The Husband (Chang-fu) by Shen Congwen, 1930

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THE HUSBAND (Chang-fu)
by Shen Congwen, 1930

Shen Congwen is not classified as a local colorist in modern Chinese fiction, but many of his characters that have enduring interest and universal appeal are drawn against a landscape rich in folklore and scenic beauty—the landscape of his native western Hunan along the Yuan River. The story "The Husband" ("Changfu"), collected in The Chinese Earth, is set in this area.

Although this story is not pastoral like Shen Congwen's famous novella The Border Town, it is invested with the same nostalgic overtone, "Idlers drinking tea in Four Seas Teahouse, if they leaned out of a window over the river, had a fine view of 'misty rain and red blossom' by the pagoda on the other shore….This convenient proximity enabled people … to hail their acquaintances." Sentimental touches are no less discernible, especially if we compare it with a similar story that was published in the same year, "A Hired Wife" by Rou Shi. While "A Hired Wife" is unrelenting in its naturalistic delineation of a young woman whose husband hires her to a landlord in order to support their family, "The Husband" is marred by a sentimental outlook on the demimonde. The harsh, squalid reality in the story is softened by the hospitable madam, the sympathetic river warden, and the idealized wife-prostitute, who is able to retain her innocence and freedom.

Most of the characters, including the protagonist, are unnamed; they seem to be presented as types rather than individuals, though enough vivid details are provided to make them round and three-dimensional. The author's main interest is obviously theme, not characterization. A self-styled "countryman," Shen Congwen never fails to stress the superiority of simplicity to artificiality or of rustic life to "citified" existence; a dominant theme in his fiction is how girls manage to beat the odds and retain their trustfulness and innocence.

"The Husband" has a very old romantic theme—the return to nature—as illustrated by the story's incredible plot of how a country bumpkin goes to visit his wife, who has been sent to a boat near a small town to be a prostitute, and how, despite tremendous temptations, he and his wife are able to give up all that a "citified" life has to offer and return to the country. Bizarre as the plot may sound, it is set up as a typical situation:

There were many, many husbands like this…. The place bred healthy girls and honest fellows. But the soil was really poor…. It was hard to make ends meet…. They were only twenty li to the wharf where the women went to make a living. The man could see all the advantages of this.

Poverty forces these country husbands to fall victim to the temptation of prostituting their wives, yet some of them can resist it or give up its "benefits." In this story, for instance, the husband himself is by no means mistreated (he has been invited by the madam to see an opera and to go to the teahouse and by the river warden to enjoy a "feast"), but he cannot stand the way his wife is treated by her "visitors" and the rude soldiers. He decides that to share a simple, poor life with his wife and to have children is far better than being the husband of a prostitute and receiving money from her. The wife seems able to endure and even enjoy her life on the boat and does not plan to go back to the country. The fact that eventually she does return to her husband proves her to be essentially a pure-hearted woman.

But this choice is certainly not an easy one for a poor woman, especially in the 1920s, one of the most terrible decades in modern Chinese history. The author has provided us with ample evidence that the 1920s were a dark age, with widespread prostitution, illustrated by the "business" of many poor wives; drug abuse, depicted by the numerous opium eaters; superstition, exhibited by the popularity of incense burning; and lawlessness, exemplified by the presence of robbers and drunken soldiers everywhere. Short as the story is, it contains several episodes that reveal the corruption of the government and the hardship of the poor, who have to endure tyrannical warlords, rude soldiers, "midnight" search parties, unwarranted police investigations, and other types of abuse.

Shen Congwen is noted for his plain narrative and unadorned style. He has been called "a rough diamond" rather than a polished gem; however, "The Husband" is undeniably subtle and symbolic enough to be ranked with his best works. Rich in detail and narrated with exuberance and a throbbing vitality, the story gains additional strength through its skillful use of imagery, which emphasizes the contrast between the urbane and the rustic. Indeed, much of the thrust of the theme is reinforced by the contrasts of images. For instance, the husband brings chestnuts (a symbol of the children he has never had) to his wife; she, having become "citified," offers him cigarettes that taste "strange" to him. The husband remembers piglets at home as "his sole friends, his family"; the river warden wears a pair of pigskin boots. Boots are a recurring image, succinctly representing the tyranny and evil of the rich in the city.

The husband's dependence on the small sickle, an indispensable tool, and his delight in the fiddle, a free gift, are contrasted with the townspeople's dependence on and pride in wealth. For example, the wife's client is described as looking "like a boat-owner or shopkeeper, in cowhide jackboots. From one corner of his pocket protruded a thick, bright silver chain." The river warden sports "an enormous gold ring" and possesses a "deerskin pouch" so "proudly bulging" with money. He is depicted with more verve than is any other character, and his portrait is more subtle. For all his sympathy and generosity, he is by no means an exemplary character; his crooked personality is suggested by the fact that he has only one eye, is well-off, and plays the role of the "godfather" to most prostitutes. All of these characteristics smack of the stereotyped ruffian from a syndicate of organized crime. This point is illustrated by another powerful image of him: to the husband his square-jawed face seems to be made up of "distillers' grain and blood."

With the image of his wife's protector and patron changed in his mind from "fatherly" to "bloody," the poor husband has no choice but to decide to go home the next day with his wife—"back to the land," as the author puts it. Thus, the couple complete their round trip—a journey away from nature to the dissolute city and a journey back to nature after awakening.

—Sherwin S. S. Fu

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The Husband (Chang-fu) by Shen Congwen, 1930

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