AN IRRELEVANT WRITER: SHEN CONGWEN
BY YIYUN LI
Loved then attacked then forgotten then revived, the Chinese writer Shen Congwen was rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize for Literature before his death in 1988. Acclaimed before the rise of Communism, in later years Shen was criticized for being an apolitical (and therefore irrelevant) writer; his books were banned and burned; and he was largely erased from the modern literary record for many years. His letters, collected and edited by his wife, Zhang Zhaohe, in Family Letters of Congwen, were published in China in 1995, and are available for the first time in English—introduced and translated by Yiyun Li—in APS 10.
Great books are never abandoners—they don’t betray us; they don’t turn away from our candid admiration or criticism; they don’t die. More often than not, my attachment does not extend to their creators—I do read biographies, the correspondence and diaries of certain writers, but they come secondarily, anecdotally.
This, however, is not the case with Shen Congwen’s letters. Family Letters of Congwen was among the few Chinese books I brought with me when I came to the U.S. in 1996. Shen, who was considered one of the most important writers of his generation, had stopped writing, in the prime of his career, when Communism took over China, and his letters, though inadequate, offer the only available glimpse of those stories he might have written.
I first discovered Shen Congwen in college in the early nineties, when his work was just beginning to be reissued in China. The impact of his work was beyond language—I remember reading his masterpiece Border Town and the agony I felt at the thought of his truncated career. It’s those unwritten books that have driven me to read and reread his letters, as if they could offer some small compensation for a loss that I almost took to be personal.
All the while I am aware that my obsession with his letters and his life story is unfair: that Shen himself has been transformed into a character, who, like the people in his stories, was caught between his love (in his case, for writing), and a fate intolerant of that passion.
Shen Congwen was born in 1902, in Phoenix, a small town in western Hunan. After leaving school at fourteen, he joined the army. His work started to appear in magazines in 1925, and over the next twenty years, he published widely—stories, novels, essays, many of them, I believe, among the best work of the twentieth century in China.
Like Chekhov, his favorite writer, Shen wrote about his characters—riverside prostitutes receiving passing boatmen, a mother and daughter eking out a living in a mill, an old man in charge of a ferry bringing up a granddaughter born out of wedlock, and many others: peasants, soldiers, fishermen, landlords, army officers—with a love and kindness that stood out in his time.
It also exposed him to criticism from leftist writers for his disinterest in politics and lack of commitment to the class struggles of the time. Relevance is always a useful tool for lesser minds to attack true artists.
In 1949, when the Communist party was about to take over China, Shen foresaw a nation that would have no place for his writing. After two failed suicide attempts, he gave up writing fiction and took a research position in a museum. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, he was demoted to a toilet cleaner, and his possessions were confiscated and burned. His experience during these years was not much different from that of other artists and intellectuals of his generation. In 1966, Lao She, another literary master of the twentieth century, drowned himself after being beaten by the Red Guards; the same year, Fu Lei, the translator of Balzac, Romain Rolland, and other French writers, swallowed poison in his apartment, and two hours later, after making sure he was dead, his wife hanged herself.
What makes Shen’s case special, at least to me, is that he chose to end his writing career—a suicide in itself.
Family Letters of Congwen, which his wife, Zhang Zhaohe, selected and edited for publication in 1995, begins with their courtship and covers a marriage that lasted for over fifty years. Shen had fallen in love with Zhang when she was eighteen and a student in the Shanghai college where he was teaching. When Zhang turned down Shen’s pursuits, the president of the college—Hu Shih, the most influential intellectual and a key figure of education and literary reform of the time—told her that Shen was a genius, with the most promising future. Zhang was adamant in her interest, and Hu then wrote to Shen Congwen: “My feeling is that this girl won’t be able to understand you, or your love, and I worry you are falling in love with the wrong person. You ought to struggle to get yourself out of this love. Don’t let that girl brag in the future that she once broke the heart of Shen Congwen.”
Shen, however, did not follow his mentor’s advice. After four years (and many letters) of courting, they married in 1933.
Shen died in 1988, never having broken his silence as a fiction writer.