Three-Legged Horse

Three-legged Horse (Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan)

I’ve just finished a remarkable collection of stories by a Taiwanese author called Cheng Ch’ing-Wen called ‘Three-Legged Horse’. Those of you who read my entry on ‘The Jade Peony‘ will already know of my fascination for Chinese culture; this collection goes further in my exploration of that.

The stories in ‘Three-Legged Horse’ do seem odd at first because nothing much seems to actually happen. In the first story, ‘The River Suite’, a ferryman is fascinated with a woman who comes out to wash her clothes in the river. He watches her door every day, and yet has only seen her once, has never spoken to her, and has never even looked her fully in the face. And despite a great flood and his rescue of a man from the treacherous waters, the story always centres around this woman and the fact that he has not seen her very often. He longs to – he is also conscious of perhaps not being worthy of her – but at the end of the story, where five years has passed between their first encounter and now, he notices that a doctor is visiting her house. And this is the end of the story; the implication that she is gravely ill and that he will never see her again.

The haunting nature of this story is what permeates the entire collection. I think it is a remarkable example of that writing tenet ‘Show, don’t tell.’ The blurb on the back of the book reads thus: ‘These twelve stories represent the best work of ‘nativist’ writer Cheng Ch’ing-Wen and encompass his major themes: the tensions between men and women, parents and children, city and village, tradition and modernity.’ And this is what he does; he doesn’t confine himself to explorations of relationships that go well or those that end spectacularly. He looks at those relationships that fizzle out before they even start, of the marriages entered into a bit rashly in which the couple must then find out who each other are after they are committed to one another. He explores ideas that are rather swept under the carpet in Western thought – in ‘The Last of the Gentlemen’, the main character decides that that best course of action for his family and all concerned is if he takes his own life, and leaves his children to sort themselves out from there.

Cheng Ch’ing-Wen also explores the tensions that remain in a country that was once torn apart by war. This is something that England and Canada can’t identify with, but I think that France and the other countries occupied by the Germans in WWII would be able to. Many of the stories in the collection refer to the war, in which Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese; many atrocities were committed by the occupiers during the war. But as in every war, there are some local people who side with the occupying forces, and after the war there are always repercussions for these people. The title story, ‘Three-Legged Horse’, refers to one of these people, a man who became a policeman for the Japanese and fled his village after the war, leaving his wife and son to take his punishment from the townspeople. Even thirty years later he did not feel he could return to his village; there were still people who would be ready to exact their revenge for the things he did to help the Japanese during the war. His greatest regret was that he wasn’t a good husband to his wife, that he had made her endure the retribution of the villagers.

This collection has left me with a variety of feelings; awe that such good writing exists, sadness for the people in the stories who do not exist but who illustrate the feelings of all people, irritation at and for people who don’t understand or make the effort to understand others, and many other conflicting emotions. I think this collection does what great literature should – it makes is examine our own lives, and gives us a mirror to compare our own choices with those made by the characters in these stories.

This book won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize

2 thoughts on “Three-Legged Horse”

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/03/07/reviews/990307.07caolt.html

    March 7, 1999
    Disorientations
    ——————————————————————————–
    In these stories from Taiwan, characters live under the gloomy influence of the past.
    By GUANLONG CAO

    ——————————————————————————–
    THREE-LEGGED HORSE
    By Cheng Ching-wen.
    Edited by Pang-yuan Chi.
    226 pp. New York:
    Columbia University Press. $22.95.

    ——————————————————————————–

    t is simply a law of evolution: the longer the time that elapses, the more the mutations, the more abnormality settles into normality. Thus China developed its foot-binding fetish; Egypt fixated on elaborate mummification rituals; ancient Hindus, facing each rising sun, solemnly mixed their urine tonic; and the Mayans smoked their narcotics when New York City was still a wide expanse of marsh. The 12 short stories in ”Three-Legged Horse,” by Cheng Ching-wen, a Taiwanese writer, add new examples to the list.
    Taiwan, an island only 100 miles from mainland China, inherited a 5,000-year-old feudal culture and, more recently, suffered under another 50 years of Japanese colonial occupation. Even the characters in ”Three-Legged Horse” who are not obviously weighed down with this historical legacy have burdened lives.

    In ”Autumn Night,” a woman whose husband died when she was 38 years old sets a rule for all her daughters-in-law — they must sleep apart from their husbands as soon as they reach the same age. Cheng describes how a lonely wife escapes her mother-in-law’s close watch to see her husband: a normal married life has been twisted into a clandestine affair. Instead of condemning the cruelty, however, the author surprises us by creating a romantic full moon to illuminate the barefooted wife’s two-hour journey across the treacherous fields to reach her husband.

    Other lives reveal the effects of the past in crueler ways. In the title story, Tseng Chi-hsiang, now an old man, had been a police officer under the Japanese occupation; when the Japanese were defeated at the end of World War II, the townspeople called for his punishment. He fled, leaving his innocent wife to suffer the punishment for him; not long after, she fell ill and died. As a way of expressing his regrets for his crime and for his lost wife, Tseng indulges himself in carving deformed, three-legged horses. The author sketches his unsympathethic character with meticulous care, and the added details of a depressing, abusive childhood also make a bid for the reader’s forgiveness. And the author succeeds.

    While most of the stories focus on the gloomy influence of history, others, like ”The Last of the Gentlemen,” shift perspective to the clash of tradition and modernity in a rapidly changing society. An elderly gentleman in Old Town attends the funeral of his lifelong friend. The other townspeople say he died too soon, but the gentleman disagrees. He thinks his friend didn’t die soon enough, because a man of his stature should have had his funeral in the public hall of the town, which has just been converted into a profitable theater. The ferryman in ”The River Suite” has missed his chance in more heartbreaking ways. A brave man, he dares to jump into a torrential current to rescue a flood victim, yet has never gathered enough courage to look into the eyes of the woman he has secretly adored for five years. Day after day, squatting at the bow of his ferryboat, he gazes at her door from a distance, noticing every subtle detail. But he never gathers the confidence to knock.

    Odd details lend an exotic flavor to the book: a veterinarian is a connoisseur of the huge testicles from the water buffalo he has castrated; a girl deliberately breaks her ”proof” of virginity to manifest her disillusionment in men. This collection of simple stories, written in simple language yet rich with vivid details, presents a gallery of portraits of disorientation, distortion and frustration.

    The moist brush of the author unfortunately dries up a bit with the last story, ”The Coconut Palms on Campus.” Cheng’s sympathy for the young woman with the deformed hand, a lonely and isolated lecturer at a university, probably was too strong; as a result, the people around her, who uniformly mistreat her, seem broad and contrived, almost cartoons compared with the freshly conceived characters of the previous stories. In the end, looking at the symbolic coconut palms, which ”know how to persevere” and have even ”drawn strength from their enemies,” the girl summarizes: ”I understood: loneliness could not become the reason for two people to be close. It is a powerful reason, but not a complete one.” Somehow, I was less convinced by this story, with its clear conclusion, than by all the other stories in the book with no conclusions at all.

    ——————————————————————————–
    Guanlong Cao’s most recent book is ”The Attic,” a memoir.

  2. March 7, 1999
    Disorientations
    ——————————————————————————–
    In these stories from Taiwan, characters live under the gloomy influence of the past.
    By GUANLONG CAO

    ——————————————————————————–
    THREE-LEGGED HORSE
    By Cheng Ching-wen.
    Edited by Pang-yuan Chi.
    226 pp. New York:
    Columbia University Press. $22.95.

    ——————————————————————————–

    t is simply a law of evolution: the longer the time that elapses, the more the mutations, the more abnormality settles into normality. Thus China developed its foot-binding fetish; Egypt fixated on elaborate mummification rituals; ancient Hindus, facing each rising sun, solemnly mixed their urine tonic; and the Mayans smoked their narcotics when New York City was still a wide expanse of marsh. The 12 short stories in ”Three-Legged Horse,” by Cheng Ching-wen, a Taiwanese writer, add new examples to the list.
    Taiwan, an island only 100 miles from mainland China, inherited a 5,000-year-old feudal culture and, more recently, suffered under another 50 years of Japanese colonial occupation. Even the characters in ”Three-Legged Horse” who are not obviously weighed down with this historical legacy have burdened lives.

    In ”Autumn Night,” a woman whose husband died when she was 38 years old sets a rule for all her daughters-in-law — they must sleep apart from their husbands as soon as they reach the same age. Cheng describes how a lonely wife escapes her mother-in-law’s close watch to see her husband: a normal married life has been twisted into a clandestine affair. Instead of condemning the cruelty, however, the author surprises us by creating a romantic full moon to illuminate the barefooted wife’s two-hour journey across the treacherous fields to reach her husband.

    Other lives reveal the effects of the past in crueler ways. In the title story, Tseng Chi-hsiang, now an old man, had been a police officer under the Japanese occupation; when the Japanese were defeated at the end of World War II, the townspeople called for his punishment. He fled, leaving his innocent wife to suffer the punishment for him; not long after, she fell ill and died. As a way of expressing his regrets for his crime and for his lost wife, Tseng indulges himself in carving deformed, three-legged horses. The author sketches his unsympathethic character with meticulous care, and the added details of a depressing, abusive childhood also make a bid for the reader’s forgiveness. And the author succeeds.

    While most of the stories focus on the gloomy influence of history, others, like ”The Last of the Gentlemen,” shift perspective to the clash of tradition and modernity in a rapidly changing society. An elderly gentleman in Old Town attends the funeral of his lifelong friend. The other townspeople say he died too soon, but the gentleman disagrees. He thinks his friend didn’t die soon enough, because a man of his stature should have had his funeral in the public hall of the town, which has just been converted into a profitable theater. The ferryman in ”The River Suite” has missed his chance in more heartbreaking ways. A brave man, he dares to jump into a torrential current to rescue a flood victim, yet has never gathered enough courage to look into the eyes of the woman he has secretly adored for five years. Day after day, squatting at the bow of his ferryboat, he gazes at her door from a distance, noticing every subtle detail. But he never gathers the confidence to knock.

    Odd details lend an exotic flavor to the book: a veterinarian is a connoisseur of the huge testicles from the water buffalo he has castrated; a girl deliberately breaks her ”proof” of virginity to manifest her disillusionment in men. This collection of simple stories, written in simple language yet rich with vivid details, presents a gallery of portraits of disorientation, distortion and frustration.

    The moist brush of the author unfortunately dries up a bit with the last story, ”The Coconut Palms on Campus.” Cheng’s sympathy for the young woman with the deformed hand, a lonely and isolated lecturer at a university, probably was too strong; as a result, the people around her, who uniformly mistreat her, seem broad and contrived, almost cartoons compared with the freshly conceived characters of the previous stories. In the end, looking at the symbolic coconut palms, which ”know how to persevere” and have even ”drawn strength from their enemies,” the girl summarizes: ”I understood: loneliness could not become the reason for two people to be close. It is a powerful reason, but not a complete one.” Somehow, I was less convinced by this story, with its clear conclusion, than by all the other stories in the book with no conclusions at all.

    ——————————————————————————–
    Guanlong Cao’s most recent book is ”The Attic,” a memoir.

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