Ying Fenghuang, Professor, Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture, National Taipei University of Education
“North to South” was published in Taipei’s Youth Literature magazine in 1972, the year that Xu Daran completed his history doctorate at the University of Chicago. At the time Xu had already published two best-selling essays collections in Taiwan.
The essay begins with Xu aboard the “El,” the city of Chicago’s elevated mass-transit railway system. The commuter train is crowded, “fast, and noisy.” The writer observes what he calls “a record of the scene,” both inside and outside the train. Outside the car, the Chicago suburbs – houses, apartment houses, churches, and graveyards – flash past. Xu observes not only the buildings but also the people who inhabit them, their faces filled with “disappointment, anger, and struggle.”
The writer has sharp eyes and a tender heart. Gazing down at working people from his elevated vantage point, he takes note of “class differences” – upper-class snobbery and working-class sorrow. At the end of the essay he muses on the authorial imagination, speculating that fiction writers are better able to perceive “human suffering.”
The art of Xu Daran’s essays is evinced by his singular rhetorical skills. For example, in depicting the cityscape he plays on two senses of the Chinese term “high” (高gao): “The higher buildings were banks; it seems that those with money are always higher up.” (Jiao gao de shi yinhang; you qian si hu jiao gao). Reiterative locution is another of Xu’s stylistic flourishes: describing the poor who live in houses on either side of the train tracks, he writes: “They can’t see the lake,” all they can see are “taller and taller apartment buildings and longer and longer shadows” (gongyu gao gao, yinying chang chang). Thus, the writer achieves emotional impact with a minimum of description. Elsewhere in the essay Xu uses reiterative phrases to characterize the working class: “They look at the train riders but the riders don’t see them, just coldly pass by; the train roars but doesn’t hear them, just coldly passes by” (kan dao dianche shang de ren zuo bu kan tamen, lengmo er guo; ting dao dianche jiaozhe bu ting tamen, leng mo are guo). The phrase “coldly pass by” is repeated twice, emphasizing society’s unfeeling attitude toward the working poor. And not only is society unfeeling, it’s also raucously noisy.
The essay’s final two sentences describe the train in motion: [he] “couldn't hear what people said in reply, he could only hear the rumble and rattle of the train.” Here Xu not only employs reiterative locution , but also uses Chinese characters’ sounds and forms to achieve special effects. The character 轟 (hong, a booming or rumbling sound) is a pictograph composed of three “cars” (車che); hence, in addition to representing the train’s roar, when tripled (轟轟轟) the characters form a “picture” of the nine-car commuter train. The next three-character triad achieves a similar effect, again by calling on two meanings of the same Chinese word. Here, the character滾 (gun, to roll) denotes the train’s “rolling wheels”; colloquially, it is part of the phrase “Get lost!” (滾蛋gundan). Thus, the writer feels that “this is not the place where I was born and raised” and that he is an unwelcome “outsider.”
The essay’s translated title is “North to South,” describing the train’s route; the Chinese title, (Shang Xia Nan Bei), also means “going from north to south,” but the writer brings other meanings of the characters 上 (shang; top, upper) and下 (xia; lower, bottom) into play as well. In the compounds 上車 (to board a vehicle) and 下車 (to disembark from a vehicle), shang and xia are verbs; thus, commuters are boarding and exiting, and the train is viewed from within and without. Thematically, however, shang and xia also allude to the sharp contrast of “upper” and “lower” classes that Xu witnesses within the city of Chicago, clearly manifesting the writer’s concern for society’s downtrodden masses.
Xu Daran (1940- ) is the penname of Xu Wenxiong, a native of Tainan. A graduate of Tunghai University’s Department of History, Xu received a scholarship to continue his studies in the USA in 1965. He went on to complete a master’s degree at Harvard University and a doctorate at the University of Chicago. In 1970 he conducted research at Oxford University. He began teaching at Northwestern University’s Department of Asian and African Studies in 1969, retiring as professor emeritus in June of 2003. In 2007 Xu returned to his alma mater, Tunghai University, where he serves as a lecturing professor.
Xu Daran specializes in history and sociology. He is the author of scholarly treatises, literary essays, and poetry, boasting impressive achievements in each of those disparate literary endeavors. Xu began writing in middle school, publishing his first essay collection, A Tearful Smile (1961), while still an undergraduate. In 1965 he published his second collection A Distant Place, winning the first China Youth Corps Literature Prize that same year. Other collections include Earth (1979), Water’s Edge (1987), Sidewalk (1985), Windbreak (1986), Cherished Landscape (1997), and Selected Essays of Xu Daran (2011). He received the Tainan Literature Special Contributions Award in 1998 and the Wu San Lien Literature Prize in 2001.
Xu’s early works emphasize the expression of youthful emotions. His 1970s essays largely transcend individual lyricism, evincing a broad concern for the land and people of Taiwan. “Writing is a social activity,” Xu says, even going so far as to assert: “Writing that doesn’t concern itself with others is either masturbatory or selfish.” Xu Daran’s essays reject sentimental nonsense; his refined prose and rich imagery intertwine and harmonize land, Nature, and details from ordinary people’s lives in a uniquely personal style.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2278
|Work(English)：||North to South|
|Publisher：||Taipei: Vista Publishing Co., Ltd.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.vistaread.com/|
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