Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles

By Li Yung-p’ing
Trs. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Reviewed by Lingchei Letty Chen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2006)

Li Yung-p'ing. Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles. Trs. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li--chun Lin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 246pp. US$26.00. ISBN 0-231-12874-6 (cloth).

Li Yung-p’ing. Retribution:
The Jiling Chronicles
 Trs. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun
Lin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 246pp. US$26.00. ISBN
0-231-12874-6 (cloth).

The English publication of Li Yung-p’ing’s Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles is a literary event of real moment for English readers of Chinese literature. Originally published as individual pieces in the 1970s, Li Yung-p’ing later revised and strung together twelve short stories into one coherent whole and published this volume in 1986 under the title, The Jiling Chronicles (吉陵春秋). [1] It has taken more than twenty years for English readers to finally have access to this masterpiece and become acquainted with this remarkable contemporary Chinese writer. In today’s quick turnover, consumer-market oriented environment in which far too many inferior works have been produced, Li’s unwavering commitment to the Chinese vernacular language and the art form of fiction has indeed become a rarity.

The Jiling Chronicles is composed of twelve episodes. At the center of a complex web of perspectives and sub-stories is a crime and revenge story. The victim is Changsheng, the beautiful young wife of a coffin-maker Liu Laoshi. Being the lone normal household amidst the Jiling town’s brothel district, this beautiful young woman attracts a lot of attention. On the day of the town’s biggest festival—the greeting Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy—Sun the Fourth, a hooligan and a frequenter of the brothels, seizes the opportunity and rapes Changsheng. Out of shame, Changsheng hangs herself that night and dies. Her humiliation and tragic death prompt her husband to set off on a killing rampage. He then disappears from Jiling, only to reappear a year later to finish his revenge for his wife. After leading the reader into this hideous crime, the rest of the novel revolves around several minor characters who were directly or indirectly involved in the crime. Li Yong-p’ing is careful in giving away clues of this incident. He does so by providing the reader different accounts of the event by various townspeople, some of whom were accessories to the crime, and some knew or heard things during that fateful day. Spinning off the stories of these characters are more dark tales about the town of Jiling.

The artistic accomplishment of Li Yung-p’ing’s Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles unequivocally puts him in the eminent company of Eileen Chang, Wang Wenxing, and Bai Xianyong. These writers have elevated the art of fictional writing to a higher plane with their exquisite linguistic craftsmanship imbued with emotional complexity and metaphorical precision. Naturally, works like theirs are not easy to render in another language without losing the artistic refinement of the original. But veteran translator Howard Goldblatt (already responsible for so many remarkable renditions of vernacular Chinese to English), and his partner Sylvia Li-chun Lin have yet again delivered another landmark work and proved themselves to be world-class translators. Prior to Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles, this husband-and-wife team’s most notable achievement had been Zhu Tianwen’s Notes of a Desolate Man (Huangren shouji), for which they won the 1999 Translation of the Year award from the American Literary Translators Association.

To illustrate the kind of linguistic acrobatics necessary for crossing over from one language to another, the following is an excellent example. There is a brief exchange between the fortune-teller and Red Spring (a prostitute) in the first chapter of Retribution, “In Great Blessings Land”:「你今年貴庚了? 」「龜公?」 (Jiling chuqiu, p. 16). The Chinese plays on phonetic similarities of two semantically dissimilar phrases: 貴庚 and 龜公. What is shown by this phonetic pun is the prostitute’s lack of education—she apparently does not understand the term 貴庚, a literary way of asking for one’s age. Red Spring’s response 龜公, which means a pimp or the owner of a whorehouse, befits her profession. The English translation captures the pun and renders it with equal cleverness: “You’re how long here?” “Did you say whoremonger?” (p. 15). Notice how the translators shift the proper word order in the fortune-teller’s question to emphasize the “ur” and “er” sounds (“You’re” and “here”) so as to produce a phonetic resemblance with the “or” and “er” sounds in “whoremonger,” hence making the misconstruction possible in English as well.

The dialogue between Red Spring and the fortune-teller also illustrates how Li Yong-p’ing portrays his characters. Their distinct roles and personalities are often revealed through their own words and not characterized by way of the author’s objective descriptions. For example, we are never told anything about Red Spring’s physique, but we do know what a seductress she is. Her tantalizing image is best captured in the many different ways she talks and casts her glances at men. Li Yong-p’ing uses words such as 唔 and to depict Red Spring’s seductiveness: 春紅唔了一聲甩甩手, 轉身就走. 跨進了門, 回回頭, 勾過了一隻水汪汪的黑眸子來又撩了他一眼. 瞅一瞅, 笑兩笑 (Jiling chunqiu, p. 23). The translation reads as follows: “Red Spring chirped as she wrenched her arm free, spun around, and walked off. As she stepped through the door, she turned and gave him a dewy-eyed, seductive look. She smiled” (p. 20). In this brief description, we are given a vivid impression of the alluring power of the prostitute, and the English rendition is equally effective with words such as “chirped,” “wrenched,” and “dewy-eyed.”

Contrasting the seductress Red Spring is the young wife of Liu Laoshi, Changsheng, a woman desired by every man in Great Blessings Lane. The image of this quiet, pure, and beautiful woman is effectively transmitted through only a couple of fleeting glimpses of her walking on the street. Her every appearance is portrayed like a comet flying across the dark sky. Instead of describing Changsheng’s physical beauty, Li Yong-p’ing instead focuses on her plain cotton clothes, an interesting strategy. Changsheng’s fragile and eye-catching exquisiteness is captured in these ways: 一身素底碎花的衫褲, 日頭底下, 亮了一亮 (Jiling chunqiu, p. 9) (“her plain, floral cotton top and pants sparkled in the bright sun,” p. 8); or, 日頭下. . . 那一身水綠水綠的小花, 眨亮眨亮地 (Jiling chunqiu, p.11) (“the watery green flowers on her dress shimmering in the bright sun,” p. 10), or, similarly, 一身白底碎綠花, 水亮水亮地 (Jiling chunqiu, pp.52, 55) (“she wore a blouse with a small flowered pattern on a plain white background,” p. 47; “Changsheng, dressed in her bright blouse and trousers, a flowered print on a white background,” p. 44).

The English renditions of the first two descriptions use the words “sparkled” and “shimmering” to draw out the symbolic meaning inherent in the visual image of Changsheng. The similar visual impression conveyed by the phrase 水亮 水亮地 in the third description, however, is lost in the translation in its first appearance, but captured in the second by the word “right.” The repetitiveness of this description of Changsheng’s clothes may appear to be a minor detail, but Li Yong-p’ing has his reasons. He is careful to maintain descriptive consistency because there are certain words or phrases recurring throughout the novel that function as leitmotifs to help piece together the correct sequence of events and also to provide more details as to these events. Since it is now through Xiao Yue (an accomplice to the crime) whose perspective and recollection give us more information on the day of Changsheng’s rape, Li Yong-p’ing therefore deliberately uses the exact same words twice to describe Changshang as she has been seen by Xiao Yue twice on the same day. The English translation of these two parallel appearances of Changsheng in the text, however, fails to follow through with Li Yong-p’ing’s narrative strategy and thus weakens the consistency of Li’s portrayal of Changsheng (the visual brightness) and undermines the novel’s primary narrative strategy, parallax via leitmotifs. This is important because Retribution‘s narrative chronology is choppy; but through a collection of fragmented perspectives from different angles (parallax), the total story of Jiling is spatially pieced together by certain recurring words and phrases to gradually add on layers to the narrative (leitmotifs).

The structural, narrative, and thematic integrity of Retribution of course does not rely solely on parallax and leitmotifs. Intense imagery constitutes the main thrust of the novel—the divinity of Guanyin, the sensuality of Red Spring, and the purity of Changsheng together create a feminine archetype. The masculine figure is metaphorically represented by the residents of Jiling, both men and women alike, their oppressive feudalistic values and the dominating force of rumor and hearsay. One of the novel’s main themes, retribution, is seen through the tragedies of Changsheng, Zhang Baokui (widow Qin), Eleven’s mother, and Autumn Begonia (a young prostitute). But their collective suffering is at the end redeemed in Yanniang, a figure whose life seems to convey the possibility of cosmic kindness as the novel unfolds. The highly poetic quality of Li’s imagery clearly is the artistic hallmark of this novel, and the translation has superbly transmitted this quality into the English language.

Critics have noted the mysterious identity of Jiling, a town difficult to pinpoint geographically and historically and yet not unfamiliar to Chinese readers. This ambiguity, however, tells something about the author’s diasporic cultural background. Li Yong-p’ng is a Chinese Malaysian who came to Taiwan to attend university, received a degree in English literature from National Taiwan University, and then went on to the United States for graduate studies, earning a doctoral degree in Chinese and comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Li’s cultural imagination is manifested in the simultaneously foreign and native qualities of Jiling, and in his insistence on preserving the “simplicity, beauty, lively rhythms and long-lasting charm” of vernacular Chinese.[2] This work also inevitably begs the question of cultural origin and Chineseness. The late 1970s and mid-1980s in Taiwan was a time of rapid socio-economic development, political restructuring, and fierce ideological debates about nativisim, nationalism, and liberalism. As a work written and produced during this tumultuous time, Retribution reads as curiously anti-modernity, anti-race, anti-nation, and anti-ideology. What Li Yong-p’ing has created is a timeless world where primitive impulses such as sex and evil dominate people’s behaviors and rituals structure their everyday life. And Li’s diasporic identity only further complicates our reading of this intriguing novel.

As a Chinese Malaysian residing in Taiwan who has devoted all of his creative energy toward perfecting and pushing the limits of Chinese vernacular language (as best exemplified in his next novel, Haidongqing), Li Yong-p’ing’s cultural nostalgia is ambiguous. Li’s reluctance to give Jiling a clear geographical designation is an indication of this ambiguity. But the more telling sign is the novel’s extremely imbalanced gender power dynamics: the female victims are completely at the mercy of the town’s gossips and vulnerable male violence, whereas male perpetrators are portrayed as vicious, animalistic, and brutal. The excess of masculine domination over the feminine, driven by a masochistic impulse, thus reveals more of the nature of this ambiguity, if not also an inherent anxiety.

Scholars in North America have yet to give adequate critical attention to Li Yong-p’ing’s writings. Especially given the wide interests in issues surrounding the diasporic condition, as well as the politics of identity and gender, Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles should shed light on our understanding of the writings of the Chinese Malaysian in particular and the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia in general. The English publication of Li Yong-p’ing’s intriguing and complex novel is certainly timely and most welcome.

Lingchei Letty Chen
Washington University


[1] The editor of Columbia University Press changed the title of the English version for the concern that the original Chinese title might be too obscure for American readers.

[2] This is from the author’s preface in the Chinese edition of Jiling Chunqiu (Taipei: Hongfan Books, 1989), p.ii.