SHA TING (1904—1992)
SHA TING (1904—1992). Novelist. Born in northwestern Sichuan, Sha Ting is best known as a chronicler of the agrarian society of his hometown. His works can be roughly divided into two categories: the ideological stories, written in response to Communist Party policies, and the hometown stories, based on people and events he personally encountered. From the very beginning of his career, Sha tried to fit his writing to the templates of the proletarian literature advocated by Mao Dun and others in the Left-wing Association of Chinese Writers, which he joined in 1932. His eagerness to embrace its ideology may have contributed to the dogmatic and moralizing style found in some of his writings. Yet, throughout his life, Sha struggled to stay close to his birthplace, repeatedly abandoning a promising political career, often to the chagrin of party leaders and his friends, in order to return to his roots for creative inspiration. Deep in his heart, he did not see himself as a politician and he got greater satisfaction from writing novels than from being a bureaucrat. His best works are those inspired by the real people of his hometown, who serve as prototypes for his characters. He was less of an imaginative writer than a keen observer and superb portraitist.
The characters that populate his hometown stories are peasants, local gangsters, landlords, government officials, and small-town intellectuals: the wide spectrum of people he met while growing up and through his uncle, the leader of the Society of Brotherhood, a well-known gang in Sichuan. The tone he often adopts in these tales is humorous and at times satirical. His satire is subtle; he never lashes out directly but lets his characters speak for themselves. “Zai qixiangju chaguan li” (In the Teahouse), a short story written in 1940, exposes the collaborations between the local gangsters and military officers. The political purpose of the story is to expose and satirize behaviors that hinder social reforms and the war effort. The message is conveyed not through moralizing and explicit propaganda, but through the words and acts of the characters. Sha does not rely on lengthy descriptions or psychological analysis to portray his characters; rather, his stories consist mostly of vivid dialogues in colloquial speech.
Tao jin ji (Gold Rush), written in 1942 and considered his best work, is the first of his many novels. The story revolves around a piece of land that is the center of a fight among local gentry, gangsters, and officials. Tao jin ji is a consummate study of local customs, language, and social networks, as well as the author’s understanding of his own roots. Sha laments the ignorance and selfishness of small-town Chinese, whose energy and cleverness are misplaced. Instead of uniting to fight against the Japanese, they go to extreme lengths to destroy each other in order to protect their own interests. The inspiration for Kun shou ji (Caged Animals), a novel about elementary school teachers in rural Sichuan, came from his brother-in-law, whose elopement with the concubine of a wealthy landlord, leaving behind a wife and three children, caused a stir in town. Sha was intimately familiar with rural schoolteachers, his wife and his mother-in-law having taught in the country for many years, and was sympathetic to what they had to endure in such an isolated environment. Huanxiang ji (Homecoming), finished during the Civil War, focuses on the negative consequences of the Nationalist government’s conscription campaign in the countryside.
After 1949, Sha tried to keep up with the times by writing about the accomplishments and transformations taking place in the country, but his work failed to achieve the same force and appeal as his hometown stories. In the 1980s, he refocused his attention on Sichuan, resulting in Hong shi tan (The Red Rock Beach), a novel regarded as the sequel to Tao jin ji. While the older book describes an old order essentially untouched by external events, the new book rings its death toll. In Hong shi tan, those who used to rule the insulated agrarian world make their last desperate attempt in the 1950s to hold on to power. Sha was much more at home and much more enthusiastic about portraying the old era than the new one he helped to usher in.