Lau Seng-hian, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Linguistics, National Tsing Hua University
A Whale’s Declaration
(Translated by Tenn Nga-I)
“I don’t want to be a daughter-in-law any longer.”
There she stands, hunched in a corner
Calling herself “sweet potato”
Food for swine, not fit for human consumption
From now on she’ll reach for the horizon
Transform herself into a steadfast cetacean
Turn her back on the Dark Strait
Move toward the all-embracing Pacific
She no longer bears a five-thousand-year-old burden
She extends herself
Like a taut bowstring, full of hope
Ready to spout joyous spume
Ready to swim toward freedom’s shore
When her survival’s threatened
Her sturdy body
Bearing witness to her very existence
To appreciate “A Whale’s Declaration,” a Taiwanese (Holo) poem, one must first must understand why Taiwanese refer to themselves as “sweet potatoes” (蕃薯han-tsî). In the Japanese colonial and postwar periods, rice prices were high and the grain was grown primarily for export. In an era of privation, sweet potatoes, cheap and abundant, were the common people’s staple food, nutrition for the impoverished masses. Also, on a map, Taiwan’s shape resembles that of a yam, therefore “sweet potato” (蕃薯仔han-tsî-á) became a popular symbol of Taiwanese identity, a slang term by which people identified themselves. Celebrated in folk songs, literary works, and proverbs, the humble tuber – once looked down on – represented the hardiness and resilience of the Taiwanese people, who, in spite of hundreds of years of oppression and exploitation at the hands of external social and political forces, continue to grow and flourish.
In the first stanza the poet protests against this self-deprecating characterization, creating a new image by likening Taiwan to a whale. In the second stanza he carries the metaphor even further – transformed from a lowly yam, the island is a mighty cetacean, spouting a jet of water high into the air, swimming toward freedom.
Li Khin-huann is not the first to compare Taiwan to a whale. Qing period poets characterized Taiwan as “Kun Island” 1 and “Whale Island”; in the postwar era the usage appeared in works of history and treatises on place names. In 1996, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Peng Mingmin’s campaigned under the slogan “Ocean Nation, Whale Spirit Civilization,” planting the image even more deeply in the public consciousness.
The last two lines of the first stanza are the crux of the poem. The “Dark Strait” (Taiwan Strait) and the Pacific Ocean are contrasted, negative and positive imagery respectively, indicating Taiwan’s present circumstances. On the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait side lurks a ferocious tiger (China), poised to swallow Taiwan whole; if Taiwan hopes to avoid the fate of being colonized yet again, it must face the wide Pacific, turning to the world in an effort to preserve its sovereignty. But the Taiwan Strait is not simply a line of demarcation between Taiwan and the enemy; it is, moreover, a treacherous sea crossing. Thousands of immigrants from the China mainland risked the journey in search of a better life, and many died in the crossing, perishing in the strait’s stormy waters. These individual and family histories reflect Taiwan’s history of repeated exploitation at the hands of colonial rulers, the legacies merging with today’s situation, in which Taiwanese live under threat of domination by yet another hostile power: China. Thus, the poet indicates the necessity of turning away from the past and seeking a new life, pointing out the need for Taiwanese to reject their fate and stop identifying with the lowly sweet potato; rather, they should look to the powerful whale, finding self-confidence and a new future in the symbol.
In the last stanza, the whale – Taiwan – turns into a series of robust bodies, as strong as whales, and willing to fight for the Taiwanese people’s existence, even if that means sacrificing their own lives. Here the poet uses the romanized verb piann – “to put one’s life on the line” – to describe resistance to external forces. Undaunted by danger, the defenders charge toward freedom’s shore, the poem making an indelible impression on readers’ hearts.
1Kun (鯤 kun), a huge mythical fish that could transform itself into a bird.
Li Khin-huann (1951- ), born Li Jinfa, is a native of Xinhua in Greater Tainan. He wrote under many pennames before officially changing his name to Li Khin-huann in 1982. He has received the Rong Hou Taiwan Poet’s Prize and the Nanying (Tainan County) Award for Literary Excellence. He has acted as director of Taiwanese P.E.N. and “Tâi-uân Bó-gí Liân-bîng” (Taiwanese Languages League), and at present serves as both professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literature and Associate Dean of NTNU’s College of Liberal Arts.
Li graduated from Tung Hai University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literature in 1979. In 1986 he received a master’s degree in English-language education from Oklahoma City University and took a teaching position at National Sun Yat-sen University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. The next year his demand that military officers be removed from school campuses 1 and the inclusion of his work in 1983 Taiwan Poetry Selections made Li the target of official pressure and he resigned his teaching post in protest. That year he cofounded “Teachers for the Promotion of Human Rights” with Shi Wenjie, Lu Siyue and others, a group devoted to effecting revision of the R.O.C. Teachers’ Act; thus Li was in the vanguard of the movement to secure human rights for educational personnel.
Li threw himself into in social movements following 1979’s “Kaohsiung Incident.” 2 In 1979 he started the Fan Shu Poetry Union and joined World United Formosans for Independence. He obtained a master degree in linguistics from the University of Hawaii in 1994, and in 2000 received a doctorate in linguistics from the same institution. In 2001 he took part in the founding of “Tâi-oân Lô-má-jī Hia̍p-hōe” (Taiwanese Romanization Association) and taught in Harvard University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization. In 2004 he accepted a position at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literature, and established the Tâi-uân Bó-gí Liân-bîng (Taiwanese Languages League), acting as chief convener. In 2008 he founded Hái-ang Quarterly of Teaching Taiwanese, serving as chief editor. He has created a phonetic system for Taiwanese (Holo), standardizing the written language, facilitating implementation of mother-tongue education and writing. Thus, Li Khin-huann is an important figure in the history of Taiwanese language reform and evolution.
Li has published a total of fifteen poetry collections, including Flowers of Facebook (2014), Seasons of Facebook (2014), Legends of Facebook (2014), Things You Won’t Understand Till You Get Old (2011), We’re All Sinners (2011), and Poems for Adults and Children (2011). His essay collections include Whale Sets Sail (2010), Harvard Taiwanese Notes (2006), and New Nomads (2001). Treatise collections include Vernacular Literature: Taiwanese Culture and the Interaction of Language and Literature (2010), Changes in Taiwanese (Holo) Vocabulary (2008), and Language Politics and Language Policy (2003), a total of nearly fifty papers. In 2011 Li was invited to attend the 7th Annual International Granada Poets’ Festival in Nicaragua. The same year the World Poetry Almanac published Selected Poems of Khin-huann Li, a bilingual English-Mongolian edition.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=25022
1Military officers serving as disciplinarians on high school and university campuses were a feature of the martial-law era.
|Work(English)：||A Whale’s Declaration|
|Anthology：||Whale of Taiwanese Literature|
|Author：||Li Qinan (Li Khin-huann)|
|Language：||Traditional Chinese (Holo)|
|Translator：||鄭雅怡 (Tenn Nga-i)|
|Publisher：||Tainan City: Open-Mind Magazine Enterprise Co., Ltd.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.king-an.com.tw/books2.html|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Hái-ang Taiwanese Literary Magazine|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Unpublished Translation by the Literature Toolkit Project|