SHEN CONGWEN (1902—1988) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

SHEN CONGWEN (1902—1988)
The Dictionary

SHEN CONGWEN (1902—1988). Fiction writer. A self-described “country bumpkin,” Shen Congwen hailed from the backwaters of a mountain town in western Hunan. Following the local tradition, he enlisted in the army at the age of 14, hoping to succeed in the military like his paternal grandfather who had risen through the ranks to become a general. Disillusioned by military life and uninterested in spending the rest of his time in small towns, he left the army and went to Beijing to seek a new life. With only an elementary school education, he could not pass the college entrance exams, so he audited classes. While attending lectures at Beijing University and devouring books in the city library, he began to write pastoral stories. By the end of the 1930s, he was one of the most respected Chinese writers. Fiercely independent, he was wary of political interference, which, he maintained, would rob literature of its soul. In the 1930s, at the height of his career, he infuriated his colleagues by criticizing the lack of individuality and frivolous pursuits of modern writers, which catapulted him to the center of a heated debate. He was denounced by both the left and the right; the left accused him of misleading the youth by encouraging them to withdraw from society; the right found his call for a literature of “flesh and blood” too ideological.

For his writings, Shen drew mostly from the wealth of his early experiences, the host of people he had met as he roamed western Hunan as a soldier and the old customs and street scenes that fascinated him as a child, to illustrate a world in direct contrast to modern urban life. This pastoral landscape is simple, but not simplistic. The world of the mountain villages in western Hunan that appears in some of his stories seems timeless, untouched by Confucian morality or modern concepts, and runs according to a different set of rules and values. The child bride in “Xiaoxiao” (Xiao Xiao) escapes a severe punishment when her out-of-wedlock pregnancy is discovered by her in-laws. Shen does not depict Xiaoxiao as either a victim of or a rebel against traditional morality, however, as a progressive writer would do: her life is spared partly because the head of her family “has not read Confucius.” In “Bian cheng” (Border Town), another masterpiece of Shen’s, he depicts an idyllic world inhabited by characters, the rich and the poor alike, who are kindhearted, generous, and trustworthy.

Other than the stories reminiscent of his hometown, Shen also wrote about city life, including “Shengshi de taitai” (The Gentleman’s Wife) and “Ba jun tu” (A Portrait of Eight Steeds). Unlike the sincere, nostalgic tone in his hometown stories, a satirical voice describes the urban scene, making fun of the lack of morality in the polite society of high officials, university professors, and college students who maintain an exterior of propriety and intelligence underneath which hides their mean and vulgar nature. While exposing the sordid side of high society, the author also depicts the lives of the lower classes, particularly the struggle of folks from the countryside, like himself, for dignity and respect. In general, his city stories never reached the same degree of achievement as his rural tales.

After a painful period of soul-searching, Shen concluded in 1949 that his pen was out of date and he could not transform himself fast enough to keep up with the new society. He stopped writing fiction and sociopolitical essays altogether and reinvented himself as an expert in the field of antiquities. His work resulted in several groundbreaking scholarly books on ancient Chinese silk, costumes, lacquer, mirrors, and other cultural relics. Shen made a successful career as a scholar of antiquities but is best remembered as one of the greatest writers of 20th-century China. See also NEW CULTURE MOVEMENT; NATIVISTS.