Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetryby Michelle Yeh
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Taiwan has evolved dramatically from a little-known island to an internationally acclaimed economic miracle and thriving democracy. The history of modern Taiwanese poetry parallels and tells the story of this transformation from periphery to frontier. Containing translations of nearly 400 poems from 50 poets spanning the entire twentieth century, this anthology reveals Taiwan in a broad spectrum of themes, forms, and styles: from lyrical meditation to political satire, haiku to concrete poetry, surrealism to postmodernism. The in-depth introduction outlines the development of modern poetry in the unique historical and cultural context of Taiwan. Comprehensive in both depth and scope, Frontier Taiwan beautifully captures the achievements of the nation's modern poetic traditions.
Los Angeles Times
The first English-language anthology to provide a truly comprehensive view of poetry in Taiwan.
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FRONTIER TAIWAN: AN INTRODUCTION
An island is a paradox; it is simultaneously isolated and open, restricted and free, with the surrounding sea serving sometimes as a protective barrier, other times as a vital passage to other lands and cultures. Situated off the southeast coast of the Asian continent, with Japan and Korea to the north and the Philippines to the south, halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong, Taiwan not only occupies an important strategic position in the western Pacific region but also is a nexus of diverse linguistic, economic, social, and cultural crosscurrents from Asia and other parts of the world. Over centuries of clashing and converging, these influences have shaped and continue to shape the society on the island. If its small sizeonly 13,885 square miles, half the size of Ireland but comparable to Switzerland or Hollandhas historically been a cause of Taiwan's marginalization, this is compensated for by an openness and an ability to adapt to the new. During the past four centuries, Taiwan has evolved dramatically from a little-known island to an entrepôt, an outpost of the Chinese empire, a Japanese colony, and, today, a nation-state with 23 million people and one of the largest economies in the world. Taiwan not only has come to embody an internationally acclaimed economic miracle but also is rightly proud to be a hard-won, mature democracy.
DEFINITION OF MODERN CHINESE POETRY
Equally deserving of worldwide recognition is thatsome of the best modern Chinese poetry also comes from Taiwan. The history of modern Taiwanese poetry tells the story of how the periphery has transformed itself into the frontier. In the Chinese context, "modern poetry" is more than a chronological designation. Although all modern Chinese poetry was written in the twentieth century, not all twentieth-century poetry written in Chinese is "modern." This term usually describes two things: language and form. Classical Chinese has been the poetic medium for more than three millennia, but modern poetry is written in the vernacular of the twentieth century, which is related to but distinct from the classical language, most notably in vocabulary, idiom, and syntax. Modern poetry does not follow the formal and prosodic conventions prescribed by the classical genre; free verse is the dominant form, although modern poetry freely borrows poetic forms from other cultures, the sonnet being a salient example. The differences in poetic medium, form, and style between classical and modern poetry are so vast that Chinese readers sometimes simply refer to the former as Old Poetry and the latter as New Poetry. Old Poetry continues to be written to this day, but this anthology is devoted exclusively to New Poetry.
MODERN POETRY AS CULTURAL FRONTIER
The first modern Chinese poems appeared in New Youth (Xin qingnian) in January 1917; they were written by Hu Shi (1891-1962), who also attached a list of "Eight Things" (bashi), in essence a manifesto of the burgeoning Literary Revolution:
1. Make sure there is substance.
2. Do not imitate ancients.
3. Observe grammar.
4. Do not groan when you aren't sick.
5. Get rid of clichés and formulaic expressions.
6. Do not use allusions.
7. Do not observe parallelism.
8. Do not avoid colloquial words and expressions. (Hu 1991:45)
Although succinct, "Eight Things" signals an unprecedented, radical departure from the classical tradition. Going beyond language and form, Hu also rejects certain stylistic and aesthetic conventions, such as imitation of earlier masters, use of stock motifs and imagery, and parallelism. Instead, he envisions a new poetry of individuality, originality, and sincerity.
From the very beginning, modern poetry has been in the vanguard of literary experimentation and cultural trends. The earliest modern poems preceded the first piece of modern fiction, Lu Xun's (1881-1936) "Diary of a Madman," by one year, and the iconoclastic thrust of the Literary Revolution laid the foundation for the theory and practice of modern Chinese poetry, a harbinger of the wholesale cultural reform of the May Fourth Movement, which began in 1919.
When modern poetry arose to challenge classical poetry in the early twentieth century, it was not unlike David taking on Goliath. Beginning with Confucius and later consolidated through the institutionalization of Confucianism, poetry had always held a special position in China. First of the three sister arts (along with calligraphy and painting), it was traditionally regarded as the most elevated art and the most prestigious form of writing. To this day, Chinese people still take pride in their glorious heritage of classical poetry and refer to China as a "nation of poets" (shi de minzu). Moreover, throughout the history of imperial China, poetry had played an important role in multiple spheres: moral, educational, and political in addition to intellectual and cultural. In other words, although classical poetry was primarily written by and for members of the elite, it occupied a central position in Chinese culture and society.
However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the role and stature of poetry changed dramatically due to, among other factors, the adoption of a Western-styled education system and the compartmentalization of modern learning, the abolition of the civil service examination system, and the rapid modernization of material culture. Combined, these changes put an end to the moral, educational, social, and political functions that poetry had served for so long and so well, changing once and for all the traditional perception of poetry. The Literary Revolution in 1917 represents the culmination of these historical forces. With modern vernacular Mandarin institutionalized as the national language, New Poetry was linked to and won support from the national project of rebuilding China through modernization. This explains how modern poetry could establish itself as a legitimate form of writing within a relatively short time.
But the task that lay ahead was daunting. Although poetry still retained some of its old prestige as an art form, it no longer played a functional role in other, more "practical" spheres of a society bent on modernization and progress. Insofar as it is unimaginable for us moderns that, before the twentieth century, to become a government official a person had to be a competent poet, modern poetry was marginalized in society, but one among many genres of literature and art (M. Yeh 1991:5-28; M. Yeh 1994:xxiii-lv). The need to validate itself would remain with modern poetry for decades to come.
As a new way of writing, modern poetry is both challenging and challenged. The greatest challenge it faces is the issue of reception in modern China. Not only does modern poetry lack the privileged position that its traditional counterpart occupies, but its newness renders it strange and suspicious to both general readers and intellectuals, Compared with modern fiction, modern poetry represents a more radical paradigm shift vis-à-vis the Chinese tradition. Therefore, the challenge is manifold. First, modern poetry must define itself, which it does through artistic experiments and theoretical investigations on an unprecedented scale. This continuing effort amounts to a fundamental rethinking of the ontology of poetryits nature and raison d'être (M. Yeh 1991:5-28).
Second, given its drastically limited social status and its highly experimental nature, modern poetry is burdened with the constant need to justify its existence to society at large. All too often, an easy justification is that poetry should serve social or political objectives. Depriving poetry of its most fundamental attribute, freedom of expression, such instrumentalism suspects, criticizes, and inhibits any individual exploration in language and form. It also underscores most controversies and debates throughout the history of modern Chinese poetry.
Closely related to the "usefulness" of poetry is the issue of readership. In short, to validate modern poetry, there must exist an audience receptive to the new form of writing. To this day, New Poetry has had mixed results. In a general sense, it has clearly succeeded in establishing itself as the representative form of Chinese poetry in the twentieth century and it is likely to remain so in the future. Although Old Poetry continues to be written, it is New Poetry that almost exclusively appears in the media, is the prescribed form of poetry contests, and is canonized in numerous literary anthologies and compendia.
On the other hand, the effort to create a broader, appreciative readership has not been completely successful. Critics, even some poets, have attributed this to obscurantism and solipsism on the part of the poet but have ignored a more fundamental cause: education, the media, and common language use make both general readers and intellectuals far more familiar with, and therefore receptive to, traditional Chinese poetry. Whether in the standardized curricula of mandatory education or, more generally, in the daily use of spoken and written Chinese (which contains a significant percentage of classical Chinese, such as oft-quoted verses and adages), people have far more exposure to traditional poetry than to modern poetry. In fact, the latter was excluded from all levels of formal education in Taiwan until the late 1970s. Even though a few modern poems have since been included in textbooks at the elementary and secondary levels, the selection is invariably limited by traditional, didactic themes (e.g., illustrating Confucian or humanitarian values), not based on originality and artistic merit.
Given these social and cultural conditions, modern poetry finds itself in a strange dilemma. It is simultaneously judged by its critics as too difficult and too easy: too difficult because it is distinctly different from the familiar forms and conventions of classical poetry, yet too easy because presumably it does not require any training in classical literature or technical skillsanyone who speaks modern Chinese can write it. Paradoxically, while some critics tend to disparage modern poetry as "popular," crude, and shallow, others find it elitist and obscure.
To summarize, since its inception in 1917 modern Chinese poetry has grappled with the following issues.
First, a self-proclaimed iconoclast, modern poetry must establish an identity distinct from classical poetry. This involves an overhaul of the concept of poetry. Modern poets seek to redefine its essence and art ("What is poetry?"), its readership ("To whom does poetry speak?"), and its purpose ("Why poetry?") from many new angles. Whereas much literary experimentation is carried out in the name of modernity, reactions often advocate a return to tradition. But modernity and tradition are two sides of the same coin: insofar as no return to tradition can possibly reproduce the letter and spirit of classical Chinese poetry, modernity is often the result of selective, individualistic appropriations of tradition.
Second, modern poetry has to defend itself against the pervasive presence and still powerful influence of classical poetry in modern society and culture. Turning away from the old paradigm, modern poets often find inspiration in other literary traditions. Unfortunately, although perhaps inevitably, the tension between tradition and modernity is often interpreted simplistically as the conflict between the Chinese and the Western, and the identity of modern Chinese poetry gets embroiled in discourses of nationalism or nativism as pitched against cosmopolitanism and westernization. The apparent binary opposition between the local and the global or between the national and the international is a recurrent theme in the history of modern Chinese poetry.
Third, yet another axis of tension divides the individual and the collective. The purpose and intended audience of modern poetry are often simplified and reduced to two opposing camps: the ill-defined "art for art's sake" versus the equally vague "art for life's sake." Both sides associate the former with individualism and the latter with social consciousness. Further, this polarization in the orientation of poetry, grossly generalized as the individual versus society, often translates into a stylistic dichotomy between obscurity and clarity of language or between modernism and realism.
Poetry is the cumulative result as well as a vivid reflection of a confluence of forces within the literary field (the evolution of a particular genre and literary history in general, literary associations and publishing agencies, individual talents) and without (social changes, economic development, and political conditions), which interact with, modify, and shape one another. The history of modern Chinese poetry is, in essence, an ongoing process of artists' negotiation with these forces in the three mutually reinforcing binary oppositions: modernity and tradition, cosmopolitanism and nativism, and the individual and the collective. Although they may be false dichotomies, these themes underscore many debates and controversies revolving around modern poetry, accounting for both its bitter crises and its sustained creativity. They also provide an apt analytical framework within which to understand the uniqueness of modern Chinese poetry from Taiwan.
TAIWAN: FROM PERIPHERY TO FRONTIER
Despite linguistic and historical connections, there are significant differences between the modern poetry of Taiwan and that of post-1949 mainland China. The first and foremost difference has to do with the relationship between poetry and politics. Whereas politics has been the sole determining factor and coercive force in the literary field on the mainland, it has never played a central role in Taiwan. Although modern poetry in the formative period in May Fourth China was diverse and cosmopolitan, the dominance of Communist ideology from the 1940s through the late 1970s reduced it to political slogans in the sanctioned formula of "classical plus folk," leaving little room for free expression of the literary imagination. The situation has only begun to change in the past two decades, during which modern poetry has slowly and painstakingly tried to walk out of the shadow of Maospeak.
Taiwan, in contrast, has always had a more open society and a more cosmopolitan culture. Despite censorship during the Japanese colonial period and under the martial law of the Nationalist regime, a civil society has evolved since the 1950s and reached maturity in the 1990s (Gold 1994). Even under the most repressive circumstances, political control was never complete; poetry still managed to carve out a space of its own outside the official discourse and to take advantage of being on the periphery. If "political poetry"poetry written to critique a political situation or advance a political idealconstitutes one category among many in Taiwan, it is simply inapplicable to mainland Chinese poetry written prior to the late 1970s, since all of that poetry is, by definition and in a quite direct way, political.
The second significant difference between Taiwan and mainland China is their cultural makeup. Historically, Taiwan has been exposed to and has assimilated elements of Chinese, European, Japanese, and American cultures, in addition to a rich aboriginal culture. The first modern poetry in Taiwan was written in two languages: Chinese and Japanese. Many poets are fluent in two or more languages, and Chinese, Japanese, and English are the most commonly used languages in Taiwan today. With close to universal literacy (about 93 percent) and mandatory primary and intermediate education, contemporary Taiwan also boasts a level of education that is among the highest in the world. Most poets have college degrees, and quite a few hold M.A.s and Ph.D.s from native or foreign universities. Although there is no correlation between academic qualifications and artistic achievement, the bilingual or multilingual poet moves across national and linguistic boundaries with ease and confidently tapping into his or her multicultural experience and knowledge, whether it includes the literature, music, art, philosophy, or religion of other lands and traditions, as a boundless resource.
The notion of cultural hybridity is overused and has become a cliché in academic circles these days. To put it simply, what culture in the world is not hybrid, and why should this notion apply only to colonial cultures? One may even say that it is the inherent nature of culture to defy politically imposed boundaries; no matter how closed a society or how stringent external constraints may be, interaction with other cultures and varying degrees of conscious or unconscious fusion cannot be deterred completely. Hybridity, however, is a useful concept for understanding Taiwan because the identity of the island is inseparable from its multicultural history of the past three centuries.
In 1590, on a voyage to China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, a Portuguese vessel crossing the Pacific Ocean caught a glimpse of an island. The lush beauty of the coastal plain made Linschotten, a Dutch navigator aboard, utter in marvel: "Ilha Formosa!" This historical serendipity has since been immortalized in the Portuguese name Formosa, meaning "beautiful." Geological and archaeological evidence indicates prehistoric human habitation on the island dating back 12,000-15,000 years. The aborigines are Austronesians who spoke a variety of languages, originally as many as twenty-four, of which only nine are extant. They are divided into two broad types based on environment: "mountain aborigines" along the Central Mountain Range, which runs from north to south of the 240-mile-long island, and "plains aborigines," concentrated mainly on the western plains. Today, there are nine major tribes: Atayal, Saisiyat, Bunun, Tsou, Paiwan, Rukai, Puyuma, Ami, and Yami, totaling just under 380,000 in population. Each tribe has a distinct culture rich in music, dance, woodcarving, weaving, basketry, and an oral tradition of myths and folktales. Aboriginal cultures have been an inspiration for modern poets throughout the twentieth century, including both Hah Chinese (e.g., Yang Chichang, Zheng Chouyu, Yang Mu, Chen Li) and aborigines (e.g., Mona Neng and Walis Nokan).
Imperial Chinese geographical records often refer to the island as a "barbarous" land, and its modern name, Taiwan, might well be related to the word "savages" (Goddard 1966:xvi). Although for centuries fishermen, pirates, and traders from southeast China had come and gone, significant immigration from the mainland did not begin until the seventeenth century, when the Dutch, having chased out their Portuguese and Spanish competitors, occupied Taiwan from 1624 to 1662. With their headquarters in Fort Zeelandia, near today's Tainan in the southwest, the Dutch colonizers encouraged Chinese immigration to provide labor, especially for sugarcane and rice farming. Poor farmers, mostly from southern Fujian and northern Guangdong Provinces, crossed the ninety-mile-long strait and, through diligence and perseverance, settled down and cultivated the new land. This history is vividly captured by Wu Xinrong (1907-67) in "The Farmer's Song" ("Nongmin zhi ge"). Published in New Literature of Taiwan (Taiwan xin wenxue) in July 1936, the poem describes how the Chinese settlers brought the seed of fire and urges their descendents to pass on the torch. The last stanza re-invokes the ancestors:
Ah ... let us recall the past of our ancestors
When they first arrived on the land
With empty hands
All they had were a skiff and a hoe.
(translated by Michelle Yeh)
The theme finds elaborations in Wu Sheng's (1944- ) vignettes of rural Taiwan, written in the 1970s, which pay tribute to the continuity of the farmers' tradition:
Long, long ago
For generations on this piece of land
Where no wealth or prosperity grows
Where no miracles are ever produced
My ancestors wiped away their sweat
And brought forth their fated children
(translated by John Balcom)
We get a quite different view of the early history of Taiwan in "Formosa, 1661," written by Chen Li (1954- ) in 1995 (page 360). Covetous of the sugarcane, banana, and silk abundant on the island, the Dutch traded fifteen bolts of cloth to the aborigines in exchange for land "the size of an ox hide." When the deal was made, the Dutch cut the hide into thin strips, then tied them together to round off a much larger area than the aborigines had ever dreamed was possible. By making the first-person narrator a Dutch missionary sent to Taiwan to proselytize the savages, Chen not only satirizes the greed and cunning of the Europeans but also accentuates the arrogance and hypocrisy of the Christian church in deep complicity with imperialism.
After the Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644, Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), also known as Koxinga, led an armed resistance against the new regime for years. After a major setback in Nanjing in 1659, he retreated from the mainland to the Pescadores (Penghu) and looked to Taiwan as a base for restoring the Ming. The decision took into consideration that the island, inhabited by Hah Chinese, was prosperous, with "fields and gardens of over ten thousand acres, fertile plains across a thousand miles, taxes reaching tens of thousands, and ship-building and tool-manufacturing" (Chen Zhaoying 1998:36). Warmly supported by the Taiwanese Chinese, Zheng expelled the Dutch in February 1662. The moment before the besieged Dutch surrendered is imbued with much symbolism and ambivalence in Yang Mu's (1940- ) "Zeelandia" (page 261), where the gendered roles of the male colonial conqueror and the female conquered island are reversed.
Zheng's plan to restore the Ming was doomed, however, with his untimely death. Under his son, Zheng Jing, and grandson, Zheng Keshuang, the Ming loyalists in Taiwan were defeated by the Qing admiral Shi Lang and surrendered in 1683. Taiwan was annexed to Fujian Province the same year; for the first time in history the island became part of China. In 1875, Imperial Commissioner to Taiwan Shen Baozhen (1820-79) established a prefecture in Taipei, and in 1885 Taiwan became the twenty-second province of the Qing Empire. Under the capable leadership of Shen and succeeding administrators, most notably the first governor of Taiwan, Liu Mingchuan (1836-96), a series of innovative measures were implemented, including building railways, establishing postal service, installing electric streetlights and telegraph lines, and founding modern public schools with an emphasis on Western learning. By the end of Liu's gubernatorial tenure (1885-91), Taiwan had become a prosperous agricultural export province. Compared with the rest of the empire, which had been in decline since mid-century and did not get a reform movement off the ground till 1898, Taiwan was "a generation ahead" (Goddard 1966:xiv) and was even considered the "most advanced province of China," with Taipei as its political, economic, and cultural center (Kuo 1973:237).
Taiwan was also successful in the military arena. In 1840, after the outbreak of the first Opium War on the mainland, the Taiwanese navy, under the command of Yao Ying, defeated the British. In 1884, during the Sino-French War, Liu Mingchuan led Taiwan to victory. But these exceptional feats could not reverse the fate of the island. When China was defeated in 1894-95, Taiwan, along with the Pescadores, was ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed on April 17, 1895, over vehement opposition from mainland reformers. The first twenty years of colonial rule saw a large number of rebellionsfrom the short-lived Republic of Taiwan under the last Qing governor of Taiwan, Tang Jingsong, in 1895 to the uprising led by Yu Qingfang in 1915all of which were brutally suppressed. But throughout the Japanese occupation period (1895-1945), native resistance never stopped. According to one study, "from 1895 to 1920 the number of persons arrested for attempts to overthrow the Japanese was never less than 8,200 in any year ... from 1921 to 1930 the lowest figure for any year was 6,500; and from 1931 to 1940 the number was never below 3,450 in any one year" (Clark 1966:164).
Aiming to use the island as a stepping-stone in its conquest of China and Southeast Asia, Japan tried to make Taiwan a model colony by establishing "benign rule." Restrictive educational, professional, social, and cultural policies were instituted. Rigid political control was imposed on one hand while economic development was promoted effectively on the other. Economic success is indicated by the steady growth of the population, from 2 million in 1895 to 3.5 million in 1920 to 6 million in 1945.
Prosperity, however, came at the expense of the Taiwanese people. Yang Hua (1906-36) depicts the plight of the common people through dramatization in "Sad Song of the Female Worker" ("Nugong beiqu," page 57). In a more general way, he expresses the indignation and anger of all the colonized in Black Tide (Heichao ji), written while he was imprisoned for violating the Japanese "public security law":
How many times now?
Though I cannot well remember,
Of what use is it to remember well?
(translated by Kirk A. Denton)
Despite its brevity and simplicity, the poem voices a powerful critique of colonialism. The laconic two opening lines, each consisting of a compound word in Chinese, state a simple, irrefutable fact. Economy of language continues into the third line, which raises a question to which the answer is also factual. If the question follows logically from the preceding lines, it is immediately rendered meaningless by the poet's answer in lines 4-5, which poses a rhetorical question. It is futile, even absurd, to demand a tally of the humiliations and sufferings to which the colonized have been subjected, for two reasons: there are simply too many to keep track of, and even if there were a tally, who would care and who could right the wrongs? Behind the plain words, Yang's adroit manipulation of tone and use of juxtaposition reveal the tragedy of Taiwan.
It is meaningful that Yang chooses a female worker to illustrate the suffering of the Taiwanese people, for the traditional view of women as weak and passive provides an apt symbol of the undesirable situation imposed on a colony. It is not surprising, then, that in the 1976 poem, "My Pen" ("Wo de bi"), Chen Xiuxi (1921-91) goes one step further as she turns a woman's face into a metaphor:
Eyebrows are the colony of the eyebrow pencil
round lips the territory of the lipstick
I am happy that my pen
outlines neither eyebrows nor lips
each time I see these words
the sorrow of having been colonized rises in me again
count tonight's sighs
caressing my veins
surging blood moves my pen
on paper moistened by tears
it fills the page:
I am Chinese
I am Chinese
We all are Chinese
(translated by Wendy Larson)
The power of the poem derives from the originality of the metaphors comparing cosmetics to a colonizing agent and a woman's face to a colony. Contrast is the key device. The first-person narrator rejects the "feminine" pen and picks up a writing pen, with which she asserts repeatedly her Chinese identity. More subtle is the contrast in the color images. There is a similarity between the black eyebrow pencil and the black ink of the pen, as well as between the lipstickliterally "mouth red" in Chineseand the blood that pushes the pen across the page. In each case, the poet's active stance replaces a passive one and her independence replaces submission. Coming from a woman, the poem is particularly meaningful, since it also implies defiance of traditional gender roles, in which a woman is expected to beautify herself to please men.
Japanese colonization of Taiwan for economic and political interests took on a harsher form toward the end of the Pacific War, when approximately 200,000 Taiwanese men were conscripted, under the name of "volunteers," to serve in the Japanese military in Southeast Asia. Huan Fu (1922- ) was among those who were sent to Java, and "Carrier Pigeon" ("Xin'ge," page 105), written in 1964, is a moving rendition of that experience. Although it is tempting to read the poem autobiographically, the text yields another reading that may perhaps be more rewarding. This alternative reading hinges on the ambivalence with which death is described throughout the poem. The first-person narrator claims that he "did not die"; nevertheless, his death "was hidden in a forest corner" on an island in Southeast Asia, and he forgot to bring it back. The seeming contradiction and the wording ("buried") suggest that the soldier narrator is indeed dead; the repeated disclaimer only reinforces the opposite.
The poem follows the journey of the soldier at two levels: physical/real and psychological/symbolic. Like the narrator, the poem begins with the arrival on a pristine tropical island, passes through the battle scenes, and ends with the "dark dense jungle." The only glimpse of hope on this journey to the "heart of darkness," where the narrator is buried, is his indomitable spirit. It is as if the soldier's longing for homeland is so intense that even in death he refuses to rest. In Chinese, "carrier pigeon" contains the word xin, which means "message" as well as "faithfulness" or "being true (to one's words)." Evoking the image of a carrier pigeon, the soldier-narrator vows to return home, if only in spirit, to fulfill a promise to the loved ones he left behind.
Although tragic for all concerned, the war experience was different for Taiwan than for the mainland, and we see representations from both perspectives in the work of Taiwanese poets. While Taiwan was forced to contribute to Japan's offensive forces, China was defending itself against Japan. While Taiwan was under Japanese "benign rule," the worst war atrocities imaginable were inflicted on the land and people of mainland China. "Memento of the Deceased" ("Yiwu") by Li Minyong (1947- ) (page 293), for example, portrays the sorrow of a Taiwanese soldier's widow; using four metaphors in a row, the poem compares the soldier's handkerchief to a court sentence, a corrosive acid, a landslide, and a seal, all of which put an irreversible end to her youth and happiness. In contrast, Bai Ling's (1951- ) "Childhood Years, Part I: The 1940s" ("Tongnian," page 322) remembers the war from a child's point of view: bomb explosions are like cotton candy, bomb pits like popcorn, and tanks and airplanes like toys. The mother scavenging for food in the field screams when she spots a human arm, but the child narrator naively thinks it belongs to a broken doll. The understatement, through a temporal and perceptual distancing, helps bring the horror of war to the fore.
Still another perspective is presented in Jiao Tong's (1956- ) "The Demon Platoon Leader" ("Mogui fenduizhang"), written in 1993:
Yamaguchi Shintaro held the rank of second-class private and was assigned to the 124th Infantry Company. He was a fierce fighter, distinguished for the blazing intensity of his performance in battle. Everyone honored him with the title "Demon Platoon Leader," and he received an imperial medal of honor.
The Demon Platoon Leader survived a hundred battles. He was only wounded once, on the Siberian Front, when seven regiments lost a whole regiment's worth of fighting strength to syphilis. Thank heaven for penicillin: he escaped from the jaws of death and was sent to the Chinese battlefield.
From the time the Imperial Army landed at Hangzhou Cove until it took Nanjing, our intrepid platoon leader won the highest favor with bold exploits of raping four women each day.
The Demon Platoon Leader was a man of exceptional endowments. Each centiliter of his sperm contained 25,999 ferocious spermatozoa, with a volume per ejaculation of 20 milliliters. Each month he could produce seventeen gallons of highly corrosive sperm fluid. When the moon was full, his third testicle would appear, and his metal-hard penis would lengthen by 13 centimeters.
Patriotism smoldered in the heart of the Demon Platoon Leader: before each act of intercourse, he stood at attention and sang the national anthem.
(translated by Denis Mair)
Of all the war crimes, the satire focuses on those committed against women by Japanese soldiers. That a whole regiment was lost to syphilis suggests how pervasive rape was. That the private is honored with medals indicates that rape was in fact encouraged and rewarded by military commanders. Drawing a parallel between valor on the battlefield and sexual exploits, the poem not only critiques the violence of both war and rape but, more poignantly, debunks two popular myths that still cause much injustice and suffering: the equation of masculinity with sexual aggression and the use of patriotism and nationalism to justify inhumanities perpetuated by one racial or ethnic group against another. The entire poem is cast in the pseudo-language of historiography from a positively Japanese point of view. The hyperbole with which it describesin fact pays tribute tothe platoon leader's superhuman endowment renders the atrocity more chilling and disgusting.
During the colonial period, Taiwanese people were not only barred from the political arena but also discriminated against in the educational system. The colonial government provided basic education but offered few opportunities for advanced learning. The cream of the crop was allowed to go into medicine and often received training in Japan. Between 1915 and 1922, the number of Taiwanese students in Japan increased dramatically, from just over 300 to more than 2,400 (Peng 1991:4).
Ironically, when these youths went to Japan, they formed organizations and launched publications that mounted explicit or implicit resistance against colonization and asserted a Taiwanese identity. The first journal in Taiwanese history, Taiwanese Youth (Taiwan qingnian), was founded by overseas students in Tokyo in June 1920 and moved back home two years later under the name Taiwan. The first literary magazine published in Taiwan, Literature and Art (Wenyi), was founded in 1924. Formosa was also founded by overseas Taiwanese students, including Wu Yongfu (1913- ), Zhang Wenhuan (1909-78), Su Weixiung, Wang Baiyuan (1901-65), Wu Kunhuang (1909- ), Weng Nao (1906-40?), and others in Tokyo in July 1933. In Taipei, writers founded The Vanguard (Xianfa budui)later renamed The First Line (Diyi xian)in January 1935. Other magazines in the 1920s and '30s include: Everyone (Renren), Modern Life (Xiandai shenghuo), Morning Belt (Xiaozhong), The Equator (Chidao), and Southern Tune (Nanyin). The newspaper Taiwanese People's Journal (Taiwan minbao) was founded in April 1923; originally published in Japan twice a month, it gradually evolved into a Chinese daily published in Taiwan beginning in July 1927. Despite Japanese censorship, these and other publications provided a fertile ground for literary and cultural development in Taiwan (Chen Shaoting 1977).
One development that was to have a profound impact on Taiwanese culture was the vernacular movement initiated by Huang Chengcong and Huang Chaoqin in early 1923. Enlightenment and modernization were clearly their objectives, and they looked to the mainland as their model. As Huang Chengcong reasoned, "If our compatriots understand the vernacular, we can purchase new modern books, newspapers, and magazines from China to enlighten our stagnant society" (Li 1979:14). In more detail, Huang Chaoqin explained that classical Chinese was an impediment to modernization due to its extreme difficulty and inaccessibility to common people, who did not have the leisure or ability to study it. Citing the recent success of the vernacular movement on the mainland, where it had even won the support of such great classical scholars as Zhang Binglin (1869-1936) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), Huang criticized Taiwan as conservative and backward and offered practical advice not unlike that of Huang Chengcong: "Those gentlemen who wish to study the vernacular can consult the Shanghai Commerce Press" (Li 1979:32). There is no doubt that the vernacular movement paved the way for modern poetry in Taiwan; it was the first effort toward a native literature in Taiwan and a precursor to the Native Literature Movement of the 1970s and poetry written in Hokkien, which has gained much currency since the 1980s.
At the time when both Huangs wrote from Japan, a young man from Taiwan named Zhang Qingrong (1902-55) was studying at Beijing Normal College. Inspired by the Literary Revolution that had swept the mainland a few years earlier, he published "A Letter to the Youth of Taiwan" ("Zhi Taiwan qingnian de yi feng xin"), under the penname Zhang Wojun ("my army"), in Taiwanese People's Journal on April 21, 1924. In the letter, he attacked classical poetry as decorative and dead, and those who wrote it as slaves to archaic poetic conventions. After returning to Taiwan in October of the same year, Zhang wrote another critique titled "The Terrible Literary Scene in Taiwan" ("Zaogao de Taiwan wenxuejie"), which triggered a debate between the old school of poets and the new. Like the New Poetry Movement in China led by Hu Shi, the call for modern poetry in Taiwan embodied iconoclasm, aspirations to modernity, and a new orientation of poetry. As editor of the Taiwanese People's Journal from 1924 to 1926, Zhang introduced both the theory and creative work of modern poetry from the mainland. He also published, in Taipei in December 1925, the first book of modern Chinese poetry in Taiwanese history. Titled Love in a Chaotic City (Luandu zhi lian), the collection records Zhang's romantic relationship while living in Beijing.
There is another line of development in the history of modern poetry in Taiwan. The earliest modern poems published in Taiwan were in fact written in Japanese. Authored by Zhui Feng ("chasing the wind"), the pen name of Xie Chunmu (1902-67), the sequence of four poems under the title "Imitations of Poetry" ("Shi de mofang") was written in 1923 and published in Taiwan on April 10, 1924, slightly earlier than Zhang Wojun's work.
By the time modern poetry appeared, Taiwan had been ruled by Japan for thirty years. Modern Japanese poetry began to emerge in the late nineteenth century. The first collection of modern poetry in translation appeared in 1882 and free verse flourished from 1912 to 1922; the latter is best represented by Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956), author of the 1914 Itinerary, and Sakutaro Hagiwara (1886-1942), whose Howling at the Moon was published in 1917. There are many parallels between modern Chinese and modern Japanese poetry. Both had been undergoing a transition from tradition to modernity since the late nineteenth century, and by the 1920s both had taken free verse as a vital new form. (It should be noted, however, that a significant difference is that while modern Chinese poetry rejects all traditional forms, modern Japanese poetry continues to use some: while it is common for a modern Japanese poem to be written as a tanka or haiku, a modern Chinese poem in the form of a "quatrain" [jueju] or "regulated verse" [lushi] simply does not exist.) Both were greatly inspired by Western poetry, first through translation but increasingly in the original as the poets acquired foreign languages. More specifically, it is interesting to note that in both cases the introduction of Western poetry began with romanticism, followed by symbolism, naturalism, and various strands of high modernism. Further, many of the pioneers in both China and Japan had firsthand experience with the West. Hu Shi studied at Cornell and Columbia Universities in the 1910s; Takamura studied sculpture in America, France, and England from 1906 to 1910. Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) and Wen Yiduo (1899-1946), leaders of the Crescent School, attended graduate school in the United States in the 1920s, and Junzaburo Nishiwaki (1894-1982), the most important Japanese surrealist, studied English literature at Oxford and published his first book of poetry, Spectrum, in English in 1925.
From the beginning, then, modern poetry in Taiwan has drawn on two traditions: mainland Chinese and Japanese. These should be seen not as diametrically opposed but as complementary and mutually reinforcing because they were often inspired by the same sources. For example, Yang Hua's petit poems were influenced by those of Bing Xin (1900-99) on the mainland, but the immense popularity of the miniature form in China in the 1920s was itself the result of multicultural influences, including at least ancient Greek epigrams, Rabindranath Tagore's (1861-1941) short lyrics, Japanese haiku, and classical Chinese poetry. While many pioneers of modern poetry on the mainland, such as Lu Xun, Guo Moruo (1892-1978), and Mu Mutian (1900-71), studied in Japan, the same can be said of many Taiwanese poets, who had extensive interaction with Japanese poets in Japan as well as in Taiwan during the colonial period.
Another example of the complex genealogy of modern poetry in Taiwan is the appearance of surrealism. Although there were cursory references in Xiandai (or Les Contemporains), a modernist journal published in Shanghai from 1932 to 1935, the first serious introduction to and experiment in surrealism in modern Chinese poetry was carried out by Le Moulin Poetry Society (Fongche shishe), founded by four Taiwanese and three Japanese poets in 1933 (Ye Di 1996). Consciously veering away from the more popular trend of realism, which emphasized the writer as a spokesperson for the oppressed common people, Le Moulin poets developed a "pale-skinned aesthetic" ("Sea of Flowers" ["Hua zhi hai"], page 65). Emphasizing the senses as the gateway to reality, these poets created a world filled with superimposed, often synaesthetic, images and subtle moods. Nature, in contrast to the city, is immanently sensual, and there is perfect correspondence between the poet and nature. Although they sought harmony and unity between the flesh and the spirit, Le Moulin poets were besieged by ambivalence, confusion, and frustrationin short, a sense of defeatwhich is reflected in their work. Women figure prominently as a paradoxical symbolic representation of ultimate sensuality and ultimate spirituality.
A good example is Yang Chichang's (1908-94) "The Nun" ("Nigu"). Written in December 1934, the poem depicts the sexual awakening of a young Buddhist nun named Duanduan (page 60). At the beginning of the poem, the open window suggests a bridge to the outside world, the world of the senses necessarily blocked off from the sacred shrine of Buddhist deities. The contrast in color images is used effectively to intimate the conflict between the nun's sexual awakening and her religious belief: the white of Duanduan's arms and breasts versus the red and green of the statues in the prayer hall. Interestingly, the poet reverses the traditional symbolism of the colors: white is associated with the body and sexual desire rather than with spirituality, whereas red and green are associated with Buddhism instead of the mundane world of "red dust." Thus, contrary to Buddhist teachings, the poet implicitly approves carnal desire by elevating it to a higher status.
The tension between sexual desire and religious belief reaches climax in the last part of the poem. There are sexual overtones in Duanduan's vision of the Buddhist statues coming alive: Weituo's sword is clearly phallic, and even the image of the Arhat who literally "mounts" the tiger is sexually suggestive. Yet the fact that Duanduan faints when the statues come alive suggests a profound sense of shame and guilt on her part. At the end of the poem, as she comes to in the morning and begins her daily routine of sutra chanting, Duanduan calls out to her mother. By evoking a secular tie that has supposedly been severed upon her "renouncing the world" and joining the Buddhist order, the poet not only intimates Duanduan's regret and inability to repress sexual desire but also implicitly questions the unnaturalness of religious celibacy. To the extent that Duanduan sacrifices her virginity to the gods in a symbolic sense, her relationship to them is not any purer or less "illusory" than physical attachments between humans. Finally, sarcasm underscores the poem in the nun's name, Duanduan, as the character "duan" connotes propriety and conformity to conventions.
Their contemporaries regarded Le Moulin poets as "decadent," "aesthetist," and "ugly" (Liu 2000), but this attitude reduces literature to sociology and art to a vehicle of moral teaching. The fact is that the teaching that poetry does is most effective and lasting when it seems least like teaching. The critique of traditional religion that we have seen in Yang's "The Nun" is subtle but powerful. Another fine example of reflection on tradition is Li Zhangrui's (?-1951) "This Family" ("Zhe yijia"), published in 1936:
The color of bricks passed down from generations
Chokes on the early autumn sunset
Memory lies dead beneath the pomelo tree in the yard
The tradition of this family is piled on with
The green fatigue of branches and twigs. Soon
A new couplet will be pasted on the door, but
A wordless burden penetrates sleep....
No words are needed for blood to coagulate
What's buried beneath the pomelo ...
The maiden in a long gown even
Her bright forehead dims
(That thingdon't you know it?)
Quickly uttered words, unknown to her ancestors
Spread on her rouged lips
(translated by Michelle Yeh)
The image of the pomelo tree symbolizes family lineage, but "fatigue" has taken over and it is headed toward oblivion ("memory is dead") and death (as suggested by the images of "choking" and "sleep"). It is an old Chinese custom to paste a couplet, written in calligraphy on red paper, on the door to usher in the lunar New Year. In the poem, however, the custom continues but brings no renewal. By juxtaposing written words and "wordless burden," the poet suggests a separation of form and substance. "Burden" is further associated with "blood" in the next line, since both have no use for words. Why such pessimism? The answer is revealed in the second stanza, in which the poet chooses the image of a young woman to drive home the theme of rupture or discontinuity. Although the same blood flows in the family, words have caused a break in the lineage. There are a number of contrasts between the first and second stanzas: between the old house and the young woman, the faded bricks of the building and her bright red mouth, the "wordless burden" and her "quickly uttered words." The maiden's dimming forehead and the vague reference to "that thing" hint at the possibility that she is lovesick. When she opens her mouth, probably coyly to refute someone's speculation, the words that she speaks belong to another language than that of her ancestors. If we interpret the family metaphorically, the poem, at one level at least, expresses the sadness of colonial Taiwan.
Although both Chinese and Japanese were taught at public schools for the Taiwanese before 1937, programs of Japanization, known as Kominka, were vigorously promoted by the colonial government and included adopting Japanese-style names, speaking Japanese at home, converting to Shintoism, and adopting Japanese customs and lifestyle in general. Those who conformed were rewarded with social prestige (e.g., a plaque) and material privileges (e.g., more food supplies) (Chou 1996). In April 1937, three months before Japan launched a full-fledged invasion of China, Chinese was banned at school and in the media, and only Japanesereferred to as the "national language" (kokugo in Japanese)was allowed in public. Thus, Taiwanese youths who grew up in the last eight years of colonial rule received little education in Chinese, although typically they spoke Hokkien or Hakkathe language of another major subethnic group on the island at home.
In Japanese-occupied Taiwan, as in other colonies, writers had to face the painful dilemma that their resistance against colonial rule had to be carried out in the colonizer's language. In the 1935 poem "Thought," Wu Xinrong refers to his generation as "poets with no language." Comparing the situation of the Taiwanese poet to that of Tagore, the Nobel laureate from India who wrote much of his work in English, Wu asks: "What do they [his writings] really bring for the Indians?" That such introspection and self-questioning were prevalent among Taiwanese poets can be seen in the fact that many did write in Chinese. The spirit of independence also lies behind the various efforts to promote a literature written in Hokkien from the mid-1920s to 1945. From 1930 to 1933 Huang Shihui advocated "homeland literature" (xiangtu wenxue) and triggered a debate on whether Chinese or Taiwanese (Hokkien) should be the medium for Taiwanese literature (Yang 1996). In practice, much of the literature in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s was a mix of Chinese and Hokkien. These early experiments were to inspire later poets who began to write poetry in Hokkien in the 1970s, such as Lin Zongyuan (1935- ), Xiang Yang (1955- ), Huang Jinlian (1947- ), Huang Shugen (1946- ), and Lin Yongmin (1955- ) (Zheng 1990). They also paved the way for the eventual appearance and recognition of Hakka poetry in the 1990s.
When the island was returned to China in 1945 under the Cairo Agreement, the cultural difference between mainland China and Taiwan, especially in terms of linguistic background and practices, was significant. Ironically, although Taiwan had always identified with China as the motherland throughout the Japanese colonial period, the mother with whom she was finally reunited after fifty years was more or less a stranger whose language she could hardly comprehend. In April 1946 the Committee on Popularization of the National Language (Guoyu puji weiyuanhui) was formed, and branches were set up in every county in Taiwan within two years. More than two hundred new journals and newspapers mushroomed, many in both Chinese and Japanese (Ye Shitao 1990:145). Bilingual publications did not last long, however. On October 24, 1946, on the eve of the first anniversary of the retrocession of Taiwan to China, Japanese was banned in the media, which marked the next step in the Guomindang's "resinicization" or decolonization effort. Some of the titles of the essays in the last Japanese edition of China Daily (Zhonghua ribao) suggest that although not without a touch of uncertainty, Taiwanese writers supported the new policy as a positive step toward unifying the people: "What Will Happen to Taiwan?" (Long Yingzong), "Goodbye, Japanese Edition" (Chen Huiyu), "Wait Till the Day of Fluent Chinese" (Chen Shengsheng), "Lift the Spirit and Learn the National Language" (Sun Linmao) (Ying 1985:13).
Granted, Japanese did not disappear completely after 1946; for a while Japanese books were still published. Efforts to bridge the two linguistic groups also continued: Japanese works by Taiwanese writers were translated and published in newspapers and magazines such as Everyone, edited by Yang Kui (1905-85), and seminars for writers were organized, notably by Ge Lei, editor of Bridge (Qiao), the literary supplement of New Life Daily (Xinsheng bao) (Peng 1995). However, the ban on Japanese in the media deprived most Taiwanese of access to new information, which deepened their distrust of the government (Ye Shitao 1990:146).
Inflation, devaluation of the old currency, food shortages, unemployment, corruption of the Nationalist government under the administration of Chen Yithese and other factors contributed to the escalating tension in the days following retrocession. The brewing discontent of the Taiwanese people exploded in the February 28 Incident in 1947, during which the Nationalist army was sent in from the mainland to suppress local uprisings. In the process, thousands of innocent Taiwanese, including many members of the elite, were killed and more arrested and incarcerated; many new immigrants from the mainland were also killed by the Taiwanese.
The "2-28 Incident" had severe long-term consequences (Lai, Myers & Wei 1991). It aggravated the already difficult transition from Japanese colonialism to Nationalist rule. The fragile trust that had been established between the Nationalist government and the Taiwanese peopleespecially the intellectualafter the war was largely destroyed. Subsequently, the regime stepped up its control and, as the civil war on the mainland worsened and retreat to Taiwan seemed imminent, tightened its grip even more, ushering in the era of White Terror in the 1950s and 1960s. The official discourse can be characterized as one of nationalism, anticommunism, and conservatism (Winckler 1994; Lee 1996).
After 1949 Hokkien was forbidden in public, severely restricted in the media, and stigmatized socially. Certain aspects of Taiwanese culture were regarded as remnants of Japanese colonialism and were categorically dismissed. Taiwanese literature from the Japanese colonial period was also banned, along with much pre-1949 modern Chinese literature written by "leftist" writers, i.e., those who lived under the Communist regime after 1949. When two million refugees came from the mainland in 1949, disoriented and stressed, they merged into a society that had just gone through a traumatic event, discussion of which was to remain a political taboo until 1987. The disenfranchisement of the Taiwanese people, along with their unspeakable anger and resentment toward the ruling GMD, would drive a wedge between the Taiwanese and the recent mainland émigrés for decades to come, with profound social, political, and cultural ramifications.
The intensely complicated modern history of Taiwan thus presents an unusual case of postcolonial culture. While many other modern countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa that achieved independence had toor still have towrestle with the issue of using the colonizer's language, postwar Taiwan's situation was reversed. Taiwanese writers in 1949 were caught between two languages yet could hardly identify with either: Japanese, the former colonizer's language that they were no longer allowed to speak, and Chinese, the language that was rightfully their mother tongue but that they could not speak. In short, Taiwanese writers were faced with the unique quandary of having no language of their own. This condition of "cultural aphasia" exerted a far-reaching impact on the development of modern Chinese poetry in Taiwan.
First of all, the generation of Taiwanese writers who were in their twenties when the war ended were handicapped linguistically: they were unable to continue to write and publish either in Japanese, which was banned, or in Chinese, of which they had yet to achieve full command. Some simply gave up for this reason, although a few would continue to write in Japanese for the drawer or publish their work in Japan. Most of those who persisted would need fully ten years to acquire enough proficiency in Chinese to write and publish in that language. While the second group constitutes "the translingual generation" (kuayue yuyan de yidai), a term coined by Lin Hengtai (1924- ) in 1967, the first group may well be called "the silenced generation."
Second, the lacuna thus created on the poetry scene in the postwar period was filled mainly by poets who had recently sought refuge in Taiwan. Although a few Taiwanese poets made a smooth transition from Japanese to Chinese, such as Wu Yingtao (1916-71), Lin Hengtai, Jin Lian (1928- ), and Zhang Yanxun (1925- ), most of the poets active in the 1950s, including Ji Xian (previously under the pen name Luyishi, 1913- ), Qin Zihao (1912-63), Zhong Dingwen (pen name Fan Cao, 1914- ), Li Sha (1925- ), Ge Xianning (1908-61), Yang Huan (1930-54), and Yu Guangzhong (1928- ), had previously published on the mainland and a few had established a substantial reputation there. With their credentials, some of them were able to obtain editorial positions in state-run newspapers and magazines, become teachers of workshops and correspondence courses sponsored by the Nationalist government, and in general play an active role on the literary scene.
This state of affairs is evident in publications and other related activities. The first poetry journal published in postwar Taiwan was New Poetry Weekly (Xinshi zhoukan); founded in November 1951, it was edited by Ji Xian (issues 1-26) and Qin Zihao (from issue 27 onward). Qin was also the editor of the Blue Star Weekly (Lanxing zhoukan), a supplement to Public Opinion Daily (Gonglun bao), founded in June 1954; after the first 110 issues he was succeeded by Yu Guangzhong. In addition, Qin served as the poetry teacher at the Chinese Literature and Art Correspondence School in the 1950s and 1960s. When Today's New Poetry (Jinri xinshi) was founded in 1957, its deputy directors were Zhong Lei (1920- ) and Ji Xian, and the chief editor was Shangguan Yu (1924- ). Also founded in 1957 was the Literary Star (Wenxing), whose poetry section was edited by Yu Guangzhong.
Books of modern poetry published between 1949 and 1955 were almost all authored by new émigrés; besides some of the poets mentioned above, others include Jin Jun (1910- ), -Mo Ren (1920- ), Wang Yan (1920-66), Deng Yuping (1925-85), Chu Qing (1926- ), Fang Si (1925- ), Sha Mu (1928-86), Rongzi (1928- ), Xia Jing (1925- ), and Zheng Chouyu (1933- ). Conspicuous exceptions to the list are Wu Yingtao, Lin Hengtai, and Ye Di (1931- ), three poets who made a smooth transition from Japanese to Chinese (Zhang Mo 1992: ;3-9).
Finally, all the poetry societies formed in the 1950s, including the Modernist School, Blue Star, and Epoch, were dominated by émigré poets. Although the journals and poetry societies by no means excluded Taiwanese poets, the émigrés' linguistic skills clearly provided a valuable form of cultural capital, which put them in an advantageous position.
Meet the Author
Michelle Yeh is professor of Chinese at the University of California, Davis.
N. G. D. Malmqvist is professor emeritus and member of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.
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