Wang Liru, PhD student, Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University
Nativist writer Huang Chunming has long been concerned with issues affecting Taiwan’s rural villages. Since the 1980s he has delved into problems confronting the nation’s rapidly aging rural population, producing a succession of short stories on the lives of elderly Taiwanese, works collected in 1999’s Set Free. “Set Free,” the title story, combines Huang’s longtime concerns for Taiwan’s rapidly shrinking rural population with problems of industrial pollution and an aging population. At the same time, Huang satirizes Taiwan’s political culture and official corruption – embodied in elected representatives’ ugly, buck-passing behavior – pointing out the difficulties inherent in rural development. Ilan County’s Lanyang plain is an important rice-producing area; developmentally, however, it has lagged far behind neighboring Taipei, a commercial and industrial center. Huang’s story cuts to the heart of the dilemma: Industrialization has brought jobs to the Ilan area, but has also polluted land, air, and water, sullying the once pristine countryside.
“Setting Free” begins with Kim-tsiok-po hurriedly removing clothes from a clothesline, just ahead of a summer cloudburst. A resident of Dakenggu, a village located at the mouth of the Wulaokeng River, the old woman has to “shake the black dust off the clothes,” revealing the dangers industrial pollution poses to the area. The story centers on the joys, sorrows, and disappointments in the lives Kim-chiok-po, her husband A-Bue, and son Bun-thong, and the ways in which they deal with defeat and loss. A bird, the tshân-tshia-á (cinnamon bittern), is a symbol that links past and present, on the one hand serving as proof of the ways in which modern industry has polluted the Ilan area, and on the other hand echoing the implications of the story’s title – when Bun-thong was a boy, he longed to keep one of the birds as a pet, but A-Bue was unable to fulfill his son’s wish. While Bun-thong is serving a prison sentence – an opponent of official corruption, he was jailed on a trumped-up charge – his father manages to capture a bittern that has been poisoned by industrial waste. A-Bue nurses the bird to health, awaiting his son’s release. In the end, Bun-thong comes home just as is father is setting the bird free. Here, “setting free” 1 symbolizes Bun-thong’s new freedom, but also represents A-Bue’s liberation from memories of the past. Seeing the Ilan landscape from A-Bue’s point of view – the formerly flourishing natural vistas now befouled by pollution, the land falling into decay – audiences understand even more clearly that the symbolic bird was only captured because it had been poisoned by the toxic environment.
The 2001 TV version of Huang Chunming’s “Set Free” was produced by writer Xiao Ye – then manager of Taiwan Television (TTV) – and Xu Jiashi, and directed by Li Zuonan, who adapted the work as a three-part television special. At the time two other Huang Chunming stories were also rewritten for TV, “My Name is Lotus” and “Between Life and Death.” The script departs from the short story in places – the story is told from Kim-tsiok-po’s point of view, interweaving memories of A-Bue catching the bittern, but in the TV version A-Bue is the central character. Scenes from A-Bue’s dreams are added in, sketching out his family history. In addition, the script lends greater weight to Bun-thong’s romantic relationship with next-door neighbor A-Ing, the lovers’ parting an allusion to the ongoing exodus of young people from the county to the city. The TV production not only increases character depth, but was filmed in the countryside as well, adding a strong element of realism, vividly portraying the subtle interdependent relationship between Taiwan’s landscape and culture. Thus, the TV adaptation allows us to see even more clearly the possibilities and richness of landscape in literature.
1“Setting free,” or “life release,” is a traditional Buddhist practice of freeing animals – birds, fish, etc. – that would otherwise be slaughtered. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_release