The Sweet Burdens of Wu Sheng and Wu Zulin

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Father Versus Son, A Revision of the Old Classics

The Taiwanese use the phrase “sweet burden” (tian mi de fu he 甜蜜的負荷) to describe the ambivalent relationship between parent and child. The phrase derived from poet Wu Sheng’s(吳晟) poem “Burden” (fu he負荷). The immense popularity of the poem can be partially attributed to its inclusion as Chinese literature textbook material, even more so perhaps becauseof its colloquial and vivid description of the bittersweet parenting experience that resonates with so many people. “Burden” was written in 1977, that was when Wu Sheng first tried hishand at parenting. Nobody expected that 30 years later, he would join forces with his second son Wu Zu-lin (吳志寧) to give “Burden” as well as his other poems a new life.


Both father and son are men of great accomplishments; one a famous poet, the other a young and promising musician. In 2008, the two made an interdisciplinary/cross generation masterpiece: They compiled Wu Sheng’s classic poems in the album Wu Sheng: Poems and Songs. The album is divided into two parts: Poetry. Recital (shi song 詩‧誦) and Poetry. Song (shi ge 詩‧歌). The former focuses on Wu Sheng’s own recitation of the poems with background music composed by Wu Zu-lin’s friends. The latter consisted in inviting various musicians, including Wu Zu-lin himself, to turn the poetry into songs. Wu Sheng found this collaboration to be both an intimate and a pleasant experience.

Singer of a Generation Recreates Verses of the People

Even before these two albums, it is not the first time Wu Sheng’s poems have been adapted. From art works to agricultural 2produce advertisements, we often see appropriations of his poetry. Wu Sheng’s response to all of this is surprisingly humble: “oftentimes these creators fail to notify me beforehand, but I am grateful that so many people are willing to use my work. As far as I am concerned, there is no copyright issue. I hope my poetry can be widely adapted by the public.”

In 1984, famous Taiwanese campus folk singer Luo Da-you (羅大佑) turned “Preface to Hometown Vignettes,” Wu’s poem about life on the island, into the ballad “Impressions of My Hometown” (wu xiang yin xiang吾鄉印象). This is one of the most renowned appropriations of Wu Sheng’s poetry. When asked about the popular 80’s singer, Wu Sheng’s expresses nothing but trust and admiration: “I’ve always thought of Luo Da-you’s lyrics as poetry because they already contain a poetical quality.”

 

wu xiang yin xiang吾鄉印象

 

Back then, Luo Da-you rose to prominence as a protest singer. His songs reflected on and critiqued contemporary social phenomena, displaying sincere concern for the land and in turn won him wide public acclaim. The lyrics of “Impressions of My Hometown” does not differ much from Wu’s original version, which portrays in rustic language the people on the land who work hard despite harsh conditions:

“Long, long ago/ For generations on this piece of land/

Where no wealth or prosperity grows/ Where no miracles are ever produced/

My ancestors wiped away their sweat / And brought forth their fated children.”

 

Looking back, it is astonishing to learn how back in the days such a prosaic song was banned by the Government Information Office.

02

The Conversion of Poetry into Song and Freedom of Interpretation

Aside from Luo Da-you, the famous aboriginal singer Hu De-fu (胡德夫) and Hakka singer Lin Shen-xiang (林生祥) have also translated Wu Sheng’s poetry into songs. The poem used by Hu De-fu is “After Lights Out” (xi deng hou 熄燈後), whereas Lin Shen-xiang, who comes from a farming family similar to Wu’s, chose the poem “Threshing Fields” (shai gu chang 晒穀場). Both singers bring their own distinct style to bear on their adaptations, its every bit as unique as when they sing their own songs. These songs, along with Wu Zu-lin’s own translation of his father’s poem “Stop Them” into the song “Loving You With All My Heart (quan xin quan yi ai ni 全心全意愛你)” coincided with the emergence of the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature Wu Sheng archival project and inspired the creation of Poems and Songs .

 

xi deng hou 熄燈後

quan xin quan yi ai ni 全心全意愛你

 

Aggressiveness vs. Tenderness, The Transformation of Lament into Love

To musicians, turning a poem into a song isn’t that different from writing a song from scratch. It just so happens that the lyrics exist beforehand, from which they compose a melody. The relationship between poetry and song is similar to that of siblings. They may look the same at first glance, yet their personalities can be completely different from each other. Examples such as these appear throughout Poetry. Song , the most obvious one being “Loving You With All My Heart.” The original poem “Stop Them” is a long poem that adopts an aggressive tone to criticize the destruction of the environment of the island. Wu Zu-lin’s adaptation however, makes it sound as tender as a love song. The poet’s agitated tone is nowhere to be heard in the new version.

Such an alteration came about due to Wu Zu-lin’s tenderness towards his father. He knows that he loves the land just like he loves his children, and all the intense emotions in the poem originate from one single source: love. Concerned for his father’s wellbeing, Zu-lin hopes he can bring serenity to his father’s agitation. By extracting the two softest paragraphs from the original version, he subdued the aggressiveness of the poem, displaying only love towards the land. Wu Zu-lin emphasized that “If the love is strong enough, it will influence people to do what is right. Thus, I believe that I need only to repeat the phrase “loving you with all my heart” and remind people of what they truly care about.”

The poet’s greets this radical difference between the original poem and the song with open arms. Wu Sheng interprets the difference between the two works as originating from the creators’ different characters. Speaking with pride and satisfaction, Wu Sheng mentions how “Zu-lin’s character is more tender compared to his own, I’m more like a wild country boy. Emotional and tender songs can move the heart, while direct and political critiques can have a lot of impact at a recital; each style or method will create different forces and sentiments. My poems are often nostalgic and critical, but my son managed to transform it into such a tender ballad. The combination of poetry and song as such is really quite amusing.”

03

Loosening the Boundaries, the Performance of Two Generations

Since the publication of this amalgamation of poetry and music, they have been working hard to promote the album in hopes of loosening the boundaries between music listeners and poetry readers and to bring to the attention of literary circles how powerful a tool music can be in making literature more accessible. Before the interview, I was curious as to how the concertgoers would receive such a mixed performance between poet and musician. When visiting their live tour Wu Zu-lin’s observations that the fans who request for Wu Sheng’s autograph more often than not carry books of poetry rather than the music album was seen in action. Wu Zu-lin spoke with great pride with regard to his father’s immense popularity: “I think my dad is a really good performer. He has a sonorous voice, he’s funny and he knows how to tell a story. The vibe is often full of excitement because his stories are so enticing. Furthermore, I think for the audience who usually come to listen to singers, listening to a “recitation” can be a very fresh experience. The majority of concertgoers often find this mode of performance really cool.”

The ripple effect created after the publication of the album is what surprises Wu Sheng the most. According to Zuo Yu-qi, founder of A Good Day Records, “a lot of fans told Wu Sheng how they started to read his poems after they listened to the singer Zhang Xuan’s song based on his poem; a young fan who once tried to kill himself told us how he found the courage to continue his life after listening to the songs. All of these experiences made Mr. Wu feel worthwhile about this collaboration, through which he is able to reach and help even more people.”

During the interview, Wu Sheng spoke of one sentence that not only elucidates the relationship between poetry and song, but also depicted his collaboration with his son with great precision: “Since time immemorial, various beautiful creations have emerged through the blend of poetry and song! Some poets write lyrics for songs, but its essence remains as poetry; other lyricists write words full of poetical depth. It can be said that both genres create a lovely family.”

Poetry and song, a lovely family! Nobody demonstrates this metaphor as thoroughly as poet Wu Sheng and singer Wu Zu-lin!

Download this album: http://www.indievox.com/disc/545

Interviewer: Yang Zi-jie; Writer: Yang Zi-jie, He Jing-ru; Translator: Chien Yu-ling

 

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Zijie Yang (楊子頡)

一個連自身存在都與所身處社會一樣荒謬的年輕男子,不太適應團體,不易尋得認同與歸屬感。曾參與06年廢墟佔領、寶藏巖公社抗爭;10年參與桑雅靜心劇坊學習舞踏;現為諾努客反核文化行動團隊活動企劃與鼓手,台灣大學社會工作學系系學生。

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