Tsai Yahsun, Professor, Department of Applied Language and Culture, National Taiwan Normal University
“The Rootless Orchid” was included in My America Journal, one of Chen Zhifan’s best-known essay collections, and often appears in middle-school textbooks. Told from the viewpoint of one far from home – the writer lived in the US for a time – the essay employs flowers as a metaphor, building layer upon layer of richly nostalgic longings for home through the movement of thought and imagination.
The essay can be divided into three parts. First, a friend invites Chen Zhifan to visit an ornamental flower garden. When the writer sights peonies and hydrangeas – Chinese flowers transplanted to America – the flora trigger memories of home. “Because the setting was different, the flowers had faded, and a people were not as warm. I don’t know why, but I began to cry.” The flowers are not as beautiful in a nonnative environment, a deeply affecting observation. Although the writing is lyrical and infused with melancholy, the writer maintains a rational viewpoint, dissecting ever-deeper layers of emotion.
In the essay’s second part the author’s thoughts turn to his childhood, recalling the high-spirited feeling of being at home wherever he went, and how that all abruptly changed after he came to America. Chen compares himself to a silkworm, ultimately realizing that although he had traveled extensively, he never left the “mulberry leaf” of China, his native land, whence the abundant feeling that “everywhere was home.” Only after coming to the US did he experience a vivid sense of being homeless and adrift.
In the essay’s final part, the writer quotes an ancient Chinese saying, “Life is like duckweed” – we drift together only to drift apart again. But duckweed has the water for a home; the writer feels he is more like chaff blowing in the wind – here Chen mentions Zheng Sixiao, a Song period artist who painted rootless orchids to symbolize a traveler without a homeland, the source of the essay’s title. Finally, the writer goes a step further in contrasting an individual’s life and death to a nation’s rise and fall, pointing out that “A person can be disgraced, a home can be broken, but a nation must not perish,” a wanderer’s sentiment.
From homeland to foreign land, from struggle to acceptance, in the midst of his wandering existence Chen Zhifan realizes anew the significance his native country holds for him. Although the essay merely describes a visit to an ornamental flower garden, it accurately reflects the inner world of expatriates everywhere, and can be seen as a representative early example of “exchange-student literature.” Chen Zhifan doesn’t engage in emotionalism in writing about the pain of being away from home; rather, he alleviates his homesickness by dispassionately examining the affective changes he has undergone. Hence, the prose is succinct and incisive, restrained and controlled, revealing the ties between the Chen’s science and engineering background and his humanistic cultivation.
Zhong Zhiwei, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
Chen Zhifan (1925-2012) was a native of Ba County in China’s Hebei province. He graduated from Peiyang University’s Department of Electrical engineering and earned a master’s degree in from the University of Pennsylvania. A talented scientist and electrical engineer, Chen published over a hundred papers and numerous books in his field. He was also an outstanding essayist, publishing the acclaimed collections Notes from America (1957), In the Spring Breeze (1962), Reflections in the River Cam (1972), and Sea of Time (1996). After listening to a broadcast speech by Hu Shi, university student Chen wrote to the scholar and the two became fast friends and frequent correspondents. Their letters have been collected in My College Days’ Correspondence with Hu Shi (2005).
Chen Zhifan began writing essays in 1955, while studying in the US. Following university graduation in 1948, Chen worked as an intern engineer at the Taiwan Petrochemical Development Corporation, also serving as natural-science group copy editor at the National Institute for Compilation and Translation. With financial assistance from Hu Shi and savings he had accrued while working, Chen went to the US for further study. Nieh Hualing, then editor of Free China, invited him to submit to the magazine, providing impetus for Chen to complete his Notes from America. After finishing his master’s degree he worked for a time in the US, often returning to speak in Taiwan in the 1960s, eliciting a warm popular response. With the aid of the American government Chen went to England in 1969, completing his doctorate there. After returning to the US he held teaching posts at Princeton University and Boston University. During that time he frequently returned to Asia, holding courses and delivering lectures in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Chen Zhifan wrote primarily about the loneliness and melancholy of living in a foreign country, “The Rootless Orchid” his best known such work. Chen’s essays are celebrated for their balance of reason and emotion – that is to say, the writer’s passion for his native land is expressed in concise, unsentimental prose. Currently, Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University library and Hong Kong’s Oxford University Press are actively collating, preserving, and publishing Chen’s works.
|Work(English)：||The Rootless Orchid|
|Anthology：||The Taipei Chinese Pen《中華民國筆會英季刊－當代台灣文學英譯》|
|Author：||Chen Zhifan (Chen Tse-fan)|
|Translator：||殷張蘭熙（Ing, Chang Nancy）|
|Publisher：||Taipei: Taipei Chinese Center, International P.E.N.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://bookzone.cwgv.com.tw/book_BLC040.html|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “bookzone.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.taipen.org/the_chinese_pen/the_chinese_pen_03.htm|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Taipei Chinese Center, International P.E.N.|