Tsai Yahsun, Professor, Department of Applied Language and Culture, National Taiwan Normal University
“A La-tzu Woman,” originally named “A Native Woman’s Blood,” was published in Literature Magazine in 1972. Set in the author’s native Borneo, the story’s protagonist is an indigenous woman who marries into a Chinese-Malaysian family. The woman tries to find her place within clan, but is repeatedly met with racial and cultural discrimination.
“La-tzu” is a Chinese pejorative for the Dayak, an indigenous people of Eastern Malaysia, whom some Chinese-Malaysians believed to be primitive and uncultured. The story is told in the first person, the narrator relating how an uncle married a Dayak woman and brought her to live with the family. Although she can speak the “language of the Tang” (Chinese) and is kind, obedient, patient and hardworking, members of her husband’s extended family still refuse to accept her as one of their own. For example, the narrator’s grandfather’s coldly dashes water in the woman’s face and other women of the household constantly belittle her, expressions of Chinese-Malaysians’ contempt for other races. Such actions reveal a sense of ethnic and cultural superiority, highlighting conflicts between weak and powerful social groups. Because she is unable to integrate into the family, the woman’s relations with her husband are filled with crises and the marriage is endangered.
The Dayak woman’s husband is seemingly the only one in the family who can save her. But perhaps because his wife has aged, and perhaps because he has no wish to resist societal and familial pressures, the man’s ethnic identification gradually emerges. In the end he marries a young and beautiful Chinese woman, sending his ex-wife and their three children back to her family home. The Dayak woman dies, quietly and alone, in a traditional longhouse, bringing the interethnic tragedy to a close.
Most of the story is devoted to the twofold discrimination the Dayak woman encounters – gender discrimination based on her role in the family, and racial prejudice, a reflection of the Dayak people’s status in Malaysian society. In addition to condemning the unfairness of the situation, the narrator calls the Dayak woman “second sister,” an expression of his sympathy and concern. Because Malaysia is a multiethnic and multicultural society, the Dayak woman and the narrator’s family represent only a part of that nation’s complex socio-ethnic picture; in other words, Chinese-Malaysians play the part of “oppressors” and “injurers” in Li’s story, but in Malaysian society in general Chinese too are a weak, marginalized demographic. Chinese exclusion and oppression of the Dayak can be regarded as a kind of ethnic self-affirmation, a means of preserving social status. Coming from “outsiders” in Malaysian society, Chinese mistreatment of the Dayak appears harsh and cruel, but Chinese-Malaysians themselves are victims of other groups seeking to establish social position. Thus, “A La-tzu Woman” not only portrays unequal relations between Chinese-Malaysians and the indigenous Dayak, but also paints a miniature portrait of interethnic relations in Malaysian society as a whole.
Li Yongping (1947- ) was born in Borneo’s Sarawak state in eastern Malaysia. He came to Taiwan in 1967, enrolling in National Taiwan University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. After graduation he joined the department as a teaching assistant, and edited Chung Wai Literary Quarterly, the department journal. He later continued his studies in the US, earning a master’s degree in comparative literature at New York University and a doctorate at Washington University. He has taught British and American literature at National Sun Yat-sen University, Soochow University, National Dong Hwa University, and is now retired. Primarily a fiction writer, Li has received the China Times Literature Award, the United Daily News Literature Award, the Government Information Office Golden Tripod Award for Books, as well as other literary prizes. His works include Son of Borneo (1968) A La-tzu Woman (1976), The Jilin Chronicles (1986) Gyrfalcon – A Taipei Fable (1992) Zhu Lingman in Wonderland (1998), Rain and Snow – a Borneo Childhood (2002), and River’s End (2008, 2010).
Critic’s hailed Li’s 1972 short story “A La-tzu Woman,” the title piece of a collection that came out four years later. Themed on people and events in the author’s native Malaysia, the stories echoed Taiwan’s nativist literature movement. Published in 1979, The Jilin Chronicles is an example of the “pure literature” Li advocated – the prose is spare and elegant, the twelve stories complementary, as if the collection were a novel with a nonlinear narrative structure.
Published after martial law had ended, Gyrfalcon features a great number of obscure Chinese characters, a rarity in Taiwanese literature. Kunjing, a mythical sea creature, is a metaphor for Taipei, and Kun Island represents Taiwan. The long novel depicts the protagonist’s travels and encounters, portraying the hedonistic overconsumption of 1980s’ Taiwan, a testament to the nation’s descent into materialism. Literarily challenging and ideologically conservative, the work was praised by some and disparaged by others. A follow-up, Zhu Lingman in Wonderland, the pitiful tale of a young urban woman who is reduced to a sexual plaything, garnered largely positive reviews. In 2002’s Rain and Snow, a collection of shorter pieces, the author returns to his native Borneo, fictionally recombining Malaysia and Taiwan – “Looking Homeward,” tells of the misfortunes of Taiwanese “comfort” woman marooned in the South Seas, recalling the entanglements of Taiwanese soldiers who served in the Japanese army during the latter days of the colonial period, allowing readers to ponder nearly forgotten debts. Today, Li Yongping remains active as a writer.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=4641
|Work(English)：||A La-tzu Woman|
|Anthology：||An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Literature|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Taipei: National Institute for Compilation and Translation|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010231192|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.amazon.com/An-Anthology-Contemporary-Chinese-Literature/dp/B000XXKKPE|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|