Chen Xiuling, M.A. student, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
“The Covering Leaf”
Adhering to a slender branch
a single leaf disarmed
with nothing to defend it
all exposed to the ravages of hungry insects
and left to the devastation of the storm
in disregard of its own weakness
grips the slender branch tightly at one spot
to form a green curtain shutting out the scorching sun
to form a roof against the wind and rain
If life is a growing tree
It is not for stretching toward Heaven
But only for the fragile young leaves to grow quickly
Poem by Chen Xiuxi
Translated by K.C. Tu and Robert Backus
“The Covering Leaf” was published in 1972. At the time Taiwan was under martial law and society was rigidly conservative. Traditionally, a woman’s place was in the home – the community judged her on how closely she conformed to the standard image of a good wife and mother. Only after she had married and given birth would she be accorded a measure of social respect. “The Covering Leaf” reflects that image of womanhood. Written from the heart – the poet herself was a wife and mother – the poem celebrates the delicate yet persevering qualities inherent in the maternal role.
The tree-leaf in the title is a symbol of both a mother’s sacrifices for her children and her protection and care of them, the seemingly fragile plant matter possessing a tenacious core of inner strength. Bound to a tree branch, prey to feeding insects, tossed about by the wind, the leaf represents a mother’s selflessness, and the courage and perseverance with which she places her offspring’s safety and comfort above her own. The tiny leaf is a “jade curtain” and a “roof,” offering shade from the sun and shelter from the rain, shielding the tender new shoots that will one day become leaves, a metaphor for the way in which a human mother protects and nurtures her own children. For the poet, life is a tree – it grows not to tower over the earth but to produce delicate buds that will ultimately blossom into luxuriant foliage. This, then, is the essence of a woman’s nature – to bring abundant new life into the world.
Chen Xiuxi abandons the clichéd imagery of women as flowers, gentle and lovely, instead likening the qualities of motherly love to the humble leaf, commonplace yet committed to its role in nature. A woman’s existence is like that of a leaf, providing shelter and protection, guiding and nurturing the next generation. She lives not to fulfill personal ambitions, but to play her part in the endless chain of life. “The Covering Leaf” is a touching ode to the traditional concept of motherhood.
Chen Xiuxi (1921-1991), a native of Hsinchu, was an adopted child. She studied for six years in a Japanese colonial-era public school, and began writing modern poetry, ballads and haiku in Japanese at age 15. In 1967 she joined the Li Poetry Association and became president of the group in 1971, a position she held until her death in 1991.
Following the end of the Second World War, Mandarin Chinese replaced Japanese as Taiwan’s official language. In Cramped Room, Chen laments that the younger generation will be unable to appreciate her poetry, declaring “it is better to write one poem in Chinese than a thousand in Japanese.” At age 36 she began studying Chinese and began writing Chinese poetry in 1976, publishing four volumes of modern poetry. Thus, at midlife, Chen surmounted the language barrier and reinvented herself as a Chinese poet, displaying a determination rare among her peers.
“Poetry is my interest; poetry is my spirit; poetry is my truth,” Chen said. On the art and craft of poetry she remarked, “To write poetry you have to stake out your position, observe everything around you that moves you, and process these things rationally.” Literary critics have noted that Chen Xiuxi’s work is woven through with meditations on the various forms of love, creating a uniquely feminine “mother archetype” that embodies “propagation, harvest, ongoing life, and true affection.”
Chen Xiuxi’s poetry is simple and straightforward, celebrating the minutiae of daily life in plain, colloquial language that resonates with a love of her native land. In remembrance of the poet, her family established the “Chen Xiuxi Poetry Prize,” an award presented each year on Mother’s Day. Chen’s works include a volume of Japanese poetry, several volumes of Chinese poetry, and a collection of poems translated into Japanese by Kaoru Ohno.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2263
|Work(English)：||The Covering Leaves|
|Anthology：||Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series（《台灣文學英譯叢刊 》）|
|Translator：||Robert Backus（拔苦子）、杜國清（K. C. Tu）|
|Publisher：||Forum for the Study of World Literatures in Chinese, University of California, Santa Barbara|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.hcccb.gov.tw|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Cultural Affairs Bureau, Hsinchu City|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://paper-republic.org/publishers/taiwan-literature-english-translation-series/|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|