Hsu Chen-Fu’s first full-length work, Taming the Blue Sheep, is a tapestry woven of travelog with fiction embroidered with natural and human history, ethnography and reportage that shows us Tibet past and present, and lives lived on its high grasslands, both human and animal. A meditative traveler in the vein of Bruce Chatwin, Hsu’s prose narrative rises to become a wider inquiry into the relationship between Man and Nature even as it goes down deep into particular places and people, while his fiction brings alive the human detail of Tibetan lives under Chinese rule and the sweep of the tumult of change since 1949.
Ostensibly a diary of the author’s several trips to the Tibetan Plateau in a quest to see the fabled snow leopard, we are soon introduced to the multiple narratives that will be employed in the form of an earlier traveler’s diary Hsu “translates” in excerpt. It is that of a fictional Japanese scholar of religion who comes to Tibet in the 1940s and stays to bear witness to “peaceful liberation”, the flight of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan uprising and Red Guard faction fighting on the streets of Lhasa. Hsu’s own journal begins with his journey to and residence at a research station where the search for the leopard reveals only tantalizing traces and second-hand accounts; here, the very high plateau itself perhaps features larger than the elusive big cat. We follow Hsu on visits to Lhasa and its wealth of monasteries and palaces, or idle time away waiting in Xining for the next excursion back to the grasslands. One such begins as an ill-fated car trip into the deepest parts of the plateau but ends with him spending the Tibetan New Year with the family of the shepherd who rescues him from breakdown in a snowstorm. He joins village youth returned from city jobs to scale a sacred mountain and light a New Year fire, then stays on to try his hand at shepherd’s work and investigate the cause of a mystery disease plaguing local flocks. We experience Hsu’s frustrations at the numerous official barriers a foreign traveler encounters off the tourist trail in Tibet and his delight and interest in those locals he does get to meet. Some of these latter feature as protagonists in their own fictional expansions from the main text, such as the ageing Tibetan opera master navigating personal loyalty to his art, faith and patrimony with performative gratitude to the modernizing state, as we share his first encounter with motion pictures both as audience and subject. Hsu’s journeys have met with numerous setbacks and end when he is expeled from his shepherd host’s village by the police; he decides it is time to return to Taiwan, yet to encounter a snow leopard in the wild. He does see a captive specimen in Xining Zoo on the morning of his flight home, underscoring our realization that it is always the quest that matters most.
Hsu Chen-Fu is already well-known as an award-winning essayist and writer and the maturity of his craft is in evidence here, seamlessly blending the various narrative formats. The writing is tight with no longueurs, capable of expansive explication when the topic is natural science or subtle suggestion in the internal monologue of a fictional protagonist. The diversity of the content might easily descend into a mere ragbag of disparate parts but the strong authorial voice and sustained themes never leave this book feeling less than a whole. Hsu has a background in the sciences and his discussions of environmental themes benefit from this solid grounding but he is clearly also a gifted fiction writer and excels in that format too – his characters feel real and his descriptive writing is unforced. Better still, he is a good traveling companion not averse to humor when appropriate.
The book includes an afterword by Wu Ming-Yi, author of The Man with the Compound Eyes, who we learn has known Hsu from the latter’s youth, always expecting great things from the younger writer. In Taming the Blue Sheep we see Wu’s judgement was not misplaced, this linked medley of fine writing addresses compelling themes for our times, bears witness to history, celebrates a culture, and takes us among people and places dear to the author’s heart in a style that keeps us constantly engaged.
- Hsu Chen-Fu: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=375
- Taming the Blue Sheepn: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=412