Wedding in Autumn, by Shih Chiung-yu

translated by Darryl Sterk

Balestier Press, 2018

Publisher’s Blurb

Haunted by memories of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s, nationalist soldiers from all over mainland China are doomed to live out their days in exile in Taitung County, along the southeastern shore of the island of Taiwan.

The three novellas in this collection tell stories of Chinese men who were forced to leave their loved ones behind and the aboriginal Amis locals they marry or adopt to try to make themselves at home, often in vain, for their wives and adopted daughters and sons end up knocked up, sexually abused, sold into prostitution, happily married, or insane.

Set in Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s, Wedding in Autumn and Other Stories captures the suffering and the will to survive of marginalised people everywhere.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Vicki Leigh, 26/3/20

Shih Chiung-Yu asks the reader to go beyond what the imagination of a consumer of mainland Chinese and Taiwanese literature may demand of contemporary East Asian fiction and culture in Wedding in Autumn and Other Stories, set in 1970s/80s Taiwan along the south-eastern shore of the former Formosa. The book centres around mainland Chinese men and their settling into the local Amis tribe’s life, a tribe whose existence often endures harrowing twists and turns.

Indigenous stories are unquestionably interwoven with nature all over our planet, and as our Earth appears to be sleepwalking into annihilation at the hands of its human inhabitants, I find Native stories becoming ever more fervently heard on social media and in literature. Are they seeping through into the collective subconscious on today’s mainstream platforms? I feel they are.

First up, plain and passive Ah Ju, who has never known who her parents are, and who has been ‘knocked up and dumped several times’, manages to cling on to some semblance of happiness by the end in the bittersweet tale “Wedding in Autumn”. Sexually ridiculed and yet objectified, even by the well-intentioned male protagonist, Ah Ju shines a light on what it is to be a barely educated indigenous woman raised by her mainland adopted father.

Ah Ju is perceived as simultaneously earthy yet dirty, with ‘pegs’, ‘mushrooms’ and ‘eggs’ for breasts. You’ll get sick if you touch something she’s touched. Her ‘wet heat’ in the air around her reminds me of the earthly feminine entity that is the Amazon rainforest, and maybe Ah Ju is the embodiment of femininity after all, ever giving life despite the ravaging of her womb. She is ‘mysterious but on full display’, her scent being her ‘subtle monologue’, a mental picture which I love!

Ah Ju miscarries again as the protagonist beholds, and so his innocence dies along with the foetus, thus the reader witnesses a young man as he grows up in a flash. Later, her physical feminine form makes the (again, male) protagonist lose control of his actual bodily facilities, and not in the way you might conjure!
‘Women’s wombs are strange places’, he observes. You got that right buddy, it’s strange even to us!

In “Flee, Ma-wu-k’u River”, judging by the first few words in the opening paragraph, things fast appear dysfunctional: ‘when the third daughter of the woman Wang T’ung had shacked up with was giving birth to their third son…Grandpa Papa’s third child-grandchild’. I’m an optimistic person but I feel like I know what’s around the corner.

Indigenous cultures are steeped in alcoholism, from the Americas to Australasia, and in A-hsiang’s house this is no different: she drinks hard as she ‘sang and danced every time she hit the bottle’, swigging away her heavy co-dependence on Wang T’ung when he can barely provide for himself on his meagre soldier’s pension, however she does turn it around as she begins to make a living for herself. Sexual violence is the norm, starting towards A-hsiang, as Wang T’ung ruthlessly uses this entire family of mother and young daughters for his own gain. A calm, graphic depiction follows, normalising it for the reader from youngest Mei-chu’s point of view.

Sparky Mei-chu is a victim of life’s circumstances: never really believed in at school, a scapegoat for classroom lice, and always getting the whip. And yet, despite the ghost of Wang T’ung ruining the four Chang women, she resiliently goes on.

I had trouble connecting with the third novella, “The Last Whistling Pine, Forgotten by the Windbreak”, mainly due to the many distractingly glaring spelling and grammatical errors, which led to such a disconnect that some of the story failed to make sense to me. An early one is: ‘The autumn arrived at Mimi my hometown’, initially leading me to believe Mimi was the protagonist’s hometown. But she is not, and thus led to further confusion. Intentional? Possibly.

Through people’s ‘drug addiction[s]’ and ‘…initial impresion[s] of death’, I found it difficult to concentrate on and empathise with anybody in this one, as I just kept anticipating bizarre inaccuracies. Maybe that’s just the cantankerous pedant in me. Personally, I don’t typically expect to be spoon-fed whilst reading, but who on earth is, or was, Mimi? And with regards to the downfall of A-ma… do I care? Sadly, not overly.

Having never previously come across the Amis, one of 16 officially recognised indigenous tribes in Taiwan, I enjoyed delving into their previously matrilineal culture, their trilling language sounding like the Tagalog of the Philippines or similar to my untrained ear on Youtube, and not sounding like anything related to the ‘China’ I know at all. I would hope and expect that more microcosmic ‘ethnic minority’ stories are going to become more and more important for China to make sense of itself and its place on the world stage.

Reviewed by Vicki Leigh

Reviewed by Catherine Shipley, 6/3/20

Wedding in Autumn is a collection of three novellas, set in Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s. They tell the stories of Chinese men who were forced to leave mainland China during the civil war in the late 1940s, to settle in Taitung County, Taiwan. They become involved with local Amis women, who are looked upon as inferior and frequently treated appallingly.

The stories are quite brutal and, for that reason, can be difficult to read at times. Wedding in Autumn describes the tough life of Ah Ju, who was purchased by blind Uncle Chu, as he wanted a daughter and she was from a poor family. Uncle Chu is presented as a respectable man and Ah Ju as someone who is causing him inconvenience and loss of face through her numerous pregnancies by unreliable men. The wedding itself seems to provide a sense of dignity to a woman who is regarded with a mixture of curiosity and disdain by the, presumably non-Amis, people in the community around her. They are fascinated by her exploits but are somehow unable to relate to her as one human to another. This treatment appears to have affected Ah Ju herself, who goes about her life acquiescing to others; indicating little of her own desires or hopes.

‘Flee, Ma-wu-K’u River,’ tells the story of Wang T’ung, who married an Amis woman, A-Hsiang. The arrangement was practically convenient for them both. A-Hsiang had three daughters (Mei-hua, Mei-feng and Mei-chu-mei) and needed a roof over her head. She worked to provide food for her daughters and to fund her alcoholism, whilst meeting all of Wang T’ungs (mostly sexual) demands. Despite raising the daughters with their mother, it is clear that Wang T’ung struggled to see these Amis women as equal to his own race. There is a mention of the ‘mumbo jumbo’ tribal language the women spoke and the fact that he goes on to sexually abuse all three daughters shows that, as far as he is concerned, he purchased the right to do so when agreeing to provide a roof over their heads. It is only as he ages and weakens that we see a glimpse of the loss of his power, although we don’t sense any regret or shame on his part.

‘The last Whistling Pine, Forgotten by the Windbreak,’ centres on A-Ma, a troubled young man and his life in the village. Part of the story involves him marrying an Amis girl, Uya. He surprises his peers by learning fluent Amis, which was not to be expected. However, in the end it transpires that he didn’t treat Uya well either.

The stories may be a little confusing at times, particularly for readers that have no knowledge of Taiwanese and Chinese culture and history, with references to historical events and different ethnic groups. However, they still leave a powerful impression on the reader when it comes to the mistreatment of Taiwanese aborigines by the Chinese settlers. Even those that are not directly abusing individuals appear to accept the behaviour unquestioningly, accepting it as the natural order. The way in which the Amis characters are portrayed in the novellas also hints at the hopelessness of their situation; most are struggling to get by, let alone fight against discrimination. Having said that, there is a flash of resistance in each story, from Mei-Chu’s disrespect of an aging Wang T’ung to Uya’s brothers’ attack on A-Ma. Although these incidents may not seem significant, they are nonetheless a reminder of the desire these Amis individuals have, no matter what they have endured, to be treated justly.

Reviewed by Catherine Shipley