Last semester, I was talking with a good friend of mine, Will Ke (Swat ‘19) about Long Ying-Tai’s 目送. He recommended I read one of her earlier anthologies: 野火集 (The Wildfire Collection). I took the recommendation to heart and have recently started working through the collection. A series of essays published in quick succession in 1984, The Wildfire Collection is a call-to-arms for Taiwanese people in the midst of a rapidly democratizing society. Long Ying-Tai returns to Taiwan after years abroad and pens a furious essay at the political apathy of Taiwan, and her disgust at the belief as a Chinese person that it is better to endure than to speak up and cause trouble. This essay, amongst other contemporary work, sparked a flame of dialogue that led to the democratization of Taiwan and Taiwan establishing of one of the strictest environmental protection regimes in Asia.
Chinese People: Why Don’t You Get Angry?
Long Ying-tai, 1984. Original Chinese text available here
In last night’s news report, someone said with a smirk: “If you close down all the shops that don’t pass safety inspections, how are its workers supposed to put food on the table?”
I felt disgusted and angry, but my anger wasn’t directed at this person, but at the 18 million weak and selfish Chinese* people living on Taiwan.
What I don’t understand is this: Chinese people, why don’t you get angry?
Butterfield’s “The Voyage of the Damned” has a section where he is in Taiwan. He sees a car knocking over a young boy, his face full of blood. In a crowded street of onlookers, not a single person comes to the aid of the child, nor does anyone try to catch the perpetrator. When I first read this while I was living in the United States, I was in shock and denial. I turned to my friend and said “Impossible! Chinese people are loving and prideful. Such a thing could never happen!”
Now that I’ve been back in Taiwan for a year, my eyes are open. I’ve found out that what Butterfield was describing is not only possible, but a daily occurrence. It’s a regular part of the living space we inhabit. Taiwan is a land where it is easier to survive as a “bad person” than a cockroach, because Chinese people are scared of causing a ruckus. Unless there is a murderer ready to murder them in their sleep, they’d rather quietly sleep in their beds ignorantly.
I see street vendors on the curb of your apartment, cooking and washing their pots and pans. The corridors of your apartment are now covered with the thick scent of cooking oil and rotting vegetables. At midnight, their patrons are getting drunk and rowdy, causing such a ruckus that the dogs and chickens are restless.
Why don’t you get angry? Why don’t you tell them to piss off?
Aiyo, you’re afraid! Some vendors are scary and have connections! They’ll use their knives.
Then why don’t you call the police?
The police are tight with the vendors. You can call them and it’d be useless. When you call them, that’s when the real trouble starts.
So what do you do?
So you endure! You endure! That’s what us Chinese people do best! You endure! You shrug your shoulders and shake your head!
In a country that upholds the rule of law, the people have a right to be angry. If you are wronged, you first should square your shoulders, put your hands to your hips and say “Please piss off!” If they don’t leave, call the cops. If the cops are in bed with the vendors, that then we are dealing with something much more severe. This fire of a rage must burn! It must keep burning until the police are free of corruption.
But why don’t you do anything? You just close your windows and your curtains, hold your ears, shrug your shoulders and shake your head!
I see hundreds of people going to Tamsui River to watch the sunset, to fish. I see the people who live on the banks of the river take whole crates of odorous garbage and dump them into the river. They pump their sewage into the riverbank. As the tide rises, the smell rises into our breaths.
People who love the river, why aren’t YOU angry?
Why don’t you have the guts to yell at that young teenager throwing the bottle in the river? Why don’t you say: “If you throw that bottle, I’ll throw you in as well!” Instead, you fish quietly (in a river where the fish are full of tumors and cancer), thinking about tonight’s fish soup, pretending not to see the plastic that will not decompose for hundreds of years. Why don’t you put down your fishing rod, stand up and tell him that you are angry?
I see taxi drivers weaving through traffic, coming to a stop on the right turn lane with no intention of turning right. A slew of right-turning cars behind the taxi cause a traffic jam. You sit in front of your steering wheel, sigh, and feel powerless.
Why aren’t you angry?
Oh, you say, I’m afraid to talk to them. The newspapers say that cabbies always carry power tools.
The problem does not lie in whether or not they carry power tools. The problem is that the twenty or so drivers stuck behind him didn’t open their car doors and tell him how disgusted you were with his behavior, how angry you were!
Passing by the countryside, I smell the piercing smell of chemicals. Walking towards the beach, I see a factory sending industrial waste into the ocean, turning the sea into a peculiar spectrum of colors. In the bay, there are industries causing children to be born with birth defects. Our next generation, our children with their eyes shining bright, voices high, rosy cheeks, will swim in industrial waste. In their veins will flow chemicals whose names we can’t even pronounce.
Why aren’t you angry? Will it take until you are cradling your own child who was born without a fully functioning brain, when there is nothing left to do but for you to wordlessly cry at the sky?
When Western tourists come to Taiwan for sightseeing, their tour groups always say: “Don’t eat street vendor food. It’s best to skip the restaurants. It’s best to drink bottled drinks, but not Taiwanese ones. The Taiwanese drinks aren’t safe.”
This is the reputation of our Formosa, our beautiful island. But there is a truth to the reputation. More important than our reputation is our own health and the health of our next generation. One hundred students at the Chiao Tung University get food poisoning and nothing happens? Are the lives of Chinese people worthless?! After this incident, a couple of angry citizens came together and organized a consumer protection group. Yet, our useless public health bureau and our parliament killed this organization in its infancy.
How can you not be angry? How can you hide in the “masses of the silent”? You think you’re a good person, but because you don’t get angry, because you relent, because you endure, the street vendor turns your house into a garbage dump, Taipei is covered in a shroud of smog and Tamsui river is a dirty, rotten intestine. And it’s all because you don’t speak, because you don’t scold, because you don’t ever make yourself heard. So your baby girl eats, drinks and breathes industrial chemicals and all you’re concerned about is raising her so she can graduate from a good university! You forget, years ago in the South, women in their ninth month of pregnancy were dreaming of a future for their children, only to find that they were born blind because of what was supposed to be safe salad dressing.
Now, don’t think that just because you’re a professor that your research is more important. Don’t think that because you’re a butcher, so no one will listen to you. Don’t think that because you’re a college student, you have no right to question how our society is governed. Today if you’re not angry, if you don’t stand up and speak, tomorrow, you, me, and our next generation, will turn into silent, sacrificial victims. If you have the stones, if you have the heart, you will go now! You will go tell your member of parliament. You will go tell your public health and safety bureau. You will tell the bureau for environmental protection. You’ve had enough! You are angry! YOU MUST SAY IT LOUD AND CLEAR!!!!
*= Long Yin-Tai wrote this a while back. Since then, the question of how to refer to people from Taiwan has become more complicated with the rapid emergence of Taiwanese nationalism and a common sense of national identity. The question of what the word ‘Chinese’ refers to is a difficult question which I’ll save for another blog post.
Other notes: I’m rubbish at translation, but I’m giving it a go. I’m far from well-read in Chinese and Taiwanese literature, but I’m trying to share works that I’ve read that have left a very deep mark on who I am.