Shen Congwen

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Nationality: Chinese. Born: Fenghuang, Hunan, 28 December 1902. Education: Attended military school; studied in Peking, 1922. Family: Married Zhang Zhaohe in 1933; two sons. Military Service: Served in army, 1918-20. Career: Writer, from 1927; professor of Chinese literature, University of Wuhan, Shanghai, 1930-31; professor, Qingdao, 1933; professor, Southwest Associated University, Kunming, 1937-45; professor, Peking University, 1945-49; literary editor, Tianjin Da Gong Bao, Peking, 1933-37; underwent re-education, 1949; research worker, Museums of Chinese History, Peking, and Institute of History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, from 1978. Died: 10 May 1988.


Short Stories

Mi gan [Mandarin Oranges]. 1927.

Yu hou ji qita [After Rain, and Other Stories]. 1928.

Ludian ji qita [The Inn, and Other Stories]. 1930.

Shizi chuan [The Marble Carrying Boat]. 1931.

Long Zhu [name]. 1931.

Kangkai de wangzi [The Generous Prince]. 1933.

A-hei xiaoshi [The Story of A-hei]. 1933.

Yuexia xiaojing [Under Moonlight]. 1933; revised edition, 1943.

Ru Rui ji [Ru Rui Collection]. 1934.

Bian cheng [The Frontier City] (novella). 1934; revised edition, 1943; as "The Border Town," in The Border Town and Other Stories, 1981.

Ba jun tu [Portrait of Eight Steeds]. 1935.

Xiaoshuoji [Fiction]. 1936.

Xin yu jiu [The New and the Old]. 1936.

Zhufuji [Housewife]. 1939.

Hei ye [Dark Night] (novella). 1943.

Chang he [Long River] (novella). 1943(?); revised edition, 1945.

Chun dengji ["Spring" and "Lamp" collection]. 1943.

The Chinese Earth: Stories. 1947; revised edition, 1982.

The Border Town and Other Stories. 1981.


Chang xia [Long Summer]. 1928.

A-li-si yu Zhongguo ji [Alice's Adventures in China]. 2 vols., 1928.

Guizishou [The Executioner]. 1928.

Hao guan xianshi de ren [The Busybody]. 1928.

Ruwuhou [After Entering the Ranks]. 1928.

Laoshi ren [The Simpleton]. 1928; as Yi ge furen de riji [AWoman's Diary], 1932.

Nanzi xuzhi [What a Man Must Know]. 1929.

Shisi ye jian [Night of the Fourteenth]. 1929.

Dai guan riji [Diary of a Stupid Bureaucrat]. 1929.

Shenwu zhi ai [The Shaman's Love]. 1929.

Chen [Sinking]. 1930(?).

Jiu meng [Past Dreams]. 1930.

Yi ge nu zhuyuan de shenghuo [The Life of an Actress]. 1931.

Ni tu [Mud]. 1932.

Hu chu [Tiger Cub]. 1932.

Dushi yi furen [A Lady of the City]. 1932.

Yi ge muqin [A Mother]. 1933.

Shenshi de taitai [The Gentry Wife]. 1933(?).

Yumuji [The Roving Eye]. 1934.

Fengzi [name]. 1937.

Xiaozhai [place name, meaning "Little Stockade"]. 1937.

Zhu xu [The Candle Extinguished]. 1941.

Hai fengji [Black Phoenix]. 1943.

Yunlu jishi [Yunlu Chronicles]. 1947.

Chun [Spring]. 1943; revised edition, 1949.

A-Jin [name]. 1943; revised edition, 1949.


Yazi [Duck] (stories, essays, poems, plays). 1926.

Bu si riji [A Pre-posthumous Diary]. 1928.

Yi ge tiancai de tongxin [Correspondence from a Born Talent]. 1930.

Jiaji [Collected Works]. 1930.

Ziji [New Works]. 1931.

Ji Hu Yeping [Remembering Hu Yeping]. 1932.

Momoji [Froth] (literary criticism). 1934.

Ji Ding Ling [Remembering Ding Ling]. 1934.

Zizhuan (autobiography). 1934; revised edition, 1981.

Xuanji [Selected Works], edited by Xu Chensi and Ye Wangyu. 1936.

Jie xuan [Selected Masterpieces]. 1936.

Xiaoshuo xuan [Selected Fiction], edited by Shao Hou. 1936.

Xiang xing sanji [Discursive Notes on Traveling through Hunan].1936; revised edition, 1943.

Fei yu can zha [Letters Never Mailed], with Xiao Qian. 1937; revised edition as Yunnan kan yunji, 1943.

Kunming dong jing [Winter Scenes in Kunming]. 1939.

Xiangxi [West Hunan]. 1939.

Ji Ding Ling xu shi [sequel to Remembering Ding Ling]. 1939.

Rurui. 1941.

Xuanji [Selected Works], edited by Zhen Lei. 1947-49.

Xuanji [Selected Works]. 1957.

Zhongguo sizhou tu an [Designs of Chinese Silk]. 1957.

Tang Song tong jing [Bronze Mirrors of the Tang and SongDynasties]. 1958.

Ming jin [Ming Dynasty Brocades]. 1959.

Longfeng yishu [The Art of Dragons and Phoenixes]. 1960.

Sanwen xuan [Selected Essays]. 1981.

Zhongguo gudai fushi yanjiu [Researches into Ancient ChineseCostume]. 1981.

Xiaoshuo xuan [Selected Fiction]. 1981.

Xiaoshuo xuan [Selected Fiction], edited by Ling Yu. 2 vols., 1982.

Recollections of West Hunan (essays). 1982.

Wenji [Works], edited by Shao Huaqiang and Ling Yu. 12 vols., 1982-85.

Xuanji [Selected Works], edited by Ling Yu. 5 vols., 1983.

Xiangxi fengcai [West Hunan Beauty]. 1984.

Editor, with Sun Lianggong, Zhongguo xiaoshuo shi jiangyi [Lectures on the History of Chinese Fiction]. 1930(?).

Editor, Liu Yu shi xuan, by Liu Yu. 1932.

Editor, Xiandai shi jiezuo xuan [Masterpieces of Modern Poetry]. 1932.

Editor, with others, Fushiji [Floating World Collection]. 1935.

Editor, Xiandai riji wenxuan [Selections of Modern Diary Literature]. 1936.

Editor, with Lao Yu, Meili de Beijing. 1956.



in Chinese Fiction: A Bibliography of Books and Articles in Chinese and English by Tien-yi Li, 1968; A Bibliography of Studies and Translations of Modern Chinese Literature, 1918-1942 by Donald A. Gibbs and Yun-chen Li, 1975; in Chinese Studies in English by Tsung-shun Na, 1991.

Critical Studies:

in A History of Modern Chinese Fiction 1917-1957 by C.T. Hsia, 1961; Shen Ts'ung by Hua-ling Nieh, 1972; The Odyssey of Shen Congwen (includes bibliography) by Jeffrey C Kinkley, 1987; Fictional Realism in 20th-Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen by David Der-wei Wang, 1992; Imperfect Paradise: Shen Congwen by Shen Ts'ung-wen, 1995.

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During his literary career Shen Congwen wrote more than 50 volumes of published works. They include poems, travelogues, critical essays, art history, autobiography and biography, fables, short stories, and novels. He is best known for his signal short stories and his two novellas, Bian cheng ("The Frontier City") and Chang he ("The Long River"), which are quite Nietzschean in their treatment and outlook. Throughout his fictions Shen Congwen remains faithful to the earth; human activity is treated as a part of cosmic energy; moral codes are regarded as relative to social and political power; resentment against the rich and powerful is considered as non-productive as resentment against the world; candor, courage, and capacity to be and to survive vicissitudes are admired; and the life—vivacious life—is celebrated with a mixture of joy, sympathy, and compassion.

Shen Congwen's fiction is notable for its regionalism, primitivism, and democratic humanism. The characters he treats are usually country and small-town folk, simple people who stand in sharp contrast to the country gentry in the background. The simple people are soldiers, sailors, prostitutes, peasants, small shopkeepers, ferry-boat operators, rural small-mill owners, and even the very young and domestic animals. Their region is South China, especially near the borders of Guizhou, Hunan, and Sichvan. Shen Congwen's primitivism is displayed in his stories about the aborigines, such as the Miao tribe, who live in the mountains that rise from the plains where reside the sophisticated Han people—the ethnic Chinese—who have something to learn from the primitives. But Shen Congwen's democratic humanism is shown in his focus on the individual qualities of his characters, on each one's particularity and feelings, each one's hard work and dreams, each one's courage and endurance, each one's dignity and worth, and each one's fate. Shen Congwen's fiction says, "Everyone has his or her worth, and despite death and the tricks of fickle fate, human life is worth living."

Shen Congwen's stories often examine the idiosyncrasies of some individual human character in considerable detail in the context of certain circumstances and with the person being motivated by a zest for life and some strong desire or passion. Three such character studies are outstanding. In "Deng" ("The Lamp"; 1930) a retired army cook in his fifties becomes the servant of a young college professor, whose distinguished family he had served many years previously. The cook's passion to serve his young master with meticulous perfection leads him to become a "mother" who interferes in the professor's female friendships. In "Bai Zu" (a personal name that literally means "cypress tree"; 1936) a hardy sailor arrives in port and visits his prostitute girlfriend. And in "Yi ge da wang" ("A Bandit Chief"; 1934), an excerpt from Shen Congwen zizhuan (Autobiography), a reformed bandit chief becomes an army commander's bodyguard and messenger. Although a man of skill, daring, and enormous vigor, the commander executes him when he learns that he plans to return to his life of crime.

Three other of Shen Congwen's stories illustrate his romantic primitivism and his interest in the Miao tribesmen (his grandmother was a Miao). His tales of the Miao, as the scholar Kinkley has noted, are not simply "pastoral," for they "mystify nature." In "Lung Chu" (a personal name that literally means "vermilion dragon"; 1929) a handsome young Miao prince, a paragon of perfection, defeats a girl in a courtship singing contest and wins her for his bride. In "Mei Jin Bao zi yu na yang" ("The White Kid"; 1929) Mei Jin (which means "seductive as gold") and Bao Zu ("the leopard") have fallen in love because of their songs. They agree to a rendezvous in a cave to consummate their marriage, a proposed act that is taboo because a Miao girl may not marry the man who deflowers her. Nevertheless, the man agrees to exchange a "perfectly white kid" for the "virgin red blood" of the girl. But in his search for perfection in the kid he arrives at the cave several hours after the agreed-upon time to find the girl dead by her own hand. In Yuexia xiaojing ("Under Moonlight"; 1933) the hero No Yu ("tender protector") and his girl carry out this act disapproved of by the gods and suffer the consequences. These Miao tales are not treated realistically but rather in terms of myth and legend. As Kinkley observes, Shen Congwen sees his aborigines as living "in a physical and spiritual world beyond ordinary Chinese history."

Three of Shen Congwen's tales show his efforts to adapt the modernism he had learned from Western models—Dumas fils, Proust, Dickens, Freud, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence—to his Chinese subject matter. In "Hui Ming" ("The Yellow Chickens"; 1929) the hero, Hui Ming, which means "able to understand," plays the role of "Holy Fool." An army cook, Hui Ming is a tall, thin, long-nosed man with a heavy beard. He meets insults with silence and is always in control of himself. He has an innate understanding and respect for animals and raises a flock of yellow chickens from the gift of a pet hen. "San ge nanzi yi ge nu sen" ("Three Men and a Girl"; 1930), a story of army life in a garrisoned town, is a detailed character study that has a sustained and unified plot. Despite its realism it deals ironically with a strange case of sexual perversion. The three men are two solders—a bugler and a sergeant—and the young proprietor of a bean-curd shop in the town. The girl is a teenage beauty and the mistress of two white dogs. She lives across from the bean-curd shop. The two soldiers have become infatuated with her and visit the shop nearly every day to catch a sight of her beauty. One day they learn that the girl had died by her own hand and her corpse buried. The next day they learn that her corpse had been stolen from its coffin. Later it is discovered covered with wild blue chrysanthemums in a cave half a li away from the grave sight. "K'an hong lu," ("The Rainbow"; c. 1940) is one of Shen Congwen's most experimental modernistic efforts. Showing the influences of Proust, Freud, and Joyce, the tale is a dramatized encounter between a man and a beautiful woman at her domicile on New Year's Eve. It is snowing outside but warm inside from the fire in the fireplace. The action consists of a constantly shifting, complex succession of things seen or imagined together with dialogue carried on by several autobiographical personae and the woman herself. It is divided, as Kinkley observes, "into separate conscious and unconscious levels of discourse." Like the phenomenon of the rainbow, all the colorings of desire are promoted by a range of sensations, feelings, imaginations, and microactions of restrained sexuality such as the mental undressing of the woman and the caressing of her body with the eyes. Although "The Rainbow" falls short of being successful, it is a highly interesting production.

Although Shen Congwen maintained his respect and appreciation of the old Chinese literary tradition, as a modernist he continually experimented with new literary techniques and forms. To him, writing was an act of artistic craftsmanship, and his view of it was far more aesthetic than political. When the communists came to power and Mao Zedong laid out the principles of the new "socialist realism" at the Yenan Conference, Shen Congwen knew he was incapable of writing by such formulae and lapsed into silence as far as creative writing was concerned. Although he lived to the ripe age of 86, the heyday of his artistry ran from 1928 to 1940. But he is perhaps the most important Chinese writer of short fiction after Lu Xun.

—Richard P. Benton

See the essays on "A Bandit Chief" and "The Husband."