2012 / 9月
Su Hui-chao /tr. by Josh Aguiar
“Yang Chao, who goes by the nom de plume of Lee Ming-chun, is quite possibly the most expansive and prolific of all the authors born in the 1960s. His oeuvre, which includes novels, prose, and cultural criticism, reveals a polymath capable of navigating a nearly encyclopaedic intellectual terrain spanning literature, history, politics, economics, music, and art.” So writes National Chengchi University professor Chen Fang-ming in The History of the New Taiwanese Literature.
Yang’s brand of incisive cultural criticism can be found on a near daily basis in various publications. These are the pieces that by far have the greatest influence on his readers; yet it is his novels that form his literary essence.
Hardly a day goes by without Yang working on one novel or another.
During the sweltering summer the Starbucks on Taipei’s Nanhai Road becomes a bustling oasis. Yang, dressed in khakis and a white shirt, is seated at one of the tables, and as he waits for a friend to arrive, he whips out the notebook that is his constant companion to jot down a few phrases. As he writes, he is enveloped in an aura of impregnable calm.
His daily schedule is a relentless tornado of activity, but how could it be otherwise with the number of hats he wears: the radio show host, columnist, author, lecturer, avid reader; the consultant and the journalist; the devoted parent who helps his daughter with her piano lessons? It’s a ferocious grind that leaves hardly any time available to devote to his novels.Writing: a daily communion
He makes no bones about the fact that he wields the greatest influence as a pundit and critic and not as a novelist. Yet he nevertheless regards himself as a novelist first and foremost—albeit it one involved in a number of peripheral activities—as well as a devourer of books.
Only his closest friends understand his need to hone his craft on a daily basis, much in the way that a concert pianist constantly practices Hanon, the Liszt Etudes, and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to guarantee onstage success.
A precocious child, by age 12 he had set his heart on a literary career. From age 13 through 18, his rebellious teenage spirit manifested itself in one angst-filled poem after another before condemning his early work as immature and ultimately concluding that he did not have the makings of a poet, after all.
Writing poetry requires God-given talent, but novels are born of dedication and craft.
“Writing novels isn’t like swimming or riding a bike, which, once you’ve learned it, stays with you your entire life,” muses Yang. “It’s much closer to playing the violin or piano, in the sense that they are all unnatural acts. You can’t stop playing a violin or piano for five or 10 years and expect to just resume where you last left off. Novelists and instrumentalists have to adhere to a daily regimen regardless of whatever level of innate ability they may have.”
Yang’s choice of metaphors is undoubtedly influenced by his travails as a violin student years ago.A haunted past
He studied violin for six years in his youth, not as an accessory to a gentrified upbringing, but rather as the result of a teacher’s arbitrary demand that he take it up in order to fill the ranks of the school band; his parents owned a high-end fashion boutique by Qingguang Market on Taipei’s Zhongshan North Road, so the teacher assumed that they would be able to afford the purchase of one of the more costly instruments.
He eventually started taking lessons from a Mr. Lei, just recently back from living in Vienna, who despite his Western pedigree and purported disdain of Taiwanese music pedagogy, nevertheless employed the most draconian Asian teaching methods. Yang marched off to every lesson like a damned soul plunging into the inferno. His playing was fraught with tension, never knowing when the master’s bow might descend upon him once again. But he was too afraid to tell his teacher or his parents that he wanted to quit.
His reprieve only came when Mr. Lei once again departed Taiwan. Yang never played again. For that matter, he never even listened to violin music afterwards. It was a painful chapter that he didn’t care to revisit.
By the time he arrived at Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, no one in his class had the remotest idea that he had ever played the violin. Later on at National Taiwan University’s Department of History he was a precociously learned youngster with a flowing pen, but when he went to the US for his graduate studies, he began buying every violin CD he could get his hands on, all of which remained unopened. The first person to notice this “borderline pathological behavior” was his wife.Pain and transcendence
Later on his wife gave birth to a daughter, who began studying the piano at age four, despite the ambivalence stemming from his own experience—“I know what it’s like to be onstage.”
But because of his musical background, he understood the transcendence, that unique state of consciousness only performers can attain. The last thing he wanted was to deny his daughter that privilege only to have her lament the lost opportunity later on, perhaps as a teenager. Then, much to his surprise and chagrin, his daughter forced him to confront his past. As she was entering her first year of elementary school, she insisted on switching from piano to violin. Yang flatly refused, and when his daughter persisted he responded: “I used to play the violin—you have no idea how hard it is!”
At that point he was forced to drag all of the old skeletons out of the closet, recounting bit by bit the entire traumatic tale, until he could feel the darkest crevices of his soul become gradually illuminated. As he examined his past he began to realize that for better or worse, Mr. Lei in his own curious fashion had in fact inextricably fastened music to his soul, and for that very reason, Lei was the best teacher he ever had, even though the encounters had left him emotionally scarred.
If there hadn’t been a Mr. Lei, neither could there be a Yang Chao lecturing on the fundamentals of classical music or writing a prose collection, Musical Musings.
At this point, Yang’s violin-playing days are long behind him. Whatever skill he used to possess is irrelevant; at this point he can hardly get a squeak out of it.
If a nine-year-old prodigy who can play Mozart violin concertos stops playing for a year, or two years—then what? And when that nine-year-old becomes an adult he’s suddenly no different from the other people who never touched an instrument in their lives.Evoking a century
Writing a novel is no different in terms of daily dedication. Most people just assume that novels and other prose forms require substantially the same approach, but as far as Yang is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. Most prose is written from an individual’s subjective point of view; so long as the writer’s thoughts are lucid enough to themselves, they should be able to convey them to others. Novels, on the other hand, require the writer to create characters that are separate from the self, a feat which requires a totally different level of imagination, empathy, and expressive ability, lest all the characters be thinly veiled avatars of the author’s own personality.
This is the ideal that keeps Yang inseparable from his daily practice. “If I can’t call upon a number of different ways to evoke a scene—say this Starbucks, for example—the novel’s just going to be flat. I have to have command of tone and perspective, to know whose eyes I’m seeing it through.”
One day he and his daughter were listening to Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto when his daughter said, “Daddy, do you know what my dream is?” “To be able to perform this concerto someday?” he guessed.
“No,” she replied. “My dream is to be able to perform it without having to practice!” He laughed, because he knew without a doubt that she would play the piece through hundreds, thousands of times.
Yang’s series The 100-Year Wasteland, 10 years in the writing, is an application of those very principles, just like preparing years and years to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
In 2002 Yang found himself sifting through the dust of the 20th century; so many events, great and small, forming a mighty current, yet leaving behind such paltry residue. In literary terms, such a lack might well be termed a “wasteland,” so Yang determined to use the detailed intricacies of the novel to gather up the bits of the lost century. For each year between 1901 and 2000 he would write a historical piece, 100 separate works in total with each one standing on its own merits, yet with the characters recurring and overlapping so that the stories would merge into one overarching narrative. As of 2012, 83 stories were complete, and the remaining stories, he estimates, will be finished during 2013.
In those 10 years, the number of days in which he didn’t write a least 100 characters could be numbered on the fingers of one hand.The common thread
What about the person Yang as distinct from the novelist?
Typically, whenever Yang discusses novels—either the one he’s writing or the one he’s reading—he resembles a man reanimated from a deep slumber. Throughout the day he constantly encourages himself: “Just hang in a bit longer and you can start writing!”
His novels are an indispensable joy, but there are other responsibilities that bind him in both his family and career. He takes his work seriously, but notes, “Novels are my creative outlet; the rest is work.”
Some have criticized him for being too diffuse, that he’s too hard to categorize as a result of his overlapping responsibilities. But Yang succinctly counters, “The common thread to all of it is my reading.”
His reading is ferociously eclectic. He smashes through genre barriers like some sort of literary Godzilla.
For the past seven years running he has taught a contemporary literary canon class at Eslite Books, which has been so popular that it has set several records: It is the longest-running class, is the most consistently waitlisted, and has the highest percentage, 80%, of repeat students.
Yang attributes the success to “culture’s eternal appeal,” but it is undeniable that his charm as an instructor keeps students returning time and time again.
With great enthusiasm and aplomb, he enriches the minds and souls of his students with Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Mishima, and Marquez, even equipping them the means to develop a new outlook on life. But then when you assume that the man is only conversant in literature and philosophy, out comes Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams or Darwin’s Origin of Species.
His book How to Be an Upright Person, selected by the China Times as one of 2010’s 10 best, has an interesting backstory. A junior-high principal asked him: “Do you think we should encourage children to read the news?” Yang found the question intriguing. If the news is the window to understanding politics, then what kind of political realities will children be exposed to—things completely removed from their own lives, unseemly partisan bickering, graft and corruption, tawdry theatrics? “If kids grow up reading these headlines, what kind of people will they become as adults?” he pondered.
“A person needs to have a strong moral foundation before attempting to make any sense of politics; without that foundation, it’s better not to try at all,” he remarks. Armed with this notion, he penned a work on the subject of individual rectitude, integrating his knowledge of politics, economics, history, and media. Each section addresses a specific topic, such as civic consciousness, principles, absolute truth, complexity, vulgarity, and greatness.
His analysis of the subject is earnest and serious, showing that there are bedrock ethical standards that are not subject to the dictates of circumstance and perspective. It is this constant reaching for these standards that he hopes will illuminate Taiwanese society.
Books have provided him with interesting work experience. Over the past three years, at the behest of some friends he has served as an advisor at a hospital in Yilan. The hospital was in the process of revamping its image, and Yang’s original post was accordingly in the public relations department. The longer he stayed, however, the deeper his involvement became, to the point that he has a say in adjusting physicians’ salaries, oupatient numbers, medical disputes, and the level of courtesy and concern shown to patients by nursing staff. What were formerly purely intellectual domains for him—organizational behavior, psychology, pharmacology, and entrepreneurial management—gradually entered the realm of practical, hands-on experience.
It is all most satisfying for him, and it bears out his maxim: “The more useless books you read, the more useful a person you will become.”