Saturday, May 16, 2015

Wang Wen-hsing and the Unspeakable: Changes in the Family

Jia - "family"
When I lived in Taiwan studying Chinese language in 1979-80, perhaps the single biggest discovery was contemporary Chinese literature.

I've written about Taipei People -- the story collection by Pai Hsien-yung ... and my love of the stories of Huang Chun-ming. ... and my fascination with the stories and the choreography of Lin Hwai-min.  But the book I knew I loved before I even read it was called Family Change (also translated as "Family Catastrophe").

I loved it even before I read it because its title consisted of two characters I knew -- "family" and "change" -- and the meaning of the two characters combined was one I could immediately grasp.

I loved the fact that the little bit I knew about modern Chinese literature In particular, I thought about Family by Ba Jin -- one of the most important books of the 20th century. Family is about the contrast between traditional Chinese society's ideal of the family vs. the reality of contemporary Chinese family life. I loved the fact that before I even opened the book, I knew that it was part of a critique of the family that had begun decades earlier on the Chinese mainland -- a critique which itself built on landmarks of traditional Chinese literature centered on the family (most notably Dream of the Red Chamber) as well as on modern Western literature (most notably Ibsen).

Family Change by Wang Wen-hsing
I have a very clear memory of getting a copy of Family Change and reading it -- and by "reading" I mean plowing through, comprehending what I could comprehend and shamelessly blipping over whatever I couldn't. I remember lots of impressions that I could only piece together from context ("they're talking about some piece of furniture here, and it's made from bamboo because it has a bamboo radical, but ... ?"), and certainly lots of parts that I was mystified by and/or blatantly misunderstood -- but I also remember over and over again feeling that I completely understood the poignant, humorous, infuriating, embarrassing anecdotes that the book is made up of, anecdotes that trace a child's path from unwavering love for his parents to a state of infuriating frustration.

The frame of the book is the disappearance of a recently-retired father - he appears to have just wandered off one day.


Reality Check: the English-language edition

I went back recently and read Family Change in English translation (translated as Family Catastrophe by Susan Wan Dolling). I discovered three things.

My first discovery was that the poignant, humorous, infuriating, embarrassing anecdotes were just as I remembered them. Of course, there were details that I was only able to comprehend for the first time in the translation, but the gist was the same. And just as painful.

Nothing was as exquisitely painful, for me anyway, than the account of how the boy lost all confidence in his father when it was revealed that his father's readings of quotations from Confucius habitually misread a fundamental character used in classical Chinese. (The father read yue ("said") as ri ("sun").) As you can imagine, once the cracks in the facade are revealed, more and more faults start to appear in rapid succession.

Parental missteps have a way of undermining fundamental Chinese values, such as filial piety.

Family Catastrophe - translation by
Susan Wan Dolling.
The second thing I noticed was something about how I have changed in the course of 30 years.  When I read Family Change in 1979, the anecdotes spoke to me, but I couldn't say on a conscious level why they spoke to me.  In particular, I grew up in a family without a father, so on a conscious level I was sort of naively reading along and going, "Oh, so this is what it must be like to have to deal with a father in the family."

In the intervening years, I've done a little bit of work to think about the difficulties of growing up in a family you love but also that you are desperate to assert your independence from. And so I now found myself smiling in recognition at anecdote after anecdote. (e.g. the son speaking to his mother, who has just come in to inform him that his father has disappeared: "He tapped his temples to punctuate his words. 'Do-not while-I-am-reading come-in-here to-disturb-me.'" Gulp! Guilty as charged . . . .)

Turns out that while I was loving Family Change for the way it explained to me what was happening in families in Taiwan, I was also (or mainly) loving the way it explained to me what was happening inside myself.

And this, in turn, led me to a third discovery. As much as I want to relish the particularly Taiwanese aspects of Family Change, the more compelling truth is the fact that Wang is telling a story that is common to all of us. Two aspects of the book brought this home to me.

One is a single recounting of the admonition of the father to the young boy:

"Shush, shush. Don't say such things. You must never talk like that outside the family. Do this for me if nothing else. Remember what I said, eh, Sonny?" His papa would thus warn him, in great fear for no apparent reason." (p. 114 of the Dolling translation)

"Oh yeahhhh . . . " I said to myself in a state of slow dawning. (Who among us didn't get this instruction growing up?) Is this why there are things that I still won't even articulate to myself?

The other is the accumulated descriptions throughout the book of the rituals of childhood. Bathing ... getting ready for bed ... having fingernails trimmed ... curing the hiccups ... taking family photos ... blowing bubbles ... favorite foods ... staying home alone ... family outing to a restaurant ... wrestling ... ... a new pen ... mending ... the first diary ... worship ... an outing with an older sibling ... bicycling ... shopping (and candy!) .... What one starts to understand is that they are not just instruments of control -- not just parts of the indoctrination to good behavior, compliance, filiality. They are also the building blocks of a happy childhood.

Somehow two things are true at the same time.


So now I have an assignment for myself . . . . There are story collections as well as a second novel by Wang Wen-hsing that are available at the Chicago Public Library (Chinatown Branch). It's time to dust off my Chinese and start reading again.

What I am wondering -- now that I've discovered the way Wang Wen-hsing holds up a mirror to me as much or more than he documents life in Taiwan -- is whether I am ready to bring more of these things about myself up to the surface.

Am I finally ready to speak of "the unspeakable"?



More about Taipei c. 1979 . . . .


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