Cheng Ch’ing-wen received his degree in business administration from National Taiwan University in 1958. In the same year his first story, “Lonely Heart” (Chi-mo ti hsin), was accepted by Lin Hai-yin for publication in United Daily (Lien-ho Pao). Since then he has led a remarkable dual career as writer and administrator at Taipei’s Hua Nan Commercial Bank. He was educated in the Japanese system until after the war, when he, like his contemporaries, was reoriented in Chinese education. His study of Japanese has enabled him to render valuable service in translation. Thanks to his efforts, a number of early Taiwan writers who wrote in Japanese are now available in Chinese. A conscientious writer who makes it an article of faith not to employ uncommon diction in his narrative, Cheng Ch’ing-wen reveals, through stylistic simplicity, his abhorence for pomp and artificiality. In this respect, “Betel Palm Village” can at once be read as a “period piece” demonstrating the tremendous changes that have occurred in rural Taiwan since Chung Li-ho’s days, and an affirmation of rustic virtues over urban values resulting from industrialization. His stories are collected in The Coconut Trees on Campus (Hsiao-yüan li ti yeh-tzu-shu, Taipei, 1970), in Modern Heroes (Hsien-tai ying-hsiung, Taipei, 1976), and in Self Selections (Cheng Ch’ing-wen tzu-hsüan-chi, Taipei, 1976). The present selection was published in United Daily, July 31, 1979.
Translated by Charles Hartman
Some students had left for home on afternoon and evening trains after the commencement yesterday morning. Others were getting ready to leave this morning. Only a few were still in Taichung.
Hung Yüeh-hua went into the business district of the city to buy some souvenirs for her parents before leaving for home. She had spent four years studying in Taichung, and now, as she walked through the streets, she saw many familiar spots—the park, the library, the cinemas, the small restaurants—and suddenly realized that she would probably not often have a chance to see them again in the days ahead. So when she passed a place she knew well, she could not resist the impulse to take a longer look.
She thought of her classmates, how she had often passed by these places with them before. Mostly they had been girls, but sometimes a few boys had come along too. But there was one boy, and only one, who had never gone out with his classmates. He was Ch’en Hsi-lin.
He had not come to commencement yesterday, nor had he come to sign yearbooks or to say good-byes.
Why had he not come? What was more important than yesterday, the end of four years of student life? No one had seen him since his last examination. Could he be sick? But then she remembered his strong, dark body and couldn’t put it together with his being sick.
At school he was different and almost never socialized with the other students. But he worked hard, and his grades were very good. She had only spoken with him once, last year when they were together in the same farm intern group. They talked a lot then, but after that one time he became a stranger again. She really could not understand him—but then she never thought she would want to understand him, either.
So why did she suddenly think of him again today? Was it because he did not attend commencement?
She reached the train station and looked at the times for the trains back to Taipei and then looked at the southbound schedule. Perhaps she should go see him. She bought a ticket on the southbound local, then suddenly asked herself why and hesitated a moment, but the ticket was already bought.
The train was about half an hour late, and after an hour’s ride, when she arrived at the small station it was already past one in the afternoon. Few passengers were there, to get on or off the train. The sun was blinding.
Although she had never been here before, the name of this small station had remained in her mind for over two years. She and her classmates had been returning from a trip south during the winter vacation of their sophomore year. She was sitting by the window and looking out to the west, where she saw a large red ball sinking below the horizon.
“How gorgeous!” she and her friends exclaimed in unison.
The train was passing through a large field, and she had seen a square farmstead, ringed by tall betel palms and crowned by the beautiful setting sun. “Betel Palm Village”—a beautiful name—flashed into her mind and was linked together with the beautiful sunset.
But Betel Palm Village was quickly left behind, and the sun dropped below the horizon. The sky had been fire red, and she had looked at her watch: 5:35.
She closed her eyes, recalling that beautiful scene. Then the train began to slow to a stop. The conductress announced the name of the stop over the intercom and said there would be a slight wait to allow another train to pass by. She opened her eyes and fixed the name of the stop in her mind.
As she was leaving the station, the ticket collector raised his head and glanced at her. Nothing like this would ever happen in cities like Taipei and Taichung. She felt that everyone was looking at her, especially the girls. Was her skirt too short? Her heels too high? She suddenly felt herself blushing.
Betel Palm Village—how to get to the place she had seen two years ago from the train window? She knew Ch’en Hsi-lin lived there. He had told her so last year during their farm internship when he had talked to her about the problems of growing betel nuts.
“‘Betel Palm Village’,” he mused. “What a gorgeous name! Just like a rural watercolor scene. But actually . . . Well, I hope you have a chance to come and see for yourself.”
“Is it really all right for me to come?”
But he never actually invited her, and, after that time, he had never even spoken to her again.
During second semester she had time for more electives and took easy courses. But he still took a heavy load, so they seldom had a chance to meet. When they did by chance run into each other, he seemed to avoid her intentionally. Soon final exams were over, and everybody graduated. But he did not even come to commencement. Was it possible he had already forgotten he had invited her to have a look at his Betel Palm Village?
But she had not forgotten. Now her problem was how to get there. The direction she knew. Just follow the train tracks south. But judging from the speed of the train that day, the distance must be at least two or three miles. And she had not asked Ch’en Hsi-lin how to get there or what bus to take.
She left the station. Out front were two rows of grocery stands, with fruit, fish, and meat, and six or seven snack vendors. The narrow streets and walls all seemed covered with the black ash color distinctive of the region.
Even though it was well over lunch time, there were still a few customers at the small eateries, and she could hear the sounds of cooking and see the woks still steaming. She also saw a stand with sweet things like peanut soup, red bean soup, and rice cakes. A narrow-lipped teapot whistled unceasingly. She saw some cakes and fritters in a small glass case and two or three customers eating with lowered heads.
Then she remembered she had had nothing for lunch. Boarding the train on the spur of the moment, she had forgotten to eat. She saw ajar of mien-tsa1 and remembered how as a child she would eat it at the small stand in front of the temple when she visited her grandmother in the countryside. But after her grandmother passed away, she did not often visit her mother’s family, and even less often did she see mien-tsa.
She ordered a bowl, surprised that she had found mien-tsa in a place like this.
The proprietess of the stand, a short, squat woman in her fifties, scooped some mien-tsa powder into a bowl, skillfully scraping the back of the soup spoon on the lip and pouring in hot water from the kettle. The powder bubbled, and she stirred it with the soup spoon.
“Excuse me,” Hung Yüeh-hua said. “Along the railroad tracks there is a family that raises betel nut. Could you tell me how to get there?”
“They have a boy who went to college in Taichung.”
“You mean Ch’en Hsi-lin?” a man sitting down across from her asked. He was eating peanut soup and fritters.
“You know him?”
“He’s our agricultural expert around here. If there’s a question about seeds or fertilizer or anything, we ask him.”
“How can I get there?”
“I’il take you there on the motorcycle, if you want to go.”
“But isn’t there a bus or a taxi?”
“Sure, but they’re inconvenient. The buses don’t run very often, and when you get off, you’ve still got to walk quite a way, and you might get lost. It’s better I take you.”
“But I couldn’t!”
“Why not? You know, whenever I meet city folks, I get the feeling they don’t trust people.”
“But I. . . .” She felt a bit embarrassed.
“Are you a classmate of his?”
“I have to go next door to pick up a few things I bought. Wait here a moment.”
The man was also named Ch’en. They rode the motorcycle along a small path through the fields. On both sides of the path the fields consisted of black soil, now mostly turned over in preparation for planting the second crop.
The scorching sun was directly overhead. In about ten minutes they were at Ch’en Hsi-lin’s house, and indeed it was the Betel Palm Village she had seen from the train. But it seemed a little smaller than she had imagined.
She stood in the entrance and, looking east, could see the train bed stretching far away into the distance.
The man who had brought her turned out to be a distant cousin of Ch’en Hsi-lin. The house was red brick and looked already very old. In front was a cement courtyard for drying grain, where chickens and ducks were running back and forth, shitting at random. The house was surrounded on all four sides by two rows of betel palms. Most were as tall as the house, but a few were shorter and looked as though they had been planted later. Some of the trees were in bloom; others were already bearing fruit. Ch’en Hsi-lin had told her that betel palms, in addition to being able to replace bamboo as fences, also had a greater economic value than bamboo.
Ch’en Hsi-lin was not at home. His mother came out, said he was working in the fields, and told his cousin to go call him back. But Hung Yüeh-hua wanted to go see him in the field, which was behind the house and faced the railroad tracks, probably west.
The sun shone fiercely. She went behind the house, and all she saw was a paddy field. Some areas were already filled with water and, reflecting the sky, looked like a vast mirror. Far away she could see several shadows moving back and forth in the muddy field. They seemed to be chasing something with steps now large, now small. The scene seemed almost comical. There were several women wearing bamboo hats with colorful pieces of cloth attached to protect their faces from the sun. But judging from their figures—their faces were hard to see—one of them was rather young. “Who could she be?” Hung Yüeh-hua asked herself. But almost immediately she checked herself and blushed. Why was she thinking about something like that? It was none of her business.
The path through the field was only a foot wide, and, when she walked, her heel would sometimes sink down into the ground so that she had to be careful not to fall down.
As she approached the workers, she saw Ch’en Hsi-lin. He wasn’t sick at all. She saw him stop and turn his head to look at her. He looked surprised for a moment, then taking the nearest path he walked toward her. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, but she could still see his broad shoulders and large biceps. He looked much darker than he had in school. His legs looked like he was wearing boots, the mud almost up to his knees. His body also showed traces of mud.
“I never expected . . .,” he said, taking off his bamboo hat.
“What are you doing?”
“Stomping in the stalks.”
“Stomping in the stalks?”
“Haven’t you ever seen it done? You stomp the rice stalks into the mud so they will decay faster. Since the time between the first and second crop is so short, we have to stomp the old stalks into the ground.”
“I never knew anything about it.”
“That’s not surprising. They don’t tell you about such things in the classroom or during the farm intern period.”
“Why didn’t you come to graduation yesterday?”
“We’re too busy here. Right now everybody is hurrying to transplant the rice seedlings.”
“Am I interrupting you then?”
“Of course not.”
“Can I try?”
“It’s hard work.”
“But I just want to give it a try.”
“Aren’t you afraid of getting your clothes dirty?”
“That’s all right,” she said in a mild tone of embarrassment.
“You should wear a straw hat; the sun is very strong,” he said, giving her his own hat.
“What about you?”
“I’ve got this one,” he said pulling a cap from his pants pocket. “I’ll get you a bamboo pole for a staff.”
“But you’re not using them.”
“But I studied agriculture too, and even though I graduated yesterday, I’ll just consider this as a little make-up work,” she joked.
It is true: she had studied agriculture. But she and Ch’en Hsi-lin were completely different. She had been assigned to the agriculture department as a result of the college entrance exams—she did not score high enough to enter the college of her first choice—while Ch’en Hsi-lin had come to the department eagerly and on his own, hoping to learn something that would help him improve his crop yields.
Hung Yüeh-hua took off her shoes and socks. Even though her skirt didn’t reach her knees, she carefully lifted it up a little and cautiously stepped into the paddy.
Ch’en Hsi-lin introduced her to the others working there. The young girl was his sister, Yü-lan, a student at a teachers college in central Taiwan. The other woman was his sister-in-law.
When she stepped into the paddy, she felt as though her whole body was sinking in. She felt insecure. The muddy ground seemed to be pulling her down, and she rapidly sunk in up to her knees. She quickly pulled her skirt up, revealing her white thighs. She blushed again.
She watched the others stomp. Ch’en Hsi-lin was beside her. He and the girls were stomping quickly and accurately. He wanted to give her a bamboo pole but she said no. She saw a clump of stalks in front of her and was about to stomp them down, but her feet seemed embedded in the mud and she could not pull them out. She pulled with all her strength. Her foot came out, but she almost fell down. Ch’en Hsi-lin gave her the pole and insisted she use it.
She stomped slowly. It was her first time in a rice paddy. As she was putting her foot down, her body was unsteady. When she was stable again, she was in mud up to her calves and felt as though she had suddenly become shorter.
The freshly ploughed mud was strewn with clumps of old rice stalks. Some were pointing straight up, others were at an angle, and others were under the water. Since the rice had just been harvested, the ends of the cut stems were still sharp. She smelled an odor, which, although she had never smelled it before and had no way to describe it, she knew was the smell of the soil.
She tried to stomp the stalks down properly, but sometimes she stepped off to the side, and half a clump would remain, so she would have to pull her leg out and stomp again. Sometimes if the stems pointed upward or were buried unseen under the mud, they pierced the soles of her feet when she stepped down. At times the pain was too much and caused her to wince and bend forward slightly. Sometimes the mud was sticky, which made it impossible for her to pull her feet easily. At other times it was slimy, as if there were mud fish slithering around. And sometimes it spit out from around her calves and soiled her skirt and her thighs. She stomped very carefully, afraid of falling down.
The area that Ch’en Hsi-lin did was much wider than hers, which was only a narrow strip, and crooked at that.
Every time she stomped down, the mud oozed up and separated her toes. She noticed that Ch’en Hsi-lin’s toes were also spread apart, and that his arches looked wide and thick. She suddenly thought it strange that he could fit such feet into his boots.
A little after three o’clock they stopped for a snack of sweet potatoes in gruel, with fermented black beans and minced pickled turnips. They rinsed off their hands and feet and ate standing on the path. Ch’en Hsilin’s sister Yü-lan asked Hung Yüeh-hua a few questions about the city and kept admiring her skin. Hung Yüeh-hua had never eaten such food before, but decided it tasted better than anything else, especially the yellow sweet potatoes in the gruel.
The rest was very short—just the time they took to eat. Hung Yüeh-hua looked down at her feet, which were still covered with a little mud that had dried in some places and felt congealed and caked. Most of the polish on her toenails was gone, and dirt was stuffed under the nails in a round curve like a crescent moon. Her arms were red and felt burned.
When the meal was finished, they began to work again. Ch’en Hsi-lin wanted her to take a rest, but she insisted on joining them.
The sun was still very hot, and the sweat poured unceasingly from her forehead and stung her eyes. She was thirsty; her throat was dry. Her back was wet with perspiration. Her steps became slower, and she had trouble straightening her back. She felt like she had never perspired so much in her life.
Her stomping gradually got slower and the steps smaller, so that Ch’en Hsi-lin had to do even more to allow them to maintain the even progress of the work. Sometimes she missed a clump or did not stomp it completely under, so Ch’en Hsi-lin came back to stomp it again.
“I’m glad you came to see me,” he said.
“Eh . . .” she replied, her face blushing again as the sweat seemed to pour forth even faster.
“Actually, I wish our other classmates had come along too.”
“They all went home.”
“What are your plans from here on? Travel? Marriage? Work?”
“My father has already found me a job.”
“A trading company.”
“Exporting handicrafts. It’s only temporary. I just can’t find anything that suits me better right now.”
“It sounds all right to me. But, you know, I’ve often thought recently that many people who want to study things like agriculture can’t get the chance, while others who don’t want to or don’t have to study such things crowd in and take up the limited number of places in the universities,” he said.
“I’ve had the same thought sometimes, especially recently, just before graduation, when I had so much trouble finding a job. I understand what you mean. In fact, sometimes I think I made a mistake.”
“But it’s certainly not your fault. Of course, anybody can study anything he likes. It’s just that there are some who really want to study something and never get the chance. Take me, for instance. I took the college entrance exams three times before I got in, while you others were assigned to the agricultural department because you didn’t do well enough to be admitted to the department of your choice. You didn’t really want to study agriculture. You remember the first time we went to school farm? You all thought you were going on a picnic, breaking up into little groups to chat—some even brought cassette players along so they could listen to music while they watched the hired hands work,” he said.
“But we had farmers in our department too—like you. And some of them did very well and want to go on to the experimental station or to grad school.”
“Very few. Very few. The vast majority will do something else after graduation. It’s not only a loss for them, it’s a loss for society as a whole.”
“But what can be done about it? I studied hard back then. Everybody wants to do as well as he can on the entrance exams. Everybody feels it’s better to study something than not to study at all.”
Ch’en Hsi-lin listened and then was silent. After a while he said: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned those things to you.”
Hung Yüeh-hua was about to speak, but she swallowed her words. She felt bad and blushed once again. Her head dropped down, her steps became heavier, her waist became sorer and weaker. She seemed stuck fast in the mud, with no way to pull herself out. She tried hard to straighten her back, looking at a clump of stalks a few feet away. With all her strength she pulled on her foot. It came out, but her body swayed. She tried to regain her balance, but her body tottered even further and she fell over backwards into the mud.
She fought to get up, but the ground was too soft, and she sank in deeper. She tried to push herself up with her hand, but it only sank down into the mud. Her other hand clutched the bamboo pole, which now only flailed back and forth in the empty air.
“Are you all right?”
Ch’en Hsi-lin raced toward her in big steps and pulled her up. Her arms and skirt were solid mud.
“I really shouldn’t have said those things,” he said, helping her to the path. “I’ll have Yü-lan take you back so you can change clothes.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve held up your work.”
Yü-lan heated some water for Hung Yüeh-hua to bathe with. The house had no bathroom. The washing-up place was in a corner of the kitchen, and there was no curtain. It was still broad daylight, and she hesitated a moment.
“It’s all right. We all wash up like this. I’ll watch out for you,” Yü-lan said, sitting down by the door.
The kitchen had only one small window, from which she could see several green shadows swaying back and forth outside. They were probably the leaves of the betel palms.
Yü-lan gave her some of her own clothes to put on and washed the dirty ones. Yü-lan was not as tall as Hung Yüeh-hua was but was a little heavier, so Hung Yüeh-hua was able to fit into her clothes. The clothes had a yellowish tint and an alkaline odor, but she didn’t know whether it was the nature of the cloth or the water the clothes were washed in that was the cause. When she put them on, she had a strange feeling, as though something was crawling on her, especially on her neck, shoulders, and arms. Perhaps she had caught too much sun; indeed, these areas were all red.
She washed the mud off her lower legs, revealing white skin once again, but she still could not wash the mud from under her toenails. She discovered many red lines where the rice stems had scratched her legs. They itched.
“I like you a lot,” Yü-lan suddenly said.
“Please excuse me. My coming here has just caused you trouble.”
“Not at all. You’re the first of my brother’s classmates to visit us. He’s certainly very happy. We all hope you can come again.”
“I’il be going back to Taipei today. I really don’t know when I’ll be able to come again. But I’ll never forget what’s happened today.”
Yü-lan showed Hung Yüeh-hua around the house and told her that ten years ago when Yü-lan’s brother had just started agricultural high school he had urged their father to replant the betel palms as a replacement for the original bamboo fence around the house. The father had strongly opposed the idea, but her brother had so many good reasons that her father was finally convinced.
An hour or so later, Ch’en Hsi-lin and the others returned. They had finished stomping the rice stalks into the ground.
Hung Yüeh-hua wanted to hurry back to Taipei at once, but Ch’en Hsilin, Yü-lan, and the others pressed her to stay for dinner. His mother had already killed a chicken she had raised herself and cut off an entire leg for her. It was a country custom to keep the legs for the children to eat, so Hung Yüeh-hua felt herself blushing once again.
She was too embarrassed to eat, but then it would be rude not to eat. She looked at the chicken leg in her bowl and picked at the rice around it with her chopsticks. But Ch’en Hsi-lin’s mother insisted she eat, talking unceasingly about how country chickens were certainly better tasting than city chickens. She then took the chicken leg, dipped it in soy sauce, and returned it to Hung Yüeh-hua’s bowl, threatening to force-feed it to her if she did not eat.
Ch’en Hsi-lin’s mother was about sixty. She was short, but her movements were still energetic, and she was still strong. Hung Yüeh-hua had seen her lift a large wooden bucket of slop for the pigs with one hand.
Hung Yüeh-hua picked lightly at the chicken leg with her chopsticks, then pulled off the skin with her fingers and placed it on the table. She had never eaten chicken skin. When Ch’en Hsi-lin saw this, he reached over with his chopsticks, grabbed up the skin, and nonchalantly plopped it into his own mouth. She blushed again.
After dinner, Ch’en Hsi-lin asked her to come out by the railroad tracks for a look at the sunset.
“That’s all right.”
“But since you’re here, you might as well have another look.”
“I’d like to go back,” she replied.
“Then I’ll take you to the station on the motorcycle.”
The sun had just set, and the western sky was a single patch of fire red. Countryside sunsets were gorgeous.
The motorcycle sped quickly between the fields where the water reflected the color of the sky. Hung Yüeh-hua held tight with both hands to the strap on the seat. Her head was against Ch’en Hsi-lin’s back. The cycle was going very fast, and the wind was strong. Should she inch closer? She blushed again at the thought.
The wind rushed past, and her hair was flying about when suddenly something blew into her eye. She blinked repeatedly, but it was still embedded in her eye, which began to water in a steady stream. She didn’t dare release her grip on the strap and could only lower her head and rub it against her shoulder. But the more she rubbed it, the more her eye hurt. She thought of asking him to stop, but knew they would reach the station in a few minutes. Perhaps she could hold out for a while.
By the time they reached the station, she could not open her eye, and her face was covered with tears.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I think I’ve got something in my eye,” she answered in a nasal tone, the tears having already gotten into her nose.
“Let me have a look,” he said and opened her eyelid with his fingers.
“It’s a mosquito.”
“No, just a small one. Hold still,” he said, moving his lips in close and blowing hard, then opening the eyelid with his fingers again.
“A little,” she replied, blinking her eyes and wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand. “I’ve really caused you a lot of trouble today.”
“Why do you keep saying that? I’m glad. I really never expected. . . . I’m really glad I saw you again.”
“I’ll think of you when I pass by here on the train again.”
“And when I see the train passing by, I’ll think perhaps you’re on it, expecially if the sun is just about to set behind the mountains.”
1. Spicy roasted flour served in hot water with sugar.