Taiwan Literature Goes Global

Yeh Shih-tao’s Works Published in Vietnamese

2018 / September

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Bruce Humes

“Ihave always believed that literature is the salt of the earth. Salt may be a trivial thing, but it is essential for our health. Precisely because literature is like a handful of salt found in the soil… I believe it can transform mankind’s spiritual structure, and unleash limitless potential for betterment.” Thus did Yeh Shih-tao, a pioneering writer and a respected scholar of modern Taiwan literary history, describe the power inherent in literary creation.

After the December 2017 publication in Vietnamese of Spring Dream at Gourd Alley­—Short Stories by Yeh Shih-tao, a second volume by Yeh, History of Taiwanese Literature, has also been translated into Vietnamese and is scheduled for launch in Vietnam in October. As Yeh himself might have put it, like salt, the power of literature will enable the Vietnamese people to better comprehend Taiwan, and serve to harmonize our mutual relations. 



The bright sun of September’s Indian summer shines silently upon the red-brick façade and sloping tiled roof of the Yeh Shyr-tau Literary Memorial Museum. Located on You’ai Street in Tai­nan City, this Japanese-era building—that formerly housed the colonial government’s Forestry Office—happens to be of the same age as the master of modern literary history, Yeh Shih-tao.

Yeh Shih-tao was born in Tai­nan in 1925, and his lifetime spanned the era of Japanese rule and the post-war period. His writing about the everyday life of the common people, as well as their modes of thinking, reflected the island’s diverse culture and defined him as an important, quintessentially Taiwanese author. The backdrop for the lion’s share of his novels and essays comprised characters, events and a zeitgeist based in Tai­nan, Taiwan’s administrative capital during the Qing. The snaking alleyways, incense-filled temples and local snacks that so often feature in his works eventually came to serve as icons of the city.

Exploring a literary landscape

Since the establishment of the Yeh Shyr-tau Literary Memorial Museum in 2012, the Tai­nan City Cultural Affairs Bureau has regularly sponsored the “Yeh Shih-tao Literary Landscape Tours.” To date, four major routes have been established, covering some 90 literary sites. They provide visitors with the means to “read” the author as they stroll. They also extend the reader’s imagination beyond Yeh’s texts—as expressed via handwritten manuscripts and old photos—to include the pleasure of personally visiting places that appear in his works.

Starting from the museum, visitors can take in Chi­kan Tower on the site of the former Dutch Fort Provintia, which made an appearance in Yeh’s short story “The Last of the Siraya,” and Shi­jing­jiu, next to Rice Street (now Xin­mei Street), where Yeh used to eat rice cakes and fish-ball soup; and then walk over to Fortune-Stick Lane and Fortune-Teller’s Lane, near the God of War Temple. Amid the temple’s unembellished old-style lanterns and air of dilapidated opulence, you can imagine you’re in a scene from “Spring Dream at Gourd Alley.” The Grand Matsu Temple and the Shu­zhuang­lou (“Mazu’s Boudoir”) with their gorgeous carvings and colorful decorations, and ornate yet dignified architecture, were places where Yeh played and hung out when young.

As you stroll down lanes off Min­sheng Road, you arrive at Tai­nan’s current hotspot for Instagram photoshoots—Snail Alley. Besides counting for yourself the artistic iterations of snails in different settings, you can search for remnants of the ambience suggested in Yeh’s works, and experience the languid feel of Tai­nan’s ­alleyways.

With book in hand—be it Romantic Heart, the Cultural Affairs Bureau’s collection of Yeh’s short stories, or now the Spring Dream collection in Vietnamese—readers can trace their way through the cultural landscape described in Yeh’s works.

Taiwanese fiction in Vietnamese

As part of its “Cultural New Southbound Policy,” in 2017 Tai­nan’s Cultural Affairs Bureau launched the “Yeh Shih-tao Vietnamese Translation Program.” Chen Yi-yuan, former director of the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, selected eight short stories penned during Yeh’s youth, middle age and old age, in order to convey his different moods and literary goals. Chen commissioned their translation by several translators including ­Nguyen Thu Hien, deputy director of the Faculty of Literature at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi. The selection was subsequently distributed by Literature Publishing House, Vietnam’s largest state-run publisher devoted to literary works.

Yeh Tse-shan, director-general of the Tai­nan City Cultural Affairs Bureau, points out that Tai­nan wishes to position itself as the “City of Taiwanese Literature,” and introducing the world to the island’s literature via translations is thus a prime consideration for the bureau. For example, Yeh’s fiction has been published in several languages including English, Japanese and Korean, and this year a Malaysian edition is planned. Vietnam is an important target of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. Spring Dream at Gourd Alley is not simply the first book of Taiwanese fiction to appear in Vietnamese; it is also a vehicle for cultural exchange intended to further understanding of the island’s literature, and hopefully travelers will bring it along when they visit Tai­nan.

In conjunction with the literary landscape tours, the Cultural Affairs Bureau has already produced a guide to Tainan’s historical sites in Japanese and Korean, and plans to launch a Vietnamese version too.

Opening a window on Taiwanese fiction

In order to further deepen exchanges between Taiwan and Vietnam, Tai­nan’s Cultural Affairs Bureau is collaborating with Hanoi Normal University Press to translate and publish Yeh’s History of Taiwanese Literature in Vietnamese. The tome is scheduled for release in October.

Founded upon a Taiwan-centered, nativist historical view of literature, History of Taiwanese Literature is an indispensable reference tool for gaining a good grasp of the structure of Taiwanese fiction, according to Yeh Tse-shan. In the future, this volume can serve as a textbook for university-level Chinese studies in Vietnam, and stimulate a better understanding of Taiwanese literature among both students and the public.

The idea that literature has to be rooted in the writer’s native soil is at the core of Yeh Shih-tao’s literary creation. Thanks to the translation of his Spring Dream at Gourd Alley and History of Taiwanese Literature, more Vietnamese friends will have the opportunity to understand Taiwan via its culture, and experience a unique literary encounter.

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1925年出生於台南的葉石濤,橫跨日治與戰後世代,書寫常民的食衣住行與思考,映照台灣的多元文化,是代表台灣的重要文學作家。府城的街道巷弄,是他成長的所在,也是孕育他文學作品重要的靈感來源。葉石濤 8成的小說與隨筆,也都以府城歲月和人事物為背景,小說中不時可窺見的蜿蜒小巷、香火宮廟、地方小吃,使他的作品成為代表台南的在地書寫。


















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