'World's No. 1 writer of banned books'


TAIPEI • Of the 120 books Li Ao wrote over a long career as a political critic and cultural icon, 96 were banned in Taiwan during the four decades of martial law imposed by the Kuomintang government.

Undeterred, he proclaimed that he was the "world's No. 1 writer of banned books".

He proved to be an important champion of the openness and freedom of speech Taiwan now enjoys.

Li died on Sunday in Taipei Veterans General Hospital at the age of 82. The cause of death was a brainstem tumour, said Taiwanese newspapers.

"Li Ao was a writer who had the courage to challenge the system and fight against authority," Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen said in a post on Facebook. "His passing also represents the passing of an era. The authority he challenged has already become history. The freedom he desired in his writings has become a way of life in Taiwan."

Renowned for his razor-sharp punditry, Li was variously a commentator, a politician and a television star - he was, memorably, a guest in the first episode of the popular talk show Mr Con & Ms Csi.

He first made a name for himself as a writer in the 1960s. Apollo or Wen Hsing magazine, founded in 1957, was one of the most important cultural publications in post-war Taiwan.

In 1961, Li was still studying history at National Taiwan University when he was invited to join the magazine, through which he advocated Westernisation and liberalism, said United Daily News.

The magazine was shut down in 1965, after it published an article that criticised Kuomintang propaganda chief Milton Shieh.

In 1971, Li was arrested for helping pro-Taiwan independence dissident Peng Ming-min flee to Japan - an offence for which Li would be jailed for more than five years - despite the fact that he was a native of China who supported Taiwan's reunification with the mainland and did not agree with Peng's politics.

Li later said proudly: "I'm Taiwan's first mainlander to be imprisoned for Taiwan independence."

In 1981, he was jailed again, this time in a dispute with Apollo founder Hsiao Meng-neng. After his magazine closed, Hsiao had entrusted more than NT$20 million of his property to Li before fleeing Taiwan. When he returned, he sued Li for failing to hand his property back to him.

In jail, Li wrote Love Only A Little Bit and Forget Who I Am, which were set to music and became popular songs.

In 1995, he achieved crossover success as a host of TV shows. He was also famously litigious, filing lawsuits against hundreds, including former president Lee Teng-hui and Ms Csi host Dee Hsu.

He sued Hsu for joking that he had a crush on her sister's mother-in-law, businesswoman Zhang Lan.

He dropped the lawsuit, after the show agreed to let him go on it five times and have his say. However, he made just two appearances.

In 2000, he ran for president, unsuccessfully, but in 2004, he was elected as a Taipei legislator.

In parliament, he once showed a photo of his full-frontal nude younger self, in protest against a military purchase.

Li was born in Harbin, China, in April 1935. In 1949, he moved to Taiwan with his parents.

He did not set foot in China again until 2005, when he gave rousing speeches in schools, including Peking University. In one speech, he likened freedom of speech to watching an adult video: "After you let him talk, swear, speak and touch a tiger's butt, it will be nothing extraordinary."

In 1980, he was married to actress Terry Hu for three months.

He married a teacher 30 years younger than him in 1992 and they had a son and a daughter. He also had another daughter, from a relationship with a former girlfriend.

His friend, commentator Sisy Chen, said: "Most people live lives of political correctness, always in the direction of the wind. Li Ao always lived a life of correct personal values, forever against the wind."

What Li Ao said

"For men, I listen to what they say before I see what they look like, with the exception of (former president) Ma Ying-jeou. For women, I see what they look like before I listen to what they say, with the exception of (commentator) Sisy Chen."

"Other people call someone a bastard, but I have a skill, I can prove that you're a bastard."

"Prostitutes don't rely on sexual desire to offer their services. I don't rely on inspiration to write."

"The characteristics of Taiwanese politicians and tycoons' homes are: There are more Western wines than Western suits, more Western suits than celebrity writings, more celebrity writings than books, and more books that haven't been read than books that have been read."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2018, with the headline 'World's No. 1 writer of banned books'. Subscribe