Lai Songhui, Assistant Professor, Department of Taiwanese Literature, Providence University
The title of Wu Youngfu’s “Head and Body” is a metaphor for a dichotomy – “head” represents individual consciousness and freedom; “body” symbolizes social strictures that inhibit self-realization. At the end of Wu’s short story we learn that the first-person narrator – “I” – and his friend “S” are young Taiwanese studying in Tokyo. Recently S has received letter after letter from his parents urging him to abandon his studies and return to Taiwan to marry and continue the family line. But S would rather stay in Japan to study further, court a woman of his choosing, and even become a writer. Thus, the modern pursuit of individual ideals is forced into conflict with traditional family ethics. But we are told nothing of S’s predicament at the beginning of the story. Instead, author Wu describes the free and easy lives the narrator and S lead as students in Tokyo – in essence, a photo of the freedom S will lose upon returning to Taiwan.
As the story begins the narrator and S are drinking. They then proceed to wander the streets and alleyways of Tokyo, strolling through department stores and hotels, chatting and enjoying food and drink as they go. Detailed descriptions vividly convey S’s yearning for freedom and his great love of the Tokyo lifestyle. But what is it about the city that so enchants him? Where is the freedom he seeks?
For the young men the Japanese capital has no shortage of attractions: Hibiya Park, a lush artificial landscape; the dazzling array of merchandise on display in the window of the Mimatsu Department Store; the radiators that provide warmth in winter – these and many other products are showcased in the modern consumer space capitalism has created in the city.
But Tokyo is also a center of the arts. The narrator and S spend much time discussing literature, and take in a performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at a local playhouse. Still, the young men find the greatest liberty in their school dormitory, where they get drunk and fall asleep on the floor. For S, however, the freedom to seek a romantic partner is Tokyo’s ultimate attraction. When strolling through the Mimatsu Department Store he spots an advertisement featuring a kimono-clad model who strongly resembles his Japanese lover, a sweet reminder that in Tokyo he is free from parental authority and traditional constraints.
In addition to depicting the Tokyo cityscape, the author employs a stream-of-consciousness technique to show the narrator’s thoughts and observations. The scenes that pass before his eyes and the conflicts they generate in his mind gradually reveal the story’s central theme. He and S walk past the Japanese Imperial Guard to view the stone lion-head at the Yasukuni Shrine, a sculptural representation of Japan’s military might. But only the lion’s head is present, implying a separation of head and body, an allegory for S’s dilemma: the young man’s parents want his “body” to return to Taiwan but his “head” is unwilling to leave Tokyo. Furthermore, an ornamental lamb’s head on a restroom sink symbolizes gentleness, a contrast to the lion’s ferocity. Two monstrous beings suddenly appear in the narrator’s mind, one with the head of a lion and the body of a lamb, the other with the head of a lamb and the body of a lion. The Sphinx, a creature with a lion’s body and a human head, joins them. Although the narrator is visualizing otherworldly beasts, he is in fact contemplating a very human problem – in the end will S turn into a lion with the body of a lamb, or a human with the body of a lion? What will his choice be? When S finally complies with his parents wishes and returns to Taiwan, what he abandons is not only his schooling; tragically, he gives up his aspirations for freedom as well – this is the crux of Wu Yongfu’s modernist narrative.
Wu Yongfu (1913-2008), who also went by the pen names Tian Zihao and Mr. EF, is best known for his short stories and later for his realist poetry.
In 1933, he became a member of the Taiwan Academy of Art, established by Zhang Wenhuan and others. That same year he also helped found Formosa magazine. In 1935, he graduated from the literature department of Meiji University in Tokyo. In 1941, he wrote for the magazines Taiwanese Literature, founded by Zhang Wenhuan, and Folklore Taiwan.
Wu’s best-known pre-World War II works are his short stories. “Head and Body” and “Camellia,” which explore the contradictions facing intellectuals of the time, have been credited as being the fountainhead of the local decadent movement in literature. His works frequently explore the relationship between fathers and sons, always from his own unique perspective. He is also celebrated for his poetry, most notably “Motherland” and “The Bird Who Forgot Its Language.”
At the end of World War II, Wu retreated from the literary scene for two decades due to his unfamiliarity with Mandarin, which the Kuomintang (KMT) government imposed on Taiwan after taking control of the island. It was not until 1966 that he again published poetry, specifically in the genres of new poetry, haiku (Chinese: pai ju), and tanka (Chinese: duan ge).
Prior to the Japanese surrender of Taiwan, Wu was an active contributor to literary magazines such as Formosa, Taiwan Literature and Arts, and Taiwanese Literature. His post-war works have been published mainly in Li Poetry, which has also published two collections of his works. Wu always said his early fiction was deeply influenced by Japan’s New Sensation movement. His pre-war poems were more artistic than topical, while the opposite is true of his post-war poetry. This change in emphasis illustrates the shift in his writing from experimental techniques inspired by the New Sensation school to realism, from recording his subjective impressions to describing the contemporary world realistically and critically.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit:
|Work(English)：||Head and Body|
|Anthology：||Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series（《臺灣文學英譯叢刊》）|
|Language：||Traditional Chinese (originally written in Japanese)|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Forum for the Study of World Literatures in Chinese, University of California, Santa Barbara|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Chuan Shen Fu Yin Wen Hua Co.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://paper-republic.org/publishers/taiwan-literature-english-translation-series/|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|