Lau Seng-hian, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Linguistics, National Tsing Hua University
The Sponge Gourd
(Translated by Tenn Nga-I)
Sponge gourds seldom make a sound
Plain and honest, they never pick a quarrel
Sponge gourds seldom make a sound
Green and gorgeous, they grow on native ground
So big they grow, so bountiful
Creeping to and fro, winding up and down
The sponge gourd, Taiwanese sponge gourd,
Slowly blooming, grows without a sound
“The Sponge Gourd” is written in a mixture of Chinese characters and Romanized Taiwanese, a phonetic system originally created over a century ago by missionaries in Taiwan and China’s Fujian province. Over the years, Taiwanese have written novels, short stories, poetry, and essays in pe̍h-uē-jī (白話字), as the system is known locally. When the mother-language movement resurfaced in the 1980s, Mandarin was the basis for teaching Chinese characters, posing difficulties for writing Taiwanese using characters only. Also, because most Taiwanese readers were unfamiliar with or rejected romanized script, many writers chose to work with a hybrid of Chinese characters and romanization.
Huang Jinlian’s “The Sponge Gourd” is a typical yongwu poem, a work that expresses theme via descriptions of an object. A similar type of poetry is also found in the West, William Blake’s “The Tyger” being one example of such. Though both Chinese and Western yongwu poems are descriptive, the Chinese genre differs in that it often refers obliquely to a concrete object, a person or thing, even developing mythic “archetypal patterns,” some of which have come to be recognized as universal symbols – for example, in Chinese culture the chrysanthemum represents purity, and the orchid symbolizes nobility of character. But Huang’s poem clearly breaks away from traditional archetypes, choosing instead to celebrate the homely sponge gourd, a common vegetable.
The sponge gourd (Taiwanese: tsh spong), or loofah squash, is an annual subtropical or tropical climbing vine. The plant’s bright yellow flowers adorn the Taiwanese countryside, and the young gourd-shaped fruit, tender and delicious, is a popular vegetable dish. After drying, the highly fibrous mature plant can also be used as a scrub pad for washing pots and pans. In a wok or on a dish rack, no plant is more familiar to Taiwanese than the sponge gourd.
In choosing to write about the sponge gourd, a nontraditional symbol, Huang Kenglian creates fresh imagery; the new symbol is intimately related to Taiwanese life, as though the poet fully intended to link the image to the lives of ordinary Taiwanese, the language plain, simple, and catchy. Furthermore, when viewed in the yongwu poetic tradition the sponge gourd is a metaphor for middle- and lower-class Taiwanese, an image of the flourishing common people. The opening line “Silent sponge gourds seldom make a sound” is repeated in the first stanza, aptly characterizing the faceless, voiceless masses. “Plain and honest,” the common people “never pick a quarrel.” But within this image of silence lies a hardy and independent maturity; they grow and prosper, spreading like melon vines. The most beautiful, truest, and plenteous form of existence, sponge gourds grow slowly, ripening in the fullness of time. In singing the plant’s praises, the poet is in fact celebrating the simple and honest lives of the Taiwanese masses.
A native of the town of Jiali in Tainan Country, Huang Jinlian (1946- ) is a graduate of Chiayi Teachers’ College (today’s National Chiayi University) Music Group, and Chinese Culture University’s Department of Chinese Literature Literary Arts Group. He has served as chief editor of Taiwan Literary Arts magazine, director of Taipei’s Hansheng Language and Literature Center, chief editor of Taiwanese-language (Holo) teaching materials at Jinan Publishing Company, and is currently chief editor of Whale of Taiwanese Literature magazine.
In 1960 Huang Jinlian published his first work, Sound of the Cicadas, in Tainan County Youth magazine. While studying at Chiayi Normal College he founded Thunder God, a poetry journal. Most of his early works were published in Asian Literature, Wild Wind, Chiayi Youth, Li, New Land, and other literary periodicals. After university graduation he joined the Huaguang Poetry Society. He later founded the Mainstream Poetry Society, publishing the Mainstream Poetry Journal. In 1971 he published his first poetry collection, Lotus Flowers Fall. After performing military service he founded Da Han Publishing Company in Shilin. He returned to his hometown of Jiali in 1979, cohosting the “First Annual Salt Belt Literary Camp,” Taiwan’s longest-running summer literary camp.
Huang’s Chinese work has been included in numerous anthologies. In 1985 he began writing in Taiwanese (Holo), and has since continued to promote, create, and research Taiwanese-language literature, publishing a collection of Taiwanese poems, If the Pheasant Crows, in 1991. That same year he founded the Sweet Potato Poetry Society, Taiwan’s first literary group dedicated to Taiwanese (Holo) literature. Huang has received the National Youth Excellence Award, the Nanying (Tainan County) Literature Award, and the Rong Hou Taiwan Poet’s Prize. From 2001 to present he has served as editor of Whale of Taiwan Literature magazine, Taiwan’s foremost Taiwanese (Holo) literary periodical.
Huang Jinlian’s works brim with musicality, emphasizing song-like rhythms. In content, the poems express a deep love for homeland and strong Taiwanese consciousness; thus, Huang’s poetry has played a major role in the Taiwanese (Holo) literature movement. His Taiwanese works include Song of the Sweet Potato (1998) and Southern Wind, Fragrant Paddies (2000); essays collections include Tanzi Notes (1996) and other works. Huang has also compiled and edited the audio books Taiwan Style (1995), Taiwanese Translations of Worthy Writings from the Past, and 100 Taiwanese Children’s Songs (1996).
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=7716
|Work(English)：||The Sponge Gourd|
|Anthology：||Taiwanese (Holo) Literature Reader, Volume 1|
|Author：||Huang Jinlian (Ng Keng-lian)|
|Language：||Traditional Chinese (Holo)|
|Translator：||鄭雅怡 (Tenn Nga-i)|
|Publisher：||Tainan City: Jin An Publishing Co. Ltd.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.m.sanmin.com.tw/Product/Index/001577084|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “www.m.sanmin.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Unpublished Translation by the Literature Toolkit Project|