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Manoa 15.1 (2003) ix-xii
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Mercury Rising is the latest in the Manoa series featuring contemporary literature from Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. This volume presents new poetry from Taiwan, edited by Arthur Sze and Michelle Yeh, along with work from Viet Nam, the Philippines, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States.
The title Mercury Rising alludes to "The Mercury That We Raised So Carefully," a poem by Taiwan poet Hsia Yü that was translated by Andrea Lingenfelter and published in the anthology Frontier Taiwan:
black ruined swings
seeping out from the borders
a drawn-out dance
pressing near the antechamber of the flesh
at six in the morning
a faint moon comes out
Surrealistic, elusive, international in its sensibility, Yu¨'s poem presents a nearly ego-less perspective in a world simultaneously interior and exterior. A "drawn-out dance" glides across borders, lingers in the rooms inside the body; a silvery moon spills its light into the dawn. A tranquil image, and yet in the rising, mercury-colored moon there is latent instability: when dropped, mercury spills into a thousand copies of itself. How frangible, then, is that moon with its paradoxical essences—perhaps like Taiwan itself, with its unity an amalgam of many parts. In recent years, cultural and political developments have transformed Taiwan from an authoritarian Cold War fortress into a vigorous democratic society where indigenous, immigrant, and worldwide influences freely glide across borders.
For many Western readers, it may seem surprising that such startlingly avant-garde poetry is being produced in Taiwan, a small island a hundred miles off the coast of mainland China. But then, most Westerners know very little about Taiwan's tumultuous history. [End Page ix]
The first inhabitants of Taiwan migrated from the Asian mainland, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Southeast Asia more than ten thousand years ago. The government of Taiwan now officially recognizes eleven indigenous groups that, over the centuries, have managed to remain distinct in language, customs, arts, and folklore.
Substantial numbers of immigrants began arriving from mainland China between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries. Eventually, they overwhelmed the aboriginal populations and drove them from the fertile lowlands into the mountains, where they were physically and figuratively marginalized. Present-day Taiwanese social policy is to preserve indigenous language and culture; however, contemporary aborigine poets—such as Monaneng and Walis Nokan, whose work is included in Mercury Rising—describe the difficult choices that still have to be made between the traditional and the new. In a poem translated by John Balcom, Monaneng writes:
If you're an aborigine
Then wipe away your tears and blood
And like a huge burning tree
Light the road ahead.
Indigenous residents comprise only about two percent of Taiwan's population of twenty-three million. The vast majority of Taiwan's citizens are descendants of Han Chinese who were recruited by the Dutch East Indies Company to work on colonial sugar plantations in the seventeeth century. Primarily from Guangdong and Fujian Provinces, many of these immigrants intermarried with aborigine people and made Taiwan their home, even after the Dutch were driven out in 1662. They recognized that Taiwan was a frontier far from the Manchu capital, and they developed a strong sense of independence, by and large resisting control by the central government in China for two centuries.
In 1887, in an attempt to forestall Japanese expansionism, China re-asserted jurisdiction over Taiwan. When the Chinese were defeated in the Sino-Japanese War, however, China was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan, without the consent of the Taiwanese people. For half a century, the Japanese attempted to assimilate the island. Taiwanese were forced to take Japanese names, adopt the Japanese language and culture, and even practice Shintoism and worship the emperor.
After Japan's defeat in World War II, the Allied forces granted sovereignty over Taiwan to the Nationalist Chinese party, led by Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan became a military garrison from which the Nationalists waged civil war against the Communist forces of Mao Tse-tung, antagonizing the Taiwanese. Large-scale demonstrations were held, resulting in the [End Page x] massacre...