Lai Ho (賴和) was born to a Hakka family on May 28, 1894, one year before Taiwan became a Japanese colony. His fatherLai Tien-sung (賴天送)was a Taoist priest, while his mother was a homemaker. Lai Ho was the eldest child out of seven siblings.
His childhood was ordinary and uncomplicated, and he studied in a private Chinese school before being sent to a Japanese public school. His Chinese teacher, Huang Chuo-chi (黃倬其), had a profound influence on Lai and provided him with a solid foundation in classic Chinese literature that included composing and matching halves of couplets.
Lai was accepted into Taiwan Medical School in 1909, and during his five years there, he applied himself to his studies, further immersed himself in the literature he'd read as a child, and began to write his own poetry.
At Lai's medical school graduation in 1914, the school's Japanese president told his students: 'Before you can be a doctor, you must be a human being. If you do not have perfect character, you cannot fully carry out the mission of a doctor.' This statement was to influence Lai's dealings with people throughout his life, and inspire him to become a humane and compassionate doctor.
Resistance through poetry
Lai went to jail twice for his resistance to Japanese rule. The first time was in 1921 when he joined a movement petitioning to establish a Taiwanese parliament, though he was ultimately released from the Taipei prison without having been prosecuted.
The second occasion occurred during the Pacific War. Lai was jailed for more than 50 days, during which he produced a prison diary with more than 30 entries on his thoughts about his family, about changing the living situation of Taiwan's people and about the arrogance of the Japanese colonists.
Godfather of Nativist Literature
Lai viewed the New Taiwanese Nativist Literature as an internationalist literature that should manifest the ambition of a global literature while retaining a strong sense of native culture, and he stressed the use of the vernacular with only a bare minimum of refinement.
Lai also believed that the New Literature should realistically address everyday life and society. He argued that the musing and grumbles of the laborer were as valuable as the grumbles of the poet, and that meaningful and moving folksongs had as much literary value as any high-brow's poem.
As a poet, novelist, editor, and doctor, Lai was the people's champion and was given many titles, including "The Godfather of Nativist Literature” and "Matsu of Changhua County.” Following his death in 1943 from illness he contracted in jail, several residents of his hometown claimed Lai as the county's patron deity.
His compassion for his patients and his willingness to sacrifice his own good for that of others are captured succinctly by a couplet that hangs at the Lai Ho Memorial Hall: 'I only wish there were no illness in the world / I don't fear being a hungry old doctor.'