Liao Shufang, Associate Professor, Department of Taiwanese Literature, National Cheng Kung University
Huang Chunming’s “The Drowning of an Old Cat” (1967) tells the story of Uncle A-sheng, an old man who lives in Clearwater Village. To protect the village’s sacred lifeline – “Dragon’s Eye Well” – Uncle A-sheng takes his own life by drowning. The story documents the shock and bewilderment traditional Taiwanese villages experienced with the invasion of modernity in the 1960s and 70s.
“Old Cat” opens with a bird’s-eye view of Clearwater Village and its surrounding environs. The village is named for the clear, sweet springs that are everywhere to be found in the area. Because of its relatively inaccessible location, the hamlet has been untouched by the modern world. A group of village elders, led by Uncle A-sheng, meet at the ancestral temple everyday, sometimes to offer sacrifices to the gods, other times just to shoot the breeze. But news that a swimming pool is to be built on the site of Dragon’s Eye Well turns life in the village upside down.
Uncle A-sheng and his friends go to great lengths to defend their traditional beliefs. The old men attend a village meeting but are confused by the rules of order; then, armed with clubs and knives, they attempt to rout the contractor who has come to build the swimming pool. When they are arrested and taken to the police station, the men lose their will to fight, fearing that continuing resistance will result in criminal records. Only stubborn old Uncle A-sheng spends the night in the police station, determined to protect the land he loves, his fight to save Dragon’s Eye Well now almost a religious quest. He seeks out the country commissioner, hoping that human relations will win the day – the two men’s grandfathers had been good friends – but the commissioner is unmoved. Defeated, on the day the swimming pool officially opens, Uncle A-sheng strips naked and plunges into the water, his drowning a final protest against the desecration of Dragon Eye Well.
The story is a vivid portrait of a stubborn old man and his “kamikaze spirit”; more importantly, however, “Old Cat” takes a hard look at Taiwan’s land development policies – although carried out in the name of progress, modern considerations frequently take precedence over or negate traditional values, creating a tense standoff between two incompatible ways of life. Furthermore, on the day of Uncle A-sheng’s funeral, the swimming pool is officially closed for the day, but a group of youngsters sneak into the water, their splashing and laughter clearly audible throughout the village, a final crushing blow to the old man’s tragic resistance. Setting the traditional beliefs that Uncle A-sheng represents against the modern values the children symbolize only seems to highlight the hopelessness of his fight. Nevertheless, when one of the old men at the temple sits on the departed Uncle A-sheng’s stone bench, he first gets a case of hemorrhoids and then dies suddenly. Thus the legend of the “hemorrhoid stone” is born, calling into question the modern tendency to label traditional beliefs as superstition.
Alternately passionate and detached, Huang Chunming’s writing casts Uncle A-sheng as a symbol for the way in which heritage has been sacrificed to modernity, reminding us that even if tradition and innovation represent two very different and at times irreconcilable models, time-honored ethics should be treated with respect, and communal memories should not be forgotten.
Huang Chunming was born in the Yilan County town of Luodong in 1935. Known for his stories of local life, Huang has a wealth of experience and many talents, having worked as elementary school teacher, journalist, advertising planner, television producer, playwright, film director, and as writer and director for a children’s theater group. He has won the Wu Sanlian Literary Award, the China Times Literary Award, and the National Award for Arts.
Much of Huang’s fiction portrays ordinary people and local customs. Huang lost his mother when he was eight and was raised by his grandmother, who was a marvelous storyteller. The influence is telling, as Huang is also adept at using the magic of language to tell the tales of insignificant people. Although at school he was seen as a problem student, by immersing himself in the literature of writers such as Chekhov, Shen Congwen, and Ba Jin, Huang broke free from his feelings of self-pity and began writing. In 1962 he contributed to the United Daily News supplement for the first time, and with the encouragement of editor Lin Haiyin he embarked on a literary career. On an introduction from Qi Dengsheng, he started to work with the Literary Quarterly, where he later served as editor.
The uniqueness of Huang’s works is that he often does not merely portray the life and experience of his protagonists but shows them in their social context, telling contemporary stories against a backdrop of real social mores. In other words, he writes contemporary short fiction through the traditional story-telling medium. He also lays great stress on the subtle representation of the relation between the psychological and the behavioral development of his characters. Huang enjoys ridiculing the nonentities who are his characters, laughing at them for their absurd, ridiculous, and trivial plights and actions; yet his real target is not the characters themselves but the social problems that have brought them to such a miserable pass. His best-known short-story collections include The Sandwich Man (1969), Gong (1974), Sayonara, Goodbye (1974), Setting Free (1999), and The Railway Platform without Time (2009). His essay collections include Native Suite (1976), Waiting for a Flower’s Name (1989), and Muck Teacher (2009).
In addition to fiction and essays, Huang Chunming has also produced fairytale picture books for children, manga (comic books), and children’s plays. Publications include the manga Wang Shanshou and Niu Jin (1990) and the children’s book series Huang Chunming’s Fairytales (1993). In 1994 he set up the Big Fish children’s theater group and has written and directed stage plays for children including The Emperor Who Loved Sweets (1999), Cosmetic Surgery (2004), and The Little Hunchback (2005). Huang also set up the Lucky Alley Workshop in Yilan to compile material for the Visual Encyclopedia of Yilan County. He hopes to pass on his cultural experience and memories of Taiwan through active involvement in community building and fieldwork. He has also written and published librettos for Taiwanese operas such as Du Zichun (2001) and The New Legend of the White Snake (2003–2005).
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2296
|Work(English)：||The Drowning of an Old Cat|
|Anthology：||The Drowning of an Old Cat and Other Stories|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||New York: Columbia University Press|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://unitas.udngroup.com.tw/|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Unitas Publishing Co., Ltd.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.amazon.com/The-Drowning-Old-Other-Stories/dp/0253324521|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Indiana University Press|