Wu Jiaying, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
After publication of his magnum opus, A Cinematic Journey (1990), Dongfang Bai came out with Sedan Chair Spirit (2002), a short story collection. Mysterious and far-reaching, the stories plumbed the depths of human nature, playing with fate’s predicaments. By developing his characters in light of the so-called “Five Worries” of philosophy and fables – worry about destiny, worry about people, worry about the world, worry about the times, and not worrying – the writer expresses profound empathy for their fates. Dongfang Bai excels at using objects as an associative foil for his themes: “Hair” is an examination of the process of “growing hair” and “losing hair” – by losing one’s hair, one gains the Dharma, 1 thus Chan (Zen) Buddhist philosophy is threaded throughout the text.
For reasons of context, the story is written in the Holo (Taiwanese) language. The writer is meticulous in his choice of Han characters, taking both sound and meaning into consideration, imbuing the text with vivid insights and “earthy” literary flavor. The story is set in 1930, in the mountain village of Jiufen. A young hairdresser who has come to work in the remote locale is perming the hair of a young woman from a wealthy family who is soon to be married. But the hairdresser carelessly singes the young woman’s hair, leaving her completely bald. Unable to face her family and friends, the young woman postpones her wedding until her hair grows back, when she will again select an auspicious day on which to marry. While waiting for her hair to grow, the young woman realizes that women put too much time and effort into maintaining their hairdos – in the grand scope of things, she asks herself, is it not an exercise in futility? Hence, in a moment of clarity she decides to bid farewell to the secular world and take vows as a Buddhist nun.
Castigating herself because the young woman has had to postpone her wedding, the hairdresser dolefully returns to Quanzhou in China’s Fujian province, but the memory of the trouble she has caused follows her like a bad dream. She passes her time in a funk, until one day she happens to see a Buddhist nun who has just taken the tonsure, whereupon the hairdresser realizes that Buddhism is her heart’s true refuge.
Life’s twists and turns are fleeting and illusory. Several decades later, when both are approaching the age of eighty, the two women meet again at a Dharma assembly in Lingyun Temple, one now known “Compassionate Cloud” and the other as “Sea of Wisdom” – both have become Buddhist masters. When the two talk of the karmic conditions that brought them to the Bodhi path, they rise from their seats, hands clasped before them, and bow deeply to each other in recognition of the fulfillment of the perfect natural law.
Dongfang Bai’s novels and short stories all are rich in imagery and meaning. Exquisitely written and brimming philosophical interest, the writer’s works often engage in dialogue with and examination of Buddhism, Christianity, and folk religious beliefs. Dongfang Bai once remarked: “Religion is the background of all great works of literature, because religion is the highest realm of human existence; only those works that have reached this level are worthy of being called great literature.” Dongfang Bai’s writings question the nature of human emotions and natural law, thus his characters are often enveloped in melancholy. Nevertheless, “Hair” is most moving in its expressions of universal empathy and its reverence for life. A bright ray of implicit hope flickers through the text – even in the darkness, everyone must spend a lifetime humbly seeking his or her own predestined life lessons.
1A pun: “hair” (髮fǎ)and “Dharma” (法fǎ) are homophones in Chinese.
Dong Fangbai (1938- ) is the penname of Lin Wende, a native of Taipei. The writer is a graduate of National Taiwan University’s Department of Agricultural Engineering Water Conservancy Group. After graduating he traveled to Canada to continue his studies, earning a doctorate in engineering from the University of Saskatchewan. He lived in Canada for an extended period, working as a water conservancy engineer, and took up writing in retirement. In high school he read widely in world classics, his initial inspiration for writing. He especially enjoyed the works of Tolstoy, Akutagawa, and Chekhov. In 1954 he finished the first draft of a short story, “Deathbed Christian,” and in 1957 United Daily News ran “Battle of Raven Brocade,” his first published work.
Dong Fangbai wrote prolifically in his college days, turning out a great number of short stories. He finished the novella “□□” in 1964, at a time when existentialism held sway in the intellectual world, the work’s title □□ signifying emptiness and nothingness. However, he began to lose interest in writing at that time, declaring “□□” to be his final work. In 1965 he traveled to Canada to continue his studies. Following his marriage in 1968 he began writing fiction again, completing the short story “In a Dream.” Dong Fangbai works slowly: for example, it took him three years to finish Dew Lake (1978); A Cinematic Journey (1991) was eleven years in the making; and the autobiography “Truth and Beauty” was written over a period of ten years.
While working on A Cinematic Journey, Dong Fangbai began writing in Taiwanese in order to replicate the language of an older generation, and much of the novel’s dialogue is colloquial Taiwanese. In 1995 he published Elegant Language, Elegant Literature: Dong Fangbai’s Selected Taiwanese Works, a collection of essays and short stories rewritten from Chinese originals, including the short story “Slave.” The book showcased the writer’s awakening interest in his mother tongue. He further explored questions of identity and ethnicity in works such as Taro and Yam (1997) and Sedan Chair Spirit (2002).
In addition to writing fiction, Dong Fangbai pens essays that often appear in newspapers. Subject matter is largely drawn from the writer’s diaries, notes, and letters, with much new material created from those sources. Thematically, the works center on concern and respect for humanity, displaying wisdom and awareness of suffering, employing fables to satirize social injustice and human folly. Dong Fangbai’s other writings include Father and Son (1997), an essay collection; Taro and Yam (1994), a collection of novellas; and Goody’s World (2002).
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=7646
|Anthology：||Sedan Chair Spirit|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Taipei: Avanguard Co., Ltd.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.avanguard.com.tw|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Avanguard Co., Ltd.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||No English Translation|