Wu Jiahong, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Taiwan University
The Taiwanese saying “a castrated chicken trying to fly like a phoenix” describes a person whose grasp exceeds his or her reach – try as it might, a capon will never soar like a beautiful phoenix, and will only embarrass itself in vain efforts to do so. Chicken farmers in Taiwan customarily castrate young male chickens in order to improve the quality of the meat. Although castrated chickens grow to be larger and comelier than other farmyard poultry, they are weak and incapable of flapping their wings, suited only for slaughter and eating. Castrated Chicken, Zhang Wenhuan’s novel of tragic romance, published in Taiwanese Literature magazine in July 1942, takes its title from the earthy proverb. In an era shadowed by clouds of war, the novel was like an enchanting orchid, subtly emanating delicate charm.
Castrated Chicken is set in the 1920s, a time when Taiwan’s colonial modernization was not yet complete. Acting on rumors that a new railroad would pass through their secluded village, two families decide to unite by marriage and go into business together. Chunpu’s daughter Yueli has no complaint with A-Yong, the man her family has arranged for her to wed, but the marriage falls apart when her in-laws’ financial pipedreams fail to materialize. Yueli then meets A-Lin, a young painter who harbors great ambitions in spite of a physical disability. Although the two grow close, conservative fellow villagers disapprove of what they consider to be an immoral relationship. Zhang Wenhuan painstakingly portrays Yueli’s loneliness and vulnerability at the loss of her family support network, depicting the transformations she goes through as she pursues physical and emotional freedom. The story ends sadly, however – in a final protest against fate, Yueli leaps into a river and drowns, an ending that urged readers to ponder the causes of the tragedy.
Playwright Lin Tuanqiu adapted Castrated Chicken to the stage the year after its publication, and the play premiered at Taipei’s Yongle Theatre in September 1943. Composer Lü Quansheng contributed arrangements of Taiwanese folk songs collected in Taipei’s Dadaocheng district – “The Train Kept Rolling,” “June Paddy Water” and “A Bird Is Chirping” – and painter Yang Sanlang designed the sets, creating an exquisite musical and visual experience. The play ends with A-Yong optimistically vowing to carry on with his life. During its run the production aroused strong ethnic feelings among Taiwanese audiences. Consequently, Japanese authorities banned the three folk songs featured in the performance. The play has since come to be regarded as a major work of Taiwan’s “New Drama Movement,” which employed modern theater as a medium for promoting social reform.
In tribute to the classic, a number of modern theater troupes have readapted and performed the play, their interpretations changing to fit the times. For example, in 2008 the Tainan Jen Theatre rewrote the work to highlight a woman’s pursuit of her ideals, adding depth to Yueli’s character. The adaptation also reinterpreted nativism’s significance in contemporary Taiwan, giving the sixty year-old play a greater resonance with modern audiences.
Stage Play Castrated Chicken Video Clip (Source: Tainan Jen Theatre)