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Author | Chen Chien-wu

  • Date:2023-07-24
Chen Chien-wu

Chinese Name: 陳千武 (桓夫)

Real Name: Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄)

Born: May 1, 1922

Died: April 30, 2012

Place of Birth: Nantou County (Central Taiwan)

Did You Know?

While attending Taichung First Senior High School, Chen Chien-wu came across Japanese novels, which sparked his love for literary works. He often visited the Central Bookstore (中央書局), and over time, the store manager noticed him and gave him an issue of Taiwan Literature magazine. This was the first time Chen had read works by Taiwanese authors such as Chang Wen-huan (張文環), Long Ying-zong (龍瑛宗), Huang Huang Te-shih (黃得時), and Yeh Pu-yueh (葉步月). It was then that he realized Taiwan also had a literature of its own, which fascinated and resonated with him.

Chen Chien-wu was born in 1922 in Mingjian Township (名間鄉), Nantou County. During high school, his extensive reading of literary works sparked a great interest in writing. In August 1939, while still a student, Chen decided to start writing and had some Japanese poems published in the New Taiwan Minpao (臺灣新民報) newspaper.

Starting from 1937, Taiwan under Japanese rule began to be subjected to Japan’s “kōminka” policy of cultural assimilation. In April 1940, due to this policy, schools started promoting the changing of Taiwanese people's names to Japanese names. Chen and a few classmates opposed and tried to prevent this. After their actions were exposed, Chen was punished by the school, and as a result of this controversy, he failed his military training course. With campuses dominated by militarism at the time, he lost the opportunity to continue his education and had to work in a factory.

While working in the factory, Chen never stopped writing. He wrote many poems set in the factory, and even started writing short stories. This marked a significant transformation in his writing style, as he incorporated more localized elements, showcasing his connection to the land of Taiwan.

At the end of 1941, World War II broke out in the Pacific. In 1942, Japan implemented the “Taiwan Special Volunteer” system. Chen Chien-Wu was not exempt from this and, like countless young people, was forced to enter a volunteer training camp. Along with other young soldiers, he experienced the ravages of war in the Pacific until August 15, 1945, when Japan’s unconditional surrender finally brought the war to an end. After being held as a prisoner of war in various camps, Chen finally returned to Taiwan at the end of 1946.

Upon returning to Taiwan, Chen faced a language transition due to the change in political power, which left the young poet, who had been so skilled with words, suddenly speechless. The process of transitioning from Japanese to Mandarin in his writing was extremely painful. Facing the language barrier was like an existential crisis for him, but, pushing down the deep anguish he finally had his first Chinese poem published in a newspaper in 1958 after 12 years of diligent study. In the 1960s, Chen Chien-Wu wrote a number of politically satirical poems under the pen name Huan Fu (桓夫), which were rich in a strong historical consciousness and critical realism. In addition to writing poetry, Chen also began translating poems by Japanese poets.

In 1964, Chen Chien-Wu co-founded the Li Poetry Society (笠詩社) with Lin Heng-tai (林亨泰), Chao Tien-yi (趙天儀), Bai Chiu (白萩), and other poets. They began focusing on the Taiwan’s humanistic landscape, leading a wave of localized modern poetry. As a leader of the local poetry movement, the Li Poetry Society felt a clear responsibility for “generational inheritance” and served as a guide for many younger poets entering the field.

Starting in 1976, Chen published a series of short stories set against the backdrop of the Pacific War. These stories mostly revolved around Taiwanese volunteers in the Japanese army and depicted their feelings of helplessness and sadness during the war. These stories were not only Chen's attempt to reconstruct the historical truth of the Pacific War from the perspective of those involved, but also explored the identity issues of Taiwanese volunteers through the protagonists' narratives. They also revealed his thoughts on the identity of being a "Taiwanese" and the political situation after the change of nationality. These short stories were eventually collected and published under the title "Hunting Captive Women: Memories of a Taiwan Special Volunteer Force (獵女犯:臺灣特別志願兵的回憶)," leaving behind valuable narratives of the Taiwanese people's situation during World War II.

Chen Chien-wu dedicated himself to Taiwan's literary education and was enthusiastic about translating classic Japanese literary works, providing Taiwanese people with the opportunity to experience a more diverse range of writing styles. The poetry journal he founded, the children's poetry collections he edited, and his works related to indigenous culture were all important drivers of the local cultural atmosphere at the time. In 2012, Chen passed away at the age of 89 due to illness. That same year, he was posthumously awarded the highest honor, the Presidential Commendation. This legendary writer repeatedly overcame numerous obstacles in his life, becoming an ever-shining star in the firmament of Taiwanese literature.