Discovering in Taiwan what has been lost on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 4:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 3:06pm

(This is a re-post of Han Han's original guest column published in South China Morning Post on May 19, 2012)

As the Airbus A320 touched down at Taoyuan airport, the vibration and noise of the landing jolted me awake. My mobile phone was playing a song by Taiwanese actress-singer Sylvia Chang Ai-chia: " In 1948, I left my dearest beloved … if I knew then that my departure would mean 40 years, and if time could be reversed, I'd like to say, I don't want to go."

It made me think again about all the changes Taiwan and mainland China have experienced in the last half-century or so.

I saw many special things and met kind-hearted people everywhere during my three-day trip to the island. What most interested me were the numerous small protests taking place almost every day. There were banners out on the streets, and TV shows in which political leaders scolded each other at will. Things like this are new and unfamiliar to any tourists from the mainland.

But the individual who gave me the deepest impression wasn't President Ma Ying-jeou or another well-known personality. It was Wang Hongsong, a taxi driver who returned my mobile phone to the hotel where I was staying when I left it in his cab. He didn't ask for a reward and just seemed happy to help.

As a writer from the mainland, experiences like that and other encounters during the trip gave me a sense of loss. I realised how much certain values have changed, that some things can't be reclaimed, and wonder what comes next.

For example, I live in a country that has been through decades of political movements and harsh struggles. It sometimes seems we are now destined for a prolonged era of greed and selfishness.

We know that our predecessors destroyed culture, traditional virtues, and the trust between people. But we have to ask if we are really rebuilding a new and better world.

As members of the younger generation, we don't always know what to remedy and how, and instead, just seem to continue on the path of destruction. I wonder whether our own descendants will feel we have left them a world built on mutual understanding or one in which they have to contend with harm and mutual hatred.

In Taiwan, I felt lost when people I didn't know treated me with kindness and sincerity, and my first reaction was to suspect duplicity. As a writer, I feel the loss when every word I write for this essay has to be carefully considered for worry that it would cross some line.

Mainland literary works - except perhaps social critiques or titles based on historical fact - have a very small readership in Taiwan. Worse, these critiques and exposés are usually bought not by Taiwanese but by visiting mainlanders for the purpose of soul-searching and comparison.

Indeed, I need to thank Hong Kong and Taiwan for protecting Chinese culture. They have preserved the virtues of the Chinese people, preventing many deep-rooted qualities from being destroyed.

Now we, mainlanders, have the Ritz-Carlton and Peninsula, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Now the wife of a mainland county leader might even be richer than the top government officials in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Our budget for filming one mega production might be big enough for Hong Kong and Taiwanese filmmakers to make 20 or 30 movies. We have held a World Expo and an Olympic Games they would never be able to stage. However, I feel no sense of pride when walking on the streets of Taiwan, and dealing with cab drivers, the owners of fast-food shops and pedestrians. What would have made me proud are the things we lack.

Culture, a legal system and freedoms are the mainstays of a nation. People in other countries will not respect us simply because our new money can buy up all their super sports cars and ultra-luxury pleasure cruisers.

It took me 90 minutes to return to Shanghai in an Airbus A330 flying at an altitude of over 20,000 feet. We share the wind over the Pacific Ocean, so let it blow where it may.