From the Old Country:
Stories and Sketches of China and Taiwan

By Zhong Lihe
Edited and Translated by T. M. McClellan

Reviewed by John Balcom
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October 2014)

Zhong Lihe.  From the Old Country: Stories and Sketches of China and Taiwan.  Edited and translated by T. M. McClellan.  Columbia University Press, 2014. Cloth, 336 pages, B&W Illus.: 16, ISBN: 978-0-231-16630-0.

Zhong Lihe. From the Old Country: Stories and Sketches of China and Taiwan. Edited and translated by T. M. McClellan. Columbia University Press, 2014. Cloth, 336 pages, B&W Illus.: 16,
ISBN: 978-0-231-16630-0.

Zhong Lihe (1915-1960) is a Hakka-born Taiwanese author and a key figure in Taiwan’s post-retrocession period literature. He was born in a village in Pingdong, where his father was a local landowner. He attended school until about the age of sixteen, after which he worked in the family agricultural business in the Meinong district of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. Throughout this time he was reading the May Fourth writers from mainland China. In 1940, he eloped with his wife, Zhong Pingmei, to Manchukuo (both having the same surname, their marriage was frowned upon). Subsequently, they moved to Beijing, where Zhong Lihe worked as a translator. The couple returned to Pingdong in 1946.  Zhong Lihe fell ill with tuberculosis in 1947 and was hospitalized until 1951, but remained an invalid until his death in 1960. He died at the age of forty-four as he was literally making revisions to his final novella “Rain.”

Zhong Lihe is the author of one novel, six novellas, and twenty-six short stories. His work is frequently autobiographical and often depicts the hardships of post-retrocession Taiwan. Thematically, his fiction focuses on three principal areas: (1) autobiographical incident; (2) illness and hospital ward-mates; and (3) village life. Although much of his work was not printed in his lifetime, his first volume of short fiction, Oleander, was printed during his stay in Beijing. His novel Li Mountain Farm won a top prize for fiction in 1956.  Since much of his output deals with rural Taiwan, he is generally considered a “nativist” writer.  He is important as a writer because his work focuses on contemporary life, a decided shift away from the anti-communist historical fiction that held sway in Taiwan in those days.

Zhong Lihe’s work has not been well represented in translation. Until the publication of the present volume, only five works had previously appeared in translation.  T. M. McClellan’s representative selection of Zhong Lihe’s work in From the Old Country: Stories and Sketches of China and Taiwan admirably serves to fill the gap. The collection is prefaced with an extremely informative introduction about the author’s life and times and his writing.  Footnotes appear throughout the book to explain difficult and obscure points.  This thoughtful, scholarly apparatus accompanies a judicious selection of beautifully rendered stories and sketches.

The volume includes selections that cover various stages of the author’s life, including the time he spent in mainland China. The book is divided into five sections: Formative Years, Stories from the Old Country, Homeland, Meinong Lyrics, and Meinong Economics.  Formative Years contains three stories that deal with the author’s childhood and youth in Taiwan, reflecting the ethnic heterogeneity of the island – Hakka, Hoklo, mainlanders, and aborigines all cross the pages.  The second section focuses on life in Manchuria and Beijing. Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese characters appear. For me, the novella titled “Oleander” is the most significant work, dealing as it does with issues of “Chinese-ness.” The work registers Zhong’s disillusionment with what he found in what he thought was his cultural homeland. Poverty, both economic and moral, is examined.

One of the most significant works included is a complete translation of Zhong Lihe’s Homeland, which is composed of four interlocking stories with a good deal of autobiographical content. (In fact, the works are so autobiographical, that they have sometimes been considered more essay than fiction.) Taken as a group, they provide a fascinating portrait of Taiwan in the year or so immediately after retrocession. The narrator has returned home in 1946 after being gone for a decade or more. Taiwan is in the throes of successive floods and drought, which produce a good deal of hardship. But the narrator encounters a spiritual malaise even worse than the economic decline caused by the drought.  The atmosphere is one of stultification, melancholy, and superstition.  The clear model suggested by the translator is Lu Xun’s “My Old Home.”  The first story frames the sequence and establishes the overall tone; it recounts the physical and spiritual decline of the author’s friend.

To my mind, the strongest parts of Homeland are the second and fourth stories. The second story, here translated as “Forest Fire,” is a brilliant look at rural superstition. Under the Japanese the local religion was suppressed as superstition, but it has come back. The narrator’s brother complains about the superstitious beliefs of the local farmers that have led to forest fires being set and to the family orchard being destroyed. Yet, the brother, who is supposed to be of the educated gentry, is subject to the same superstitions as demonstrated by his extravagant offerings at a temple festival. The translator admirably navigates the religious and temple jargon as well as the traditional political terms that make the story somewhat difficult to translate.

The fourth and final story, “My ‘Out-law’ and the Hill Song” is a wonderful piece imbued with a melancholy, poetic tone. Once again, the present is juxtaposed with the past; through the vehicle of the folksongs that appear throughout the story, the characters reflect on lost youth and the busy responsibilities of work and raising their children. It should be noted that Zhong Lihe was, himself, a collector of folksongs and deeply knowledgeable about them.

I have always found the third story, “Uncle A-Huang” the weakest, despite some good characterization and description. The story juxtaposes the narrator’s recollections of a once energetic and hard-working young A-Huang with the dirty and lazy middle-aged man he encounters upon returning home. Behind the decline is posited as a fundamental problem with the economy. However, this is never clearly elaborated in the story nor is the main character’s decline, going from clean and hard-working young man to a drunkard living amidst excrement, adequately explained. The story comes off as overly simplistic and mechanical.

Meinong Lyrics, as the title suggests, is a selection of poetic essays and stories.  Finally, the Meinong Economics sections present writings that delve seriously into deeper social and economic issues. “Rain” is by far the best story in the book. This powerful, tragic work incorporates all the salient features of Zhong’s best nativist fiction: good characterization, fine descriptions of the Taiwan countryside, as well as the themes of the hardships of rural life, superstition, and social conflict. Less patently autobiographical than the other pieces, the novella is a fully realized work of fiction. The plot involves Huang Jinde, a man so obsessed with rights and justice with regard to the land that he fails to see the human tragedy taking place in his own family. I won’t spoil the story by revealing the details of the plot here.

The translations are deeply satisfying, mainly because the translator’s voice is everywhere present.  T. M. McClellan has provided a unique and engaging narrative voice: clearly his work has been a labor of love that has grown out of a deep affinity for his author. At many points I found the translations sparkle more than the originals. Awkward writing and rough edges have been smoothed over in translation, and creative solutions for difficult translation problems abound. In reading any literary translation, I like to keep in mind what Borges said: “it is the translator’s infidelity, his happy and creative infidelity, that must matter to us.”  One place where the creativity doesn’t work for me is the title to the fourth story of Homeland – “My ‘Out-law’ and the Hill Songs.”  The word “out-law” is used to translate 親家, a simple term, but one used in an odd fashion in the story. The odd usage is defined in the text.  Clever as this rendition might be, it strikes me as an over-translation and one that brings in wrong connotations. Where the original is lexically flat, the translation offers a neologism of sorts. I can, however, appreciate and enjoy the translator’s creativity.

The footnotes are in most cases very informative, explaining aspects of local culture and history that perhaps cannot be adequately amplified in the translation with the addition of a word or phrase. Actually, a few more would have been helpful.  In “Forest Fire,” for example, there is a quirky footnote on page 147 relating to 菅草, which is strangely translated as villous themeda.  From the context, and even with a superficial knowledge of plant succession after a fire, such a note seems pointless.  In the same story, though, there is mention of a Taoist deity Zhang Daoling.  I would have liked to know more about this deity.  Is there any particular significance to the god’s presence here?  Is it one that is principally worshipped by the Hakka?  These carpings are in no way meant to diminish the translations, and not everyone will feel the same way.

This is a fine book. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in modern Chinese literature from Taiwan. Zhong Lihe is an important Taiwan author from the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps now he will receive the attention he deserves. McClellan is to be lauded for this volume and his excellent translations.  (I would love to see a translation of Zhong Lihe’s Li Mountain Farm).  Columbia University Press should also be praised for broadening the scope of its Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan Series to include this early and very important postwar voice.

John Balcom
Monterey Institute of International Studies