Stirring the Hearts of Children: An Interview with Chen Cheng-En
By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Jan 16, 2024

Several decades ago when Chen Cheng-En was a child, he went with his father who’d gone to work in Cape Eluanbi at the southernmost tip of Taiwan. There were a lot of stalls beside the highway that smelt of barbecue, but they weren’t selling the sausages that are common these days, back then they were selling roasted birds – mostly brown shrikes that migrated there in winter. In a time of material scarcity when people had no concept of wildlife conservation, it was a low-cost way to supplement their protein or make a profit. While eating them was by no means heinous, Chen still couldn’t bear to see a whole road full of dead birds.

Now, after years of advocacy, the roads and areas that were once known for roasting birds have been cleared of the “shrike killer” stigma. However, many of humanity’s actions towards nature still can’t be considered kind, and the unbearableness of it is a sentiment that Chen frequently recalls in his writing, saying: “the little water ducks represent those suffering animals.”

Imaging Himself as a Water Duck

Chen chose a water duckling as the protagonist based on his own personal preference since the Taiwanese term “duckling” is synonymous with “duckweed” and both the pronunciation and the metaphorical image always made him think of something cute and comforting. Since the concept had been in the works for some time, it took him under a week to actually write it and you could say it was quite a smooth process. The only two obstacles were the word limit and the fact that he was human.

When he wrote the first draft, he had to keep the word count under 6,000 Chinese characters to qualify for the short story category in various children’s literary awards. This meant that he had to leave out some interesting real-life details and focus on the plot, for example he couldn’t mention how the ducklings use moonlight and stars to orientate themselves when flying at night, and he couldn’t go into too much detail when describing the landscapes, islands, and incidents that happened along the way. To help readers quickly get to know the important characters, he even named each of the characters directly after their respective characteristics.

On the surface, his inability to really think like a duckling might have seemed like a hindrance to his writing, but looking at it another way, it was also a position of freedom. Chen was able to incorporate his favorite form of flight diary so that readers could gain a greater understanding of the protagonist Flying Southward Hsiang’s feelings. He incorporates a lot of human behavior into the ducklings’ group dynamic, imagining their conflicts, bravery, and compassion. He also doesn’t shy away from the fact that the ducklings inevitably lose their lives, nor does he sugar-coat mankind’s attitude towards animals. These approaches ultimately make the story far more moving.

The Difficulty of Survival

Chen likes to draw inspiration from observing daily life and has a notebook where he collects lots of things that intrigue him. He believes that when he’s writing notes it seems like he’s recording other people when in fact he’s really observing himself. Thus, we should also say that when he’s writing about animals, he’s also writing about people. In his writing, there is no hierarchy between humans and animals which can be traced back to his experience growing up in the countryside.

His rural childhood is full of interesting memories: working in the fields with his parents during the holidays; finishing his homework then going across the embankment to swim in the stream; receiving fruits from his neighbors as he passed by their orchards…memories filled with green scenery and warm interactions that could easily seem like something out of My Neighbor Totoro. Ultimately though, the reality of life in the countryside is nothing like a Studio Ghibli movie. The dead bodies of drowned animals who inevitably appear in streams; the wholesalers who use low prices to mercilessly squeeze hardworking farmers; the unscrupulous factories who discharge wastewater into the aquifer when no one is looking.…

Regardless of whether these various aspects of the countryside are beautiful or brutal, Chen believes that “the natural world forgives, accepts, and educates us.” He observes that both humans and animals suffer a lot of pain and setbacks during their lives, and that animals “have to exert a huge amount of effort and courage” just to survive, as seen in The Call of the Wild by Jack London. He attempts to show the difficulty of survival, but at the same time, he doesn’t want the dark side of the world to scare young readers, so he writes children’s stories that feature animals as the main characters in a way that he hopes is lighter and more positive.

Illuminating Readers with a Little Girl’s Kindness

After retiring as an elementary school principal, Chen focused on developing his interests and writing was something he kept doing on a whim. He rarely publishes books partly because he doesn’t want to repeat topics that he’s already covered, and also because he doesn’t want to write content where printing it would be a shameful sacrifice of trees which would defeat the purpose of creating the stories in the first place. When he picks up his pen, he thinks of the young students who used to surround him and see him as a grandfather figure, especially now he sees his own newborn grandson among their small faces. If they read the story and think “the ducklings are so cute” rather than “the ducklings are delicious”, then they’ll be more likely to treat the world with kindness. When he wrote about the unnamed girl in the story who responded to the ducking’s actions with kindness, Chen did so with the belief that every child has the potential to become her.