CHIANG Hsun 蔣勳
YOUTH IN NANGAN
Translated by Jonathan R. BARNARD 柏松年
| The little island had once been at the frontlines of war.
Those living there grew so accustomed to the sounds of bombs
hitting buildings that they became no longer particularly terrified
of them. Sometimes they’d drink some hard liquor and speak
about the intensity of the previous shelling as if describing a
novel or a film. There was an old sergeant whose shoulder bore
the tattoo “Kill the Pig and Pluck the Hair”─in reference to the
Communists Mao Zedong and Zhu De (the surnames Mao and
Zhu are homonyms in Chinese for “hair” and “pig” respectively).
If a new recruit showed even a glimmer of fear, the sergeant,
red-faced and reeking of booze, would get right in his
face. “Scared?” he’d ask. “Look carefully at this face. Scared?”
The recruit would smell the strong scent of alcohol mixed
with the rancid stench of rotten food from the sergeant’s mouthand stomach, as well as the unpleasant body odor emanating
from his armpits. The putrid mix was almost nauseating. As he
neared, it became impossible to breathe. But the young soldier
wouldn’t dare step back or turn his head. He’d know that the
sergeant’s visage, like the buzz and bang of the shells coming in
from all directions, was inescapable.
“Ha, ha ha . . . ”
The sergeant would laugh crazily, his spit covering the
Suddenly, he’d grab the recruit’s lapel, almost lifting the
skinny youth off the ground. “When you hear the buzz of the
bomb, don’t panic. Listen carefully. Whatever direction it’s
coming from, run the opposite way. Run as fast as you can.
When you hear it getting close, get face down quick.”
The sergeant would release his hold on the recruit and
throw himself down. He’d turn his head and ask the greenhorn:
“Did you see? You have to be that fast.” Then, like a wild animal,
he’d pull down his pants to expose his dark butt. “Look!
he’d bark. “If you’re slow, this is what happens. . . . ”
The recruit could see a scarred area the size of a bowl on
the sergeant’s dark butt. It resembled a shrunken, wrinkled
image of a depressed person’s face.
The sergeant would pull himself up from the ground, his
pants still down around his legs. He’d slowly stand up, tuck his
penis and testicles into his pants and refasten his belt. Then he’d
sit next to the recruit and gaze at the sky for a while, listening to
the faint sound of the wind. “They’ve finished bombing for
today,” he’d tell him. “We’ve got through it.” Observing the
recruit’s pallid face, he’d say: “Don’t be scared. So long as you’
re alive, there’s nothing to be frightened of.”
Back when the island was under constant bombardment, the commanding officer decided to dig tunnels underground and into
the cliffs. Originally, the plan was to create bunkers to store
weapons or to install machine guns or antiaircraft artillery. As
the bombing grew fiercer, it was gradually decided to extend the
excavations, creating tunnels or larger spaces to store both armaments
and regular supplies for everyday living. If the military
situation were to grow dire, military personnel and island residents
could also be evacuated into the tunnels.
The tunnels were dug over a 20-year period. Like the passages
of an anthill, they were constantly growing, spreading
upwards and downwards, winding like goats intestines. Passing
through one layer after another of the cliff, they now seemed to
hide within them some of the indescribable absurdities of the
wartime state of mind.He had watched the tide come in and out that day.
Fishermen worked in synch with its ebb and flow. A city boy, he
hadn’t known much about the ocean. It wasn’t until he visited
Nangan that he gained an understanding of the sea and fishermen,
who made their living from it. He learned that the tides
were like the ocean’s breathing. Based on this breathing, fishermen
decided when to sail and when to return and where to drop
anchor and set their nets.
“The tidal flats at the mouth of the Minjiang River offer big
hauls, and the fish, clams, shrimp and crabs from there are especially
sweet and tender.” So the fishermen told him.
He thought about the goose barnacle, which he loved to eat.
It was known as “Buddha’s hand shell” for its claw’s resemblance
to the Buddha’s hand citron. It’s a small shellfish, about
the size of a thumb, with a hard claw on one side and a soft shell
on the other. Its delicious meat tastes even sweeter when
washed down with the island’s strong rice wine.
He chatted with the fishermen in the harbor and then
checked the time before setting off on his bike toward the tunnels
on the north coast.
Pedaling uphill was hard work, and he kept to the shade of
the she-oaks to avoid the strong sun. Yet he still became
drenched with sweat, so he pulled off his shirt and rode barebacked,
welcoming each gust of wind. At the top of the ridge,
he took a left. Now it was all downhill. He kept his hand off the
brake to let the bike roll free, and the wind blew harder and
harder against his body. In the distance he could already make
out the deep blue sea, which seemed sleepy. Several reefs lay
At the entrance to the tunnel there was a two-meter high
statue of a few uniformed soldiers laboring with shovels and
pickaxes. The work was realistically rendered, and when he
looked carefully he could tell that the soldiers were all around 20
years old. He thought for a moment and realized that his father
ought to have been the same age when he came here to perform
his military service.
His father had often recounted to him how they had worked
in the tunnels─how they would calculate how much space they
wanted to excavate before chiseling small holes at a few marked
spots. Granite is extremely hard, and their metal tools clanged
and brought up clouds of sparks as they smashed against the
“I would stuff some homemade explosives into the small
cracks we had labored so hard to make. On the sergeant’s orders
we’d light the fuses all at once, exploding the rock to bits. . . .”
He remembered the expression of his father, who had been
lying in a hospital bed, his liver cancer at its terminal stages.
Suddenly his dad loved to talk, and he would offer detailed descriptions of all the soldiers he knew on Nangan Island. He
especially enjoyed describing that sergeant with the pockmarked
face who, after drinking,....
From Lien-ho wen-hsueh 《聯合文學》 (UNITAS—A Literary Monthly), No.
287, September 2008: 6-9.