Wu He (author), Michael Berry (translator), Remains of Life, Columbia University Press, 2017. 352 pgs.
Remains of Life, the long-awaited translation of the novel Yu Sheng, by the Taiwanese writer Wu He (pen name of Cheng Guocheng), is a literary and translation feat: the English version, translated by Michael Berry, is a book-length paragraph, without chapters and just a handful of full stops. It is an experimental novel in the true sense of the word, in which the voice of the narrator switches from describing the daily life of the remaining members of the Atayal group, the main aboriginal people in central Taiwan, to recalling what is known as the “Musha Incident,” from the Japanese reading of the Chinese place-name word “Wushe,” to long reflections on the meaning of civilization and “savagery,” modernity and tradition.
The language is often dream-like, describing past events or the narrator’s own night-time dreams; at times terser, when relating dialogues and encounters, for example, or describing the luxuriant mountains and natural landscapes of central Taiwan, where the remaining aboriginal groups still live. Elsewhere, it becomes stream-of-consciousness like, as the narrator assumes more strongly the voice of Wu He himself, who spent two years among the Seediq, an Atayal tribe, to research his novel. To add to the complexity, the chronology of events is not straightforward and often seems to be winding up on itself, as watershed moments from the early 1930s—when Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese—are intertwined with those of the 1940s, when the Kuomintang bloodied its hands with the massacre of February 28, 1947 (known today as the “2-28 Incident”) and unleashed the White Terror. And again, when the 1970s and 1980s enter the scene, as the economic boom on the island brings with itself a dramatic encroachment on the land of the Atayal, and modernity changes their perspective on life. And yet again, into the 1990s, when the changing political landscape in a democratising Taiwan is accompanied by a romanticising of the aboriginal groups that imposes expedient symbolism on their way of life and actions, past and present. Wu He shows us that all history is present, every consequence is here and now, and its embryos were already influencing the actions of our ancestors—an inevitability and synchronicity that weighs heavily on the pages of the novel.
As this brief description of the tone of the novel makes clear, this is by no means an easy read—yet, in spite of its difficulty, it is a rewarding, even haunting one, that places Wu He in a class of his own. Not too surprisingly, Berry’s translation took ten years, and it is only the second translation of Remains of Life, after the first one, in French, appeared in 2011. But now that this extraordinary and complex work has been brought to a much broader audience, it will hopefully give Taiwanese literature a much-deserved greater international standing.
The theme of the book can be summarised in a few sentences, although this exercise is going to give a deceptively simple framework to the novel. In October 27, 1930, as the Japanese military conquest of East Asia was proceeding rapidly, during an athletic meeting at the Musha Elementary School, located on an aboriginal reservation deep in the mountains of central Taiwan, a number of Atayal tribal villagers from different groups who were being violently colonised and assimilated by Japanese forces, attacked the occupiers under the leadership of Seediq tribal chief Mona Rudao (1882–1930). The attack resulted in the killing of 134 Japanese, including women and children, slaughtered in a gruesome beheading spree closely linked to the Atayal’s headhunting rituals. After the initial shock, the Japanese response was even more gruesome: first, Japanese forces unleashed all their military power on the aboriginals, sending to the Atayals close to 3,000 soldiers with heavy artillery, while poisonous gas was sprayed on them from airplanes—possibly the first use of chemical warfare to take place in Asia. The death toll was of at least 644 people, including more than 200 who committed suicide by jumping off cliffs, often with their children, in order to avoid capture or dishonour.
Then, on April 1931, a rival Atayal tribe was unleashed onto the Seediq to behead as many adult males as they could lay their hands on, leading to the near extinction of the tribal group. After the end of World War II, the Nationalists (Kuomintang) presence in Taiwan brought further oppression on the aboriginal tribes, with more efforts at assimilation that further diminished their numbers. Yet more pressure on Atayal’s society came from industrialisation and modernisation, and the constant expansion of urban areas: on one hand, the seduction of urban life and the declining viability of traditional arrangements brought some aboriginal people to the cities to look for work, while a sense of hopelessness and decline meant that alcoholism and despondency rapidly spread among the Atayal.
With the democratisation of Taiwan, though, and the surge of a more “nativist” or “localist” identity, many started to look at the aboriginal populations with different eyes, romanticising their purer way of life, reading the Musha Incident in the context of a movement of Taiwanese pride and de-mainlandisation that wasn’t necessarily present in the minds of the Atayal in the 1930s.
Given all the different uses by very different actors that the Musha Incident has been put to, Remains of Life starts off as a quest, an attempt at researching what truly happened during the 1930s by interviewing the few remaining survivors and their descendants. This initial quest soon leads to many other ones, pivoting around the meaning of civilization and of life itself. The narrator wants to look for the valley in which the Atayal committed suicide, and where the body of Mona Rudao was found, three years after his disappearance in 1930—a geographical journey that keeps bringing up new sets of questions, on colonial violence versus economic exploitation and environmental and cultural degradation, the three omnipresent sub-themes of the novel. In his search for answers, though, Wu He must be exceptionally open and critical towards the dominant Han civilization that has imposed its values and rhythm on Taiwanese, and in particular aboriginal, life.
In many ways, Remains of Life recalls other travelogues/quest books written by urban Han Chinese authors travelling through the non-urban and non-Han areas, looking for deeper meaning: like Soul Mountain (1990), by Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, or Ma Jian’s Red Dust (2001) and Stick Out Your Tongue (the Chinese version appeared in 1987), or Xu Xing’s Shengxia Dou Shuyu Ni (What Remains Is for You, 2004) or the exploitative and nationalistic Wolf Totem (2004) by Jiang Rong, among many. Wu He, too, oscillates between the intermittent desire to think of the “primitive” as more morally and philosophically advanced than the “civilised,” horror at the headhunting rituals (that the narrator tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to repress) and despair for the little that is being left of life, both among the Atayal and for himself. Nature has been changed and polluted, “civilised” religions like Buddhism and Christianity have reached the Atayal’s mountains, construction and urbanisation in the “island nation” (as Taiwan is called throughout the novel) have rendered an alternative to fast-paced development impossible and the growth of the tourism industry is putting the last nails in the coffin of a once fierce people and of an alternative way of existence.
In Taiwan, Remains of Life, published in 1999, has had an immense impact on the local imagination, bringing back the Musha Incident into popular consciousness—and spurring the launch of a comic book called Seediq Bale (Real Seediq) by Chiu Row-long in 2004, and then a movie by Wei Te-sheng, titled Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale in 2011. Mona Rudao has slowly been turned into a national hero, especially by more Taiwanese-oriented administrations like that of Lee Teng-hui (1988–2000), who had a statue of the Seediq leader erected in Wushe in 1997, or of Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008)—who famously renamed some roads with aboriginal names, and put Mona Rudao’s portrait on twenty-yuan coins.
The way in which Remains of Life looks at the native populations of Taiwan is not always without problems: even as it oscillates between admiration and abhorrence for physical violence (while describing the headhunting rituals as part of something that cannot be judged with post-industrial, “civilized” morals), the treatment of one of the main characters, that of Girl, often edges too close to an exoticising of “primitive” females’ sexuality that verges on the exploitative. The same fascination for post-headhunting ritual orgies, for example, or sexual encounters among Seediqs seen from the male point of view, don’t last quite as interminably long as the sexual fascination the narrator feels for Girl—presented as the granddaughter of Mona Rudao, and who, quite predictably, is a former prostitute, rough in manners but breathtakingly beautiful and with a generous heart. The desire to depict the Atayal’s relationship to sex as an uncolonised realm where a more “natural” or “pure” ability to resist assimilation might have sounded more neutral if it hadn’t been so gender-specific and determined by the narrator’s obsession over Girl, her body and sexuality. This caveat aside, Remains of Life is an important novel that touches upon the most profound aspects of life, with a depth and commitment that are all too rare in contemporary literature.
Ilaria Maria Sala is an award-winning journalist and writer. She has been living in East Asia since 1988, and calls Hong Kong home. Sala has written for a number of international publications, from Le Monde to The New York Times. She is currently a columnist for Hong Kong Free Press, and writes regularly for Quartz. She is the author of two books in Italian, and is on the Executive Committee of PEN Hong Kong.