"Orphan of Asia" by Zhuoliu Wu is a strangely modern book-from 1945.
It is my second reading of this book, after almost exactly 8 years, and
I still had a lot to learn. After 2009 I spent a substantially different
5 years in Taiwan than the previous 5 years, and learnt it from the other angle.
With the distance I have now, 3 years after returning to Europe, I start
seeing the experience of Taiwan in yet another light.
The book was written in Japanese language, at the time when Japan was
just ceasing to be a heavenly ruler of Asia, and some other more earthly
masters went into ruling it. Taiwan just stopped being the Japan proper,
and soon became a dumping place for Chinese failures of Nationalists:
Kuomintang party of China took over, with help of their beastly losers.
But this is still to befell on Taiwan- in the time of writing, it is a
Japanese backwater, where Masters are teaching their underlings to be
human, that is, Japanese.
Taiming, a boy from the mountain village, knows nothing of it-as
was, and still is, the case with so many a Taiwanese boys (even at
the age of over 50) today. He starts his classical Chinese education
with a master in the mountains, an opiate addict, who lives a virtual
classical Chinese life in a seclusion. Boys play, but also soak into
the mind-narrowing classical learning. Which, after all, is what makes
Chinese being Chinese: an anachronism, almost an atavism, which survives
until today because of sheer powers of life.
Nothing less could explain how such an impenetrable culture, which
virtually prevents dissemination of knowledge to its population (c'mon,
15 years of hard work just to learn to read and write?!). Probably the
explanation is that for a human society to thrive, having only basic
education is better than giving wide knowledge to everyone-it just brings
problems. It is much, much easier to govern a stupid, uninformed mass of
people, than a well educated body of citizens. This is why Heavenly Empire
of the Country of the Middle was one of the last empires to fall. And when
it fell, it fell to a similarly stupefying mindset, which immediately brought
caricatures (in bad taste) of any free minded thought.
Taiming actually succeds, he goes to Japan to study, but because of his low
(=Taiwanese) background, fails to obtain appropriate position in the
Japanese driven society. He is utterly rejected.
When he moves to China, he is rejected doubly, as a Japanese subject, but
even more as a Taiwanese. To be able at all to work in China, he has to
hide that he is Taiwanese, so low is the esteem his compatriots have in China.
The fact of being a Japanese subject at a time of WWII, complicates the
things, and he has to flee back to Taiwan. Interestingly enough, he did not
make a fame there-people of his stature, with university diplom from Japan,
were not many. But again, as a non-Japanese he did not really have a chance,
and his lack of zeal for sacrifying his life on the altar of Imperium, did
not help. He was conscripted into army, and went into fight on the mainland,
but so disgusted he was with what he saw there-and from the hands of his own
army, Japanese soldiers-that he just went crazy, literally, and was
repatriated as inept for the service.
Back home, he recovered, but with a new distance to everything going on
around him. He went to introspection again, and slowly, painfully, he
allowed to himself to be what he really is.
But this does not stop the course of history, and Taiwan did not get well in
the troubled waters. When his family suffers, Taiming feels he himself was
responsible for it-as the best educated person from his village, he should
do more to protect them. In his introspective way he takes the blame and
goes crazy, this time for good. For him, a Taiwanese, immersed in the
deeply troubled identity of a non-nation, the historical moment was too
In the first reading I more saw his troubled, confused personality, than the
persistence with which he tried not to succumb to strong currents of history
around him. And fails. As Taiwan eventually failed in the XX ct., and is
only now, with the new, globalized generation, trying to define some new
identity. It will not be anything like what their forefathers could imagine
or approve, but this, exactly, is how the rough waters of history tumble the
ideas of the past into the reality of the future: sometimes they are
crashed and cast anew into a completely new form, which would be impossible
to predict at the previous level. A bit like we can not predict what will
come of the outspring of a family in few generations-they will find their ow
In my life, I saw one re-birth of a nation, in my own country. But Croatia
had a history of a 1000 years, and even a pre-history (although, as it
usually goes, mixed with plenty of mythology) as a well defined Slavic
tribe. So, in not too good times of cronysm, rampant primitive
ultra-catholicism and general decay of values going on there since its
birth, there always remains the virtue of "we are ourselves doing it to
ourselves, so we probably deserve it".
"Taiwanese" were never a tribe, and definitely were never a defined
nation. It is, today, a nation to be born. That is, if Chinese Communist
Party will be too busy with itself to allow for it. On the other side, they
would never profile as a nation if there would not be a contrast and
fearsome Big Red Brother accross the sea. How they will fare the troubled
waters remains to be seen. I would give a credit to some of the youth there,
who do not want to fill the Party lines, and prefer instead a more
self-introspective mode. Which is today not less dangerous than it was in
the Taiming's time. Levi'Strauss was wrong, History, some new one, just starts, and
it is completely unpredictable.
There is another level in this book, which might be useful to Western expatriates
who find themselves puzzled by the inconsistencies in the Taiwanese everyday life.
They survived in Taiwan from the first half of the XX ct., and the writer removes
well the obscuring layers of history from some of them.
In the Columbia University Press edition, this book was a part of presenting
Taiwanese writers at the beginning of the Millenium. It was a good effort, but not
so easy to follow as it was not easy to find the books. Now, when it became easy
because of online bookstores, I will follow the other publications, to learn more.
This is one of the virtues of the new times, with which modern Taiwan fares better
than in the old, obscure and elitist ways.