Xie Kunhua, Assistant Professor, Department of Chinese Literature, National Chung Hsing University
Sometimes when things appear small or indistinct, it’s because we’re standing too far away from them. In “Pure Emotions, Proud Landscapes－Hualian, My Home” Chen Li produces a meticulous portrait of the people and landscape of Hualian, his hometown. The essay is divided into seven sections: “Beyond the Mountains,” “Streets and Streets,” “River of Life,” “Temple Front,” “Magnificent Mountains,” “Honorary Citzens,” and “Proud Landscape.”
The phrase “beyond the mountains” alludes to Hualian’s location on the eastern side of the island of Taiwan. The area’s distinctive topographic features – a blend of mountains, valleys, and plains, bordered on the east by the vast Pacific Ocean – shape a unique natural and cultural environment. The region is so enchanting that the various ethnic groups that have come to live there are reluctant to leave.
“Streets and Streets” tells of how Chen Li’s family relocated from Ilan to Hualian’s North Shore Street, then later moved to Shanghai Street, a thoroughfare lined with restaurants, theaters, bonesetters, and bookstores – Chen Li calls the street “the talking book I read most often in my youth.”
“River of Life” depicts a canal that runs past Chen’s alma mater, Mingyi Elementary School, and through the rest of city, like the river that flows through Prospect Garden in the classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber. The canal is a metaphor – where it passes the elementary school, the water is clear and fresh, a good place for children to play. But after it flows past Zhongshan Road, it gradually becomes muddy and polluted, and especially foul as it runs through the shopping and red-light districts, ultimately emptying into the ocean.
“Temple Front” depicts two places of worship that made a deep impression on Chen Li, the Mazu Temple and the Temple of the Town God. The writer compares differences in the two structures’ construction and surroundings, stressing how commercial interests have intruded into spaces dedicated to spirituality. Contrasting speculators’ greed to worshippers’ piety, Chen criticizes those who use religious beliefs to amass wealth, lauding religion as an important source of strength in the lives of believers.
“Magnificent Mountains” and “Honorary Citizen” are observations of Hualian’s aborigines and the waishengren 1 who settled in the area in the postwar era, contrasting the lives of “indigenous” and “nonindigenous” peoples, showing how politicians have manipulated both groups. Chen Li depicts these peoples’ economic and historical predicaments, revealing the degradation and abuse they have suffered.
Lastly, “Proud Landscape” describes the environmental damage brought about by the development of Hualian’s marble, pulp, and cement industries. In spite of Hualian’s remoteness – “beyond the mountains” – the area has been unable to escape the tug-of-war between environmental preservation and economic development – the “dark cloud of civilization” that has arisen in the course of Taiwan’s modernization still poses a serious threat to Hualian’s natural beauty.
Interweaving his life story into the essay’s seven sections, Chen Li boldly confronts Hualian’s civic, ethnic, economic, and environmental problems. But in showing the area’s virtues and flaws, and attempting to find common possibilities within them, Chen Li presents a true picture of Hualian, his eternal home.
1Waisheng (literally “extraprovincial”) refers to Chinese people who came to Taiwan in the late 1940s and early 1950s and their descendants.
Chen Li (1954- ) is the penname of Chen Yingwen, a graduate of National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of English. Chen has published over twenty volumes of poetry, essays, and music criticism. He has also translated Selected Modern Latin American Poetry, Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda, and other works. He is a recipient of the National Award for Arts, the Wu San Lien Literary Award, the China Times Literature Award (first prize in the modern poetry category), the United Daily News Literature Award (first prize in the modern poetry category), the Liang Shih-ch’iu Literary Award (poetry translation prize), and the Golden Tripod Award. In 1999 he was invited to read at the Rotterdam Poetry Festival, and in 2004, he gave a reading at the Salon du Livre de Paris’ Chinese literature exhibition. Chen’s poetry collections have been translated into English, Dutch, and other languages.
Chen Li began writing in 1970, grasping the modernist spirit of the time, his poetry often critical of urban life and modern civilization. He has shown a great interest in Third World literature, translating works by Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and other Latin American poets, work that nourished his own creativity. His “The End of Wang Muqi,” shows the influence of poets he translated. Based on the March 21, 1980 Yongan mine disaster in Ruifang, 1 the work combines lyricism and narrative in a chant-like form, relating events in the voice of a miner who died in the tragedy. In the latter 1980s Chen’s work was influenced by postmodern and postcolonial thought. Focusing on the Hualian landscape, he ridiculed political symbols, his poetry taking on a bitterly humorous tone in a time of social and political transformation.
The 1995 collection The Edge of the Island marked a new dimension in Chen’s poetry. Setting out from the island’s margin, the poet deconstructs and then reconstructs the notion of a flowing “center.” Spacious and unrestrained, Cat Facing a Mirror (1999) looks at cultural differences among Taiwan’s various ethnicities. In recent years Chen has worked in a pastiche style, combining text with images and symbols, instilling his work with a new aesthetic sensibility. Recent publications include the poetry collections Light/Slow (2009), I/City (2011), Witchcraft/Politics (2012), Dynasty/Sage (2013), and Island/Nation (2014). In 2013 Dynasty/Sage received the National Taiwan Museum of Literature’s “Taiwan Literature Award: Modern Poetry Gold Award.” Chen’s essay collections include Sound of a Rainbow (1992), Chanting (1995), and A Vocal Bell (1997).
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=4636
1Today’s Ruifang District in New Taipei City.
|Work(English)：||Pure Emotions, Proud Landscapes－Hualian, My Home|
|Anthology：||A Vocal Bell: Prose Collection of Chen Li|
|Publisher：||Taipei: Meta Media International Co., Ltd.|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Out of Print|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||No English Translation|