FOR A WEEK she stood inside a room at the Taichung train station. There was something quietly defiant about her stance, left foot crossed over her right, the weight of her body slightly on the back foot, as if she were just about to take a small step forward. Her chin tilted up so that her eyes, not fully shut, received light and her eyelids were pearly and diaphanous. She held a soft gaze, not focusing on anything in particular, but able to take in everything.
Everything else on the inventory list of items that was to be transported by train from the provincial government office in Taipei had been accounted for, picked up, and delivered by truck to the office’s new location in Taichung. This was a preventative measure to protect against air raids from China, to decentralize government operations in Taiwan. Perhaps someone up north in Taipei had left her off the list so that the movers in Taichung didn’t know she belonged with the rest of the valuables and was thus regarded as trash.
Certainly, her nudity horrified some who saw her – her marble flesh white and supple, the sturdy curvature of her thighs, the intimate crook of her elbow, the slight depression in her left nipple, and the soft roundness of her abdomen, which led to the triangle mound of flesh that had been, in what must have been an act of anger and disgust by a passing vandal, defaced and smeared in ink. The Taichung train station had been built under Japanese occupation in a Baroque style – theatrical, and ostentatiously European – and should have served as a fitting backdrop for her. But unlike the train station, which was a remnant of colonization most could accept, she was modern in the wrong way. She was too exposed. Or could it be that as a witness to the fracture in the current society – Taiwan had only recently struggled violently to define itself and was now suffering the continued fate of an island being colonized, ceded, and used by larger powers, suppressed and silenced by martial law – her steady gaze exposed too much?
The head of the freight forwarding company who had been contracted for this job of moving Taipei’s provincial government office to Taichung, noticed her a week after the job had been completed. He called his nephew, a doctor who dabbled in the arts in his off time. The doctor was told by his uncle that he had found something of interest, to hurry to the train station. When he arrived, the doctor recognized her at once. The doctor was not one to bare his emotions easily, but his eyes filled with hot tears, when he saw that she had been cast as garbage and sullied by ink. He had her carried by truck to his home immediately. He instructed workmen to lay down steel pipes in order to roll her heavy body gently across the floor. She glided effortlessly towards the corner of the doctor’s dining room, where she was set down and stood for the next sixteen years.
Her arrival was at first met with excitement by the doctor’s six young children but, as children adapt readily to new things, quickly accepted her as a part of the family, even referring to her as Jie Jie, older sister. The children passed her numerous times each day, grazing her cool, marble body. When they came home from school, they dropped their school bags next to her feet.Sometimes, the two youngest girls would sit on the floor and hug her legs in easy adoration. When, after dinner, the children dawdled over their school work, their mother would tease that Jie Jie was watching and if they didn’t finish their work, she would be upset.
Whereas the children lived easily with her presence, the doctor experienced a seismic shift. When she first arrived, the oldest son noticed that his father would often take a wash cloth to her to wipe away the ink. He toweled gently and diligently, but the mark could not be erased; the black splatter was now blue, like a bruise. On the weekends, the doctor began inviting artists to his home, where they sat in the dining room to draw and paint under her encouraging gaze. In his work tending to patients, one of his favorite tasks was when he had to set broken bones with casts; he delighted in the tactile sensation of molding the plaster and using his understanding of the human body to coax fractures towards healing. In addition to painting, he started to sculpt with clay, using his fingers to nudge and shape animal and human forms. There was a neighborhood cat he had the children chase after and bring home to model for him. His mother, wife, and daughters also sat for him. As a doctor, he had studied anatomy and learned the intricate ways the inner mechanisms of the body were constantly in motion. A few friends had suggested he sculpt using her as a model; why not learn from the master? No, the doctor was adamant he could never do that.
When he looked at her standing in his dining room, the way her marble skin dappled in the light, how he could see the muscles underneath, the way she tilted her chin up, simultaneously in defiance and in surrender, he imagined an artist’s continual attempt to depict movement, to embody life. This moved the doctor deeply.
The doctor never spoke directly about her, or divulged her true identity. But that she had ignited something in him was a certainty everyone in the family could see.
THE YOUNG SCULPTOR from Taiwan was often ridiculed by his classmates at the art school in Tokyo. He was the son of a woodworker, and his name–consisting of the characters for dirt and water–evoked a crude simplicity in stark contrast to his more affluent, well-clothed peers. He worked diligently, late into the night, so that he had no time for social niceties, yet another strike against his character. But his sculptures–first wood then marble–were exceptional and curators of the Japanese Imperial Art Exhibition took notice.
It was only after he had left home that distance allowed him to consider its contours more thoughtfully. And questions of identity and culture begged urgent answers because he had been transported to the land of the colonizer. Such was the state of mind of the young sculptor when his first piece of art was selected for the Imperial Exhibition, a sculpture of a naked Taiwanese indigenous boy playing on his flute. For the sculptor, his subject was a foray into describing what it might mean to be from Taiwan. For the Japanese art world, the subject was an exotic depiction of life on their “ghost island” colony. Meanwhile, both on the ghost island and in dormitories for Taiwan students studying in Japan, there was a passionate movement towards self-governance. And because, under Japanese rule, colonized Taiwanese were not allowed to gather for political reasons, the cultural movement was built through the arts–through paintings, sculptures, theater, and poetry.
The sculptor yearned for an artistic style and perspective unique to Taiwan, especially as a departure from Chinese culture, which he viewed as traditional and staid. “It is human nature,” he declared, “to love the country you were born in, and to love the land you were born on. Although it is said that art knows no national boundaries, and can be created anywhere, we all ultimately long for the land on which we were born. Our beautiful Taiwan, the Ilha Formosa, conjures even more longing.”
The Japanese Imperial Art Exhibition selected a second piece by the twenty-six-year-old sculptor. This time, his subject was a young girl, a nude, emerging from a clamshell with an expression of confidence and hope.
Her eyes are not quite closed, and in that sliver of opening, she looks simultaneously out onto the world and inward, at the rippling pools of her soul. This is a look often seen in sculptures of Buddha or Guan-yin, the Goddess of Mercy, but their eyes are most often depicted in a downward cast, whereas the sculptor’s young girl looks up, as though searching for light. Her physique is solid; seen from behind, the gentle arch in her back brings attention to her upward gaze. One can make a swift connection to Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus, with a nude Venus rising out of a shell from the sea. In Bottecelli’s painting, Venus covers her right breast demurely with her hand and uses her long locks to cover her pubic area, whereas the sculptor’s young girl stands with both hands resting behind her on the opened clam shell from where she has materialized, unapologetic and honest about her form in its most natural state.
The sculptor worked without rest, hammering a slab of rough and unformed marble bit by bit, coaxing it into soft, smooth flesh. He used his hands to transform the property of matter, used his fingers to feel across the surface of her back, the shadow of indentation below her bottom lip, the knobs of muscle above her knees. His yearning for home, for a sense of Taiwan, for a stance that leaned towards independence, was realized in her.
The sculptor called her Gan Lu Shui, the Water of Immortality. This was a reference to the purest of liquids inside the vial Guan-yin was often seen holding between her fingers; as well, a metaphor for the dew from which new life sprang forth.
After she was selected for the 1921 Imperial Art Exhibit, the sculptor continued to work until his death just nine years later, and became one of the most well-regarded sculptors in Taiwan. She traveled home to Taiwan and was displayed in a government building in Taipei.
Gan Lu Shui was last seen by the public when the provincial office was moved to Taichung.
THE DOCTOR HAD fallen gravely ill. He was feverish and always cold; he could not find comfort, even when wrapped in heavy blankets. The children were grown now, the eldest was performing his conscription services on Kinmen Island. Taiwan was in its twenty-fifth year of martial law. Much of the lived history of Taiwan the doctor had experienced was erased from and never taught in history textbooks at school. The atmosphere of fear from the White Terror years lingered, like a fog that never lifted and clouded one’s vision.
The doctor knew he had very little time left. For sixteen years, Gan Lu Shui lived with the family; she watched his children grow up, watched the doctor grow older, and watched him become ill. She was a secret the doctor protected, knowing that one day she would have to be returned to her rightful home, the government of Taiwan. But he had found her at a time when she was cast away as trash by a government in turmoil, and he had never felt it was safe for her to reemerge without risk of castigation, ill-intentioned ownership, or worse–destruction.
She had been a steady presence in the doctor’s life, reigniting his passion for art. But he feared that when he was no longer able to care for her, she might become a burden to his family. He made a decision. The doctor wrapped her up in sheets of linen and heavy blankets and sealed her in a wooden box, transporting her to a family-owned factory in Wufeng, an agricultural suburb of Taichung, tucking her under a nondescript staircase. Aside from the doctor’s wife and his eldest son, he told no one where she was hidden. He and his wife agreed Gan Lu Shui could only be seen again when Taiwan society recognized its multiple cultures, languages, and histories, when people could really listen to one another with respect. Gan Lu Shui could only be returned to a Taiwan confident in its identity.
The doctor passed away two years after he secreted Gan Lu Shui.
WHEN HE WAS growing up, the doctor’s oldest son never learned from his father who she was and only by chance saw a photograph of Jie Jie in an art magazine, along with a caption that said her whereabouts were unclear. He had thought it odd, of course, because for sixteen years, she lived right in his family’s dining room. But he knew not to delve deeper, understanding that when adults skirted around an issue, spoke in hushed tones, or switched to Japanese so that children couldn’t understand what was being said, the topic was off limits. Schooling in Taiwan in the 1960s and 70s successfully drove a wedge between generations. Not only did fathers and sons speak different languages, history textbooks taught sweeping Chinese history, of which Taiwan’s history only constituted a few, thin pages. It wasn’t until the doctor’s son left Taiwan to attend medical school in Japan that he truly began to question the heavy silence that burdened his adolescence. Much later, he thought, “You know what brainwashing is? Brainwashing is when you can’t speak with your own father.”
The doctor’s son grew up to be a doctor, too. And like his father, he was drawn to the arts. He designed the home he lived in with his wife and two children, and would sometimes paint in his spare time. From time to time, people would come around asking about Gan Lu Shui, but the doctor’s son kept quiet, wholeheartedly understanding his father’s wish to protect her until the right moment. This kind of silence–borne from respect and grace–was his father’s legacy. She remained in the wooden box, underneath a metal staircase in the factory in Wufeng, which made plastic parts for sewing machines and cassette tapes. She stayed there quietly, as machines whirred and fans blew and busy hands worked, for forty-seven years. And the doctor’s son waited quietly, too, for the right moment.
Exactly one century after the young sculptor completed Gan Lu Shui, the moment arrived. The doctor’s son recalled how his father had told him that when the different groups represented in Taiwan could talk to each other and listen to one another with respect, that was the moment Gan Lu Shui should be returned to her country. His father reminded him that she never belonged to them, that for sixty-three years, they were merely stewards of her care. She was not to be donated to Taiwan, but to be returned to Taiwan with humility and an open heart. In a certain light, she became a way for the son to speak with his father, even years after his passing.
The wooden crate had not been touched for almost fifty years. Workmen carefully pried open its doors, peeled back the layers of heavy blankets and linen.
黃土水 (HUANG TU-SHUI) was born in 1895, the same year Taiwan came under Japanese Occupation. He came from a modest woodworking background, excelled in school, and was sent on a full scholarship to study art in Tokyo. In Japan, he was influenced by a European sensibility and wanted to abandon the styles of traditional Chinese art and create a style that was uniquely Taiwanese. He became the preeminent Taiwanese artist of his time. His sculpture,甘露水 (Gan Lu Shui), was the second time his art was selected to be a part of the Imperial Art Exhibit in Japan. The year was 1921, the same year 台灣文化協會 (Taiwan Cultural Association) was established by a group of doctors, intellectuals, and artists in an effort towards self governance under Japanese Occupation.黃土水 was not, like many of his contemporaries, explicitly involved with political activities, but his art spoke volumes. After his death in 1930 in Japan, when he was only thirty-five, his wife brought his sculptures back to Taiwan, among them 甘露水. 甘露水 was displayed in the provincial government office in Taipei until the provincial office was moved to Taichung in 1958, when the sculpture mysteriously disappeared from the public.
甘露水 reemerged in 2021, exactly 100 years after it was selected to be in the Imperial Art Exhibition. It was unveiled at the opening of the art show, Lumière – The Enlightenment and Self-Awakening of Taiwanese Culture, at the Museum of National Taipei University of Education. She was introduced by Dr. 張士文 (Zhang Shi-wen), the eldest son of Dr. 張鴻標 (Zhang Hong-biao), who, in 1958, rescued 甘露水from a trash heap and who, along with his family, protected her for sixty-three years.
Lumière – The Enlightenment and Self-Awakening of Taiwanese Culture is showing now at the Museum of National Taipei University of Education through April 24, 2021.
This piece was inspired by Dr. Zhang’s speech at the opening of Lumière on December 18, 2021, and made possible by subsequent conversations I had with Dr. Zhang and his wife, Ms. Ruby Hsu. Other sources include “Kam Lõo Tsuí,” the documentary by Lin Chunni and Huang Pang-Chuan (a part of Lumière), an essay by Dr. Zhang titled, “Silence is Their Shared Language,” and a short essay on Huang Tu-shui written by Zhang Shen-qie.
brenda Lin’s first book, Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound, was a collection of interconnected personal essays about family and cultural identity. Her writing has appeared in Fourth Genre and WSQ. Her recent work, on the intersection between text and textile, appeared in Sotheby’s and TextileXchange. In 2021, she published a bilingual, touch-and-feel picture book, Hope, that you can wear, inspired by her mother’s collection of children’s textiles. brenda lives in Taipei, Taiwan.