“Yi Ming, you should stay overnight in the mountains and stay in a tent instead of a hotel. Then, find a spot that is pitch black to gaze at the stars. You’d be mesmerised!” she told me earnestly during our video call, her face lighting up with excitement.
I was telling her about my recent trip to Japan. During my time there, I went trekking alone in Tochigi in broad daylight. But at one point, I actually got afraid, so much so that I was on the verge of tears, and I somehow could not get my feet to take another step. So, I asked my captivated listener who recently became a trekking expert: “Why are we afraid of the mountains?”
That was when she cheerfully encouraged me to bite the bullet and camp overnight in the mountains. From the smile on her face and the excitement in her voice, it was evident that she had done that before, enjoyed it, and is now eager to share her joy. This year, the Singapore Book Fair which has been rebranded to City Reading@SG is held in conjunction with the 3rd Zaobao Literary Festival. Other than local writers, many writers from mainland China, Taiwan, and Malaysia have also agreed to attend the event. For the finale sharing entitled “My Life in the Mountains” (当我走入山里), Taiwanese writer, Lung Ying-tai will be talking about her two books, Walking Alone (《走路》) and At the Foot of Mount Dawu (《大武山下》).
“Actually, it was absolutely normal for you to feel afraid in the mountains. From the experience, you would gain an awareness that leads you to question your isolation from nature”, said Lung. “The fear arose from your lack of experience with and knowledge about mountains.
"In the two years that I have spent living in the mountains, a fear that I had to deal with is what to do when a venomous snake shows up in my study? Each year, as spring nears, my neighbours and I will exchange text messages reminding each other to pay attention because their hibernation is ending and they are stirring. ‘They’ of course refers to the snakes. My phobia is very real, so much so that I would be frightened by a rope in my path. But then, I realised that in the mountains, they are the ‘natives’, while I am an ‘invader’, so their rights precede mine and I should respect their right to live in the mountains. Then, the issue of how to coexist with them got me thinking. I learnt that as you spend more time walking in the mountains, your fear (of snakes) will gradually subside.”
Renowned writer Lung Ying-tai was the inaugural Taiwanese minister of culture from 2012 to 2014. In 2017, she moved to the Chaozhou Township in Pingtung county to begin a rural lifestyle. In 2021, she shifted to Taitung county and settled down in Mount Dulan, a mountain facing the Pacific Ocean. She now lives amongst farmers, fishermen, hunters, and aborigines.
The last time I interviewed her was in Singapore back in 2009. At that time, she had neat, ear-length hair and she was wearing a white blouse with black jacket. This time round, her hair was longer and she looked relaxed on-screen, sitting in front of her floor-to-ceiling windows which had light from the afternoon sun streaming in. The lighting made it hard for me to tell the shade of red of her attire, but it was bright and eye-catching. She seemed more at ease and younger than what I remember, definitely younger than 71 years of age. Could these changes be due to her life in the mountains?
Our relationship with nature is a pressing issue
For now, let us set aside any discussion of emulating Lung in relocating to the mountains as it may be a far-fetched idea for many. Even then, the highest point in Singapore is on Bukit Timah Hill, at 164 metres above sea level. There is no tall mountain for challenging treks in Singapore, so what is the point of inviting Lung here to talk about her life in the mountains?
"The third layer of meaning is the symbolism of the mountain as a sanctuary. Amidst the hurly-burly of daily life, doesn’t it make sense that all of us need a mountain in our heart?"
Lung said, “At a glance, the title of my sharing seems far removed from life in Singapore. But living in the mountains has several layers of meaning. The first is the literal meaning which Singaporean readers may not relate to. However, there are two other layers. First, ‘mountains’ can be taken to represent nature in general. In this case, the vast ‘mountain’ in Singapore is the sea surrounding it, so Singaporeans are also connected to nature. The third layer of meaning is the symbolism of the mountain as a sanctuary. Amidst the hurly-burly of daily life, doesn’t it make sense that all of us need a mountain in our heart?”
She continued, “A common anxiety amongst Taiwanese today is whether war is imminent. But there is a more pressing matter of climate change, a severe condition afflicting the Earth. At this level, regardless of whether you are someone living in a highly urbanised city like Singapore, in the desert, or by the sea, there is a new issue that you need to pay full attention to and that is to consider your relationship with nature. Given the urgency of the situation, what can we do in our daily lives? All of us have a part to play in this. Even though Singapore is highly urbanised, it is also surrounded by the sea. Would Singapore survive if the sea level went up? So, to my Singaporean readers who have children, have you placed enough emphasis on nature while teaching your kids? I feel that this is of the utmost importance.”
Living in the mountains but not in reclusion
That certainly sounds like something the Lung I am familiar with would say. Even though she was talking about nature, her incisiveness and concern were no less than when she commented on Taiwanese politics, cross-strait relations, and international affairs.
My care, concern, and initiatives for Taiwan did not decrease because of my relocation, so did I disengage from the world?
Living in the mountains may bring to mind this image from Tao Yuanming’s poem of “plucking chrysanthemum flowers while admiring the distant mountains” (采菊东篱下，悠然见南山), but Lung said that she was no recluse. Instead, doing so has broadened her mental horizons.
“To be engaged with or disengaged from the world, to live in cities or in nature — there is no contradiction between them.” Lung said, “Even though I am living in the mountains, I am as busy as before. For many people, their work, accomplishments, toil, money-making means, and interpersonal relationships reside in cities. They may have a cottage in the countryside that they visit occasionally while on vacation, but the city is their base. I made a switch and shifted my base from the city to the mountains, so the city is my backyard now. I visit Taipei twice a month and every time I am there, the ten hours of my daytime are packed with activities. My care, concern, and initiatives for Taiwan did not decrease because of my relocation, so did I disengage from the world?”
Lung feels that being engaged or disengaged no longer depends on where one is. “Our world is globalised and in the last three years, because of the pandemic, the work with the largest quantity, which took up most of my time, or which was the most challenging, I did them at home, in the mountains. So, being engaged or disengaged, living in cities or in nature, it is no longer clear-cut, and I am a living example of this. My social commitments go on and at the same time, I’m expanding my mental boundaries so that I can see the places that mountains, seas, animals, plants, and humans occupy in the universe and their relationships with each other.”
How living in the mountains changes an author’s writing
Our experiences affect our writing, so it is unsurprising to observe Lung’s new tendency towards eco-writing in her recent works, such as her 2020 novel At the Foot of Mount Dawu and her 2022 illustrated book Walking Alone. Both of them showcase her intimacy with nature.
... an honest writer probably should not be writing to meet the expectations of readers but is instead propelled by the innate creativity gushing out from his or her life experiences.
Lung readily admitted that living in the mountains has changed her writing. “The difference is significant. I know of many readers who have aged with me, who have supported me for the last three to four decades. They asked me, ‘We live in such turbulent times, won’t you consider writing something like Wild Fire again?’ The problem is: an honest writer probably should not be writing to meet the expectations of readers but is instead propelled by the innate creativity gushing out from his or her life experiences.
"I was 33 years old when I wrote Wild Fire. Suppose human life is like the course of a river, so when I wrote that book, I was upstream. From there to where I am today, more than 30 years have passed and my life river has flowed past numerous craggy cliffs and encountered many bends and turns, so how can I be the same person who was standing upstream? As someone who writes candidly about life, I will only write about the scenery from my current vantage point along my life river and it will be about the things that move the present me.”
Writing styles are bound to change. Those who are familiar with my writing will notice that I rarely criticise directly these days.
Published in 1985, Wild Fire is a collection of political essays written by Lung. Its publication at that time sparked a blaze of criticisms aimed at the government and social problems in Taiwan. Subsequently, Lung showed different aspects of her personality through exploration of themes such as society, country and people, life, parent-child relationships, and intergenerational relationships in her books like Children, Take Your Time (《孩子你慢慢来》), Dear Andreas (《亲爱的安德烈》), Watching You Go (《目送》), Big River, Big Sea 1949 (《大江大海一九四九》), and Letters to My Mother (《天长地久：给美君的信》) etc.
She said, “Writing styles are bound to change. Those who are familiar with my writing will notice that I rarely criticise directly these days. After witnessing more than three decades of ups and downs, seeing what is on the surface and what lies beneath, and experiencing both darkness and light, I am increasingly reluctant to comment. Instead, I am more inclined to present things as they are and hope that my readers can read and discern for themselves.”
Lung also feels that we ought to examine our status quo regularly. Lessons that arise from a writer’s introspection can be highly valuable and impactful to the readers.
“Let’s say our lifespan is 90 years and we practise self-awareness for 70 years between the ages of 20 and 90. During these 70 years, we need to pause often to reflect on the state of our lives. This state is multi-layered and refers to our positions in the family, society, country, and even the Earth and the universe. I hope that as my readers follow my development in the literary world, they also develop an expanding self-awareness and have a better idea of the course of their lives. 30 years ago, my mind was occupied by thoughts of my relationship with my country. Do I obey or resist, or do I compromise or fall out with it to a certain extent? More than 30 years on, I am thinking about the place and responsibilities of our species in nature.”
You need to start from young: set aside a pristine space for your contemplation, you have got to safeguard this most delicate and purest part of your spiritual self.
Lung said that it was a different era back when she wrote the Wild Fire essays. At that time, the public was uninitiated and needed someone to open their eyes to what was happening in Taiwan. Now, we seem to be living in an era where everyone can do this on their own. The digital revolution demolished the barriers to accessing knowledge and the rights of access to knowledge enjoyed by the elites have to a certain extent been removed. But she also pointed out, “However, knowledge is not experience or courage, much less wisdom. At the knowledge level, it seems like we live in a time where we do not need to be guided or enlightened. But knowledge does not automatically become experience. Besides, the explosion in knowledge means that the real, the fake, the misleading, and the prescient are all mixed up in the torrent. In fact, today’s youths may be more confused than their predecessors were 30 years ago because it has gotten more difficult to sift out the truth.”
The redemptive power of reading
So, what advice does Lung have for urban youths when it comes to reading, listening, and contemplation?
She said, “Youths in Singapore enjoy an advantage and that is reading competently in Chinese and English is second nature to them. You need to read about global developments and international affairs in both languages because it will help you find jobs, improve your work, and aid your career development. There is another aspect that you should not forget — set aside a spiritual reserve that is unspoiled by fame, fortune, and worldly contraptions. You need to start from young: set aside a pristine space for your contemplation, you have got to safeguard this most delicate and purest part of your spiritual self.”
Lung also devised a life plan for youths. Suppose the youths of today were to retire in their 60s, then they would still have nearly four decades to live. Switching to an earnest tone, she asked, “How do you intend to spend these 40 years? In the four decades between the ages of 20 and 60, you busied yourself with work and advancing your career. If you didn’t maintain a spiritual reserve, I can tell you that your remaining 40 years of life would be a struggle because you would have become so hardened. Not many youths think about this matter and it is rarely discussed too.”
You need to make a habit of reading for it to have redemptive powers, the same goes for music or art.
Lung feels that literature and reading can help in the cultivation of the spiritual reserve. “You need to make a habit of reading for it to have redemptive powers, the same goes for music or art. But you need to dive in. You need to have this mental reserve that you do not relinquish.”
What she said made me curious about what she is reading at the moment. With much enthusiasm, she picked up several books from her study table to show me. They included Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin, The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley, Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller, and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez etc. She also gave me her succinct take on each book. Most interestingly, I noticed that she was using a big red bookmark in each book. “Take a good look at my bookmarks, can you tell what they are? They are the leaves of the sea grape tree.” With delight, Lung brought a bookmark closer to the camera as though she was showing off something precious. She has indeed woven trees, leaves, mountains, and nature intricately and gently into her life.
At the end of our interview, she said with a smile on her face that if it is allowed, she would bring some seeds from Mount Dulan over for her local readers. “Because the mountain is my home and I am a mountain dweller”, she said.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "为心灵保留一方“山林” ——专访山居后的龙应台".
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