“Remains of Life” by Wu He

The Musha Incident is a dark moment in Taiwan’s colonial history (1895-1945), as well as a long-forgotten one. On 27 October 1930, the indigenous Atayal people decapitated 134 Japanese soldiers. Japanese revenge was brutal, bringing the Atayal tribe to the edge of extinction. Later, the Nationalist government labeled the Incident a heroic retaliation against Japanese invasion, but condemned the Atayal’s primal ritual of headhunting.

Taiwanese writer Wu He was not satisfied with this highly superficial and politicized discourse and determined to uncover the truth of this period of history and its legacy. The result is this novel. First published in 1999, Remains of Life was recently introduced to the English-speaking world by Dr Michael Berry, a professor of Modern Chinese literature and film at UCLA. Thoughtfully and insightfully, Berry has devoted his translation to maintaining the novel’s original experimental writing techniques. The entire book contains one single paragraph over the length of nearly 300 pages, with only a few sentence breaks, multiple names for each character, and stream of consciousness. Reading this novel is an intellectually challenging and rewarding process.

To answer critical questions on the margins between memory, imagination and interpretation, Wu He returned in 1997 and 1998 to the Atayal reservation, a small mountain town in central Taiwan, where the unrest started and continued. He interviewed and befriended the survivors of the Incident and their descendants. From these oral accounts, he determined that, seen from indigenous perspective, the Incident has an entirely different focus on freedom and dignity: for the Atayal, headhunting is less about violent resistance against Japanese colonization than a time-honored tradition and source of meaningful indigenous pride.

Wu He is not the first to use the Musha Incident as source material. Before Remains of Life, there have been a comic book, a movie, and another novel based on the Incident , not to mention numerous scholarly works. Wu He’s approach, though, is unique and innovative. His novel does not directly confront the bloodiness of the Musha Incident, but opens a space including fictional details, modernist thoughts, and alternative ways to understand history. As outlined in Wu He’s afterword, his text consists of three layers. The first is the legitimacy and accuracy behind the “Musha Incident” led by Mona Rudao, as well as the “Second Musha Incident”; second, the quest of Girl, the narrator’s Atayal neighbor who travels back and forth between the deep mountains and an urban lifestyle; and lastly, the remains of life, that he visited and observed while on the reservation, leaving its meaning an open question.

In this novel, the fractured narrative that integrates monologue and stream of consciousness pushes readers to question conventional historiography: How has history been told? Who has the authority to record and comment history? For example, the novel presents alternative opinions on Muna Rudao, the leader of the Musha Incident. While nationalist discourse constantly describes him as an anti-colonial hero, the Atayal people think that he was “a man of courage and insight”, resisting so-called civilization and defending a traditional way of life. Another voice comes from Mr Miyamoto, a pro-Japanese tribe member, who considers Muna Rudao less a hero because he misused his dignity to slaughter third-rate samurai. Wu He here argues that there is hardly any true independent history. The novel does not limit itself within memory. Wu He links the (de)mystified history of the Musha Incident to his doubt about modern-day assimilation. If it is an accepted rule that human history is always a linear development, what we would lose in this unavoidable progress? The novel challenges the assumption that a more advanced civilization is entitled to judge, change, or even eliminate, primitive civilizations in the name of modernization. The Japanese who slaughtered hundreds of the Atayal in the colonial period with modern military weapons could be regarded as being much more savage. The Nationalist government’s project to incorporate indigenous people is no less discriminating or destructing than the Japanese policies. They both labeled Atayal people and their traditions as being backward, and both led to environmental and moral devastation. According to the narrator, indigenous culture today has been repeatedly consumed for new political agendas. Wu He reveals that, from military invasion to capitalist exploitation, not only the Atayal are losing their population, language, belief, and lifestyle under the pressure of modernization and urbanization, but also abandoned by the rapid growth in Taiwan.

The novel mixes in events in the author’s real life, such as his military service and his reclusive life. In fact, the Atayal’s struggles of “the primitive to blend itself into civilization” reflects the author’s own identity crisis—his own frustration and anxiety as a male Han intellectual. Sometimes the narrator taunts his own culture, considering cursing a Chinese trait and referring to the privileged class in Taiwan as “male chauvinist Chinese pigs”. Yet  at other times, he holds firm to Han ethics, including mixed feelings towards Atayal people’s worship of female reproduction. The narrator senses “the incredible charm and magnanimity of the primitive.” So while Girl expresses her joy with primal and natural sexual desire, the narrator ambiguously judges Atayal women according to the golden Han Chinese Rule of  chastity, which he apparently takes it as an index of civilization. Hs is also ambivalent about Atayal-Japanese interracial marriage.


Remains of Life, Wu He, Michael Berry (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2017)
Remains of Life, Wu He, Michael Berry (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2017)

The novel presents a surprising degree of carnivalesque writing, featuring perhaps the most absurd and wild sexual fantasy in contemporary Chinese literature. The narrator is constantly obsessed with sexuality, conducting dull discussions comparing women’s bodies in Taiwan, Japan and America; or having tedious conversations with Girl on “missionary-style”. Girl’s body is treated as the metaphor for the fate of the tribe.

Although his Han Chinese identity determines that he is an outsider regarding the Musha Incident, the narrator, or the author Wu He, is ambitious enough to reexamine this period of history. Instead of attempting a monumental epic, Wu He picks up fragmented moments and the remains of life to reveal the never-healed scar of indigenous people in Taiwan, a society rich in multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. The very act of writing provides freedom from the oppressed sexualized body and social restrictions. The seemingly absurdity in the novel nonetheless reflects Wu He’s honesty and humility.

Yu Zhang is a professor of Chinese at Loyola University.