Portrait of a Geitan

Zhang Wenhuan

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

Translators' Note: We found Portrait of a Geitan especially exciting for two reasons: its distinctive multilingual nature, and its darkly humorous treatment of the theme of the unfortunate woman, in this case incarnated as a geitan. We have tried, within the limits of readability, to leave some of these complicating features in the translation.

Zhang Wenhuan (張文環) was a Taiwanese writer writing in Japanese during the Japanese occupation, which started in 1895 and ended in 1945. For his generation, Japanese was the only conceivable language for intellectual output of any kind, though as Zhang developed his literary style in Japanese, an awareness of the 'original' Taiwanese linguistic context is ever present in his works. The word geitan itself serves as an excellent example. The noun 芸妲 is not native to Japanese—the Chinese characters (yìdá in pinyin) have been given a Japanese reading—but the semantic resemblance to Japanese nouns like 芸者 geisha and 芸妓 geiji is unmistakable.

In this sense, Portrait may be regarded as a work on the border between Taiwanese and Japanese literature, a testament to an intended perfection of the Japanese language (or even a synthesis of the two) and the clumsiness that yet remains. Zhang's Japanese is recognisably 'literary', 'proper' even, but occasionally one comes across an ungrammatical or extremely opaque expression. However, we read the piece in the context of non-native Japanese writing and were very impressed by his sophistication and reserve, especially in his portrayal of the murkier aspects of the female psyche. We have tried to keep the tension of the original Japanese in our translation.

—Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto

Caiyun's real parents were working-class. Her father was a construction worker, and when he became ill, her mother barely managed to make ends meet by doing odd jobs such as washing other people's clothes and sorting tea leaves. From the time she was six, Caiyun would look after her brother during the day and work for an anma at night. All night long she walked around town guiding the anma by the hand, the sound of the anma's bamboo flute behind her back. She received ten sen a night, and whenever the anma got hungry around one in the morning and sat down to a bowl of buckwheat noodles, Caiyun would get some of the same. It was coincidence that led her present mother, when visiting a relative, to notice Caiyun, who had been called in to give a massage there, and to purchase the girl for three hundred yen. Even then the idea of being bought, no matter how poor Caiyun's family was, was unbearably hateful.

"Don't sell me, mother."

Though she was young, Caiyun felt something akin to dread. The whole thing made her want to cry.

"It's better for you to go. You'll be helping your father and me, and you'll live comfortably—no more walking around at night holding the anma's hand. That family has a lot of money."

"I'll stay with you, mother, and walk around at night holding the anma's hand, always. It isn't hard at all."

Her mother became angry, then started crying. That Caiyun in response cried, and then laughed, was something she remembered now even as an adult. She couldn't remember why she laughed, but it would seem that she understood in her child's mind, although vaguely, that by going to a different family she could help her own family. As for her laughter, crying by herself only made young Caiyun even sadder, whereas crying with others was so amusing that she couldn't help herself. It appears that seeing her mother cry made Caiyun want to forget her own sadness and laugh. And if that was the same reason she was made to become a geitan, there was nothing to be done about it, for she believed that she was born bearing the burden of misfortune.

One moonlit night Caiyun was, as usual, walking from one alley to another, holding the anma's hand and listening to the forlorn sound of the flute behind her. The hour was late. They ran into a street singer and his son, and when the anma blew a resounding note—pii!—on her flute, the singer responded—

"Ah-fen jie, you are working hard, as always."

"Yes, and so are you, it seems! Won't you lose your voice like that?"

And so, leaving Caiyun and the singer's son to themselves, the two adults started chatting at length, which eventually turned into a cautious whispering. The wall to their right lay halfway in the roof's shadow, describing a distinct white triangle. Caiyun disliked the singer's son. He was two years older than Caiyun and was forever teaching her dirty little things, and so finally she cried out "Auntie Ah-fen," hurrying the anma along. Ah-fen, for that was her name, seemed a little confused as she then found herself walking off, one flustered hand fumbling, the other dragged along by young Caiyun. The notes—binn-binn—of a gekkin melted into the distant shadows; the still night air hung keenly about them, and Caiyun became quite sleepy. Even the anma's flute ran chill down her spine and she longed to be tucked up in bed. Looking at the moon shining bright above the rooftops, the thought came to her that those who didn't have to leave their homes at night, who could sleep indoors under warm blankets, they were the happiest of all.

Then Caiyun was made to wear all sorts of fine clothes, and after she was bought by her present family she also got to attend public school. At first, she would sneak uncertain glances at the faces of these people she now had to call her parents while she ate her meals, but after some time this phase passed, and she was very pleased when she discovered, for the first time, what it meant to be doted upon. She wore the same kimono as her schoolmates, and instead of holding the anma's hand she lay in bed at night, filled with a warm contentment, listening to the sound of the flute in the distance and wondering who it was who held Auntie Ah-fen's hand, then suddenly eager to see the new child's face—but lo! she was already fast asleep.

After Caiyun finished public school at the age of fourteen, she would head out early every morning through the quiet streets of the port town to the Fuxing tea factory, where she sorted tea leaves. Though she was adopted, it so happened that her present parents could not bear children, so she was an only child and glad for it. With her education, Caiyun would have liked to work as a shop attendant or an office girl, but it was the time of the great depression, so there was little hope of fulfilling her wishes. She joined a sewing machine factory for a while, but she did not have the stamina for it and quit before the end of her third month. Whereupon her present mother was told by one of her female relatives that a girl as quick-witted and charming as Caiyun could make her fortune as a geitan, and though her mother took to this suggestion, Caiyun would hear nothing of it, so the subject was dropped for the time being, and mother and daughter kept going to the tea factory every morning. Caiyun was now sixteen—it was as if a seed, forgotten amid the heath on some vast plain, had put forth a single dewy rose. The beauty of an impoverished girl can only ever bring unhappiness. She had neither the protection of a screen fence, as certain establishments place before the women's quarters, nor that of economic power. All she had left was resilience. At the factory she stood out in stark contrast to the other female workers, and every day her mother took great pride in hearing—

"Your beautiful daughter."

She was not Caiyun's real mother, but since that was how it came to be understood, and since she felt the same way too, she basked whole-heartedly in the joys of having borne a beautiful girl, to the point of recalling the pains of labour.

* * *

One day, Caiyun's mother was approached by Ah-chun, an old woman with an older face who worked at the same factory, with a proposition. In short, the owner of the tea business was supposedly infatuated with Caiyun, weak with desire even.

"What do you take me for, a fool?"

Caiyun's mother's face darkened as she stared at Ah-chun.

"Isn't 'infatuated' the wrong word for someone his age? He's almost sixty, and in any case why on earth do I have to listen to this nonsense!"

Angered, Caiyun's mother turned away from Ah-chun as if the sight of this person were enough to sully her.

"Now, now, there's no need to jump the gun and get upset. This is just what he told me. 'I want to give her six hundred yen and a pair of gold bracelets, that is, if she agrees to spend three nights with me at my country house. It's too embarrassing for an old man, though there's no way she'll keep it a secret otherwise.' Straight from the horse's mouth."


"Well it's true, I mean, he could be Caiyun's grandfather, and even if you two agree to it there will be no end to the talk."

"Please stop it, Ah-chun. Don't talk to me about such things."

"Suit yourself, it's not my place to tell you what to do. I have to give it to you though, you really are someone who takes pleasure in being poor. If you ask me, it's just like finding money on the ground, I'd take it right away. Taking pleasure in being poor is only for book-learning folk of the past, after all. Nowadays we can't even write our own names, let alone read a book! But look at me just chattering away, it's about time I left. By the way, don't you think you should come over to my place once in a while? You're always making me visit you, it's not becoming for the mother of such a pretty girl to put on airs all the time."

On hearing this, Caiyun's mother could not help but smile.

Caiyun heard nothing of this conversation, of course, but from that day on her mother started neglecting work at the factory, and she made Caiyun cook meals by herself or go alone to sort tea leaves. Caiyun noticed only that her mother had grown difficult. "What's the matter," she'd ask, only to get no reply, and every time she got hold of her father, whenever he returned from his boss' place, she asked him if perhaps some medication would help her mother; but her father was a passive man who handed over his earnings, every last cent of it, to her mother, whom he relied on to manage all of their expenses and needs. It was rumoured that Caiyun's mother had not been the paragon of virtue in her youth, but despite this her father had great faith in the bonds of matrimony and never once doubted her, and together they managed to accumulate a little money. Even now, whenever her father's colleagues dropped by for a visit, her mother's attitude sometimes struck Caiyun as bordering on solicitous, but that was to be thought of as simply her mother's manner as a hostess, an echo of her girlhood, and there was no reason to make anything of it. Such was Caiyun's father, someone she felt she could not depend on, but in light of her mother's intractable nature he was, in fact, a good mate. Caiyun, however, found her mother's moodiness extremely irritating at times, but if this was the very likeness of a woman indulged by a man, there was nothing to be done about it.

No one knew that Caiyun's mother was thinking long and hard about Ah-chun's proposition, by which she would get money without anyone noticing. To get money without anyone noticing—this was how she had come to think of it, for the appeal of secrecy had eaten away at a mother's heart—besides it's not really prostitution, and was it such a bad thing to receive payment for just three nights with a man of such stature? Thus damaged, Caiyun might fall further into ruin, but damage is only considered damage because it is visible; if the damage is invisible even she herself will forget it. Speaking of which, since the other party is more interested than we are in keeping this matter a secret, the damage is even smaller. As long as the secret is safe, instead of bringing her misfortune, this could potentially ensure her happiness. It's said that rumours only last seventy-five days, so this secret too will someday seem like nothing more than a bad dream to her. All that will remain is the reality of a thousand yen and two gold bracelets.

Her eyes shone. Yes, the bracelets don't have to be that heavy, but there's room to negotiate for at least a thousand yen. That sounds good, let's make it a thousand. But at this point I shouldn't revive the topic, since it's to my advantage to be patient and wait until they approach me again. I can wait patiently for as long as I have to when there's a thousand yen involved. Having settled the deal in her mind, Caiyun's mother started going to the tea factory once more with her daughter, but now she was on the lookout for every possible opportunity to present her daughter to the owner, to the point of leading Caiyun by the hand in front of him. She also started paying attention to her daughter's makeup, sometimes even watching Caiyun as she dressed herself. Unaware of her mother's intent, when Caiyun saw that going to work with her mother made the family happier, and that her mother had returned to her former self, Caiyun would laugh and tell jokes at the factory.

Another seasonal festival came and went, but Ah-chun still had not said anything and Caiyun's mother started to panic. I can't very well change tack now, yet if I didn't do something and simply let all that money slip away before my eyes, would I regret it for the rest of my life? She imagined various scenarios, weighing them one against the other. No, I must wait silently or else lose the advantage—see if I can't wait!—thus in near despair she resigned herself to walking around the shops near Taiheichō selling cosmetics and kimonos, Caiyun in tow, and this show of concern by a thoughtful mother pleased her daughter no end. At last, Ah-chun came; it was clear that she had been pressed by the factory owner to try again. Supposing it were a proper business negotiation, it would be normal for Ah-chun to try to manipulate Caiyun's mother while revealing none of her emotions, but perhaps she was upset by the owner's impatience and looked exasperated as she began—

"That's what I told him too!"

Caiyun's mother put on an innocent face. Ah-chun saw that she could say whatever she wanted to without upsetting the other woman, so she continued—

"I told him it was foolish to think that he could have his way with someone as pretty as your precious princess for six hundred yen, wasn't it? Honestly speaking, if she were to become his possession, or if he were to take her as his official mistress—what's six hundred?—you could get three thousand yen for a face like that, no question about it. But he's already so old, and people are bound to disapprove, that's why it absolutely has to be kept secret."

"That is no concern of ours." 

Caiyun's mother had let her guard down, and Ah-chun all but shouted for joy, for she believed she had seen through the other woman. Now it was only a matter of getting the price right. The factory owner's vaults were groaning under the weight of his wealth, so Ah-chun wasted no time in displaying her rhetorical brilliance, blathering constantly in an attempt to raise Caiyun's mother's hopes. In the end, Caiyun's mother took the bait and boldly said that if she were the owner and hoped to get such a girl as Caiyun, she should be prepared to fork out at least a thousand yen before opening her mouth at all. The statement lost no force despite being said half-jokingly, and Caiyun's mother watched furtively for Ah-chun's reaction. Here it must be said that of the two women trying to outfox each other, Ah-chun was the less wily one. She realised too late that her initial joy, written all over her face, had not gone unnoticed by Caiyun's mother, and so she decided any further talk would only be to her disadvantage. And then she felt very proud of herself for being able to read instantly the hearts of men.

In this fashion, the two women ended up being very amicable negotiators, and with no shortage of goodwill, the decision was made to wait once more for Ah-chun's report. As if speaking to herself, Ah-chun mumbled that she would "bring news of the esteemed owner's wishes after making further enquiry," and then left. Seeing the older woman go, Caiyun's mother felt as if her feet were about to float up off the ground. Both joy and anxiety agitated her at once; her chest felt constricted somehow. Suppose they agreed to her requests; how then was she to convince Caiyun? She grew restless just thinking about it.

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto

Excerpted from Gaichi no nihongobungakusen 1, published by Shinjuku Shobo Co. Ltd. (1996). By permission of Zhang Yuyuan.