Xie Shizong, Assistant Professor, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
According to Aristotle, tragedy imitates the lives of extraordinary individuals, thus most tragic protagonists are heroes. The characters in Wang Zhenhe’s story are comic – their lives are squalid and they often exhibit exaggerated animality, revealing the human body’s grossness and the base and ugly side of human nature: Wanfa is hard of hearing; Jian gives off a noxious body odor; a swarm of flies accompanies a neighbor who sells pickled vegetables; in addition to being ugly and flat-chested, A-hao can’t stop farting at a job interview – the result of eating too many sweet potatoes – and in the end fails to get the job. The body’s grotesqueness is the basis of the story’s humor, and basic bodily needs – “food” and “sex,” according to Confucius – are the plot’s driving force, and those needs are respectively embodied in Wanfa and Jian.
The third-person narrative recounts in flashbacks how Wanfa, Jian and A-hao fell into in awkward triangular relationship. Most of the story is told from Wanfa’s point of view, but he isn’t aware of everything that goes on; thus readers’ understanding of the story is limited to what Wanfa sees and hears. For example, are Wanfa’s wife A-hao and family friend Jian really involved in an adulterous relationship, as rumors have it? Like Wanfa, readers have no way of being certain, but they can enter into Wanfa’s inner world and understand why he vacillates between hunger brought about by poverty and the shame of sharing his wife with another man. Because he suspects his A-hao and Jian are having an affair, Wanfa confronts Jian on two occasions. After each confrontation Jian leaves and Wanfa’s family falls back into penury. In the end Wanfa is jailed for causing an accident while driving his oxcart, and has no choice but to recognize Jian as head of the family. Tragic heroes resist circumstances (fate, Nature, the gods) through personal will, and in the end willingly sacrifice their lives; thus the will negates the body. In Wanfa’s case, however, the will succumbs to the body’s needs, and he is unable to transcend worldly concerns.
An epigraph by Henry James from The Portrait of a Lady indicates that the story’s theme is life’s implacability – ordinary people have no choice but to submit to and compromise with it. The quotation also informs readers that although the story is rich in local color, with regional dialect mixed into the language of the narrative, the theme is universal, transcending individuals, societies, and cultures. Wang Zhenhe’s attitude toward the silent plight of ordinary people is ambiguous. On one hand, common people can ignore spiritual values – for example, the way in which Wanfa plays dumb in order to survive and satisfy his hunger is naturally quite ridiculous; on the other hand, Wang also recognizes our lowliness and insignificance, and feels a kind of helplessness, sympathy, and compassion. Hence, his characters elicit contempt and pity, commiseration and compassion, lamentation and understanding.
Wang Zhenhe (1940-1990) was born in Hualian. In 1959 he moved to Taipei, enrolling in National Taiwan University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and joining modernist arts circles. His early fiction was published in Modern Literature, a literary journal founded by Pai Hsien-yung. In addition to his work as a writer, Wang also served for many years at Taiwan Television Enterprise, Ltd. (TTV), where he cultivated a passion for the dramatic arts; thus the form and imagery of film and television indirectly influenced his narrative style and polylingual expression. His works include the short-story collections An Oxcart for Dowry, Lonely Red, Record of Three Springs, and Shangri-La; the novels Portraits of the Beautiful and Americanized, Rose, Rose, I Love You, and King of Song; the script Throwing Down the Gauntlet; a translation of Ingrid Bergman’s biography; and two volumes of film and television criticism, TV, TV and Setting Out from Jane Eyre.
In March 1961, while a second-year university student, Wang published the short story “Ghosts, the North Wind, and Humans” in Modern Literature, bringing him to the attention of visiting novelist Zhang Ailing, who was drawn to the evocations of traditional Taiwanese village life in his work. Accompanied by Wang, Zhang spent several days in Hualian, setting the young writer’s direction in the art of literary fiction. Afterward, Wang’s work became richer as he combined dialect, slang and his own linguistic inventiveness in a cold, rational modernist style. Wang wrote about people on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, unabashedly presenting the coarser aspects of rural life. His Hualian thus stands in marked contrast to Huang Chunming’s sweet and stately Yilan, yet both are quintessential landmarks in postwar Taiwanese fiction.
Shortly after his return to Taiwan from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1973, Wang published “Little Lin Comes to Taipei,” chronicling the trials and tribulations of a country bumpkin who moves to the big city in search of work. The story was a turning point in Wang’s writing career; from that time on, he gained famed for contrasting the disparities between rural and urban life, sympathizing with the innocence of country folk while lampooning city-dwellers’ self-interest. Portraits of the Beautiful and Americanized sides with rural people, condemning urban residents’ crass materialism. The novel explicitly points out that the “beautiful” city folk seek to emulate the “beautiful” imperialist country of America – in Chinese “beautiful” and “America” are written with the same character – which accounts for the ever-widening gap between country and city life.
Another of Wang’s novels, Rose, Rose, I Love You, is also a broadside against urban chauvinism and American imperialism. It should be noted, however, that the novel’s attacks are satirical rather than sober, employing bawdy jokes, and a mixture of Taiwanese, pidgin English, and Mandarin to drive home points. This type of linguistic experimentation heralded the advent of postmodernist writing in Taiwanese, as well as the fin de siècle erotic literature of the 1990s.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2252
|Work(English)：||An Oxcart for Dowry|
|Anthology：||Chinese Story From Taiwan:1960~1970|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||New York: Columbia University Press|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010076878|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Stories-From-Taiwan-1960-1970/dp/0231040075|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|