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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Orphan of Asia

Wu Zhuoliu

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Orphan of Asia

Title: Orphan of Asia
Author: Wu Zhuoliu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1945 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 249 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Orphan of Asia - US
Orphan of Asia - UK
Orphan of Asia - Canada
  • Japanese title: 亞細亞的孤兒
  • Translated by Ioannis Mentzas
  • With a Foreword by Pang-yuan Chi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting if limited story of the life of an intellectual from Taiwan during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945)

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Wu Zhuoliu was Taiwanese, and Orphan of Asia is published as part of Columbia University Press' 'Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan'-series, but it was in fact written in Japanese. This is not entirely surprising: Taiwan was a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945, and the central character in this autobiographical novel, Hu Taiming, is a man marked both by his Chinese cultural heritage and the opportunities for education and advancement adoption of the Japanese language allowed.
       The book spans the entire Japanese colonial period, following Taiming's life from birth through the final days of World War II. His family comes from a small farming village, so the Japanese influence is not as immediate as elsewhere; nevertheless, it means a new order. Opportunity is now found in a Japanese education, the classical Chinese approach soon no longer viable. A good student, Taiming is able to take advantage of the system, and becomes the first from his village to advance far in his schooling.
       Taiming becomes a teacher, which makes him well-respected (the status of even just a school- or foreign language teacher throughout is roughly equal to that of a university professor in the West), but a broken heart leads him to take a radical step:

"I can study abroad. Yes, I'll forget the past, everything, and start over in Japan, from page one."
       But the past -- personal, familial, and national -- isn't that easily overcome, and Japan never embraces him fully. Despite speaking the language well, he remains an outsider -- as a student in Japan and then also in mainland China. Coming to Japan, he is advised: "not to tell anyone you're from Taiwan", and this hiding of such fundamental aspects of his background proves necessary elsewhere too: he can almost never show his true face, wherever he is (though at least he doesn't go so far as some of his relatives and acquaintances, who change their names to Japanese ones). While his homeland offers a place to retreat to, it also is too unsettled -- between the demands of the Japanese colonial masters, and then the war -- to allow him the peace of mind he longs for.
       Taiming is happiest when immersed in his studies, and he doesn't like the almost unavoidable distractions of politics that he encounters everywhere ("The ubiquity of politics was threatening to destroy what remained of his conviction regarding the true happiness of man"). In China he marries Shuchun, but they are ill-matched, and he is particularly put off by her political engagement. The birth of a daughter doesn't make for more domestic bliss, and Taiming has to flee for Taiwan and leaves his family behind when things get more unsettled and he is arrested.
       With the war -- first the Sino-Japanese conflict, then widened into the Second World War -- life becomes more difficult in Taiming's village. He does a variety of odd jobs, but everywhere encounters ugly abuses of power. He always finds some solace in Chinese tradition and the old masters, but he does not allow himself to get politicised.
       In its portrayal of Taiming and many of the others, Orphan of Asia offers an interesting picture of national character: anti-war sentiments are widespread, but many of the people are also conformists, not wanting to make waves of any sort. There is also a great deal about the clash of cultures and tradition versus modernity throughout the novel, ideas Taiming encounters -- including the complaint that the Chinese writing system is undemocratic:
As long as characters were used, the masses would be illiterate. An ideographic language was protection for any autocratic polity and ensured an uneducated population. China could not compete with more civilized nations as long as it took half a lifetime to learn how to read.
       But there is nothing Taiming really lets himself get drawn into; as if to emphasise that fact, it's remarkable how often he leaves a variety of encounters without saying farewell, allowing for no closure. He was forced to abandon his wife and daughter, but even when he is not compelled to there is little he sticks with.
       Orphan of Asia is a fairly short novel, covering a lot of ground. Often it seems rushed yet plodding, the sequence of events not always flowing smoothly. Taiming's philosophical musings -- he's a troubled guy -- and the style of the original translate somewhat roughly into English, oddly florid (though that does give the book a somewhat appealing 'foreign' or exotic feel). Describing Taiming and Shuchun going to an art exhibit as they are falling in love, Wu writes, for example:
She seemed inordinately smart; and so their contemplation of beauty catalyzed the fusion of their souls.
       Of much of this there is perhaps not enough: Orphan of Asia feels like a compacted tale, the larger, more detailed version underneath near bursting to get out. It reads like something Wu wanted to set down very quickly; the comparison to a Chinese brush-painting is perhaps appropriate, appearing almost sketchy, in large parts, to the Western eye (which also doesn't fully appreciate the many allusions that enrich the text), quite unlike the heavy, many-layered European oil paintings.
       An interesting perspective on the Far East in the first half of the 20th century, and stylistically appealing (if not always satisfying), Orphan of Asia is certainly worthwhile, though not entirely a success.

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Orphan of Asia: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Wu Zhuoliu (吳濁流, 1900-1976) was a leading Taiwanese literary figure.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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