Historical events and figures

The first novel of Yan's trilogy mainly focuses on Taiwan people's resistance against Japanese aggression in 1895.

The second story goes further into Taiwan's historical roots, depicting how the forefathers of Taiwan cultivated the soil.

The final instalment, which will soon hit the streets, features tales of a group of patriotic intellectuals fighting against Japan's cultural colonization of Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, the period of Japanese occupation. The author has tried to include all of the major anti-Japanese events of that period.

Besides recording historical events, Yan also depicts several historical figures, such as Qiu Fengjia and Lien Heng, in her novels, which contain a total of 1.4 million Chinese characters.

Qiu Fengjia was one of the leaders of the 1895 military resistance against the Japanese occupation. Lien Heng was another typical representative of the patriotic intellectuals. He wrote A Comprehensive History of Taiwan with a hidden patriotic significance. His grandson, Lien Chan, is the former chairman of the Kuomintang.

But Yan does not confine herself to depicting the "big events." She also makes an effort to record minute details that add flesh and blood to the figures. The chapter on Qiu's love affair is one of the most wonderful sections in the trilogy.

In 2001, Yan sold the film adaptation rights for the first novel in the trilogy.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the recovery of Taiwan. Yan said she felt especially regretful that production of the film and TV drama adaptation has not yet started.

Critics point out the island suffered a great deal from the humiliation of being a colony. Its links to the motherland, both physical and psychological, were cut off for half a century.

Sadly, this has caused an identity crisis. This is illustrated by a scene in Taiwan master director Hou Hsiao-hsien's 1989 classic The City of Sadness. According to the film, many people on the island did not even know whether they were the defeated side or had in fact been victorious.

(China Daily October 25, 2005)

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