Ying Fenghuang, Professor, Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture, National Taipei University of Education
“The Slave,” the story of an old soldier, was published in The Commons Daily supplement in 1979. A long short story of approximately ten thousand Chinese characters, “Slave” encompasses a broad slice of modern history: the Chinese civil war, the Nationalist retreat to Taiwan, and the ethnic and class differences that took shape under authoritarian KMT rule. The setting is an elementary school in central Taiwan. Old Zhan, the principal’s son, paints a moving portrait of the protagonist, A-fu, and his bitter life experiences, acquainting readers with the plight of military veterans, alone and friendless, on the lower rungs of the social ladder.
At the story’s outset A-fu is seventy years old. As a youth he worked as servant in a wealthy household in China’s Shandong province. When the Chinese civil war broke out he was conscripted into the Nationalist army, and retreated to Taiwan with Nationalist forces in the wake of the Communist victory. To eke out a living A-fu took a job as a school caretaker in a central Taiwan farming village. And although he now lived in a different society and a new era, essentially he was still a servant. He found it difficult to adapt to differences in language, living habits, and customs, “culture shock” suffered by many mainlanders (waishengren) who relocated to Taiwan after the war.
When A-fu spoke to narrator Old Zhan’s father, he bowed and addressed him as “Master;” Old Zhan and his brothers he called “Young Master.” When walking, A-fu would always stay a few paces behind his employers, and would not eat at the same table as them, ever aware of his lowly status. To Taiwanese farmers, who had never kept servants, such behavior was disconcerting. Nevertheless, A-fu was humble and hardworking, transforming mainlanders’ poor image among the local Taiwanese. A-fu’s father and grandfather too had been servants, or “slaves,” in Shandong; A-fu had lived through the latter years of the Qing dynasty, the establishment of the Republic of China, and government under Japanese-collaborator Wang Jingwei, experiencing all the turmoil and tragedy of war.
Author Tonfang Po, is a native Taiwanese, and the story takes place in a Taiwan farming village. But unlike other 1970s works by Taiwanese writers, which either satirized or criticized waisheng veterans, “The Slave” fully sympathizes with A-fu. Thus, the story speaks out for the disadvantaged. In Chinese, “slave” (奴才) is synonymous with “servant” (僕人/下人). If used descriptively, noting that a certain person has a “slave’s disposition,” for example, it is a pejorative. Although the story is entitled “The Slave,” it is more empathic than critical. Even though A-fu has long been away from his native Shandong, he still insists on buying his freedom, lest he spend his entire life a “slave,” a fate he believes would also await him in the next life. A-fu’s sincerity is moving, his ignorance saddening; yet throughout the narrative he clearly embodies the working poor’s thirst for freedom.
Tonfang Po (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.
Tonfang Po 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.” Tonfang Po 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, Tonfang Po 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: Tonfang Po’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 Mainlanders and Taiwanese (1997) and Sedan Chair Spirit (2002).
In addition to writing fiction, Tonfang Po 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. Tonfang Po’s other writings include Father and Son (1997), an essay collection; Mainlanders and Taiwanese (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：||The Taipei Chinese Pen（《中華民國筆會英季刊－當代台灣文學英譯》）|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Taipei Chinese Center, International P.E.N.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010014768|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.taipen.org/the_chinese_pen/the_chinese_pen_03.htm|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Taipei Chinese Center, International P.E.N.|