Until he became embroiled in the Protect Tiao Yü T’ai movement in late 1970, Liu Ta-jen was a frequent contributor to Taiwan’s literary journals. His political activities interrupted his graduate studies. But more unfortunately, as a result of his participation in the movement he became a nonperson in the eyes of the Nationalist Government, which initially discouraged students demonstrating against Japan for fear of souring its relationship with its neighbor. Debarred from reentry to Taiwan and financially unable to continue his study in the United States, he took a job as a translator at the United Nations, a position he still holds. The tribulations and final disillusionment of one such patriot as Liu Ta-jen are reenacted in Chang Hsi-kuo’s “Red Boy,” included in this volume. In this sense, “Chrysalis” published shortly before the student movement, is a premonitory tale about the misery of expatriation tormented by misgivings of one s worth and purpose. It foreshadows the authors subsequent participation in active politics as a means to offset the burden of guilt and spiritual sterility. Liu Ta-jen has a B.A. in philosophy from National Taiwan University, and an M.A. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. After not writing for almost ten years, he broke his silence with the publication in serial form of a projected trilogy of three novels in The Seventies (Ch’i-shih nien-tai), a Hong Kong monthly. The first installment of the first work, The Plankton Community (Fou-yu ch’ün-loj, appeared in the October issue of 1981, and is now available in book form (Hong Kong, 1983). His pre-1970 writings are collected in Impressions of the Red Soil (Hung-t’u yin-hsiang, Taipei, 1970).
Translated by Cordell D. K. Yee
The view from the side of the house facing the sea was extremely vast. Except for a few old pine trees which squatted between sea and sky, bent into hunchbacks over the years by the strong ocean wind, all you could see from the long Japanese-style hallway was a blue expanse, especially on a clear day. Of course, depending on whether it was windy or rainy, clear or overcast, sunrise or sunset, this tiresome blue could change ten thousand times in the blink of an eye. Yet there were always white threadlike ripples emerging from folds in this boundless blue silk, unfolding imperceptibly, like flower buds, extending like hand pulling hand, rushing toward your eyes. Open the window—and behind the odor of rotting aquatic grasses and dead marine animals, the wind followed, scraping the glassy blue sea like a trillion knife blades. It seemed that the deafening, ever-present sound of motion had extended a shapeless hand from the ocean floor and—pushing, pushing—was piling up the white waves into the form of a giant. Later, once the hand relaxed, the waves crashed at the feet of the old pines and receded soundlessly into the blue expanse.
Mo Lao,1 looking like a statue, had struck his habitual pose. He sat on his beloved old copper-brown sofa, holding a cup of amber T’ieh Kuanyin tea with both hands and covering both legs with a plaid woolen blanket.
“This year the butterflies have come really late,” he said.
The next morning, however, the weather was perfect, as usual. It was almost the end of October, and yet the weather was perfect here on the mid-California coast, as if specially granted by heaven. Mo Lao, holding a cup of steaming T’ieh Kuan-yin tea with both hands, sat facing the window. Looking out at that incredibly tiresome pane of blue glass, he said:
“This year the butterflies have come really late.”
But perhaps because of my younger eyes, I, standing behind Mo Lao’s chair, had already seen butterflies float by from time to time, like withered leaves driven by the wind. They flitted past the edge of the scene composed of the old pines, and then, as if straining to climb the last hill, mounted the air currents that flowed over land. Soaring upward, they passed by our room and vanished into the grove of trees in the front yard.
Getting to know Mo Lao has been one of my great harvests of the past several years. I say this not because I am now Mo Lao’s youngest son-in-law. To think about it carefully, there is another reason why I feel a little grateful. I cannot say clearly what this reason basically is—perhaps it is Mo Lao’s imperturbability.
It was brought unconsciously into our lives by Hsi-hu. Hsi-hu, ah, my Hsi-hu. I was deeply infatuated with her boundless femininity. Three years ago, when we moved from the east to the west coast, crossing the American continent for the first time, I first met Mo Lao, who had secluded himself here in retirement. It was not until then that I truly understood the changes I had undergone the past few years, that I truly understood Hsi-hu—my wife—and the source of her boundless femininity.
Mo Lao has already been retired for more than ten years. Up till now those who visit him frequently have mostly been celebrities and political figures who were popular at one time. Although these people have already set down roots and started new lives in this alien land, they tacitly regard Mo Lao’s place as another kind of social activity center. The strange thing is that during these gatherings Mo Lao has never been at the center of conversation. He is usually like an observer or an understanding audience: only occasionally, during short breaks in the conversation, does he interject a few sentences. Perhaps it is this unobtrusive manner that attracts visitors to his place in groups of three or five. Until now I have never chanced upon Mo Lao meeting a lone visitor.
After we moved in with Mo Lao, the crowds of visitors gradually thinned out. Each member of our small household of three generations gradually grew accustomed to one another’s ways, and then it seemed as if we had always been living together. Behind the house the waves pounded with an unvarying rhythm. The laughter and chatter of five-year-old Hsüan-hsüan and three-year-old P’ing-p’ing livened up our days, which flew by like a succession of hydrogen balloons.
It was on peaceful, happy days like these that I took stock of myself, a thirty-six-year-old historian who had published two books, who taught at a reputable institution of higher learning and who regularly presented remarkably solid papers at the conferences of the Association of East Asian Studies. I was deeply afraid. Yes, I was deeply afraid. Mo Lao’s tranquil profile, Hsi-hu’s happy smiling face, and Hsüan-hsüan’s and P’ing-p’ing’s laughter and chatter all made me deeply afraid. Yes, on days when I faced the sea while keeping Mo Lao company, I saw myself, stripped layer by layer, more and more clearly on the window in the long hallway. It was almost like the bamboo shoots that I remember helping to peel during my boyhood whenever I squeezed into my mother’s kitchen: even the slender, inner fibers of the meat could be seen clearly, becoming whiter and whiter. I was deeply afraid.
Although I had been studying history for half a lifetime, I was no good at analyzing myself. Nevertheless, because of this addiction to history, for many years I had kept a set of “historical materials’’ about myself. While living in the country with Mo Lao, I began to trace my own development. My fear certainly had its historical origins. How did it come about? How did it slip into my inner life? What was its process of development like? What did it portend? How would it change me? And what about my relationships with Hsi-hu, Hsüan-hsüan, P’ing-p’ing, and even Mo Lao? On those days when I faced the sea with Mo Lao, I slowly wrapped myself in this troublesome problem. On the one hand I felt anxious and helpless, as if gripped by a powerful hand. On the other hand I was secretly excited, since I felt that through rational means I would finally discover the hidden meaning of the problem. In the end this contradictory search summoned forth experiences that were already close to being forgotten. I remembered much of the sad and joyful past: being lost in a big stack of materials, reconstructing a historical event, finishing the manuscript of my first book, and—ha! ha!—not being able to sleep after seeing Hsi-hu for the first time. I finally found this passage in the diary I had kept ten years ago:
Talked with Chang about revolution. Couldn’t sleep the whole night; I was feeling really low. Chang cited the life of Aleksandr Herzen2 as an example to show that intellectuals had a habit of projecting their own Utopian visions on the dissatisfied masses: that is their nature, their pathetic attitude. Illogical, illogical, very illogical. True, Herzen did project his visions on the masses. He also wandered his whole life through England and Continental Europe, and never returned home. But, all the same, idealistic revolutionaries must analyze the situation, judge the situation, as the basis of their choice of action. Herzen did not return home because his time had not come.
Ha! Ha! Now I’m afraid I don’t even know for sure who Herzen is. He was probably just another exiled anarchist who lived during the nineteenth century. At the time the diary was written our hearts were all for those exiled anarchists. For someone who was already twenty-six years old and still so fervent about anarchism, surely this must be a sign of stunted intellectual growth. It must be that countries that develop late also produce youth who develop late.
Nothing can be more tedious than reading a diary like this now. My twenty-sixth year thus shamelessly and brazenly stood before me. At that time there were probably about a hundred Chinese foreign students on campus, but probably no more than six or seven I thought much of. As a result, these six or seven people and I would often gather together to do what we considered to be relevant and important. For example, the informal seminars held once every month. I came to know Hsi-hu on one of those occasions. Now when I think about it, I feel ashamed. But Hsi-hu was the kind of girl who kept you company to the end, always interested and never interrupting, no matter how ashamed the things you did in front of her made you feel later. The subject of discussion that day was “China’s land problem,” which I cannot think back on without turning red in the face. But then she was there with her usual tranquility, and her presence made everyone feel at ease and sure of himself. Yes, what we discussed was definitely “China’s land problem.” It is recorded clearly in my diary. And it was my turn to report that day. But the entry in the diary had only this:
Met at Ch’en’s house. Eight people came. I reported on “The Crux of China s Land Problem and the Road toward Its Solution.” She? Who was she?
And that’s exactly what I wrote.
After we were married, these small gatherings continued, most of the time in our small studio apartment. The problems we discussed never failed to be of the kind that makes me feel embarrassed. Now when I casually leaf through the “historical materials” of that time, I see eyecatching titles like these: “The Population Explosion and Economic Development”! “Intellectuals and Their Sense of Mission”! “Types of Fascism”! This could not but make me remember how, at the start of every meeting when we were getting set to argue, our faces and ears flushed, Hsi-hu took advantage of the moment to bring in a tray of fresh, ice-cold gelatin. Ha! Ha! The musical rest notes of my twenty-sixth year were these trays of pure white gelatin inlaid with purplish-red cherries.
The year I turned twenty-seven I submitted a synopsis of my doctoral dissertation. Its title was “Economic Oppression of the Industrial West and the Reform of the Light Shipping System of the Late Ch’ing.”
During these peaceful and carefree days, looking closely at the cheeks of my spirit slowly wasting away was not necessarily frightening. This I knew. But Hsi-hu growing plumper day by day, the children swiftly growing up, and my father-in-law never aging in a state of inertia often affected my nerves, making me more and more uneasy. It was a moonlit night more than three months ago. After putting the children to bed, Hsihu quietly found a soft cushion and leaned against my knees. Like a paper-cut on the wall of the playroom at a nursery school, the big yellow moon hung motionless, high above the horizon. Suddenly she broke the silence, saying:
“I haven’t had one for more than two months.”
We just sat there until the slowly rising snoring of Mo Lao in the next room startled us from our thoughts.
This year the butterflies actually came nearly a month late. Could it be that in the north the winter was late too? Yet these delicate little creatures, beating their silky wings of alternating black and red, finally made their way over here. And they came by the millions. It is said that some of them fly three thousand miles. What force drives them to make this journey once each year? Entomologists cannot explain why they come, but one scientist is silly enough to venture this theory: the reason why they do not mind flying a thousand miles to come here is that they get special sap from the trees in a nearby garden of about six square miles. Whenever I imagine these living things, these monarch butterflies, holding on to tree trunks and breathing wildly as if drunk, I feel an intense pain in my heart.
This year Hsüan-hsüan made a fuss about participating in the children’s costume parade at the butterfly festival. Hsi-hu made her a lined coat out of a silk hanging left over from our wedding, dressed her up to look like a girl of the late Ch’ing or early Republican period, and then cheerfully led her into the crowd while P’ing-p’ing sat on my shoulders.
This year tourists came in great numbers. The afternoon sun, even in November, was still warm. In the park the fir and eucalyptus trees were completely covered with tired monarch butterflies. Most of the latecomers were still in the air, darting about, searching for a suitable landing place. Mo Lao walked beside us. Occasionally he used his cane to draw our attention to where the mass of butterfles had gathered.
“They are really strange things,” Mo Lao said.
I put P’ing-p’ing down and let her grandfather take her by the hand. I mounted a telephoto lens onto my camera and began taking close-ups of the butterflies. Over the past three years I have taken at least four to five hundred photographs with butterflies as the subject. Through these few photographs, their living habits have become all too familiar to me. But up till now not a single photograph has satisfied me. It’s not that they are technically flawed. Even if they were, I wouldn’t have minded. After all, I am not a professional photographer and I don’t intend to become one. But somehow, I have always felt that something is missing in my photographs of monarch butterflies—something they should have.
I pointed my camera toward a spot where there were few tourists and began to work, selecting a willow whose withered branches and twigs were drooping. Viewed through the lens, the scene was extremely frightening. The willow’s branches and twigs looked very much like a disheveled old woman with at least a thousand monarch butterflies silently hanging to her body. I felt as if my blood had frozen. I took more than ten shots rapidly until I felt as if I were about to throw up. Then I took my camera and went back. By that time it was already dusk, and most of the tourists had left. I crossed the park lawn and hurried toward the spot where Mo Lao and my family were to wait for me. In the distance I could already see the two children playing with their mother on the grass. Off to the side Mo Lao sat alone on a stone on an artificial hill, resting himself on his cane, supported by both hands. The sun’s rays leaked through the gaps between the sparse leaves of the cypress tree behind him, splashing him with gold glitter. My hand instinctively adjusted the aperture and focus. I had just knelt down when a huge butterfly, almost completely red, suddenly sped into view, and without thinking I pressed the shutter release.
That evening the weather was uncommonly warm. Mo Lao was still in high spirits. We drove to a well-known French restaurant in Monterey and had a most delicious seafood dinner. Mo Lao and I shared a bottle of chablis, and we drank it all up.
We went home on Highway 1, which runs along the Pacific coast. Hsihu sat beside me while I drove, and did not say a word. The two girls were both asleep in the arms of their grandfather. To our left the ocean spread out like a great net—we just cut along its edge. Indistinctly I heard Mo Lao, seated in the rear, lowly humming a tune:
“Swallows fly in pairs; by the painted railings, the people are quiet, and the evening wind is faint.”
I followed with:
“I remember the gate and lanes in those years; the scene is vaguely familiar. . . .”
After the pictures were developed I was surprised by my own unexpected stroke of genius. Those with the willow in the background were nothing special. They generally expressed a melancholy mood. But that lucky shot of Mo Lao and the red monarch butterfly—heavens! I suddenly felt excited, as if I had found my long-sought answer. Wasn’t this it? Wasn’t this exactly it? For a moment my historian’s instincts were aroused. The contrast in the picture was so strong: a reddish-orange monarch butterfly, its spread wings about to close—this small creature, which had flown three thousand miles, had by coincidence extended its three pairs of legs to prepare for a rest. On the other hand, Mo Lao’s head—his silver strands of hair glistening in the light of the setting sun—was stopped just as it was being raised. And both of them were so tired, ordered by some mysterious force to be framed in a De Chirico-style painting!3
Soon afterwards, I began to include the history of Mo K’uang-shih, my father-in-law, as one of my research topics.
Of course the first step was to find all the firsthand materials I could. This was not difficult, because many of Mo Lao’s contemporaries had published their memoirs and the periodicals Mo Lao edited in his youth had survived up to now in fragments. There were also microfilmed newspapers and documents relevant to my research in our library, so reconstructing the events of Mo Lao’s life was not difficult.
I organized the materials very quickly and reviewed the various theories regarding China’s modern history. Three simple points were adopted as the basis of my study:
1. Mo Lao was a typical example of a modern Chinese intellectual involved in politics.
2. The experience of the model, politically involved Chinese intellectual was tragic.
3. The crux of this tragedy lay in contradictions that the intellectuals themselves had no way of transcending. To summarize, these included:
—The ambivalent attitude toward “authority” expressed during the creation of political power.
—Vacillation in the quagmire of what Karl Mannheim4 called the utopian mentality and real politics, while having to give up the intellectual’s role as social critic.
—The psychological complex of xenophobia and iconoclasm brought about by the dual pressure of western industrial civilization and traditional culture.
After I finished this tentative plan, my psychological tenseness seemed to relax slightly. Yet I still felt vaguely that, if it were only for presentation at the annual conference, this had already met the requirements of a solid paper. But I could not help asking myself: Wasn’t I unconsciously applying worn-out academic formulas merely by setting up a framework like this for my paper? This misgiving made me hesitate: I dared not start writing too hastily. Finally I decided to have Hsi-hu act as a reader. I drafted a main outline following my plan, sealed it in an envelope, and left it on Hsi-hu’s dresser table. The next day it returned to my desk with a note attached:
“I don’t see my father in his flesh and blood.”
Hsi-hu’s reaction naturally deepened my apprehension. Although she was a very special reader, and though I well knew that those who write history nowadays do not write for readers outside academic circles with no knowledge of history or basic training in behavioral science, I could not but consider Hsi-hu’s reaction. The paths of historical development were one thing—any second-rate historiographer could handle it. But interpretation and analysis of the logic of historical development placed historical events and figures in a broader perspective. This was another matter. This was the only important mission that my education had prepared me for. I was a person who worked in the direction pointed out by his education, a young, energetic scholar who had published two important works. Yet my wife said to me: You’re merely playing word games! Although she was no historian, she was Mo Lao’s daughter. Didn’t Mo Lao’s intellectual life and political activities, and all his major choices and decisions of the past thirty years, affect her life directly, and weren’t they reasons why Hsi-hu became Hsi-hu? What right did I have to oppose this instinctive, direct reaction? Wasn’t this simply a resounding slap on my historian’s mouth?
Under this kind of attack, I resolved to look through all the works I had published. Reading them again, I had to admit that I found myself in an extremely embarrassing situation. My writing was mechanical, practiced, but had no vitality. My reasoning and analyses were rigorous, logical, well-organized, but lacked any original ideas. For the most part, my theoretical framework was the mere dutiful application of the ideas of a few social historians who were then popular in academic circles. All I did was to add a decorative outer coat to them.
I felt that the ground beneath my feet was slowly shifting, that the construction project I had toiled to build was sinking. Again I picked up that photograph of Mo Lao and the monarch butterfly and examined it closely. Then I simply shook all the photographs of butterflies that had accumulated over the past few years out from my drawer and spread them out on the table. The contrast produced here was so clear, so obvious. Except for this most recent one, all that the photographs showed me was a variety of butterfly corpses. They were all images of cold death. One by one I reexamined the entries in the diary I had kept over the past few years. Without a doubt, what was recorded here was merely the slow process of my advance toward death.
It was already deep into the night, and I was still in a daze, facing a table covered with butterfly corpses. Without my knowing it, Hsi-hu had been standing behind me. Her hair brushed lightly against my cheeks. She said softly:
“I think P’ing-p’ing has a fever!”
We gave P’ing-p’ing some liquid aspirin and held her in our arms until her temperature dropped and her eyes closed. It was already dawn when I went to sleep, completely worn out. This was probably the soundest I had slept in several years.
After almost four months of hard labor, I finally finished Mo Lao’s oral history. Mo Lao, who was nearly eighty, had a surprisingly good memory. I checked the documents I had collected and discovered not only that Mo Lao’s recollections supplemented them with many details, but even that his memory of less significant dates, place names, and relationships between events was seldom mistaken. This made me marvel at the sense of history possessed by an intellectual of Mo Lao’s generation.
After I revised my original draft, Mo Lao gave some of his close friends who were either directly or indirectly involved in his personal history a few copies to look over. Everyone encouraged us to publish it. I sought Hsi-hu’s opinion. She said her father should be the one to decide. As for Mo Lao? He just said:
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s published or not. After all, it’s all about things of the past. But I do want to ask you one question. These past few months I’ve let you ask enough questions, right?”
Of course I already knew what he wanted to ask, and it seemed that he already knew that I knew. He continued:
“Don’t use high-sounding talk to put me off. Why are you young people interested in old folks like us?”
I was silent for a long time. I didn’t know how best to answer this question. Mo Lao spoke again:
“Ai! I probably can’t blame you for this, since in fact there is nothing better for you to do, right?”
It was the middle of March. The monarch butterflies, which stay along sunny California’s coastal belt, had completed their annual winter sojourn. In the season when floral fragrance fills the air, they started their journey homeward. And during this spring season in a foreign land where ten thousand flowers bloomed, our first son came into the world. Mo Lao chose for him a strange sounding name—Nai-chan, which probably takes its meaning from the lines “Then I see my house, /1 exult and run to it.”5 Sharing in the festive air created by the newborn baby’s cries filling the house, Mo Lao, who was sitting in front of the hallway in the warm sunlight, suddenly said to me:
“These butterflies are really strange. How do they know it’s time to go back?”
I had originally intended to answer by citing one entomologist’s theory. The words were on the tip of my tongue, but for some reason I couldn’t get them out. So I just made up a bit of nonsense:
“It’s probably already spring where they are headed.”
1. Literally, “Mo the Venerable.” Here it is used as a proper name.
2. Aleksandr (Ivanovich) Herzen (1812-1870), Russian journalist and political thinker who was exiled for his ideas about revolution. After six years of exile he returned to Russia in 1842, but left again in 1847. He settled in England in 1852.
3. Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978), Italian painter, one of the founders of the “metaphysical school.” In metaphysical painting representational but bizarre imagery was used to disquiet the viewer. For this reason De Chirico is regarded as a forerunner of the Surrealists.
4. Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), sociologist who taught in Germany until the rise of Adolf Hitler. He believed that social conflict was caused by differences in individual ways of thought and in personal criteria of truth. To Mannheim, these differences were more important than economic inequality and class consciousness.
5. “Nai-chan” means “Then I see.” The lines are from “Returning Home” by T’ao Ch’ien (365?-427).