Shen Congwen: A Letter

Alice Xin Liu & Shen Congwen

Shen Congwen (1902 – 1988) will always have a place in Chinese history as a shining literary star whose light was extinguished early. Unlike other great writers of his time, Shen never went abroad or studied at an elite university, instead when he was thirteen or fourteen he joined up with a warlord army and travelled through the Chinese countryside, and in particular that of his native province, Hunan.

Shen Congwen’s work began to appear in mainstream publishing in 1924, when he was twenty. In 1934 he completed his masterpiece, Border Town (translated by Jeffrey C. Kinkley, 2009, Harper Perennial), which tells the story of a young girl pursued by two eligible men whilst at the same time caring for her only known family member, her grandfather. It was also around this time that he fell in love with his nineteen year-old student, Zhang Zhaohe.

Zhang was the model for Cuicui, the protagonist of Border Town. References to Cuicui appear throughout Shen’s diaries and letters, as does Sansan, his nickname for his wife.

This diary entry letter from 30 May, 1949, comes at the eve of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1 of the same year, and it was in the late forties that Shen Congwen found himself profoundly isolated. His ‘radical’ belief that writers should be independent of politics, especially independent of the new government, was not shared by others. Ding Ling, who he mentions in the diary entry, was a prolific modern Chinese writer. She took high-profile posts in the government’s Writers’ Association and ended her friendship with Shen, who now found himself an outcast.

Shen Congwen struggled through spells of depression and madness all his life and when, in 1949, the year this diary entry was written, he was attacked on big character posters at the Peking University campus for not heralding the Communist cause, he slit his wrists and throat with a razor blade. He was resuscitated but the episode was evidence of just how unhappy he was under the new regime.

Zhang Zhaohe, positive in nature and ‘morally upright,’ took the view that society had changed for the better when the Communist government took over. She viewed her husband’s breakdowns and descent into madness with exasperation.

Shen’s novels, which had him often referred to as the Chinese William Faulkner, had a pastoral quality that did not serve a political purpose. Under his pen there were no archetypal peasants oppressed by the landowning class, or capitalists being punished. For this, even though Border Town and Long River were recognized as modern masterpieces, their printing was discontinued until the late 1970s.

Shen tucked away his writing pen in 1949. He never completed the politically acceptable novels he set out to write during this period. Instead he began what would be thirty years of employment at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, as well as writing an informative book on Chinese costume and dress through the ages.

When he died in Beijing on 10 May, 1988 aged eighty-five, all fell quiet. The one line obituary in the State-owned press only appeared four days later, withheld because the Party had to make a decision on his political character. In the end they called him ‘a famous Chinese writer’ and didn’t talk about his breaks with the Party. Nor did the release detail the resurgence of his work and the essential place it held in Chinese literature.


Beiping (Beijing) Dormitory


It’s 10 p.m. and very quiet. It’s strange that everything fell quiet all of a sudden. For the first time I hear camel crickets shaking their wings under the window. I am trying to search afar with my ear, but it’s as if the whole of Beiping has fallen quiet. It’s strange. It’s not really the same as it has always been. I can hear the sound of drums far away. Could I be going mad again?

From the two side rooms the sound of the children snoring is very clear. I am filled with a kind of aimless emptiness that comes from the depths of my being. It’s as if I am completely alone in the world, it’s as if I have been completely segregated from the sadness and happiness of everyone. The meridian light is as of old, the scattered paper on the desk is as of old, and the writing desk that I am leaning on has followed me for eighteen years. Looking at the photograph sitting on the table taken ten years ago, I feel like I am still on good terms with Ding Ling. It was taken after her husband’s death. We posed for a photo on the streets of Wuchang with the Ling Shuhua family before we went on our way to see her (and the child) back to Hunan. Xiao Ying, who Shuhua is holding, enrolled in university this year. And the abandoned child must be a strong young man by now. However something I can’t explain is causing me my very own madness. I feel as if I am separating myself and wandering away from the group. And I daydream in front of a photograph.

Ten minutes ago I listened to the Carmen, Butterfly Lovers and Camille preludes. The ripple of the music, its rising and falling took me through the familiar and stranger parts of my life. I want to shout out, but I can’t make a sound, I want to cry a little, but I have no tears, I want to say a word, but I don’t know who to say it to.

On the surface my home life is the same as it has always been. Zhaohe is healthy and morally upright, the children know a lot about self respect and self love, and I still sit by a writing table. But the world has changed. Everything has lost its original meaning. It’s as if I have returned to a long-forgotten place, and I am completely isolated from all happiness. But at the same time this sadness is new to me. I am at a loss when faced with this world in front of me. The world is moving, everything and everyone is moving, but I am immobilised by my pity and my sadness. From afar I watch everything happen without a part to play. I am not mad! But why does the family look the same but I am so helpless and solitary, barely alive. Why? Why on earth? Answer me.

I am destroying myself. What am I? Where am I? What do I want? What unhappiness do I have? What have I encountered? I don’t understand it.

I hope that the music will keep going round and round, but I can only hear camel crickets chirruping. It’s as if I need to sob for some time, but it’s as if I don’t need to either. I live in a kind of terrible isolation. Everything is so clear-cut, I just don’t understand what kind of foothold I am standing on, what I am waiting for, what I am hoping for.

The night is so quiet it’s odd. The Dragon Boat Festival is almost here and at home the dragon boats will be out on the lake. Cuicui, Cuicui, are you sleeping soundly in room 104 or are you thinking about me whilst listening to the song of the cuckoo, and will you still think of me after I am dead? Cuicui, Sansan, am I mad again? I’m so afraid because everything is so quiet. This isn’t normal. Could it be that it’s time to take a rest? Could it be that . . .

I am searching for my lost self.

It is so strange that the night is so quiet. I want to shout, I want to cry, I can’t think of who I am; where did the previous me go? The pen in my hand has suddenly lost its colour. It’s as if every word is frozen on the page, their connection to each other broken. Their meaning lost completely.

Petty Thief