Chen Yingzhou, Assistant Professor, Chia Nan University of Pharmacy & Science
Wu Sheng’s deep feelings for his native village are often incidentally revealed in his writing. The writer customarily uses simple, colloquial language to convey his love for the land, paint vignettes of rural life, or criticize urban civilization for the harm it has done to the countryside. is the title piece of a 1985 essay collection, “Store-front” introduces readers to a particular aspect of Taiwanese farm-village culture: the “store-front,” and the role it plays in the life of the community. Wu writes with intimate familiarity, filling the essay with detailed observations of country life.
“Store-front” 1 refers to a banyan-shaded public square, bordered by small shops, where villagers gather to sit and chat while taking a respite from farm-work. Because it’s a place to hear the latest news (or gossip) or to just hang out and relax, the square is never empty. Anyone is free to go there anytime and talk about anything – family matters, farming, current events. Sometimes there’s drinking and happy banter; at other times, sad sighs and words of consolation. The “store-front” is a standard feature of Taiwanese farming communities, a communal space that brings villagers together both socially and emotionally.
In straightforward language, the writer discusses the value and significance of the “store-front” to village life, affirming the positive aspects without downplaying the negative. Although “store-front” discussions may be biased, intentions are generally good; by the same token, villagers don't hesitate to criticize mainstream news media’s distortions and untruths. Because you can learn about everything that goes on in the village at the “store-front,” there’s no such thing as privacy – everybody knows everybody else’s business – but that’s what keeps things fun and interesting. Still, the writer’s sons and nephews – who’ve long been away at school, receiving higher education – don’t quite see it that way. Or as Wu Sheng puts it: “[They] don’t realize how much the ‘store-front’ brings the people of the village together; they don’t understand the ‘store-front’s’ importance in the exchange of knowledge and affection in this isolated hamlet; they don’t know how free and open the discussions are, celebrating virtue and censuring vice.” The more the people interact, the closer they become, making the village an even better place to live.
Reading “Store-front” is like sitting in a circle in the village square and listening to Wu Sheng tell a story. In contrast to the essay’s upbeat mood, Wu’s 1972 poem of the same name, published in Youth Literary Magazine, shows the writer’s lyrical and melancholy side:
Whether singing tipsily and playing raucous drinking games
Or sharing a silent drink, sighing endlessly
Or talking about this and that, gossiping
Resignedly idling the night away
This is our “store-front”
This is where we spread the news
After night has fallen
This is our only refuge
For ages and ages, forever abustle
– forever desolate
For ages and ages, and ages and ages from now
We, who were never meant for glory
Are but a group of shadows, in the “store-front”
At whose mercy?
One more bag of peanuts
Another bottle of rice wine
TV, cars, youths from the city
No need to spread the news
Of far-off luxuries
On a wooden bench in the “store-front”
Sitting with legs crossed, chatting, we’re as dumb as mud
No matter how we travel through this long, long life
We’ll still be on these few short oxcart paths
In front of the “store-front”
1There is no exact English equivalent for the Taiwanese (Holo) tiàm-á-thâu (店仔頭), literally “head of the store.” Here the English “store-front” is used to mean “in front of the store” rather than “the front of the store.”
Poem by Wu Sheng
Translated by Robert Fox
Hailing from Changhua, Wu Sheng was born Wu Shengxiong in 1944. While studying at Pingtung Agricultural College (now the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology), Wu was editor in chief for the college magazine, South Wind. After graduating in 1970, Wu returned to Hsichou township and began teaching biology in junior high school. In 1980 he was invited to an international writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa. On his retirement in 2000, Wu devoted himself to writing full-time and also began teaching at Providence University and National Chiayi University, which he continued to do until 2007. Since that time he has been making a living by writing and this year will publish Still Young, a book of poetry, and the prose collection The River which Protects Mothers: Notes on Zhuoshui River.
Before he visited the U.S., Wu had already published several collections of poetry: Floating on the Wind, Impressions of my Hometown, and Soil. By 2000 he had also published To My Child, Collected Poetry of Wu Sheng, and Selected Poetry of Wu Sheng. The latter comprises selected poems from previous publications and the 1994–1999 series “Farewell, My Hometown.” In 2005 he completed the ten-poem collection “Crepuscular Meditations.” In over forty years Wu has written around three hundred poems, many of them depicting the changes that have come to agricultural villages, country life, and various social problems. He has been hailed as “the farmers’ poet.”
In addition to his works of modern poetry, Wu has also shown his mastery of prose in publications including Farming Women, Store-front, No Regrets, Better to Forget, and A Poem, A Story. Wu’s poetry and prose writings complement each other, with the “taking root” motif anchoring the ideas which constitute his life’s work.
Wu believes that poetry must be written with complete honesty, that it must contain the spirit of the land so that people can feel the sweat and toil of their ancestors. Thus, his poetry is full of the charms of “soil” and “love.” In “Impressions of My Hometown” Wu uses a description of grief and bereavement to represent the poet’s deep yearning for the soil and the people of the farming village. This echoes the aesthetic transformation that was taking place in the nativist literary movement in the 1970s and represents in a broad sense the forces of social modernization versus nostalgia for the simple life.
Wu’s sense of right and wrong is piqued even more by the many strange changes that came to Taiwan during this time, and he has written many poems dealing with destitution in the countryside, political corruption, and environmentalism. It is in “Farewell, My Hometown” that he expresses his grief and anger at the passing of the farming village.
Wu Sheng is at once a farmer, a poet, and an intellectual who puts into practice the life philosophy of his ancestors to “revere Heaven and love others.” Wu writes of his hope that, in his later years, if “One day I am forced to stop / May I lie down and become a broad / And sturdy piece of earth.” In this way, he will be able to protect his hometown forever.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2291
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