Yang Tsui, Associate Professor, Department of Sinophone Literatures, National Dong Hwa University
Ping Lu excels at writing about history, politics, and romance, and especially shines when writing about political ideals and romantic entanglements in a particular time and place. Her “Death in a Cornfield” (1983) has always been regarded as a political fable or metaphor, but it would be more apt to say that Ping Lu is portraying the birth and death of her own political ideals and changes in her life philosophy by interpreting an imaginary political “riddle,” returning to the bosom of her homeland, once again breathing in the fragrance of her native soil.
The story’s first-person narrator is a jaded news reporter stationed in Washington D.C. who spends his time reading obituaries in the newspaper. One day he comes upon a death notice of particular interest: the corpse of Chen Xishan, who has been missing for over a month, has turned up in a cornfield. Police have ruled out homicide, believing the man died by his own hand. Suspicious of the findings, the narrator sets out to discover the true cause of the Chen Xishan’s demise.
“Death in a Cornfield” can be viewed from a number of perspectives. The story is first and foremost a political allegory; however, it’s not an expression of any particular political ideology but rather a metaphor for a political context. Chen Xishan had been a leader of the Baodiao movement 1 and an adherent of Chinese socialism. He later had a change of heart and wanted to return to Taiwan, but his wife wouldn’t go along with the idea; and even if she had approved, Chen wouldn’t have been able to fulfill his wish because he’d been “blacklisted” in his homeland. In the end his body is found in a cornfield, cause of death unknown. The narrator, who himself had once been an exchange student in the U.S., and whose byline appears regularly in newspapers, is sick and tired of American life; he’s fatigued and listless and his marriage is on the rocks.
Both the narrator and Chen Xishan once held lofty ideals, and both have experienced bitter reality. When the narrator visits the cornfield where Chen died, everything is blurry, as if he’s dreaming walking in a dream: “America’s a dream of prosperity, marriage an absurd dream. As for the Baodiao Islands, that’s a dream displaced in time and space…” The meeting of these two depressed and bitter souls initiates a dialogue deep within the narrator. The story sets up a “riddle” but its aim is not to find a solution – by investigating Chen’s death, the narrator enters into his own barren existence, discoursing with his withered spirit.
Secondarily, the two protagonists are like a pluralized historical concept – in a turbulent era, every person bears history’s dark shadow, forging on alone. So called collective memory is on the one hand formed by the accumulation of individual histories, but on the other hand is like one person splitting into two people, both telling similar stories, their hopes dashed, spirits suffering. Or perhaps Chen Xishan never really existed and this is simply the narrator’s story; or perhaps everyone is Chen Xishan and this is the story of all who lived through that era.
Lastly, the “cornfield” is an exceedingly complex image. In one context, the cornfield symbolizes both an overly clamorous American dream and the concrete manifestation of a jungle-like emotional complex; however, in another context the field turns into a warm childhood memory, a life womb: “Lying there surrounded by cornstalks, Chen Xishan is like a warm ocean current.”
Walking into Chen Xishan’s cornfield, it’s as if the narrator is dreamily reentering memory’s womb. Chen lies dead in a foreign country while the narrator returns to the cane fields of his native Taiwan. The imagery is central to the story: an American cornfield and a Taiwanese cane-field – mutually interchangeable, a vibrant blend of yellow and green – are the source of sweetness and beauty, the first place one has ever come to, a starting point for a new life. Thus, “Death in a Cornfield” is a story of death and life, emptiness and fulfillment, departing and returning.
Wang Yuting, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
Ping Lu (1953- ) is the penname of Lu Ping, a native of Kaohsiung. The writer is a graduate of National Taiwan University’s Department of Psychology and holds a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Iowa. She has served as chief editor of the China Times Express literary supplement, editor-in-chief at the China Times, and director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Hong Kong.
Ping Lu primarily writes fiction, but has also pens criticism and essays. She has received first prize in both the United Daily News Literature Awards and the first annual China Times Literature Award for Playwriting. Her published works include the short story collections Death in a Cornfield (1985), Brother Zhuang (1985), The Five Seals (1988), Five Notes on Red Dust (1989), Spycatcher (1992), To the Ends of the Earth (1995), Banned Book Revelation (1997), Hundred Year-Old Letter (1998), The “Creamy-skin” Hot Springs (2000), When Will You Come Again? (2002), East of the Orient (2011), and Dancing Island (2012). Other publications include the essays collections Mind-reading Book (2004) and Hong Kong Is No More (2009), and the play Who Killed XXX? (1991). Among her works, To the Ends of the Earth and When Will You Come Again? have been translated into other languages.
Ping Lu is a journalist, intellectual, political critic, and fiction writer. Early works such as “Death in a Cornfield” and “Brother Zhuang” featured male narrators; thus her work extends beyond the feminine narrative tradition, encompassing political, social, and identity issues. She has won praise for the form and structure of her fiction, and has expanded her generic range to include sci-fi and meta-fiction. Ping Lu’s 1990s’ fiction marked a turning point in her work, revealing a feminine perspective: To the Ends of the Earth deconstructs historical memories of the martial-law era, retelling the love story of Sun Yat-sen and Song Qingling; When Will You Come Again? is based on the life singing star Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun), re-presenting the harsh atmosphere of the martial law era and the struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists. A more recent work, East of the Orient, excavates the history of Taiwan’s Zheng (Koxinga) dynasty, the story a metaphor for contemporary cross-strait relations. In Dancing Island a 2000 scandal involving a high-ranking American diplomat is juxtaposed with a seventeenth-century Dutch governor’s love story, highlighting continuities in Taiwan’s historical predicament. Ping Lu’s works usually begin by presenting the history of family or nation, gradually focusing on women’s process of self-affirmation. With Taiwanese history as a backdrop, the writer probes gender issues, staying close to the country’s political and economic pulse. In developing the multidimensional aspects of history and identity, Ping Lu reveals the richness of Taiwanese women’s writing.
|Work(English)：||Death in a Cornfield|
|Anthology：||Death in a Cornfield and Other Contemporary Stories|
|Translator：||彭鏡禧 (Perng Ching-his), 王秋桂 (Wang Chiu-kuei)|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Oxford University Press|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010241106|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.amazon.com/Death-Cornfield-Stories-Contemporary-Paperbacks/dp/0195861787|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|