On February 10, Liu Shao-tang, the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Biographical Literature magazine, passed away. He had been revered for years as a collector of biographical materials, and earned the praise "single-handedly the equal of a nation." He has left behind him a "great wall" of historical testimony from the Republican era (1911-1949) in mainland China. This "great wall" is comprised of tens of millions of characters of biography, memoirs, diaries, letters, writings by historians, and maps and photographs.
Many people are watching carefully to see who will succeed this giant of history. Who will carry on editing and managing Biographical Literature magazine to ensure that living history does not die? In this era of Taiwanization, what is the continued attraction in this magazine? What precious historical materials have been left to us by the 38 years of Biographical Literature? And what philosophy of history does it teach?
"Don't let living history die." This was a favorite saying of Liu Shao-tang, late publisher of Biographical Literature magazine. It was the ideal behind his periodical. The phrase originates from something said in frustration by Yu You-jen, former president of the Control Yuan. As Liu Shao-tang explained in Volume 64, No. 2: "From the struggle between Sun and Huang in the early years of the Republic, through the chaos of the warlord era and the North-South standoff, to the periods of cooperation and conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists, Yu witnessed countless political struggles. He saw how much historical data was distorted or destroyed, how right was turned into wrong and black into white, and how whoever won the battles also won history. He expressed the indignation he felt in a poem, 'Do not let living history die.' He hoped that historical truths would not be long buried, but would ultimately have their day in the sun."
Yu's plaint evokes a sigh. The history of the Republican era, with its many disasters and challenges, could just as easily be called "the distorted history of the Republic." Just take for example a topic like who really fought against the Japanese. There is complete opposition of the views on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as to whether it was the Nationalists or the Communists who "really" fought the Japanese. With both sides offering their own evidence, those in search of the truth feel like the proverbial blind men trying to identify an elephant.
Between history and literature
The dominant philosophy of history entering the 21st century emphasizes pluralism and deconstruction. More than ever, there is a great need for places to collect together all the parties' versions of events. Biographical Literature, which has produced 454 issues since beginning publication in June of 1962, has gathered together hundreds of millions of characters of "one-sided testimony" to "piece together the full face of history."
Su Teng-chi, assistant editor-in-chief at the China Times, who is concurrently a lecturer in history at Chinese Culture University, says: "There has been virtually not a single thesis or dissertation written on Republican-era history in the last 20 years which has not cited Biographical Literature in the footnotes."
Liu Wei-kai, who was very close to Liu, agrees: "Biographical Literature has become a core element in the database for Republican-era history. Typically, when writing something on the Republican era, the historical references will certainly include the documents and files of the relevant government agencies, Selected and Edited Cultural and Historical Materials published in mainland China, and Biographical Literature. This is the only way you can write history that has real meat on the bones."
Biographical Literature, which has never once been late producing a monthly 300,000-character issue in its 38 years, stands in the eyes of many historians as the major pillar of "unofficial" history of the Republican era, outside of any governmental or academic institutions.
As many researchers have repeatedly emphasized, Biographical Literature articles "are not technically history, yet nor are they literature, but something between the two. They are built around a framework of biography, the mode of expression is literary, and they emerge in the form of historical materials." As Chen San-ching, former director of the Institute of Modern History at the Academia Sinica says, the magazine is for this very reason extremely useful in compensating for the inadequacies of static documentary materials. Rescuing modern historical figures and their memories from obscurity is one of the most important values underlying Biographical Literature.
A new road for history
Do you remember that wartime era? After mainland China fell in 1949, about two million soldiers and civilians followed the Nationalist government in retreating to Taiwan. These "mainlanders" retained strong feelings for their lost homes, and there were many things they found inexplicable about that era of chaos. Therefore, when Biographical Literature suddenly appeared to discuss that era, it was an oasis in the "cultural desert" of Taiwan at that time, and immediately became very popular.
Liu Wei-kai relates that "Biographical Literature was only able to get off the ground because of publisher Liu's personal background and personality." Liu had a forthright nature and a rich network of personal contacts. After graduating from Southwest Joint University and Peking University, he worked with his teacher, Tsui Shu-chin, a professor of history at National Taiwan University, who had excellent contacts in the KMT and in the government. Tsui helped Liu get a job at KMT party headquarters, where he met many important government figures. This is how Biographical Literature was able to get so many moving firsthand stories. Also, a number of Republican-era history researchers who served in the KMT department of party history accepted invitations from Liu to be regular contributors to Biographical Literature.
Looking at the early days of Biographical Literature, as Liu Wei-kai says, "Things usually got rolling after the publication of some elder's recollections." After an article on a certain subject was published, there was a snowball effect, drawing out the recollections of many others. For example, in its first issue, the magazine carried the wartime recollections of Qin Dequn, commander of the Northwest Army during the war against Japan. Qin started as a subordinate of General Feng Yuxiang, and later entered Song Zheyuan's 29th Army. He went on to become Minister of Defense. He had very clear memories of the war against Japan, Sino-Japanese relations, and the Northwest Army.
The publication of his recollections inspired many important military figures of the same period to produce their own. In this way, a lot of missing pieces of the history of the war against Japan were filled in. With regard to the accomplishments of the Nationalist government, and in particular the question of who fought the war against Japan, the evidence was right there in front of your eyes.
Liu Jianqun, who had at one time been president of the Legislative Yuan, published in serial form his remembrances of his party and government experiences. He left an important record of many wartime operations, such as the Blue Shirt Association. "In official histories," says Liu Wei-kai, "topics like the Northwest Army or the Blue Shirts have been relatively ignored, and it has not been very easy to find relevant materials. Biographical Literature articles opened the path, and stirred up even more sparks."
Another noteworthy achievement was the publication of the memoirs of Shen Yiyun, wife of Huang Yingbai, who Chiang Kai-shek looked on as a brother. Shen's memoirs contained many stories about negotiations with Japan during the War of Resistance, and provide an important historical reference for the study of Sino-Japanese diplomacy in the pre-war to post-war period. Similarly, the memoirs published in Biographical Literature by a series of ROC diplomats also provide irreplaceable sources for the study of ROC diplomatic history.
Of heroic exploits
Liu Wei-kai states: "Looking at the broader picture, over the last 38-plus years Biographical Literature has not only made a great contribution to political and military history, it has also touched upon the cultural transformation in the early Republican era, the life of women, and subjects like leisure and recreation in that time."
For example, many of the early Republican-era literary giants whose lives are now the subject of renewed popular interest thanks to a TV series called The April of Humanity, such as Xu Zhimo, Lu Xiaoman, Lin Huiyin, and Wang Geng, published their own stories in Biographical Literature way back in the 1960s.
Biographical Literature also carried memoirs by Du Yuesheng, the famed Shanghai gangster of the early Republican era, Peking Opera masters Qi Rushan and Mei Lanfang, and the singer Zhang Cuifeng. In their recollections, the social life and entertainment world of the early Republican gentry class come to life. From the point of view of the history of women, there were articles by Yang Buwei, wife of Zhao Yuanren, by Shen Yiyun, the wife of Huang Yingbai, and by the famous socialites Lu Xiaoman and Sai Jinhua. These carry detailed descriptions of the lives, education, thinking, and social status of women at that time, and provide firsthand materials for the study of the history of Chinese women.
The richness of the materials and the broad scope of the collection contained in Biographical Literature is reflected in a poem written by reader and later contributing author Kuo Kwan-ying, a protocol officer at the Government Information Office: "Allowing defeated soldiers to tell of their courage; giving outcast ministers the chance to describe their deeds/ Permitting geniuses to release their emotions; encouraging famous beauties to recall days gone by/ Drawing tears from heroes; calling forth sighs from literati/ Asking writers to speak their minds; presenting the results to readers for public evaluation." Thanks to Biographical Literature, Kuo himself became infatuated with Republican history, and became an amateur historian specializing in the life of Zhang Xueliang.
Heroes and villains
Precisely how much history has been published in Biographical Literature? Liu Wei-kai calls the range of materials in the magazine "amazing." There are generals and ministers, and ordinary citizens. Anyone who made a contribution in a certain area could be welcomed into the folds of the magazine. Looking at military history for example, as Liu Wei-kai says, from the "second revolution" and the warlord struggles to the War of Resistance against Japan and the battles between the Nationalists and Communists, "Not an element in the wartime history of modern China has been ignored."
So prolific was Liu's operation that official historians have been left staggering behind. So far, Biographical Literature has published 142 sets of periodicals related to modern literature, including A History of Modern Chinese Fiction and Biographies of Republican-era Personalities; 104 books on literature; 22 sets of collected historical materials; and four sets of collected literature, such as The Complete Works of Jiang Baili. It has also produced the "Details" series of Li Tung-fang (discussing detailed aspects of Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasty history), and has produced potted biographies of more than 2,800 people under the headings of Mini-Biographies from the Republican Era and Major Events of the Republican Era. In comparison, the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing has produced only eight volumes in its Mini-Biographies of the Republican Era, carrying the stories of only 482 people. This is why T.K. Tong, a historian living in the US, declared that Liu Shao-tang was "single-handedly the equal of a nation."
Su Teng-chi says that the value of Biographical Literature lies not only in recording history, but in bringing a feeling of times past alive to readers. "He brought history out of the dusty halls of academe and into the homes of ordinary people," is what an editorial in the China Times had to say.
The history of chaos and change that was Republican China cannot be told in the dry cause-and-effect terms of school textbooks. The stories in Biographical Literature are filled with human interest and the twists of fate. Because of the many rapid turns in political direction and power since the founding of the ROC, there are a number of fascinating historical figures from the period whom Liu characterized as "halfway heroes and two-faced loyal ministers." They make Republican era history endlessly fascinating.
Take for example Wang Jingwei. He was a leading figure of the first revolutionary generation and advised Sun Yat-sen; he served as chairman of the Nationalist government, and a leader of the Kuomintang. Yet, during the War of Resistance Against Japan, Wang cooperated with the Japanese and formed the Nanjing puppet government, becoming the archetypal traitor of his age.
And how about Zhang Zhizhong, who during the period of the Northern Expedition served as director of education at the Central Military Academy in Nanjing. In the twilight of the Civil War in the late 1940s, he was part of the Nationalist team negotiating a peace settlement with the Communist Party. Ultimately he and first delegate Shao Lizi went over to the Communist side together, and were each awarded a Liberation Medal First Class. There are countless complex personalities like this from that era, whose loyalties to the other side are simply ignored in their historical treatment on each side of the strait.
Liu once wrote: "There are some people who are honored with a place in the Martyrs' Shrine in Taipei and whose bodies are buried in the Babaoshan Cemetery for Revolutionary Heroes in Beijing." Such figures have given the interpreters of history many interesting topics to discuss.
Gods into men
"Criminals against the people, or heroes of the first order?" In Biographical Literature articles, the old dialectic of "winners are noble kings, losers are bandits" never provides the standard for judging people from the past. Take for example the treatment of Zhang Xueliang, architect of the Xi'an Incident. From 1970 to June of 1998, Biographical Literature had published 76 articles related to Zhang. In 1970, when it was still very sensitive to discuss Zhang, the magazine published an article asking: "Why did this man who once allied with the KMT to complete the reunification of the country instigate the Xi'an incident?"
In the 1990s, with the opening of contacts across the Taiwan Strait, Liu led the way in uncovering historical materials from the mainland. Articles like "Secret Cables Between Gu Weijun and Zhang Xueliang After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident" clarified many things about the war in China. After the passing of the two Presidents Chiang and the lifting of martial law, Zhang Xueliang was released from his decades-long house arrest. Those who were in charge of Zhang all those years came forward to tell their stories, and many new documents emerged from mainland China. Articles like "The Man Who Gave Zhang Xueliang Freedom" and "Relations Between Zhang Xueliang and the Communist Party Prior to the Xi'an Incident" present a multi-faceted view of the "Young Marshal."
Kuo Kwan-ying says: "I finally figured out that my positive feeling about Zhang Xueliang came from reading Biographical Literature." In an era when talking about Zhang at all was taboo, the magazine discussed him as a "tragic hero" rather than as a traitor. In the 1990s, after Zhang's rehabilitation, Biographical Literature ran more stories about his relations with the Communists (which would have been more welcome in the earlier era). It is clear that Liu's loyalty lay not to Zhang, but to historical evidence.
Su Teng-chi, who was inspired to study history in university and who worked part-time at Biographical Literature doing research into the CPC-KMT civil war, recently published A Chronology of the Life of Zhang Xueliang. In it, historical materials describe how Zhang was persuaded by the Communists to cooperate with them, to kidnap Chiang Kai-shek, to destroy intelligence documents about the CPC, and to allow the CPC to rest, refit, and grow strong, greatly helping the ultimate Communist victory.
The fact that two historians inspired by Biographical Literature can have reached such radically different conclusions about Zhang testifies to the fact that the magazine has never sought monolithic uniformity, but all sides of every story. Shen Lu-hsun, a former ROC representative to the US, claims that many American diplomats and generals were green with envy when they heard that Taiwan has such a magazine.
In the martial law era, Biographical Literature also dared to smash historical myths. "Historical myths are created by those in power, but Biographical Literature regularly brought out historical facts to smash these myths," says Kuo Kwan-ying. He notes how the magazine transformed former president Chiang Kai-shek "from a god into a man." Articles published while still in the martial law era called Chiang the "Old Man Who Lived on Yangmingshan" and one article used the term "fled in failure" to describe his flight to Taiwan.
Liu's widow Wang Ai-sheng recalls how such articles "attracted the attention of the authorities." She remembers how one Lunar New Year someone came to the house to look at Liu's appointment diary and subscriber lists. "They went through stuff for two days and didn't find a thing." In the martial law era, it was hard for historians of the modern era to avoid offending the authorities. Wang feels that the reason nothing ever happened to Liu was "he had protection from many important figures in the party and government." And the fact that Biographical Literature has been able to survive all these years is that Liu was able to safely say what others couldn't. Which is to say it was due, as Liu Wei-kai puts it, to "the publisher's counter-repressive capability."
Fairness, favoritism, and revenge
In 1991, showing the greatest moral courage and sense of mission, Biographical Literature serialized a Chinese translation of the memoirs of the second wife of Chiang Kai-shek, Chen Jieru. This created quite a stir in the Chinese community worldwide.
What was it about Chen's memoirs that made everyone so excited? According to the historian T.K. Tong, the reason was that once Chiang Kai-shek married Soong May-ling, Chen, who had been Chiang's legal wife for seven years, entered a "historical black box." She disappeared from the screen of orthodox history. She was slandered in the official media and in popular gossip, which made her out to be an evil woman even less worthy of respect than a prostitute. "What justice was there in treating an innocent, good-natured, and abandoned wife like this?" asks Tong.
From the perspective of history, Liu wrote in an editor's note, Chen's memoirs should by no means be seen as gossip. "Besides describing her marriage to Chiang Kai-shek, the memoirs also clearly detail the very little-known struggles for power in the revolutionary government during those many years in Guangzhou before the Northern Expedition." They also offer "a completely different version from existing books" of the relations between Sun and Chiang and of Chiang's rise to power. Liu certainly showed his character in publishing these materials which touch so closely on the history of the Chiang family.
On the other hand, Liu adopted a completely different attitude in handling another rumor related to the Chiang family. It is said that just before he died, Chiang Wei-kuo, the younger brother of Chiang Ching-kuo, let slip that "Ching-kuo was not in fact the son of Mao Fumei" (Chiang Kai-shek's first wife). Based on a recording of Wei-kuo, Kuo Kwan-ying wanted to publish an article about this in Biographical Literature. But Liu Shao-tang believed-based on the many articles the magazine had previously published about the Chiang family in Xikou, Chiang's birthplace-that this claim was absurd, and he refused to carry the piece.
Liu Wei-kai explains: "Liu was very skeptical about articles not backed up by fact, or where the evidence was too thin." Liu had the old-school ethic, which was to respect historical fact and to be fair and generous to historical figures. This was a strict principle observed by Biographical Literature.
In search of history
"Historical truth" is of course a fascinating topic of its own. While Biographical Literature has had an unmatched impact on contemporary historians, on popular interest in history, and in capturing the flavor of the past, there is at least one point worth wondering about: It has rarely published any material about Taiwan over the last 50 years, such as the stories of the opposition movement or of well-connected families like the Lins or Koos.
It's a chicken-and-egg problem. The best work that appears in Biographical Literature are the stories written by participants in history themselves. Each time there were power shifts in Republican era, another group of elites was washed out; later, settled in Taiwan and far removed from day-to-day politics, they were willing to write for the magazine. Being good writers with broad perspectives, naturally they produced exciting and engrossing material, which, by keeping the standards of the magazine up, attracted more of the same.
In contrast, says Liu Wei-kai, the situation has been different with regard to events in Taiwan over the past 50 years. For one thing, there are now many published sources on these events, and Biographical Literature would hardly be people's first choice for this kind of material. When Central Daily News chairman Huang Tien-tsai wrote a historical piece on Mongolia's entry into the United Nations, he first gave it to the United Daily News, not to Liu. After Liu died, Huang felt regret that he still "owed an article" to Liu.
In addition, many prominent people say "those involved are still alive," so they refuse to write memoirs about recent events in Taiwan. Of course some publishing houses or reporters who are anxious to make a historical record may produce unauthorized biographies. But due to differences in the abilities of writers, they won't necessarily hit the most important points. The tradition of hagiography is also very evident in the works of many of these writers.
Wang Jung-wen, chairman of Yuan Liou Publishing, which has considered taking over Biographical Literature, says that if the magazine wants to stay in business, naturally the Republican-era remembrances that have earned the magazine high public esteem will also have to continue. But to attract younger readers, it will be necessary not to neglect the stories of Taiwan over the last 50 years. These "stories of the life process of Taiwan," as Wang calls them, could be done as oral history interviews. Before his death, Liu also endorsed this proactive approach to getting new material.
Past, present, future
What will happen now that Liu is gone? Some people feel that Liu-founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief all rolled into one man who could single-handedly equal a whole country-put a personal stamp on the magazine that can never be duplicated. For example, says Wang, "He had special personal relationships and ways of getting people to write for the magazine. I don't think there are very many people who could do what he did."
Chen Hsiang-mei, a long-time contributing author, adds: "His relaxed and easy-going attitude inspired many people to write just for him; I was no exception." Whoever takes over Biographical Literature, besides needing to have a deep understanding of both Republican-era history and the demands of the highly competitive contemporary market, will also have to accept the challenge of "the Liu Shao-tang style."
Liu said of himself: "I am an idiot among geniuses, that's the reason I'm willing to do this demanding job." Wonders Su Teng-chi: "Who can replace the determination of Publisher Liu?" Virtually everyone who knew Liu feels the same way-that they don't make men like him anymore.
"I was very sad when Liu died. I felt like our era has really passed," says Chiang Yung-ching, an old contributor, who has tears in his eyes as he speaks.
Has the era of determination to leave a record of the historical facts really gone? Maybe not. A month before his death, Liu added a sentence to the inside cover of issue 452: "Permanently open for business." He must have felt confidence in those who will succeed him. Indeed, at a magazine celebration 20 years ago he said, "Success doesn't require me personally, there are talented people in each generation."
The most fearsome thing in historical research is a gap in the data. Biographical Literature has been filling in the gaps in Republican era history for so long that perhaps there is no need to fear that its own history has reached a stopping point.
For 38 years now, Biographical Literature has been covering fascinating and novel topics, and has become required reading for researchers of modern Chinese history home and abroad.
A room full of reference books on Republican China, and a worn out leather chair on which Biographical Literature founder Liu Shao-tang spent who-knows-how-many late nights and early mornings at his desk in order to produce a responsible magazine for readers.
Liu always had the magazine with him wherever he went. His ashes are even now surrounded by bound copies of Biographical Literature, a vivid reminder of the "great wall" of Republican history he published in his lifetime.
Liu Shao-tang has himself become a historic figure. In the first issue that appeared after his death, edited by his widow Wang Ai-sheng, besides commemorative articles on Liu, all the other pieces had been selected by Liu from his sickbed.
The turbulent Republican era (1911-1949) was Liu's main focus. This picture was rephotographed from an exhibition sponsored by the magazine to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. (courtesy of Biographical Literature)
Who really fought the Japanese? The Nationalists and Communists have diametrically opposed answers. Biographical Literature has always sought to transcend the iron law that "history is written by the winners." The photo shows part of the Marco Polo Bridge, where full-scale fighting was provoked by Japan in 1937. (courtesy of Biographical Literature)
Biographical Literature has not only political and military history, but also social and literary history. Peking Opera star Xin Fengxia was the subject of one report; the photo shows her (left) with Mei Lanfang (center), another Peking Opera master, and film star Ouyang Yuqian. (courtesy of Biographical Literature)
The US has been an important player in modern Chinese history. Biographical Literature has carried much valuable information on Sino-US diplomacy, including photographs. This one shows Chiang Ching-kuo, accompanied by ROC Ambassador to the US Shen Chien-hung, meeting US President John F. Kennedy. (courtesy of Biographical Literature)
T.K. Tong, a historian resident in the US, serialized his Oral Autobiography of Hu Shih in Biographical Literature before publishing it in book form. Liu asked Tong to write an introduction, which unexpectedly turned into more than 100,000 characters of "Miscellaneous Reminiscences of Hu Shih." Tong has been one of the most welcome contributors to the magazine. (photo by Diago Chiu)
Liu Shao-tung led the way in Taiwan in publishing memoirs from mainland China, such as those by Peking University professor Li Mulin describing the Cultural Revolution. His magazine is also well-received in the PRC, and many mainland scholars who come to Taiwan want to visit its offices. The photo shows Li on a visit to the Hu Shih gravesite in Taipei two years ago, accompanied by Hu Shih Memorial Museum director Tao Ying-hui (second at left) and Peking University professor Hao Bin (second from right). (courtesy of Biographical Literature)
Despite Liu's death, issue 454 came out according to schedule. Liu's widow Wang Ai-sheng says that readers didn't notice any difference, largely because Liu chose the articles for the issue.
Wang Ai-sheng, now 72, has taken up Liu's task for now. but she is anxiously seeking someone else to take over. "We are not a business, and we are not looking to make money. We will only pass the baton along to someone who is able to carry on the direction set by Mr. Liu," says Wang.