Orphan of Asia

By Wu Zhuoliu
Translated by Ioannis Mentzas

Reviewed by Leo China
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2007)

Wu Zhuoliu, with the assistance of Qiao Li, Orphan of Asia. Tr.  Ioannis Mentzas.    New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 256 pp. ISBN: 0-231-13727-3 (cloth)

Wu Zhuoliu, with the assistance of Qiao Li, Orphan of Asia. Tr. Ioannis Mentzas.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 256 pp. ISBN: 0-231-13727-3 (cloth)

If the notion of the “national allegory” has any analytical purchase in probing the relationship between poetics and politics, between text and context, Orphan of Asia would be a compelling example of Taiwan’s coming into being. The narrative of dispossession and abandonment poignantly defines Taiwan’s modern/colonial identity vis-à-vis China and Japan in the waning years of the Pacific War. Beyond the immediacy of the novel, the articulation of modern Taiwan with the psychic trauma of the orphan galvanizes a collectivity and enables the Taiwanese to eulogize their “national” history as one of betrayal and abandonment. From imperial China’s ceding of Taiwan to Japan after the Sino-Japanese war to Nixon’s reestablishing diplomatic relations with Communist China, the orphan conjures an appropriate characterization of the marginalization of modern Taiwan and its continuous (in)significance in globality.[1] At the same time, Orphan of Asia is also a “colonial allegory” in which the text could be read as intimating a sensibility of despair in the colonized. With its non-salvation and irresolvable contradictions, the text offers a radically different ontology of the colonized subject. Following the temporal and spatial movement of the novel, we are exposed to the under-view of coloniality as opposed to the overview of modernity. Whereas the Hegelian spirit traverses the world in an incessant dialectic of progress in modernity, Wu Zhuoliu’s orphan wonders the region in a helpless stasis of defeat in coloniality.

Orphan of Asia was first published in 1946 in Japanese under the title 胡志明 Hu Zhiming, the original name of the agonizing male protagonist. The title was later changed to 胡太明 HuTaiming along with the name of the protagonist, probably to avoid confusion with the Vietnamese revolutionary. The 1956 edition was published under the title Orphan of Asia アジアの孤児 for the first time, and finally, in 1957, it assumed another title, 歪められた島 or The Distorted Island. Despite the various titles, Orphan of Asia remains the prevailing and popular title, especially after its translation into Chinese under said title in 1962. However, as Kawahara Isao 川原功 has pointed out recently, there was almost a fifty-percent reduction of characters from the original Hu Taiming to the standardizedOrphan of Asia version (in Kawahara’s calculation, from 360,000 to 210,000).[2] With the forthcoming reissue of the full original text in Japan, Kawahara suggests that the restored text might provide new interpretative and research opportunities for scholars. The English translation by Ioannis Mentzas is based on the 1956 edition. It is not clear at this point that the fully restored version will substantially change the content of the text or its translation.

The translator, Ioannis Mentzas, is currently the Editorial Director and Executive Vice President of Vertical Inc., a small New York-based publisher of mostly English translations of popular Japanese fiction. Despite Vertical’s predilection for publishing popular works from Japan, Mentzas, who grew up in Japan and studied comparative literature at Princeton and Columbia, has translated and edited more “scholarly” works such as Soho Machita’s Renegade Monk: Honen and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism (University of California Press, 1999). AlthoughOrphan of Asia is written in Japanese, it is a difficult text to translate because of the plethora of references to literary Chinese scholarship and poetry and colloquial Taiwanese speech. This quintessential colonial text thus requires a knowledge of three separate linguistic registers in order to comprehend the historical complexity of the novel and the precarious social position of the protagonist. Given the hybridized and demanding nature of the text, Mentzas’ translation is very good. The English is natural and eloquent, with only a few awkward renditions of the literary Chinese poems. It is quite an accomplishment by a young translator.

Written between 1943 and 1945, Orphan of Asia dramatizes the internal struggles and personal strife of Hu Taiming as he seeks to balance his idealism and the cruel realities of a fast changing world. Spanning almost the entire fifty years of Japanese colonial rule, the novel not only chronicles historical changes, but also brings to bear the indelible contradictions of the colonial situation that continuously compel the protagonist to relocate in search of a better livelihood and existential certainty. Hu Taiming traverses colonial Taiwan, imperial Japan, and war-ridden China. The contradictions between these temporal and spatial axes gradually intensify to the point of exasperation, driving Taiming to insanity as he makes his final return to his homeland.

From the beginning, the novel establishes the undergoing changes in Taiwan in the early moment of Japanese colonial rule. Symbolizing the decline of imperial Chinese influence through the despondence of Licentiate Peng and the emergence of Japanese supremacy through the “modern scent” of cousin Zhigang, “Taiming thus became a small, rudderless boat drifting between the currents of two epochs” (16). It is this in-betweenness, this state of neither-nor, that becomes the leitmotif throughout the rest of the novel as Taiming struggles to maintain equilibrium between the scholarly idealism to which he aspires and the modern/colonial world in which he must live.

Deeply versed in classical Chinese learning and schooled in the modern Japanese education system, Taiming vows to live moralistically and righteously, without being affected by the political currents of the times. He believes that intellectual pursuits, not political activism, will benefit the Taiwanese people in the long run. Thus his much more politicized friends and colleagues find him idealistic, detached, and frustrating (a perception that readers may sometimes share as well). Taiming’s intellectual impotence, I would like to suggest, is crucial in drawing out the contrast between late-colonialism, in which resistance to the empire is no longer possible through either intensified Japanese assimilation (imperialization), and the equally untenable prospect of nationalist Chinese resistance. Taiwan, Japan, and China are spatial coordinates and routes, each of which leads Taiming closer to failure and his ultimate confrontation with defeat.

In colonial Taiwan, Taiming comes to witness the contradictions embedded in the slogan of “Japanese and Taiwanese as One.” Instead, Taiwan is characterized by persistent inequity between the colonizer and the colonized, the corruption of colonial administration and the intensified efforts for the ‘imperialization’ of Taiwanese subjects during the Pacific War. He is reminded by Hisako, a Japanese colleague, of their incommensurable “difference,” and ultimately rejected. In imperial Japan, Taiming senses the lure of the modern, of a sophisticated culture and people at the metropolitan center. While committed to his studies and refusing to join the political activities of his fellow compatriots, he is made cognizant of the need to conceal his Taiwanese identity as a colonized person. His colonized subjectivity is further magnified when he inadvertently reveals his Taiwanese origin to a group of Chinese student activists who immediately suspect Taiming of being a spy. The contradictions of the colonial subject haunts Taiming even at the metropolitan center of modern Japan. He can neither be a true Japanese nor a patriotic Chinese; he is condemned to deceit, to suspicion and self-doubt. In semi-colonial China, Taiming finds refuge in teaching and a married life. However, much like his experience in Japan, he is cautioned by his fellow Taiwanese to conceal his identity and to accept that “the [Taiwanese] are deformed–fate’s monstrous children” (98). With the Japan invasion, Taiming is captured and jailed for suspicion of espionage. Fortunately, he is rescued by former students and returns to Taiwan. He is then conscripted by the Japanese military as a civilian employee in southern China. In war-ridden China, Taiming is nauseated by casual remarks about rapes and killings of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers. He is granted a medical discharge after suffering psychological shock upon witnessing the beheading of a Chinese prisoner.

Taiming returns to Taiwan and slowly recovers. The imperialization geared towards war mobilization only further exacerbates an already skewed colonial situation. The successive deaths of his mother and his stepbrother finally push him to the breaking point. Taiming ends up insane. Despite the tragic ending, Wu Zhuoliu hints at redemption when the novel ends with the rumor that Taiming has gone to southern China to make anti-Japanese radio broadcasts.

It is possible, I think, to read Orphan of Asia, especially in its allegorization of the protagonist’s defeat and strife, as a counter narrative to imperialist discourse. Instead of an overarching vision of world history, the spatial movement in Orphan of Asia is inescapably local, regional, and colonial. Unlike the Hegelian Spirit, the orphan’s itinerary is neither teleological nor triumphant. Wu’s protagonist shifts geographically in the triangulation of Taiwan-Japan-China not as a predetermined traversing of history, but as compelled by the injustice and oppressiveness of the colonial condition. The triangulation is after all delimited and enclosed. The condition of the “orphan” is precisely the impossibility of belonging to the “family of nations” that undergirds the modern/colonial world system. It is also a “colonial allegory”: the coming into being of a consciousness of one’s place (or lack thereof) in a differential structure of oppression, i.e., Japanese colonialism and Chinese nationalism. This is not the triumphant realization of the Hegelian Spirit in a teleological unfolding of History. Rather, it is a psycho-traumatic realization of the impossibility of salvation within the colonial system. Whereas the Hegelian Spirit travels from the “colonies” (Asia and Africa) to the “metropolis” (Europe) in a process of self-realization, Wu Zhuoliu’s orphan arguably moves in the opposite direction (from Taiwan to Japan, China and back to Taiwan), in an enclosed circularity of self-doubt. One narrates a linear unfolding of history and the other one a circuitous return of subalternity. If the Hegelian Spirit represents the dialectic actualization of Modernity, Wu Zhuoliu’s orphan points to the non-dialectic stasis of Coloniality. Whereas the Spirit can view the world from above (the perspective of the colonizer), the orphan can only wander within the bounded spaces of the empire (the condition of the colonized). This is colonial difference.

This particular sensibility toward colonial difference is obviously a historical one: occasioned both by the mounting oppression of the late-colonial period (in which Japan sought to mobilize Taiwanese in service of militarism and empire), and disillusionment with Chinese nationalism as a form of anti-colonial praxis. The orphan, or Taiwan, plays the role of a self-consciousness that has failed to constitute itself through dialectical reaffirmation: Japanese/Taiwanese and Chinese/Taiwanese oppositions, despite the promises of colonialism and nationalism, do not transcend and transform themselves into a higher state of being. The orphan remains deferred, detested, and disempowered. For the orphan, modernity/coloniality means, above all, the state of being deprived of subjectivity.

Taiming’s psychological turbulence and political impotence open up to a larger historical understanding in which a synchronic tension, differentiation, and competition among the dominant Japanese colonial presence, a residual Chinese imaginary, and an emergent Taiwanese consciousness are narrated and enacted. It is a consciousness neither of a triumphant realization nor a manufactured heroic national mythology. Instead, Orphan of Asia signifies a historicized coming-into-being of a fractured, victimized, and liminal subject-formation that continues to symbolize the tumultuous history of Taiwan in modernity/coloniality.

Leo Ching
Duke University


[1] Shih, Shu-mei. “Globalisation and the (in)Significance of Taiwan.” Postcolonial Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 143-53.

[2] Paper presented at the International Conference on Taiwan and East Asian Modernity: Literature, Arts, and Cultural Politics, Nov. 10-12, 2006, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan.