LAI HE, A.K.A. LAI HO (1894—1943)
LAI HE, A.K.A. LAI HO (1894—1943). Fiction writer and poet. Born and raised in Japanese-colonized Taiwan, Lai graduated from medical school and practiced medicine throughout his life. From 1917 to 1919, he worked in a hospital in Xiamen, Fujian Province, where his Chinese was much improved as he became increasingly drawn to nationalist causes. After his return to Taiwan, Lai became involved in anti-Japanese activities, attracting the attention of the Japanese authorities, who arrested him in 1924. In 1941, he was again arrested and with his health destroyed during the two-year prison term, Lai died shortly after he was released from prison.
Under the influence of the May Fourth Movement, Lai was made aware of the important role literature could play in awakening the nationalist consciousness of the people; throughout his career he insisted on addressing contemporary political and social issues. As one of the first generation of Taiwanese writers, Lai began by writing stories in Japanese, as well as classical-style poetry in Chinese, a skill he had honed at a young age from a private tutor. After joining forces with other new literary movement proponents, including Zhang Wojun, Huang Chaoqun, and Yang Kui, Lai adopted the vernacular as a medium for his poetry and fiction to describe the collapse of the old social order and the sufferings of the poor, and above all, to expose the injustice the people of Taiwan suffered under the Japanese, reflecting his nationalist sentiments.
Lai’s first story, “Dou nao re” (Festivity), shares the same concern of his mainland contemporaries who were passionate about eradicating the problems within traditional Chinese culture. The story satirizes the grandiose competitions held at religious festivals in rural Taiwan, depicting them as superstitious and pointless, a view similar to Lu Xun’s criticism of the deficiency of the Chinese cultural trait. Other stories, however, focus on the economic exploitation and cultural assimilation policies imposed by the Japanese. Told in the realist mode, these stories are characterized by their biting satire and poignant symbolism. “Yi gan chen zai” (The Man with a Steelyard), considered his representative work, tells the story of a vegetable seller who struggles to make a living but ends up in jail on charges brought against him by a Japanese policeman who accuses him of cheating with a dishonest steelyard. His wife has to borrow money to bail him out, which further reduces the family’s financial circumstances. Unable to climb out of his dire situation, the vegetable seller kills the policeman and then himself. The irony that a steelyard, a symbol of fairness, leads to injustice is an indication of Lai’s narrative art. “Re shi” (Making Trouble), centers on the Japanese police chief’s chickens, which are in the habit of running into the neighbor’s yard to eat the vegetables. For fear of causing any trouble, the neighbor stomps the ground in an attempt to scare the chickens away. Nevertheless, the Taiwanese family is still charged with chicken theft. Lai points out that in the Japanese-occupied Taiwan, there is no justice for the Taiwanese people and the only way out for them is to break free of their oppressors.
Unlike the subtle and satirical tone found in his fictional work, the voice in Lai’s poetry is direct and indignant, lamenting the ill fate of the Taiwanese people and denouncing the Japanese. “Juewu de xisheng” (The Awakened Sacrifice) is a political poem written to show support for the sugarcane farmers suppressed by the Japanese. “Nanguo aige” (The Song of Sorrow from the South) is also a battle cry against the colonizers. While writing stories and essays, Lai also took up editing for newspapers and literary journals through which he helped nurture young Taiwanese writers, earning him the honor of being called the “wet-nurse and father of modern Taiwanese literature.”