Liao Shufang, Associate Professor, Department of Taiwanese Literature, National Cheng Kung University
“A Love Story before Dawn” (1937) is a special work of so-called “demonic” literature from the Japanese colonial period. The short story is also profoundly romantic, seeking sensual beauty in the strange and ugly, incorporating elements of “decadent” literature. The story is told in the first person by a male protagonist who seems to be the personification of author Weng Nao. In a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy the narrator tells a young prostitute about his sexual awakening, two unhappy romantic experiences, and his loathing of modern civilization’s hypocrisy, yet is still unable to dispel his loneliness. Before rushing home in the dawn light to change clothes and go to work, the young man makes a shocking declaration: If he doesn’t find true love by age thirty, he will end his own life. As critic Zhang Henghao has pointed out, the narrator’s pronouncement – conveying a sharp fin-de-siècle sense that time is running out – and his garrulous inner mutterings “opened a brand new domain” in Taiwanese proletarian literature of the Japanese colonial period, standing apart from other writing of that era.
The narrator first tells of his childhood sexual awakening, relating how he watched pairs of chickens, geese, and butterflies mating, gaining an early understanding of the facts of life. He also confesses to pulling apart a pair of copulating butterflies in an act of youthful violence. After separating the besotted, tightly joined insects, the boy flung them in to the air, where they flew in separate circles, each searching for the other, never to meet again. This “sexual awakening” presages the narrator’s two affairs of the heart, deepening the significance of those unhappy encounters. He then goes on to tell those “love stories.” One day, while out walking with a friend, the teenage narrator encountered the girl of his dreams. Infatuated, he followed her home only to be rebuffed, a rejection that pained him for a full month. At age eighteen he fell for another girl, and after a time decided to find out where she lived. On an unannounced visit to her home the girl’s mother informed him that her daughter already had a fiancé in her hometown, and because her father had recently passed away, would return there immediately to get married.
Before the girl’s mother had a chance to speak, the narrator asked for her daughter’s hand in marriage, even though he had no idea how the girl felt about him. And even if the girl had been interested in him, she was already promised to another – here individual will is pitted against looming fate, yet it seems that, like the butterflies, the young man has lost out.
The first-person narrative carries two implications: First, the narrator’s “childhood self” that brutally separated the mating butterflies had absolute power because he could freely enter into the situation; second, the narrator and his younger self are utterly different – now the narrator is like a gander he once saw, repeatedly trying and failing to mount a female goose, defeated at last.
Thus, the story intimates that the power the narrator once had has been marginalized, and when morning comes he will still be unable to fulfill his ardent desires. When all is said and done, will the narrator – approaching thirty, filled with youthful passion, impulsiveness, rebellion, and a ludicrous obsession with romantic love – actually commit suicide? Or will the nighttime story end and everything get back to normal again when the new day dawns? After all, the narrator has said that there is a great divide between his thoughts and actions. A modernist classic from the Japanese colonial period, “A Love Story before Dawn” is a deep psychological portrait, an exploration of human beings’ natural and rational natures and the contradictions that lie between them.
Weng Nao (1908–?) was born in Shetou, Changhua County. His family background is unknown. In 1929 Weng graduated from Taichung Teacher’s College and began teaching elementary school, first in Yuanlin and later in Tianzhong in Changhua County. In 1934 he went to Tokyo to study. The following year he moved to Kōenji, a suburb of Tokyo. According to scholar Shi Shu, “His years in Kōenji, roaming the streets of the Tokyo suburbs, were full of dejection and destitution owing to his naturally romantic temperament and his overweening self-esteem.” His writings contain detailed descriptions of his life as a young man, living an artist’s vagabond life. Fellow writer Liu Jie recalled Weng Nao, saying, “He was just like other poor students of the time: dressed all the year round in a brass-buttoned black student’s uniform, without a hat to cover his disheveled hair.”
Weng Nao’s poem “Feelings from the Seaside in Tamsui” was published in the inaugural issue of Formosa magazine. Most of his later works were published in Taiwan Literature and Arts. In 1935 he wrote essays such as “The Vagabond Life in Tokyo, Near Kōenji” and impressionistic pieces such as “Lame Poetry.” He also wrote poetry: “Far From Home,” “The Hills of Home,” “The Poet’s Lover,” “The Bird’s Song,” and “People Carrying Stones.” He published a translation of Modern English-language Poetry and wrote the short stories “The Musical Clock,” “Uncle Gōng”, “Melting Snow,” and “Poor Grandma A-Rui.” He also published “The Arhat’s Foot” and “Love Before Sunrise” in New Taiwanese Literature. In 1939 his “The Harbor Market” ran in Taiwan New People's Newspaper.
Weng Nao’s short stories are his greatest achievements The works can be divided into two broad categories: the first kind are love stories, portraying the thoughts and emotions of men and women in love (e.g. “The Musical Clock,” “Melting Snow,” and “Love Before Sunrise”); the second depict people and life in Taiwanese farming villages (e.g. “Uncle Gōng,” “The Arhat’s Foot,” and “Poor Grandma A-Rui”).
Shi Shu comments that the uniqueness of these stories lies in their “meticulous psychological analysis of the characters; and artistically speaking, there is no question that his technique is ahead of its time. These qualities receive their finest expression in ‘Love Before Sunrise,’ which added a new dimension to Taiwanese literature; the work is the Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du Mal) of the 1930s Taiwanese short story.”
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=7588
|Work(English)：||A Love Story before Dawn|
|Anthology：||Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series（《台灣文學英譯叢刊》）|
|Language：||Traditional Chinese (originally written in Japanese)|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||Santa Barbara : Forum for the Study of World Literature in Chinese University of California|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010615222|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://www.eastasian.ucsb.edu/taiwancenter/publications/ets|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|