TiBE 台北國際書展 2025.2.4-9

Readers Guide to Hung-Chi Liao

11 September 2019 /

This Life of Whales and Dolphins—Hung-chi Liao


Written by Yu-lin Lee (Research Fellow, Academia Sinica)


“Dolphins and whales serve as a bridge, leading us closer to the magnanimity and tolerance of the sea.” Life of Whale


        Hung-Chi Liao (1957-) writes about the ocean, often focusing on whales and dolphins. He was once a fisherman, and has sailed across the great oceans of the world on fishing expeditions. He is also a researcher of whales and dolphins and a marine protection activist. Consequently, Liao’s writings are not based on imagination, but stem from his personal experiences and ecological concern for the sea and marine life. The ocean and the preservation of marine environment are themes that dominate his work as a writer.


        Through his literary work, readers gain deep insight about the protection of whales and dolphins, animal rights, ecological concerns, the fishing industry, and economic development. Liao’s topics transcend national boundaries and are global in nature. He doesn’t just write about how people in Taiwan conceive the ocean, but also delves into environmental issues related to the protection of whales and dolphins as well as other marine life forms. He explores ethical questions pertaining to the relationship between human beings and the sea, whales and dolphins and other marine life forms, and human beings and nature.


        Life of Whale is a marine biologist’s observation log recording the life of whales and dolphins. Liao fulfills multiple roles: writer, observer, researcher and recorder. The book describes the lives of whales and dolphins, their migratory paths, and their emotional states when they encounter human beings. To Liao, the ocean is an open door that broadens his horizons, and whales and dolphins serve as a bridge to this vast and open world. The writer says in his book: “Dolphins and whales serve as a bridge, leading us closer to the magnanimity and tolerance of the sea.” (Life of Whale, 26)


        In the book, Liao described the appearance, color, voices, gestures and behaviors of whales and dolphins. He interspersed the narrations with notes and research reports, and depicted the emotional reactions of the whales and dolphins that he came into contact with, including anticipation, surprise, sadness, regret, greed and anxiety, etc. His detailed descriptions are not just based on objective observations. The writer also attempts to write intimately about the close interaction between human beings and whales and dolphins. The description of the close encounters seem to obliterate the boundaries between human beings and the sea mammals, making true communication between human beings and whales and dolphins almost possible. Liao describes what it was like to swim side by side with whales and dolphins in the ocean:

Maybe I forgot to breathe, forgot that I am a land mammal, my two legs came together, reaching deep to paddle the water as one. I was unconsciously learning their tailfin swimming posture. I guess I genuinely want to be a Risso’s dolphin. (Life of Whale, 121)


        The writer leapt into the ocean and swam alongside the dolphins, hoping to overcome the physical, sensational and visual constraints of human beings. It was an unprecedented emotional experience for him. More specifically, as he swam side by side with the dolphins, it was as if he and the dolphins were one. It was a powerful and moving experience for the writer. The special appeal of Liao’s writings is this reconnection between human beings and other species, and the expansiveness of life experiences.


        Hung-Chi Liao said, “ Dolphins and whales serve as a bridge.” The writer hopes that whales and dolphins can lead human beings into a broader and more expansive world, as represented by the vast ocean. Through writing about different whales and dolphins, Liao tries to capture the rhythm and melody of the ocean. Employing whales and dolphins as a bridge, Liao attempts to arrive at the melodious and expansive ocean. Readers readily note that Liao’s writings about whales and dolphins always include two dimensions, interplaying with each other, creating a counterpoint symphony. One consists of the motions and gestures of the whales and dolphins, and the other is the movement towards the ocean. For the whale and dolphin seeker, the ocean is mesmerizing. For the whales and dolphins, the ocean is their ecological habitat.


        In his later writings about whales and dolphins, Hung-Chi Liao endows the marine mammals and the ocean with a religious and mysterious aura. In The Book of Whales and Dolphins, he envisions the cetaceans as messengers of god, conveying extra-sensory experiences to human beings in a “god-like language.”  (The Book of Whales and Dolphins, 27) Evidently, the mysterious realm that the writer attempts to portray is the deep ocean, filled with inexplicable and mysterious forces as well as rhythmic musical melody. But more importantly, the mysterious rhythm of the sea can be manifested only through the gesture and behavior of the whales and dolphins. Liao says in his book that the message of the sea and the words of god are engraved on the backs of the cetaceans, “the messages are sent by the gods, the strokes and delineations can be seen, heard, and touched. They are all decrees and codes.” (The Book of Whales and Dolphins, 119)


        In his ecological writings, Liao aims to decode the messages from god manifested by the dolphins and whales with his words. To Hung-Chi Liao, god’s hidden code is inherent in the whales and dolphins, in nature, in the ocean, and in literature. For readers, Liao’s writings enable them to enter the world of whales and dolphins, and to immerse themselves in the counterpoint symphony of marine life and the ocean.


        Hung-Chi Liao’s ocean writing is esthetic, ethical, and ecological. His writings about whales and dolphins build a bridge for readers to open themselves to the vast expansiveness of the ocean. Readers are invited to swim along with the cetaceans, and hopefully, like the writer, undergo a religious and mythical experience. Apart from being a personal account and political manifesto to protect marine life, Liao’s writing is as deep and expansive as the ocean. Through writing and rewriting, the writer transforms his experiences into words as infinite as the ocean.



Translated (with some editing) by Michelle M. Wu