An intellectual hero’s alienation and disintegration are painstakingly dramatized in this classic Taiwanese novel, completed in 1945 but not previously translated into English.
Zhouliu Wu (1900–76), a prominent journalist also renowned for his politically inflected fiction, focuses with unnerving intensity on the psyche of his protagonist Hu Taiming, who grows up in a Taiwanese village near the end of the prolonged (1895–1945) Japanese occupation of that island nation (formerly Formosa). Taiming’s beloved grandfather “Old Hu” labors to ensure his grandson’s education in the Chinese classics—but everything indigenous to their culture is either reviled or suppressed by Japanese authorities. The lingering cultural shock exacts a heavy toll. Taiming’s father Hu Wenqing, a respected physician, falls into adultery, takes a concubine and finds his wealth and property drained by government demands and fragmented by his extended families’ greed. Taiming’s scientific and mathematical studies, followed by abortive teaching positions, take him backward and forward to mainland China, Japan (primarily Nanjing), then again to his increasingly embattled and impoverished village, from which he commutes to Taipei to serve as a (drafted) Homeland Defense “Volunteer” after Japan’s attack on the U.S. provokes a ruinous Pacific War. Meanwhile, Taiming falls pointlessly in love with a Japanese girl, briefly marries a Taiwanese “new woman” (whose ardent nationalist activism endangers both their lives) and survives to see his nearest and dearest family members buried, compromised by the imperatives of assimilation, or swallowed up in Japan’s militaristic frenzy. The concluding pages grow increasingly discursive, before the author recovers, producing a stunning ironic ending. For most of its length, however, the novel offers a rich panorama filled with telling economic and political details (e.g., the pathetic attempts of Taiming’s brother Zhigang to “become” Japanese; orders requiring rice farmers to adopt agricultural problems that make it impossible for them to meet quotas). The cumulative effect is devastating.
All praise to Columbia’s Modern Chinese Literature Series for bringing us an essential Asian masterpiece.