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Li Yongping


Alison Groppe

Alison Groppe is an Assistant Professor of Chinese in the Dept of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Oregon, where she teaches courses in modern Chinese literature, film and popular culture. She is currently working on a book called _Not Made in China: Articulations of Home and Identity in Contemporary Sinophone Malaysian Literature_ in which she analyzes and contextualizes the literary texts of several acclaimed Malaysia-born Chinese authors, including Li Yongping, focusing on how they negotiate between attachments to Malaysia and to "Chineseness" in their writing. She is also researching tributes to Chinese popular culture in Chinese-language cinema and the use of dialect and "Singlish" in Singapore films.

Much of Li Yongping’s fame as an author originates with Jiling Chunqiu (Chronicles of Jiling, 1986), a dark collection of inter-related short stories about crime and punishment, or fate and retribution, in a town called Jiling. The first, and probably most famous, story in the collection, “Wanfu xiang li” (In great blessings lane), recounts a series of violent events that take place in the town’s brothel district during the annual Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) festival parade. The following stories revisit these initial events in a manner reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) by focusing on other Jiling townspeople as they gossip about and recall these events and their effects from their own perspectives in subsequent years. The stories in the collection thus construct a complex and fascinating history of the town of Jiling and of its residents, who, we come to realize, are inextricably linked to the town and to each other.

Jiling Chunqiu yields a myriad of literary pleasures. Many of those who read the stories in their original Chinese have delighted in Li Yongping’s marvelous use of written Chinese, his success in crafting a literary language drawn from traditional Chinese vernacular fiction. Thanks to an excellent translation by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin entitled Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles (NY: Columbia University Press, 2003), however, Jiling Chunqiu can also be enjoyed in English; Li Yongping’s skill with imagery and narration comes through in English as well, if differently, as it does in Chinese. There is a quasi-cinematic or “stenographic” quality to the narration, for example, which is effective in both languages. This narrative style paints vivid  pictures in our minds’ eye, presenting us with images that range from repulsive, to mundane, to beautiful, and draws our attention to a variety of physical details. Intriguingly, it also deprives us entry into the characters’ emotions or thoughts.[1] As a result, these stories offer mesmerizingly unflinching depictions of the brutality of life and the co-existence of generative and destructive impulses in the human spirit.

Besides Jiling Chunqiu, there are two other short story collections by Li Yongping that I have found particularly compelling: Lazi fu (A Dayak woman, 1975) and the more recent Yuxue feifei: Poluozhou tongnian jishi (The snow falls in clouds: recollections of a Borneo childhood, 2002) (as far as I know, only "Lazi fu," or "A Dayak woman," has been translated into English, unfortunately). Both collections focus on life in Li’s hometown of Kuching, Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo; both collections offer fascinating insights into the complex experience of growing up as a person of Chinese descent in Borneo’s multiethnic environment during the waning years of colonial rule and the difficult transition to independence. In the titular story “Lazi fu” (A Dayak woman), for example, we learn what happens when the third son of a Chinese family in Sarawak marries a woman who is not of Chinese descent but comes from one of the indigenous Borneo peoples: in general, the woman is subject to treatment by the family that is unsympathetic at best and quite cruel at worst. The story is told in the first-person by a younger family member recalling past events; this narratorial style allows the story to poignantly convey the narrator’s earlier complicity with and later regret for his family’s behavior toward the Dayak woman. That the narrator is called “Ah Ping” by his siblings and is a member of the Li family suggests that the story is at least partly autobiographical.

The stories in the Yuxue feifei collection are even more noticeably autobiographical in that we learn right away that the first-person narrator is named “Li Yongping”; they similarly present shameful incidents from the narrator’s childhood and teenage years in Borneo. In this case, the narrator has not only already grown up, but has left Borneo, resettled in Taiwan, and is now relating his memories to a young girl in Taipei as the two of them roam through the city at night. Again, the Borneo memories the narrator relates in these stories are themselves engrossing and thought-provoking. For example, in “Wang xiang” (Look homeward), he recalls befriending—and, as it turns out, later betraying—three women who live on the outskirts of Kuching and make their livings through prostitution. These women were originally from Taiwan but had been brought to Borneo during World War II to serve as “comfort women” to the Japanese occupiers. Li’s recollections not only provide us with his confessional story of how he came to know and then denounce the women, we also receive their stories of having been enticed into leaving home as teenagers, coerced into sex-slavery, and then, after the war, driven back into prostitution and too ashamed to return to their homes and families in Taiwan.

The Yuxue feifei collection is equally remarkable for the “walking and talking” framing device through which the narrator’s memories are presented. This permits Li Yongping to reflect not just on his Borneo experiences but also on the trajectory that took him to Taiwan and how he feels telling these Borneo stories as a Taipei resident. It additionally allows him to deliberate over his feelings for and experiences in his adopted home of Taiwan; his memories are not confined to his Borneo years but cover his time in Taiwan as well. I find it even more interesting that the stories emerge in the form of a conversation with an active listener, one who often solicits details about the stories, comments on them, asks blunt questions, responds emotionally, and passes judgment. As we make our way through the rambling, confessional tales, it becomes apparent that the collection as a whole represents the narrator’s (and, presumably, the author’s) pursuit of self-knowledge, personal identity, and, ultimately, absolution; the readers come away from this collection all the richer for having followed Li Yongping on his journey.


[1] For this observation I am largely indebted to Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang’s discussion of Jiling Chunqiu (or Chronicle of Chi-ling) in her Modernism and the Nativist Resistance: Contemporary Chinese Fiction from Taiwan (Durham: Duke University Press, 80-87). As she puts it, “Because the narrator strictly denies himself the power of free mental access, the narrative in these stories is composed largely of meticulous descriptions of overtly visible actions and recorded speech” (83); she goes on to conclude that “The narrative act, therefore, is modeled on the workings of the stenographer and the camera—Seymour Chatman’s analogy—and the discourse type approaches the pole of ‘pure mimesis’” (84).