我的青春、我的FORMOSA by 林莉菁 Li-Chin Lin

(🇫🇷 article en français)

Politcally and culturally speaking, Taiwan has only really started to make sense to me over the past few years. In retrospect, I wonder how I had managed to study the language for so long, all while keeping ignorant of the country’s history. Oh yeah, binge watching Taiwanese and Mandarin-subbed Korean dramas, that probably did it… but well, it did achieve the result of taking an intensive 聽力 and 閱讀 course, so yeah to that, right?

What kind of book is 「我的青春、我的FORMOSA」? Well, it’s the book I wish I’d stumbled upon early on, when I was enthused to learn about Taiwan but couldn’t find the right material to spark my curiosity. It’s the book I wish my Chinese teacher (in Taiwan) would have chosen for my 閱讀 study material. It’s the book, I wish someone would have handed to me before my first trip to Taiwan.

It’s a book which manages to present a slice of the history of Taiwan in a fun and approachable way, and hopefully inspires readers to dig further on their own.

In the format of a comic, the author tries to make sense of her upbringing under the martial law, she critically reflects on the “KMT-distorted” education program she was subjected to up until high school, and finally takes us along her university years, a moment of awakening where everything she’d learned about her country unravels. This set her on a quest to acquaint herself with some unspoken facts of Taiwan’s history, rekindled her affinity with her “true” cultural heritage, and motivated her to participate in Taiwan’s nascent democracy.

Illustration from Word Without Borders.
Click on the picture for more snippets from the book. (Illustration from Word Without Borders.)

By WSR is meant WàiShěngRén 外省人, the word given to the wave of mainland Chinese people who came over with Chiang Kai-Shek post-WWII, it is a loaded term. In contrast, there’s the word 本地人 běnrén or 本省人 běn​shěng​rén  to designate the Han Chinese who immigrated during the 17th century.

I had heard of this 外省人 wàishěngrén and 本地人 běnrén in the past, but it’s only through this book that the divide between the two became clearer to me. It’s a detail worth pointing out for it explains some of the friction among the current older generations.

The remarkable thing about the constellation of groups that eventually coalesced into the Sunflower Movement was its heterogeneous nature… Gone was the so-called “ethnic” divide that sadly continues to polarize politics in this country.

As J. Michael Cole wrote in an article last year, the so-called “ethnic” divide which I reckon refers to the 外省人 wàishěngrén and 本地人 bendiren, a point that wouldn’t have been obvious to me a few years ago has now almost faded. And indeed, among the young crowd, I don’t recall ever hearing or seeing any cases of animosity between the “two ethnic groups”. By now, the younger generations simply consider themselves as Taiwanese.

In an epistolary interview given in French, Li-Chin Lin explains how she was originally approached by a Korean editor to write the story in English, but due to a twist of fate (or call it 緣分 I guess), their cooperation did not come to fruition, and she instead successfully pitched the project to a French publishing house, Çà et Là.

Aside from the English snippets courtesy of Word Without Borders, you can also checkout 10 translated pages of the book on GRANDPAPIER. At the moment, I’m unfortunately not aware of the existence of a full English version, the book is only available in French and Chinese.

The book first came out in French, in a single volume, with an afterword and some historical references to provide some context for the general public. It was later published in Chinese, split in two volumes, where the author reworked and adapted the text for the Taiwanese public, and also included a foreword from a few Taiwanese personalities. Under the impression that there’d be discrepancies in the content, I read both versions to see if certain things would be presented differently, but aside from the afterword, no major differences were found.

Like I said, I really wish I had this book available to me early on, especially during my Chinese studies in Taiwan. There’s a lot of details in the illustrations and in the dialogue which can make for great topics of conversation and help any newcomer to Taiwan quickly grasp the recent political history of the country in an entertaining way. I also liked how Li-Chin Lin included some bits of Taiwanese (in the Chinese version) and how she put forth her maternal Hakka heritage, serving as a good reminder that if Mandarin Chinese is the official language, it doesn’t always mean that it’s the language people prefer to speak.

Reflecting on Li-Chin Lin’s comic, I feel like I know understand why my previous Chinese teacher in Taiwan who was likely slightly older than the author — chose 《文化苦旅》A Bitter Journey Through Culture by 余秋雨 Yu Qiuyu as our reading study material. The “KMT-distorted” education did not fail her! Or I may just be reading too much into it1. 😄

For more information, albeit not in English, a review of the book (in Chinese) is available on Thinking Taiwan, and I’ve also included several links in the French version of this article.

A year has just passed since the Sunflower Movement,  so here’s to better understanding Taiwan. 🐱

  1. Regardless, I’m still grateful that she introduced me to《文化苦旅》, I actually went and bought the book once the term was over, keeping it with me wherever I moved, to serve as a motivational reminder to keep studying Chinese, and to feed my wanderlust for China. 

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