Xu Zhenling, PhD student, Graduate School of Chinese Literature, National Chengchi University
Surrounded by ocean and settled by immigrants, Taiwan is a natural setting for belief in sea deities. Worship of the goddess Mazu came to the island with early Han Chinese immigrants. Originally venerated as a protector of seafarers, the goddess also represented immigrants’ fond memories of their homelands. Over the centuries Mazu gradually came to be regarded as an omnipotent “Holy Mother,” guardian spirit of all Taiwan’s people – thus belief in the goddess spread inland from coastal areas, and temples in her honor are now found everywhere on the island. In 2009 Mazu was placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. A popular subject of artists and writers, the goddess is a cultural and an ethnic icon.
Jade Y. Chen’s semi-autobiographical novel Mazu’s Bodyguards tells the family story of three generations of women – grandmother, mother, and daughter. Like the goddess Mazu, the narrator is surnamed Lin (Mazu’s name was Lin Moniang). Beginning with the tale of Mazu’s bodyguards – “Farsighted Guardian” and “Well-informed Guardian” – statuettes that led to a chance meeting with her future husband, Lin retraces the family history. Ayako, Lin’s Japanese grandmother, comes to Taiwan in search of her husband, who has died in the Wushe Incident. Stranded, she engages in a stormy three-way love affair with two Taiwanese brothers, Lin Zhengnan and Lin Zhinan, thus paving the way for a rift in the family’s second generation: Ayako gives birth to a daughter, Shizuko (Lin Fenfang), fathered by Lin Zhengnan, who doesn’t get along with Xinru, a daughter Ayako conceived out of wedlock with Lin Zhinan. Shizuko marries a waishengren, Er Ma, but the marriage goes bad – Er Ma has an extramarital affair and thereafter hits the skids. Shizuko’s daughter – the narrator, who has married a foreigner she met while traveling abroad – decides to embark on a search for her family roots. Though the novel seems to be about romantic love, in fact it is a melding of different cultures and ethnicities, with Taiwan’s multicultural memory embedded within. When the writer combs through her family genealogy, it reads like a mini-history of the island and its people.
In the novel, Mazu is both divine and human, the two manifestations interwoven throughout the story. The “human” Mazu is embodied in the women of the Lin family, who are ever ready to assist those in distress. When their men die in battle, or are homeless or absent, the women are the family’s guardians, earth mothers who console their men, much like the image of the goddess Mazu.
Clearly, the novel’s “Mazu” is distinct from the goddess of religion: First, Mazu speaks for the country’s people, symbolizing a fatherless motherland, an island of immigrants; thus, she can be viewed as a metaphor of national mythology. Second, the novel is a love story, but also an account of an extended family’s experiences, Taiwanese identity interpreted in a matrilineal context. Written in the 1990s, Mazu’s Bodyguards ranks as one of Taiwan most important works of historical fiction and a classic of literature on the goddess Mazu.
Chen Yuhui was born in Taipei in 1957. She did her Master’s in history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. She has written plays, essays, and novels and worked as a journalist. She has toured with a Spanish clown troupe, trained with France’s Théâtre du Soleil, and directed off-Broadway plays.
Chen is deeply versed in many languages. After she graduated she based herself in Europe and began working in theatre in many places across Europe and the US, delving deeply into different cultural perspectives. Working as a European correspondent for a newspaper also enabled her to travel through many different cultures. The rich variety of human experience influences the unique and elevated style of her literary, dramatic, and journalistic works. With an agile imagination and an insightful approach, her style is both melancholic and restrained, the train of thought meticulously delineated, as she looks into life’s majesty and absurdity. Ming Xia commented, “Chen writes her life experience ‘like a film,’ both poetically and visually. She has a prose style like no-one else and a life like no-one else. Her narrators are her own soul. She speaks through these narrators. Her soul is an agile rider which captures for us a sense of human knowledge and feeling. The soul is hurt by absolute truth and beauty and lives on courageously.”
The novel Mazu’s Bodyguards uses Taiwan’s goddess Mazu as a metaphor in the story of a Taiwanese girl who traces her family origins, revealing layer after layer of secrets and hidden darkness. The story of three generations of the same family is told in a series of seemingly independent plots, thus bringing out the conflicts, schisms, and antagonisms within the family, before finally resolving them in a harmonious end. The author uses the portrayal of a single family to represent Taiwan in general. Taiwanese customs, religion, history, and figures are woven into the story, which covers together almost a hundred years of Taiwanese history in three generations. Most of the book is given over to a reflection on what it means to be Taiwanese, showing Chen’s urgent desire to revolt and differentiate herself from her parent culture (at the time of her play The Personals) up to her recent re-identification with the Taiwanese culture from which she came.
Chen Yuhui’s writings include the prose works My Soul Knows Great Hunger (1997) and Have You Ever Loved? (2001); the novels I Walked Through the Blue City In the Depths of Night (1994), Mazu’s Bodyguards (2004), and Blessed Leaf (2014); the plays The Personals, Rivers and Mountains of Time, and Really, Not Far From Warsaw. Soon to be published is Folds of Time: Secret Files of a Correspondent (2014), which reveals Chen’s behind-the-scenes stories and observations from her time as a correspondent in Europe.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=7696
|Author：||Chen Yuhui(Jade Y. Chen)|
|Publisher：||Taipei: INK Literary Monthly Publishing Co.,. Ltd.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.sudu.cc/front/bin/home.phtml|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|INK Literary Monthly Publishing Co.,. Ltd.|
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|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||No English Translation|