Yang Shunming, Research Assistant, National Taiwan Museum of Literature
“Elegy for a Working Woman”
Sparse stars, faint breeze
A cold, bright moon shines down on her
She scratches her cheek, rubs sleep from her eyes
Believes it’s time to rise
Daybreak: time to go to work.
She doesn’t dawdle, dons winter clothes
Rush! Rush! Rush! Out the door she goes
Hurries off to her job at a textile factory
But the gate’s locked – she’s come too early
Tricked by the moonlight, now she knows
Wants to go home but the moon’s slanting west
She’ll start the day without breakfast
Silence, the road deserted
Cold, cheerless predawn light
A soughing wind chills her bones
The moon hangs low on the branch of a tree
She waits and waits, but no one comes to open the gate
Gusts of wind, raw and biting
Cold! So cold!
Freezing fingers, icy toes
Wearied by waiting
Still she waits, till the moon goes down and the rooster crows
Poem by Yang Hua
Translated by Fox Robert John
Yang Hua’s “Elegy for a Working Woman” is a classic of Taiwanese (Holo) poetry. The work was published in Taiwanese Literature (Vol. 2, No. 7) on July 1, 1935; however, the date “January 15, 1932” appears at the end of the poem – the day when Lai He, Guo Qiusheng, and others launched a movement to write in the Taiwanese (Holo) language, founding the journal Southern Voices.
The poem portrays a woman anxiously rushing off to her job in a textile factory. Taiwanese were relegated to second-class status under Japanese colonial rule, and Taiwanese women were even further disenfranchised in a dog-eat-dog society where no one was guaranteed a decent living. Thus, the woman awakens with a start in the middle of a winter night – mistaking the cold, clear moonlight for the pale light of dawn, she rushes off to work, fearing she will lose her job if she is late. The poem employs reiterative locution and rhyme: Tshinn hi-hi, hong si-si (“Sparse stars, faint breeze”); syntactic symmetry is also a feature: Thinn-kng sî, tsiànn sī siōng-kang sî; Mài tiû-tî, kuánn-kín tshīng kuânn-i (“The sky is light, it’s time to go to work; Don’t dawdle, don winter clothes”). The well-balanced sentences and rhymes add interest and musicality to the work.
Not until she reaches the factory’s locked steel gates does the woman realize she’s been fooled by the moonlight. Here again the poet employs syntactic symmetry, this time to describe the woman’s dilemma and the helplessness of the working class: Siūnn tńg-khì, gue̍h iū tshiâ si iū kiann lâi tî; m̄ tńg-khì, tsá-tǹg buē tshia̍h pak khang-hi (“I’d like to go back home, [but] the moon is slanting to the west, and I’m afraid I’ll be late for work; “If I don’t go back, I won’t have breakfast and my stomach will be empty”). The writer then reverts to reiterative locution to heighten the atmosphere of desolation: Tsīng tshiáu-tshiáu lōo-siōng bô lâng lâi-khì, líng tshing-tshing hng-tsháu bê-lî, Hong so-so líng thàu sì-ki, tshiū soo-soo, gue̍h-iánn guà tī tshiū-ki. Thus, the poet elicits reader sympathy by constructing an image of a downtrodden worker, lonely and forlorn. The poem’s final six lines describe the cold wind outside the factory, the woman’s shivering hands and feet, her hunger and fatigue. Still, she waits for dawn, when the factory will open and she can report to work. The poet’s detailed depiction of the woman – one who braves wind and cold in order to eke out a meager living – is representative of the lives of the Taiwanese working class during the Japanese colonial period.
In “Elegy for a Working Woman,” a poem that exudes class-consciousness, the writer uses rhymes and symmetrical constructions to portray Taiwanese society as it entered the industrial age. Yang Hua was a both humanist seeking justice for the female laborer in his poem and a left-wing poet concerned with the plight of the Taiwanese proletariat; “Elegy for a Working Woman” was a pivotal work in the writer’s career, marking a turn from lyrical expression to social consciousness.
Yang Hua (1900-1936) is one of the pennames of Yang Xianda. Born in Taipei, Yang relocated to Pingdong in 1916, making the acquaintance of local literati and joining the Sandstone Society. He received instruction from Shi Meiqiao, a traditional poet, and later went on to teach students in the Pingdong area. In his short life of 36 years he authored 328 modern poems, two novels, and over fifty traditional Chinese poems.
In 1925 Yang joined Chiang Wei-shui’s Taiwanese Cultural Association. In 1926 his poems “Little Poem” and “Lamplight” won awards in a vernacular poetry contest sponsored by the Hsinchu Youth Association and the Taiwan People’s Newspaper, launching his writing career. On February 5, 1927 he was convicted of violating Japanese “Public Security Preservation Laws” and imprisoned in Tainan, where he wrote Black Tide, a collection of 53 short poems.
In 1932 he wrote prolifically, publishing poetry in the Taiwan New People’s Newspaper and Southern Voices, a literary magazine. He joined the Taiwanese Literary Alliance in 1934, the year his daughter Xiangxue was born. In May of 1936 New Taiwanese Literature (Vol. 1, No. 4) reported that Yang had fallen ill and was bedridden, forfeiting his income as instructor at a private academy. Plagued by poverty and ill health, he hanged himself on May 30 of that year.
Traditional Chinese poetry was the alpha and omega of Yang Hua’s literary career. Although most of his works are jiboyin , they are intensely personal, embodying aspects of the writer’s life and emotions. Deeply influenced by Chinese writers Bing Xin and Liang Zongdai, Yang’s Black Tide, his best-known work, reflects both colonial-era realities and the poet’s spiritual propensities. Poems Yang wrote under the pennames “Mountain Flower” and “Yang Too” brim with romantic lyricism; his 1932 “Elegy for a Working Woman,” a Taiwanese (Holo) poem, reveals the poet’s class awareness as he mourns the plight of Taiwanese workers.
Yang Hua’s short story “A Workingman’s Death” accuses the Japanese ruling class and greedy capitalists of forcing helpless workers into poverty and driving them to their deaths. “A Short Life” criticizes traditional arranged marriages, wherein the parties involved had no control over their own destinies. Yang’s gritty social realism – stained with blood and tears – turned fiction into a tool of reform.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=4565
1Jibobin: a type of impromptu poetry written under time constraints, often as part of a literary competition.
|Work(English)：||Elegy for a Working Woman|
|Anthology：||Selected Works of Yang Hua|
|Translator：||Fox Robert John(費儒伯)|
|Publisher：||Kao-hsiung : Chun-hui Publish|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://chunhuibook.pixnet.net/blog|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Unpublished Translation by the Literature Toolkit Project|