In Another Life, I May Have Been a Classicist || Lillian Tsay


In Another Life, I May Have Been a


by Lillian Tsay


When I once visited the British Museum, after browsing all the collections from China and Japan related to my research, I took my time in front of a white, marble Greek statue. Looking at the beautiful curves of the sculpted body, stories of the twelve Olympian gods emerged in my head one after another, almost like a motion picture. This encounter reminded me that when I was a girl, my favorite goddess was the grey-eyed Athena. She wears her armor and has an owl as a companion, an implication that she possesses both physical strength and knowledge. I dreamed of becoming someone like her. 

My family moved from Taiwan to the U.S. for a year when I was in second grade in elementary school, where I learned English by reading the stories of Greek mythology. Besides the stories of the gods, I also studied the story of the cursed house of Atreus in Mycenae, ruled by king Agamemnon and his queen Clytemnestra. Their children Orestes, Iphigeneia, Electra, and Chrysothemis each suffered different tragic fates doomed by the family curse of killing one another. Learning how to pronounce those translated names of characters and places nothing close to my native tongue reminded me that I was not part of that culture, and a sense of inferiority always came with the realization.

Compared to the Western civilization dating from the Bronze Age, Taiwan’s documented history of four hundred years sounds too boring and short. In central Taiwan where I grew up, I had not known about our local myths, epics, or magic. In history classes, whether it was the changing borders between Han Chinese settlers and the indigenous population during the two-hundred-year Qing Dynasty rule or the alternating policies of the Japanese colonial government, Taiwan’s history seemed to be about—and only about—suffering and oppression by different foreign regimes. Speaking of suffering, we were not even comparable to Troy, at least everyone knows that they stood for ten years before being defeated by a wooden horse. When people hear about Taiwan, many of them will say, “Do you mean Thailand?”


In a dark, dirty indie cinema, I watched a documentary about the political activist Cheng Nan-Jung or Nylon Cheng. In his defense of the freedom of speech, Cheng published criticisms of Taiwan’s authoritarian government in his uncensored magazine. When the police sought to arrest him, he immolated himself. He did not need to die—the punishment for his “crime” would likely be a few years in prison, but he said he would only let the government catch his corpse. Leaving his wife and young daughter behind, he left his final words for the next generation of activists, “And the mission is now yours.”

Cheng died in the year of 1989, three years before I was born. It was not the first time I heard Cheng’s name. I had come across him in high school textbooks, but I must have forgotten about it after I finished the college entrance exam. When I left the cinema that day, I began to question myself: Why did I take freedom of speech for granted? Why can I recite all the Les Misérables lyrics yet forget the activists who fought for the democracy I am enjoying now? Why do I know so little about the history of where I grew up?

Not so long ago before I watched this documentary as a college freshman, I had dinner with a group of friends. One of them shared with us his recent reading. According to an economist’s study, around two-thirds of the students in our university came from the middle class and above. In Taiwan, public universities are generally more prestigious, and most students from low-income families who could not score high enough in the entrance exam could only attend private universities with tuition two times higher. My friend concluded, students privileged enough to enroll in public universities should bear some responsibilities to reciprocate society’s generosity and support, although most such students think about nothing but their own future careers.

I had an uneasiness that I might be one of those students who only pursues my self-interest without considering what I can contribute. Whereas my friend was a first-generation student from the rural south, I came from a middle-class family, and both of my parents work in higher education. Not a long time ago, I was over the moon when I learned that I got into my first choice for college, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at National Taiwan University. In Taiwan, this is the best place to study anything “Western” from Greek mythology to nineteenth century French literature. I was busy studying Odysseus’ itinerary, picturing the monsters and witches impeding his journey home while my friends were talking about sociology assignments on Marxist theories, poverty issues, or debating whether we should abolish the death penalty. As college students, we often teased one another as “petit bourgeoise.” Who is not petit bourgeoise enough to study a subject like classical Western literature?

Around the same time, people have been sharing a picture of John Adams and his famous quote on Facebook. He said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” 

For me, the underlying message is that literature is a vocation for those born in a comfortable environment your predecessors have established for you. For those born in a place where you still need to strive for rights and equality, studying literature and art is a luxury that does not belong to you.

I, too, asked myself back at the time: Isn’t it a bit too luxurious to study Western literature?


Watching the documentary of Nylon Cheng was the first step of my disenchantment with Western mythology. If mythical imaginations seem too distanced from contemporary and local concerns such as fighting for democracy, then perhaps modernism is close enough. Instead of following my original plans to take courses on medieval English literature to study Beowulf and Arthurian legends, I took courses on twentieth century English literature. I encountered James Joyce and other Irish writers who established the foundation of modern English literature. Ireland is a country 6000 miles away from Taiwan where I have never set foot, yet I cannot help but feel for Joyce’s conflicted feelings towards his motherland. Despite having spent most of his life abroad, how to liberate Ireland from the shadows of Britain had always been one of Joyce’s major themes. Reading Irish literature made me want to learn more about their history and how they fought for their freedom and independence. Surely, I told myself, these literary works are not luxurious but speak to social and political concerns. I do not need to be ashamed of studying them, even though they may be miles away from where I live. 

As I turned my attention to modern European literature, news of the university’s unjust treatment of its tenants began to surge on social media. Outside the classroom, the clamor of students protesting went on and on. At first, only a small group of students, my friends included, were asking the university not to destroy a neighboring community. The old tenants had been living there for decades since they retreated with the Nationalist Government in 1949 after they lost the Chinese Civil War. They simply followed the then government’s arrangements to live in a community whose land was owned by the university. And now, the university wanted to take back that piece of land and forced them to move without any compensation.  

Things slightly escalated when the university summoned police to control students’ protests on campus, a move that reminded people of the authoritarian times we have never experienced ourselves. There were extensive discussions on how to measure the violation of human rights in the past and the fear of returning to state violence. Student organizations began to take pictures of students holding billboards, “I study… I support the residents of the community.” 

It was the first time I felt so close to the possibility of change, although I never gathered the courage to stand on the protest’s front line but always observing from afar. I only followed many students to double major in sociology, the most progressive department in the university. We read and discussed Max Weber’s famous essay “Politics as a Vocation” and Hannah Arendt’s philosophy on transitional justice. Back in my home department, however, few people were interested in these issues from the fate of these residents to the defense of democracy. I saw my previous self in them: someone who only cares for high, foreign art but has no concern for those issues depicted in social realism. When I returned to my quiet desk and started reading The Waste Land, despite the beauty of Eliot’s language and the critique of the disillusionment of modernity, literature again seemed too luxurious.


On an ordinary spring day in my novel class, I came across a novel written by a Taiwanese author Wu Zhuoliu. It follows a protagonist who, like the author, was born in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period and is struggling to find his rightful place. As a man from the gentry class before the Japanese colonization, his family gradually declines in the new era. He tries to become Japanese but is always discriminated against as a second-class citizen in mainland Japan. He then visits China to see whether that is his true homeland, but he does not speak Mandarin and is accused of being a Japanese spy. Eventually, he loses his mind.

I read this novel in English translation rather than the original Japanese, for a course taught by a white Canadian professor of postcolonial literature. Beyond the text itself, this experience surprised me in several aspects: I was surprised that a foreigner like my professor knew much more about the characters’ psychology of torn identities than I did. I was surprised that it was almost the first time I studied Taiwanese literature seriously, after living here for twenty years. I realized that I had been wrong that there were no stories in Taiwan. They were shelved, collecting dust next to the shining canonical works in the traditions of Western and Chinese literature, and I had let them remain neglected.

Nylon Cheng’s words appeared in my head again, “And the mission is now yours.” After the bell rang, I tidied up my books and walked out of the classroom, joining the students’ protests.


In a dinner party among the graduate students studying humanities, we introduced our background and academic interests. As usual, someone studying non-Western societies in the United States like me usually would not get attention more than a courtesy nod. I remained silent until I learned that a white guy in the English Department studies Romantic Poetry. I told him that I was once a literature major, and my favorites are Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake. He suddenly became interested and asked me, “Why didn’t you continue studying it?”

What should I say? Because when I was in college, I thought studying Western literature was too impractical and too distanced from real-life concerns. Instead, I wanted to dedicate my studies to the knowledge related to the land where I grew up, a field that desperately needs more attention than Western literature. But at the time, none of these left my lips because I knew this reply would sound absurd, or perhaps even offensive. However, that question triggered something in me. Had I not met those friends so committed to enhancing social justice, in another life I might have been a classicist studying Greek mythology. Had I not watched that film on Nylon Cheng, perhaps I would be more attracted to medieval literature or Romantic poetry. Had I not come across Wu Zhuoliu’s work in the novel class, I might have dedicated my career to studying Irish literature or Virginia Woolf.

Thinking back, I am not alone in sharing this complex toward the love of a foreign culture. A friend from the same department in college once told me that he studies revolution and Taiwanese literature because he felt that his research needs to be more contributive than merely serving for his own interests. Most other college friends who pursued academia also departed from Western literature and turned to studying Asian studies. Perhaps we share that responsibility to excavate the lost and hidden history of the land that had nurtured us. Or perhaps we realized that the literary world from Homeric epics to Victorian literature is ultimately too far away from our reach. Unlike students in North America or Europe, not all of us have the opportunity to learn Latin or European languages until college. Even those with the plight of Achilles can hardly catch up with the turtle that has a start point miles ahead.

However, after all those years of involvement in sociology and Asian history, I began to appreciate the fact that I was once lucky enough to study literature. It is true that Theodor Adorno’s famous and often misunderstood quote—“to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”—may easily lead a young student like me astray from literature. Now I believe what Adorno meant was that after such atrocities in human history, poetry or any form of art cannot be indifferent to politics and humanitarian crises anymore. Yet stories will always exist because they create empathy and bring salvation to our traumas. After all, most people learn about the tragedy of the Holocaust by reading Anne Frank’s diary rather than the trial documents of Nuremberg. Likewise, it is, after all, a novel that kindled my initial interest in the history of Taiwan.  

This reckoning of my past reminds me that although I have parted ways with pursuing literature as a vocation, it has never left my life. When I study the aftermath of modern war and imperialism, I cannot help but be captivated by how the wrath and tragedy of a fallen hero told thousands of years ago still resonates throughout history, regardless of time and space. When I am frustrated by a social movement’s failure or a disappointing outcome of an election, I will think of reading literature. Just as Homer’s Odyssey from the Bronze Age had inspired Lord Tennyson, a millennial Asian woman like me can also echo with the words written in Victorian England as I slowly recite the poem Ulysses, “We are one equal temper of heroic hearts made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” I will then remind myself that I, too, have a mission I have chosen for myself. 

Lillian Tsay was born in upstate New York and raised in Taiwan. After graduating from college in Taipei, she moved to Tokyo and lived there for four years. She is currently writing a dissertation on sugar and sweets in the Japanese Empire at Brown University. Besides her scholarly works, her creative writing has appeared in The Lumiere Review, Atticus Review, Milk Candy Review, and some Chinese publications.


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