Jian Yiming, Associate Professor, Department of Taiwanese Literature, National Cheng Kung University
Guo Songfen’s “Running Mother” (1984) is the story of a young man raised by a single mother after his father disappeared early on. Because of various incidents that occurred while he was growing up, he constantly dreams that he sees his mother running, reawakening tense memories of being abandoned. When the protagonist confesses this to an old friend, a psychiatrist, he explains that he’s not only afraid his mother is leaving him, but also fears that she is running to him. Thus his feelings for his maternal parent vacillate between intimacy and estrangement.
An earlier version of the story was published together with the author’s “Airport Scenery,” a work of flash fiction, the two stories linked by the subtitle “Mother and son.” The settings were not entirely the same: one took place in an airport, while the other moved from memories of Japanese colonial-era Taipei, the author’s hometown, to his return from America, spanning many years. However, the son’s feelings about his mother in the two texts are paradoxical: “jealousy and promise, hostility and benevolence; the usual harmony and closeness could, at any time, turn into a psychological burden,” “that is both the beginning and the end; it’s very hard to differentiate – both the beginning and the end, happiness and unhappiness.” Of course, the mother in the text is not simply a counterpart or a referent – she symbolizes both the source and completion of an emotion; however, once journeying in the world, life’s destructiveness inevitably follows – love and hate, happiness and unhappiness are both intertwined in memory’s trajectory, following as closely as shadows.
In the 1970s Guo Songfen threw himself into the “Baodiao movement,” 1 after which he returned to the study of Western philosophy, focusing on the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, settling down after a period of political activism. But the complex realities that drew him to the intellectual path grew even more onerous, becoming an insupportable psychological burden. After a period of mental and physical illness in the early 1980s, Guo set aside his study of Marxism. Neither philosophy nor politics could answer his questions, so he began writing fiction as a final response, an effort to come to grips with life’s challenges.
In comparison to his “Limestone’s Watch,” published in the June 1986 issue of Literature Quarterly, “Running Mother” marked the beginning of Guo Songfen’s return to literature. The work’s theme and literary form heralded an important characteristic of the writer’s future work: the use of multifaceted metaphor. In “Running Mother” we see even more of the novelist’s trademark literary devices and philosophical concerns: multiple-narrative structure, the use of visualization to tell the story, poetic language, and inquiry into and search for life’s essence. These techniques and queries create time-space overlap and reflexive situations, tying the narrative together. The “mother” image constantly appears in the text, at times nearer and at times more remote, sometimes in actuality, sometimes in memory, sometimes the creation of subjective imagination, sometimes gradually realized in the protagonist’s conversations with his doctor friend. In the end the story takes an abrupt turn, the mother’s death becoming the answer to and final word on all questions. This kind of existential reflection and narrative placement echo Guo Songfen’s longtime philosophical concerns: the world’s troubles and doubts, possessions and deficiencies, all end with death; hence they are both significant and insignificant.
Guo Songfen (1938-2005) wrote under the penname Luo Anda. His wife Li Yu (1944-2014) was also a writer, and his father, Guo Xuehu, a well-known painter of the Japanese colonial era. Guo enrolled in National Taiwan University’s Department of Philosophy, but later transferred to the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. After graduation he remained in the department, teaching English poetry. After earning a master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California-Berkeley, he pursued doctoral studies but left school in 1971, devoting himself to the “Baodiao movement.” 1 He later worked at the United Nations until retiring. In 1974 Guo and Liu Daren (Liu Da-jen) went to China, where they met with Zhou Enlai. Consequently, Guo was blacklisted by the KMT and for a long time was unable to return to Taiwan. Much of his fiction in that period was informed by complex feelings of nostalgia for his homeland.
In 1958 Guo published his first short story, “Wang Huaihe and His Woman,” in a campus publication, but did not write fiction again until 1983. In the intervening twenty-five years he primarily penned works of political and philosophical criticism, most of which ran in Baodiao-movement publications. His fiction has been collected in Works of Guo Songfen (1997), Double Moon (2001), and Running Mother (2002). In 2005 he published “Nine Fallen Flowers,” dying of a brain hemorrhage that same year.
Guo Songfen’s oeuvre is meager but masterly, his prose refined and poetic. Chinese-Malaysian scholar Ng Kim-chew said Guo was “one of the very few writers of modern Chinese fiction whose style can be called cryptic,” moreover, he manifested “the psychological state of a left-wing intellectual who has turned from revolution to poetry.”
Guo Songfen once stated that Lu Xun was the modern Chinese writer he most admired. In describing Guo’s “Autumn Rain,” a work that depicted Yin Haiguang’s final days, critic Wang Dewei (David Der-wei Wang) noted that, “A master of literary freedom uncharacteristically possesses Lu Xun’s cynicism.” Guo Songfen’s short story “Snow Blind” features several quotes from Lu Xun’s fiction, a spiritual link between two generations of intellectuals, or perhaps a metaphor for spiritual malady.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2321
|Anthology：||Running mother and other stories|
|Literary Genre：||Short Story|
|Publisher：||New York: Columbia University Press|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010201723|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://cup.columbia.edu/book/running-mother-and-other-stories/9780231147347|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Columbia University Press|