The novel starts off with a nameless boy adrift at sea in a dugout canoe, starving and wasting away with no land in sight. He’s visited by an apparition of a Formosan clouded leopard who, upon the boy’s agreeing to paddle in the direction of a massive typhoon, hands him a cylindrical piece of jade. On shore, Tailas, the daughter of the chieftain of Hacying village, Kataw, is at the house of Yafo, the leader of the tribe’s hunting party and hunter training. Her father rushes over and tells Yafo that his daughter, Pana, has gone missing and a hunt for her ensues. Yafo finds her at the beach, a taboo place for their people. She keeps calling out that there’s a boy in the water and convinces Yafo to go off into the waves to rescue a boy in the surf, just barely clinging to life. The boy is rescued but slowly regains consciousness days later only to say in his newly acquired language that he is Vali, the deceased son of Pana. He’s clutching the jade cylinder which has a huge significance for Yafo.
After describing the first few weeks and months of adjustment to his new life after the new Vali comes ashore, the novel fast-forwards by five years to a crisis. Vali is out hunting, and after successfully hunting a prize deer, he’s surprised by Tailas. Suddenly though, things aren’t right when they then stumble upon a corpse-walker who isn’t supposed to have crossed over the river from the “valley of death”. The appearance of such a heinous creature is a harbinger of things not right in the (super)natural world. They escape and warn Yafo and a select few others who then form a search party to confirm the sighting.
Matters only get worse as more people begin to disappear and the villagers realize that more corpse-walkers are crossing over the river. What’s worse is they realize the corpse-walkers are impervious to regular weapons. Weapons disintegrate at the slightest touch of the corpse-walkers – until they figure out that jade, or the tears of the Earth Goddess, are just one of two ways to vanquish these ghouls, the other being water. There’s just one problem though – Hacying village has no jade of its own, and the village, under duress and ever-increasing walker incursions. A battle ensues where the three generations of sorceresses in the village, Tailas among them, conjure a seven-day flood to keep the shambling corpse-walkers at bay. After this battle and the rescue of the village with several tragic deaths, the elders of Hacying Village decide that they must trade their rice with the Deep Valley settlement to replenish their jade weapon supplies. The village sends off an entourage to trade with their allies in the Deep Valley tribe, but on their way, are ambushed by the not-so-friendly head-hunting raiding parties of the Giant Stone tribe. Problems ensue when love trysts and younger, unhappy villagers who contest Yafo and disbelieve his tales of the coming of the corpse-walkers. More tragedies strike again. The entourage races back to Hacying village with little time left to spare before Hacying is overrun by the corpse-walkers. A miracle occurs though when Vali joins in with Tailas, and the other shamans to invoke their ancestor’s protector spirits – clouded leopards.
To paraphrase the author’s own words, she wanted to bring light to a part of Taiwan’s neolithic history through the creation of a fantasy version of a village belonging to the Beinan culture that existed near Taitung, in southeastern Taiwan from between 5,200 to 2,300 years ago. One of the hallmarks of this prehistoric culture are the adornments fashioned from jade. One of the underlying messages, written a handful of times by Kuzuha, is the idea of greed and its consequences. At the end of the novel, she writes that the “corpse-walkers” are those ancients who were punished for their own attempts at gaining immortality and an insatiable greed; their punishment being turned into corpses that feast on living flesh, siphoning off the spirits of the living at the simplest touch; this is contrasted starkly with those who accept their own mortality and are blessed with eternal slumber, being transformed into clouded leopard spirits, meant to be awakened in times of crisis such as with the coming of the corpse-walkers. On a related note, Kuzuha’s world-making also includes support for environmentalism and an undercurrent of resistance to over-consumption is present throughout Kuzuha’s work. Sustainability, not taking more than what’s needed, and recognition of limits are present throughout the book.
Apart from conceptualization of the consequences of greed, the novel presents ample examples of our heroine, Tailas, standing up for herself and breaking all the rules that would normally be enforced and limit any other girl. My one disappointment is that even though her grandmother explains to Tailas that everyone in Hacying knows she’s better than all the boys in so many ways, she still pushes her granddaughter into the role of the future sorceress for the tribe and this may reinforce a concept that nobody can really escape their lot in life and must play out the fate that accompanies one’s status at birth. To be sure though, several times throughout the novel, Kuzuha writes scenes where Tailas plays a decisive role or proves martial prowess just as well as, if not better than the male characters. The focus on matriarchy is also something worth noting, and this is a reference not just to Taiwan’s Indigenous context but within the global historical context as well. From distant antiquity and beyond around the globe, matriarchy has been theorized to have been the main trend, only shifting away to patriarchal systems beginning within the last couple thousands of years. Many Indigenous Taiwanese have long had matriarchal hierarchies even up to the present moment, and Kuzuha’s writing is a sort of homage back to that. Within Hacying village, and their allies deep in the mountains, the sorceresses in particular play an all-important role within the succession of the tribe. Whomever marries the sorceress in these societies becomes the next chief. In many ways, Tailas reminds me of the heroine from the Studio Ghibli classic, Princess Mononoke – regal, puissant, courageous, and dutiful, tasked with an impossible mission.
While most of the fighting in the novel are nondescript mentions of corpse-walkers being pierced in the skull or chest with jade tipped spears, the most memorable description of martial acumen to me is the fight between Yafo and Poyak, the next chief-to be from the Deep Gorge tribe from where the jade for Hacying’s survival is precariously sourced. The two, old master and young buck, fight off against each other in a duel using spears following Poyak’s arrogance and grave misunderstanding about the jade trade the elders of the tribe have permitted, as he aims to stop the entourage from Hacying from returning to their village with their hard-negotiated deal. I’m a big fan of martial arts novels and this work heavily reminded me of several of the fight scenes in Yoshikawa Eiji’s Musashi. Although not a long-standing rivalry to the extent between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro, the suspense from Kuzuha’s writing gave me a lot of joy when reading the descriptions of dodges and feigns, and the ultimate surprise ending of the fight.
For those readers searching for a work that reminds them of martial arts novels of yore with supernatural twists, this book is for you! If prehistorically set survival stories are your niche, this story is your jam! If you’re searching for strong female characters, you can’t miss this book!
- Kuzuha: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=379
- Vali: The Lost Story of Taiwan: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=417