Chen Xiuling, MA student, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
The essay “Mothers” is a kaleidoscopic portrait of women as mothers, with a focus on the maternal instinct and spirit. It does not dwell on any definition of the mother’s role, nor does it eulogize the sacrifices women make for their families. Rather, mothers appear in the text as bodhisattva figures—selfless, self-sacrificing, always prepared to give. Becoming a mother is the most solemn of life’s undertakings. Even though motherhood brings great suffering, it entails a vow never to give up.
The essay opens with a symphony of Sanskrit chanting and cicadas singing in the mountains. The author’s eyes dwell on a pitiful soul—a white-haired mother, frail of body but strong of will. Staggering, she kneels down every few steps, clasping her hands in prayer, chanting a mantra of repentance over and over, entreating the bodhisattva Guanyin to relieve her ailing daughter’s pain.
This devout mother who implores Guanyin to save her daughter reminds the author of other maternal figures who are also worrying about and fighting for their children. When she was in middle school, the author lived with relatives. One night, she saw the maid shedding furtive tears because she missed the children she had left behind in southern Taiwan. The author also remembers a widow whose daughter contracted a terrible disease at an early age. Under the young woman’s beautiful face lurked a ferocious beast, and the daughter often resisted her mother’s embrace with a volley of mindless punches. Then there was the mother waiting outside an intensive care unit, ordering a suit over the telephone for her 19-year-old son so that he would have something nice to wear when he descended to the underworld. As mothers, all these women suffer for their children. By briefly describing the mothers she has encountered, the author shows that maternal love is found in life’s most ordinary moments. Mothers stubbornly stand by their children regardless of circumstances, the ultimate fulfillment of their promise as mothers.
All the mothers depicted in the essay have a certain duality; they can be both tender and strong, or in the author’s words, “a butterfly and a tank can co-exist in a single woman.” A mother’s frail frame can both embrace her children and fight the misfortunes that befall them. The text portrays several mothers, one suffering for her child’s pain, another agonizing over her daughter’s disease, one despondent because she misses her children, and another grieving for her dying son. From the moment these women became mothers, nature awakened their innate maternal instincts and set them off on the selfless path of caring for their children. In the process, whatever challenges arise, these women never seek to avoid them; they persevere till the very last moment of their lives. This is a mother’s promise to her children – the true meaning of motherhood.
Jian Zhen (b. 1961) is the pen name of Jian Minzhen. Jian was born in the northeastern county of Yilan, where the earth inspired her to begin writing. Her father died in a car accident when she was thirteen, and the figure of the absent father has become a recurring theme in her writings.
Jian Zhen’s talent as a writer began to win attention while she was studying Chinese literature at National Taiwan University, winning several literary awards. In her fourth year at the university she came across Buddhist texts and upon graduation she went to work for the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, where she interpreted Buddhist scriptures. She then moved on to the publishing industry, holding positions as editor-in-chief of the literary monthly Unitas, deputy editor at Yuan-Liou Publishing, and editorial director with publisher Shixueshe. She also founded the Dayen Bookstore. Jian is currently a full-time writer.
Jian Zhen writes mainly literary essays – she calls herself a “hopeless essay addict” – and her works deal with a wide range of topics. She gained fame in the mid-1980s. Among her earlier works, Water (1985) is an account of her university life and centers on the pursuit of love. Memories of Father (1986) focuses on her Buddhist beliefs and the theme of impermanence. Moonlight (1987) treats nostalgia. Fish Floating in the Air (1988) and Rouge Basin (1994), Jian turns to observations of urban life.
The highpoint in Jian’s career came with Daughter’s Wine (1996), in which she explores the images of women of different generations, how women adapt to different roles, and the maternal instinct. Since this collection of essays was published, female transformation and growth has become a theme in her work. In 1999 Jian Zhen became a mother and she began writing from a mother’s perspective. Her Red Baby: A Woman and Her Baby Raising History (1999) is a kind of “essay documentary” that truthfully details what it is like to raise a baby. At the same time the work also delves into mothers’ inner worlds, documenting social changes in the important roles women play – mothers’ love, instruction, and responsibility.
Ends of the Earth—Formosa Blog (2002) shows Jian’s interest in Taiwanese history. In poetic language, the author imagines her male Chinese ancestor crossing the sea to Taiwan, marrying an aboriginal Kavalan woman and founding the Jian clan in Yilan. The work opens a window of imagination on her matrilineal origins.
Selling Brooms with Grandma (2003) is Jian Zhen’s first picture book (illustrations by Huang Xiaoyan). In this book, Jian depicts her hometown, an Yilan farming village in the 1960s, and her relationship with her grandmother. Other works included A Floating Island (2004), Love Reignites (2004), Giddy Trees (2006), and Sweet, Sweet Words (2006). Jian wrote The Teacher’s Twelve Gifts – A Boy Studies in America (2006) while accompanying her husband and son on a study junket to the USA, a work that contrasts life and learning in Taiwan and the United States.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2327
|Anthology：||Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series（《台灣文學英譯叢刊 》）|
|Publisher：||Forum for the Study of World Literatures in Chinese, University of California, Santa Barbara|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010011238|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://paper-republic.org/publishers/taiwan-literature-english-translation-series/|
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