Wang Pinhan, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
The song “Formosa” was released in 1977. It takes its lyrics from the 1973 poem “Taiwan,” one of poet Chen Xiuxi’s the most popular works. The 1970s were a turbulent decade for Taiwan: In 1972 the country withdrew from the United Nations, and in 1979 a group of democracy activists founded Formosa magazine. A police raid of the magazine led to the Kaohsiung Incident in December 1979. At the time Taiwanese consciousness was taking root, but the country was still under martial law and the authorities treated the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese identity with extreme suspicion, banning books and songs deemed politically incorrect. The song “Formosa” was one of these banned works and constitutes an important part of this period’s history.
Growing up during the Japanese colonial period, poetess Chen Xiuxi had a unique and deep historical understanding. Her poem “Taiwan” uses the image of a mother rocking a cradle to symbolize Taiwan and its inhabitants. In 1977, the poem was adapted by Liang Jingfeng, set to music by Li Shuangze, and sung by Yang Zujun. It later became a popular folk song.
Chen Xiuxi’s Japanese education comes through in the poem’s maternal imagery and allusions to Japanese literature. But Liang’s adaptation, deliberately or not, largely replaced these with a masculine writing style and references to Han Chinese literature. Although the two key words of the original poem, cradle and mother, are retained in the adaptation, the images are not developed. The banyan tree – one of Chen’s favorite plant images – is replaced by water buffalo, and human activities are substituted for natural phenomena.
However, even though the imagery presented by this adaptation was in line with Lian Heng’s government-sanctioned History of Taiwan, the album with the song “Formosa” was recalled and destroyed two months after its release in 1978, and the song was banned because singer Yang Zujun’s activism made her a “troublemaker” in the eyes of the authorities. In 1979, democracy activists named their magazine “Formosa,” which led the government to associate the ballad with Taiwanese independence. The song was officially banned. More than thirty years later, the Kaohsiung Incident is now considered a catalyst for democratic reform in Taiwan, and the song “Taiwan” is no longer banned. Both the song and the poem are now classics.