Lin Jiali, MA, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
Known as an essayist of the common folk, A-Sheng embraces the vulgar. He delights in inserting elements of folk culture and folk literature into his work, writing in the voice of a rural storyteller, transforming his experience of growing up in a Taiwanese farming village into a body of richly expressive tales. Prefaced by the folk chant “Zhou Cheng Comes to Taiwan,” A-Sheng’s “Ten Kings of Hell” is a representative work, recounting a childhood friend’s tragic fate.
Like “Zhou Cheng Comes to Taiwan,” “Ten Kings of Hell” was a folktale A-Sheng often heard sung by the “Old Lady of Lugang” – a performer who supported herself by singing and playing the yueqin, a traditional string instrument – in front of the Taizi Temple in Tainan’s Xinying district when he was a boy. Lin Qiutian, the singer’s son, was the same age as A-Sheng, and the boys attended the same school. The two became fast friends, skipping school together, filching fruit, behaving like juvenile delinquents. After A-Sheng tested into high school, however, their paths parted – A-Sheng pursued academics, but Lin Qiutian got involved with organized crime. Lin broke the law, went on the lam, was captured and imprisoned. After his release he became a local gangland boss. Several years later he killed another man and went on the run again, but was apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death. He was executed not long after his mother, the “Old Lady of Lugang,” passed away.
Lyrics to the chants “Ten Kings of Hell” and “Zhou Cheng Comes to Taiwan” appear throughout the essay. In addition to carrying on tradition and linking essay sections, the lyrics’ admonishments – “do no evil, do good,” “don’t follow a dead-end road” – invite readers to consider which more decisively determines a person’s destiny, social environment or personal will. Wanted for murder and on the run, Lin Qiutian visited university student A-Sheng in the latter’s rented room, revealing the depths of his resentment toward society. Lin complained of his father and mother’s lowly status; he hated the talent-killing educational system that rewarded only scholastic achievement; and he loathed the arrogance of those at the top of the social heap. Although A-Sheng admires Lin Qiutian’s loyalty and sympathizes with his plight, leveling criticism at Taiwan’s educational system, he doesn’t feel society is completely responsible for his friend’s tragedy. For example, Lin’s younger sister Qiufen worked hard and managed to get ahead in spite of the disadvantaged background she shared with her brother.
“Ten Kings of Hell” was turned into a TV serial in 1998. Although the production is largely faithful to the story’s spirit, characters and plot elements differ slightly. For example, in the television show Lin attempts to go straight after his release from prison, working as a barber until mob figures force him back into a life of crime. “What I hate most is that I can’t repent,” Lin says, a line not found in the essay. This self-reflection reinforces the original’s investigation of environment vs. will in shaping personal destiny. The TV soundtrack also features the traditional chant “Ten Kings of Hell,” adding a musical element and preserving an all-but-forgotten bit of Taiwanese culture in a popular mass-media format.
TV Serial The Ten Kings of Hell Video Clip (Source: Formosa Television Inc.)
|Related Literary Themes：||Nativist Literature|