Running Mother and Other Stories

By Guo Songfen
Edited and introduced by John Balcom

Reviewed by Chien-hsin Tsai
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2009)

Guo Songfen. Running Mother and  Other Stories. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. pp. 272. ISBN: 978-0-231-14734-7 (hardcover).

Guo Songfen. Running Mother and
Other Stories
. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. pp. 272. ISBN: 978-0-231-14734-7 (hardcover).

In this jet age of modern technology, “fast” and its derivatives permeate our life: fast food, express delivery, instant connectivity, etc. Fast multiplication of information requires that one reads not only selectively but fast. If not, one risks ignorance, disorientation, or even dementia. This is not a phenomenon that belongs to and characterizes only the twenty-first century. Chasing and being chased by time and speed, this is a replay of what Nietzsche and his contemporaries experienced in fin-de-siècle Europe. In response to rapid social and cultural transformations, Nietzsche wrote and published an obscure and perhaps problematic book in 1886, Daybreak: Thoughts on Prejudices of Morality, that urges people to read slowly.[1] With a title that aptly contrasts fin-de-siècle decadence, Nietzsche does not equivocate about his fondness for and the necessity of slowness, especially in the face of impending changes. If fin-de-siècle decadence was a precursor of modernism, as scholars have already observed, then we may read Nietzsche’s book as an early call to read modernist writings slowly.

Given the changes he has been through, Guo Songfen, a modernist writer from Taiwan, would agree with Nietzsche on slow reading and slow writing. Running Mother and Other Stories—a collection of some of Guo’s best novellas—offers a rewarding opportunity for slow reading. As a matter of fact, it might as well be a categorical imperative that one read all stories by Guo slowly, even if only for the reason that he has published just a handful in five decades. But, of course, there are other reasons why one should take the time to read Guo Songfen.

In his succinct introduction to Running Mother, its editor and one of its translators John Balcom considers Guo “Taiwan’s ‘lost’ Modernist.” This meaning of this statement is manifold and demands careful explication. “Lost” refers to the fact that we lost Guo to hemorrhagic stroke in 2005. Further, in comparison to his fellow “modernists,” Guo’s literary achievement remains eclipsed and less recognized. He has lost to, for instance, Bai Xianyong. And his works, equally praise-worthy, are lost in numerous acclaims given to his former classmates. But what Balcom writes in the following perhaps best explains what he means by “lost”:

[Guo’s] often barren, desolate style is as much a reflection of personal idiosyncrasy as it is an allegory of the historical situation in which he found himself trapped: his modernism is a “symptom” and a form of his troubled state of existence. (p. 3)

In other words, Guo was lost (or perhaps he lost himself) in literary world that was symptomatic of his state of existence. Additionally, a few things might have troubled and complicated his state of existence and diverted him away from fictional writing for about a decade.

Like Liu Daren, Guo chose to abandon his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and threw himself into protest movement against the inclusion of the Diaoyutai/Sensaku Islands in the Okinawa Reversion Treaty signed by the United States and Japan in 1971. Yomi Braester is right to assert that “Liu Daren represents a different strain of Taiwanese dissidence,”[2] a category to which we must add Guo Songfen. Like his classmate Chen Ruoxi, Guo visited China in 1974 only to find himself disillusioned with PRC politics. After numerous protests and his visit to China, Guo studied Marxism, seeking consolation in the philosophical treatises of Hegel, Engels, and others. In the decade from 1974 to 1984, Guo published sporadic political essays in magazines such as Dousou 抖擻 in Hong Kong and Xiachao 夏潮 in Taiwan. By the end of the 1970s, he came to realize that “philosophy is too dry” and decided to return to fiction writing.[3] This time Guo wrote with a discernable historical consciousness that had been percolated in political radicalism and physical ailment.

Six stories written after his reemergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s find their way into Running Mother. In 1984, Guo regained critical acclaim with “Moon Seal.” Unyielding femininity in an epoch of sociopolitical turmoil and chaos caused by men is a theme that runs through many of Guo’s stories. “Moon Seal” is an unforgettable story that spans a long period of time covering at least two regime transitions. In the story, which we may consider Guo’s maiden work after a decade of absence from fiction writing, the translator Michelle Yeh gracefully captures the feminine voice and the subtle psychological transitions that the female protagonist undergoes in the face of drastic changes and in the service of her bedridden husband. Yingtsih Balcom translates the second and the third stories, “Wailing Moon” and “Running Mother.” In some ways, “Wailing Moon” is a continuation of “Moon Seal”—both are about a married life that suffocates under the heavy weight of harsh reality. In contrast, “Running Mother” adds an almost incestuous twist to the male-female relationship when the protagonist turns to his psychiatrist (and friend) and inquires about the significance of a recurring dream of his mother who runs away from him. Yingtsih Balcom’s two translations convey a sense of insecurity discreetly and tantalizingly veiled in the two originals. The fourth and fifth translations—”Clover” and “Snow Bind”—are collaborations between Hayes Moore and Lee Yu and between Foster Robertson and Lee Yu, respectively. In addition to being Guo’s wife and soul mate, Lee Yu is also a talented writer in her own right. These two collaborative translations impress one with their fineness and their ability to draw readers into Guo’s world of heightened yet contained emotions. The collection ends with a fine translation of “Brightly Shine the Stars Tonight” by John Balcom. This is a roman à clef that portrays an unseen side of Chen Yi, former governor general of Taiwan, who has long been considered the spark that started the 2-28 Incident in 1947. Although the story readily lends itself to a national allegorical reading, as almost all of Guo’s stories do, it does not attempt at exonerate Chen Yi with an omniscient third-person narration that reveals some unsung benevolence. Balcom’s rendition nicely evokes the original story’s mise en abîme between history and fiction and its rciprocity between the real and the symbolic, emphasized by the relationship the protagonist has with his reflection in the mirror.

The critic Ng Kim-Chew 黃錦樹 rightly points out that the overarching theme of all of Guo’s stories is “family catastrophe” 家變 .[4] Of course, the degree of the obsession with jia varies—from “family” 家人 to family” 家庭 and from “homeland” 家鄉 to “nation” 國家 .Besides being an overarching theme, this obsession with jia is also a device through which Guo engages in and reflects upon history. In Guo’s view, history is but a complex web of confrontations between individuals and crowds, family clans 家族 and nations 國族 , as well as men and women. For Guo and his characters, “[h]uman history is not at all to be trusted/human dispute deserve no mention” (p. 256). Because history is not to be trusted and human dispute needs no mention, Guo never resorts to sensationalism in his writing. In his stories about traumatic events, such as the 2-28 Incident and the White Terror, readers do not find the scars, tears, or blood that so often accompany literary depictions of atrocities. Calmly narrating stories of familial affairs and the loss of lives, hopes, and humanity, Guo reminds readers of Shen Congwen, who tells dire stories of war and death in a unique voice that is ever so tranquil and lyrical but undeniably firm and unwavering. Like Shen, Guo is sensible and sensitive to nature. The titles “Moon Seal” and “Wailing Moon” show Guo’s preference for lunar imagery. U pon slow/close reading, readers realize that Guo has reinvented traditional transcental imagery of the moon, such as that in Wang Changling’s 王昌齡 “Chusai” 出塞 and in Su Shi’s 蘇軾 “Shuidiao getou” 水調歌頭 (the two works are also about family and homeland) or even in varied Buddhist teachings of illusion and entelechy. The moon, for Guo, is more than the age-old metaphor for reunion or madness. It connotes suppression (or even death) and how one overcomes such suppression to communicate with, display compassion toward, and seek absolution from others.

Although his fiction manifests certain characteristics of Shen Congwen’s signature lyrical voice, Guo confesses that Lu Xun remains his most admired writer.[5] In “Moon Seal,” the tubercular protagonist and his doctor are, not unlike Lu Xun, fascinated by Tolstoy. In “Snow Blind,” the protagonist, who is a teacher in an American police academy, teaches “Kong Yiji” 孔乙己 to his students while battling with his own sense of alienation. The narrator in “Clover” is a doctoral candidate who struggles with his dissertation while trying to find out the purpose of life (closely following Guo’s own situation). Although Guo does not mention Lu Xun in “Clover,” one cannot help but see his shadow. This is not only because the title “Clover” (“cao” 草) echoes Lu Xun’s collection of prose poetry. Yecao 野草 , but also because the story’s depiction of overseas Chinese students in despair reminds us of Lu Xun’s own experience as a student in Japan and his feeling of estrangement. Life in a small snowy American college town should bear such close semblance to “Snow” in Yecao. In fact, juxtaposing the following paragraphs by the two writers, they almost read as if coming from the same work:

Human shadows left no trace, the mud had frozen solid, the wide wilderness was blanketed with white snow. The entire American Midwest lay forgotten outside the human realm. . . Yes, it would not be long before there would be another snowfall with flurries on the plains before you. Every year it was the same. Snow came carried by the north wind, wailing like a madwoman, then blanketing the plains in silence. (pp. 160-161)
人影早已絕跡,土地凝重,遍野覆蓋著白雪。美國整個中西部被遺忘在人間之外 … 是的,不久皓雪即將到來,紛飛在眼前的平野上。每年都是一樣的。雪將挾著北風如瘋婦般嘯嚷,然後就無聲無息將這塊平原隱埋。
On the boundless wilderness, under heaven’s chilly vault, this glittering, spiralling wraith is the ghost of rain. . .
Yes, it is lonely snow, dead rain, the ghost of rain.[6]
在無邊的曠野上,在凜冽的天宇下,閃閃地旋轉升騰著的是雨的精魂 … 是的,那是孤獨的雪,是死掉的雨,是雨的精魂 。

As if the identical views weren’t striking and uncanny enough, in “Clover”, “he”—the narrator’s friend—eventually abandons his studies of western philosophy and devotes his asthmatic body to political activism in Taiwan. We are, by now, all too familiar with Lu Xun’s and Guo’s decision to give up personal advancement for a national cause. It is perhaps no coincidence that both “Snow Blind” and “Clover” depict a Lu Xunnesque inner solitude.

In his stories, Guo takes a non-interventionist stance in his depictions of family and nation facing the torrents of history, whereas in reality he was outspoken and did not shy away from political activism. Guo is never a hardcore realist like Lu Xun, who cut with his sharp words as a way of opening the iron house. On the other hand, Guo cuts nobody and nothing, except his own words. Returning to the literary field after years of political involvement, Guo assumes an almost sacrificial and religious posture toward writing. For him, “carefully extracting the white fat and grease so as to bring to relief its tendons and bones” 剔除白膩的脂肪,讓文章的筋骨峋立起來[7] is a practice that is at once aesthetic and ascetic. In a sense, what we may call Guo’s literary butchery is also comparable to Nietzschean philology, both driven by a love for literature and both demanding meticulous craftsmanship and slow reading. His love for literature was such that he devoted himself to the perfection of his writing as learning, as an art, and as a way of life. Like Lu Xun, Guo produced a modicum of novellas and short stories and never published a full-length novel. His fiction is dense and forces one to read slowly and to read well, to read not only between lines but also between words. Bringing to relief the tendons and bones of his texts does not necessarily mean making their content boney and barren. On the contrary, the crafted expression and imagery give Guo’s stories an undeniable richness, to say nothing of their thematic concerns with the complex network of history and family that beg psychoanalytic analysis. The richness of his stories demands of readers to inspect y structural detail—the tendons and bones—of a select expression, a sentence, and a paragraph. The stories are not slow-paced, though first-time readers tend to come away with such an impression. The stories may appear uneventful, but events take place where readers least expect. Slow reading allows one to notice temporal folds and perspectival shifts. To adopt Guo’s analogy of literary butchery: one not only reads a text, one feels its unevenness between words and between lines, its texture. When a writer like Guo emphasizes the texture of a text, reading, too, becomes tactile.

Guo’s unique view of writing, with its emphasis on language, form, and poetic expression, redraws the conventional boundaries of both lyricism and modernism and their relationship to history. His represent not so much the lyrical in the epic as the lyrical of the epic, if we may roughly equates epic with history. His stories do not readily lend themselves to translation. Readers can only imagine the efforts the present translators devoted to capturing Guo’s style. Throughout the collection, the quality of translations remains consistently even. Since Guo was a minimalist with words, it is very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to recreate in translation the ambiance (or the “boniness”) he shapes and maintains. Mistakes and questionable renderings are almost unavoidable, but the translators keep them to a minimum. To be extremely picky, the following translation appears awkward in comparison to Guo’s original:

The adults had had to make haste to bury his mother before the proper date picked by a geomancer, because they could not postpone the burial into the seasonal period known as the Grain in Ear. (p. 83)

Despite their correct grammar and meaning, the expression –”had had to make haste”—and the passive voice—”date picked by”—need trimming. Besides, there exists an error in the above English translation. The original Chinese text— 芒種的屍體再不能拖延 — means that the body is decomposing fast in early June and the family members do not wish to postpone the burial any longer, regardless of the geomancer’s instruction. It is, in other words, already the period of the Grain in Ear, opposite to what the translation indicates. The misinterpretation might be a result of combining three sentences in Chinese into one in English. There are also other minor errors: a vault or dome 穹隆 is mistranslated as “columns” (“Wailing Moon,” 110); Takashi Kitamura 北村孝志 (“Moon Seal,” 19) is mis-transliterated as Seinosuke Kitamiya; Sh­ōnankan 昭南館 , the name of a Japanese naval club, is misunderstood as the name of a building—”Zhaonan Building” (“Brightly Shine the Stars Tonight,” 213). Although I mention them for the sake of accuracy, these oversights are inconsequential; they do not affect the plot and do not tarnish the overall fine translations and make them any less readable.

Admittedly, Guo’s craftsmanship makes the task of the translators remarkably challenging. Staying stylistically close to the original is perhaps even more challenging than conveying accurately the explicit and implicit meanings of Guo’s words. The translators do a remarkable job. “Brightly Shine the Stars Tonight” is possibly the most difficult piece in the collection. John Balcom’s admirable translation gives Guo’s original a new life. The smooth flow and the delicate English expressions affirm Balcom as a careful reader attentive to nuances of grammars, style, and cultural contexts. However, in general, I find the passive voice ineffective in translating Guo’s stories. Here is one example:

The living room faced southwest, and a patch of clear sky could be seen when the shoji was open. (p. 215)

Balcom’s “could be seen” appears more explanatory than descriptive. The translation is not problematic, but the passive voice makes less visible Guo’s commitment to literary craftsmanship. The original, which does not use the word “see,” points to something beyond visibility and visuality. That something may refer to a state of existence (有), be it of the sky or even of the protagonist himself. In the original, a causal, but not necessarily logical, relationship exists between only opening and seeing, and between the door and the sky, which could be understood as metaphors for troubled and cleared minds, incarceration and freedom.[10] But Balcom is right. This is a room with a view; a room with what Ralph Freedman would call a “lyrical view” that includes “not only objects and scenes, but also characters, who exist as image-figures within the protagonist’s point of view.”[11] A similar example from the same story is as follows:


Translators of classical-style poetry may make the English rendition meet the four-character parallelism in the Chinese original. Guo’s is not lyric poetry by any means, but his tone is undeniably lyrical. The passive voice—”could be heard”—does not adequately translate the “surround sound” indicated by “rao” 繞 that adds another dimension to the visibility and audibility —mobility. In this story about a general under house arrest, the dream, the vision, and the birds are all highly symbolic. In the inner landscape of his dream, he roams unfettered like a bird, while in the real world he is often silent under surveillance.

Guo Songfen once wrote: “When a punctuation mark lands at the right place, its effect is astounding” 一個標點符號放對了位置,就會令人不寒而慄.[13] It is impractical to ask Guo’s translators to follow every rhetorical move he makes. A good translator like Balcom took the time to understand the author and what he wants to say even if it means rearrangement. What Balcom and the other translators in this collection face is of course faced by all translators: “Translator, traitor.” In his use of this phrase, Umberto Eco urges all authors to participate in the task of translation. Even if Guo had helped with the translation of these stories, he would not have punctuated the English the same way he did the Chinese. Guo might not have had the opportunity to work with the translators of Running Mother, but he would be pleased by their efforts and the outcome. There is no doubt that Guo has set a standard hard to surpass for modernist writers to come. He is an exquisite writer, nay, an excellent teacher who, with his stories, teaches us to read slowly and read well. With Running Mother, he is no longer lost to or hidden from English-speaking readers.

Chien-hsin Tsai
University of Texas-Austin


[1] “A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento . It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, the teacher of slow reading:―in the end I also write slowly. . . My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!” From Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on Prejudices of Morality. Tr. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.5.

[2] Yomi Braester, Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 166.

[3] Liu, Daren 劉大任. Niuyue yan 紐約眼 (Taipei: Ink, 2002), p. 63.

[4] Ng, Kim-chew. Wen yu hun yu ti: Lun Zhongguo xiandaixing (Textuality, soul, and body: on Chinese modernity) (Taipei: Maitian, 2006), p. 266.

[5] Ink Literary Monthly, vol. 1, no. 11 (July 2005), p. 40.

[6] Lu, Hsun. Wild Grass ( Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1974), p. 22.

[7] Guo Songfen. Guo Songfen ji (Stories by Guo Songfen) (Taipei: Qianwei, 1993), p. 397.

[8] Guo, Guo Songfen ji, p. 58

[9] Guo, Benpao de muqin, p. 225.

[10] This not necessarily logical relationship between opening the shoji and seeing the sky is reminiscent of the opening line of Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country where the narrator arrives at the “snow country” after the train comes out from the long dark tunnel 国境の長いトンネルを抜けると雪国であった. Both Guo’s and Kawabata’s sentences are without a subject, and both point to a state of existence— 就有 / であった . Visuality is but one way through which one perceives such state of existence.

[11] Freedman, Ralph. The Lyrical Novel: Studies in Hermann Hesse, Andre Gide, and Virginia Woolf ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 2.

[12] Guo, Benpao de muqin, p. 229.

[13] Guo, Guo Songfen ji, p. 398.