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Shi Tuo

SHI TUO

Pseudonym for Wang Chanian. Other pseudonyms: Lu Fen; Ji Meng. Nationality: Chinese. Born: Qixian, Honan province, 1910. Education: Attended school in Kaifeng; moved to Beijing to study with famous Chinese writer Shen Congwen, 1931. Career: Moved to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, during World War II; professional writer. Awards: Dagangbao prize, for Ku (The Valley). Died: 1988.

Publications

Short Stories

Ku [The Valley]. 1936.

Huanghua tai [Dandelions]. 1937.

Limenshiji [Forgotten Events for the Old Home]. 1937.

Luori ghuag [The Declining Sun]. 1937.

Qranghu ji [Rivers and Lakes]. 1938.

Wuming shi [The Unnamed]. 1939.

Kanren ji [Watching People]. 1939.

Wuwang de guanzhu [A Master in the Village of No Hope]. 1941.

Guogancheng ji [Records of Orchard City]. 1946.

Ye niao ji [Wild Bird Collection]. 1948.

Novels

Jiehun [Marriage]. 1947.

Ma Lan [Man Lan]. 1948.

Lishi wuging [History is Merciless]. 1951.

Shijiang [The Stonemason]. 1959.

Emeng [Nightmares]. 1981.

Yetian [Night Inns], with Ke Ling, and adaptation of Gorky'sLowest Depths. 1946.

Duo maxi tuan [The Big Circus], adaptation of Andreyev's He Who Gets Slapped. 1948.

Other

Chun shih hsüeh wen ta [W-J; Military Arts and Science]. 1931.

* * *

Shi Tuo was a leading writer of the Republic of China from the early 1930s through the early 1960s and is highly regarded today although not widely read. He began by writing a treatise on military art and science in 1931, but he soon turned to the writing of short fiction, which might be characterized as "modernistic realism." He presents the familiar aspects of everyday life in a straightforward manner but from the philosophical standpoint of nihilism. His perspective seems to be that all existence is senseless and that there is no possibility of an objective basis for truth, since neither the world nor the people in it are "essentially knowable."

Shi Tuo's first short stories were set in the countryside, leading some critics such as C. T. Hsia to call them "pastorals." But while these stories are bucolic, they are not "idyllic." Shi Tuo considers the rural environment decadent and far from ideal. Between the mid-1930s and the late 1940s, he published no less than ten collections of short stories, three novels, and two plays.

The most important of these collections appear to be The Valley (Ku, 1936), for which Shi Tuo was awarded the Dagongbao prize, The Declining Sun (Lori glauag, 1937), and particularly Records of Orchard City (Guogancheng ji, 1946). In these early collections, Shi Tuo deals mostly with rural subjects of a psychological nature—the way villagers resist Japanese terror during the enemy's occupation or the scorning of a servant by the villagers because of his loyalty to his masters. In later stories Shi Tuo becomes intrigued with "the romance of the wanderer," a theme perhaps inspired by the fiction of Shen Congwen, and the influence of the great Lu Xun is evident by virtue of Shi's use of sarcasm and irony. Record of Orchard City shows his late interest in urban life, with "Orchard City" symbolizing all the market towns of China, as well as the new Western influence of "the machine in the garden," or the new railroad.

Shi Tuo's stories tend to flow from a narrator's personal reminiscences, thus underlining their "truth." They are philosophical in nature, suggesting that Heaven and Fate control both Nature and human destiny and are indifferent to human joy and suffering. This is the case in two stories from the Orchard City collection. In "The Kiss" ("Yi Wen"), the fate of the market city and its inhabitants are shown, and in "Garden Balsam" ("Tao Hong"), Sagu, the only daughter of a well-to-do widow, Mrs. Meng Lin, remains a spinster at 29, although during the past 10 years she has made numerous wedding dresses for her many girlfriends and for herself, so many that they would last her until she became a white-haired grandmother. Although she seems a nice young woman, Heaven and Fate are indifferent to her suffering. There is no explanation for Sagu's unhappy spinsterhood.

At least one critic has stated that Shi Tuo's short pieces have no particular form, whether sketch, story, essay, or report, but this accusation is false. His stories are structured by time and locale, sometimes by past history, by certain holidays, by customs, and by atmosphere, or by the emotions they evoke. In "The Shepherd's Song" ("Mu-ko"), for example, the rural scene evokes sentiments that give the story its form. In "Mute Song" ("Ya-ko") the story is about Chinese villagers in an area occupied by the Japanese, who stand up bravely to the Japanese effort to terrorize them. The best of Shi Tuo's stories leave a lasting impression on their readers, as in the cases of "The Kiss" and "Garden Balsam," the latter being a painting in words that is not easily forgettable. Shi Tuos's short stories are a variable lot, although the best are skillfully executed.

In the novels Shi Tuo focuses on characterization. The novel Ma-lan, for example, is narrated from the limited angle of an observer, Li P'o-t'ang. Through him, Shi Tuo gives the plot, which revolves around the love of Ma-lan and Li P'o-t'ang. Li presents Ma-lan as a simple country girl who holds no interest for intellectuals. But Shi Tuo makes the reader know Ma-lan better by presenting her through the text of her personal diary, where she reveals herself as exceptional rather than as the commoner she is to Li P'o-t'ang. There is Yang Ch'un, who left his village during the 1927 Northern Expedition of Chiang Kai-shek and now is always doing something for his friends. There is Ch'iao Shihfu, who devotes himself entirely to his work and thus is considered "the twentieth-century monk." Finally, there is Mo Pu-tu, the silent one who is engaged in some mysterious revolutionary activity, who stands somewhat apart from the others. Although at this point we have a certain amount of knowledge, there is more to be learned. Hence the fourth part of the novel begins, in which Shi Tuo stresses that knowledge is never complete. In this last part the situation is again seen through the eyes of Li P'o-t'ang. But in the end our knowledge is never complete, and the irony which to some degree pervades the whole is strongest in the final part.

Another important novel is Shi Tuo's Marriage (Jiehun), which he completed in 1945 but published in 1947. It is a Shanghai novel in two parts. The first part consists of six "letters" (in six chapters), written by the protagonist, Hu Ch'ü-wu, to his fiancée, Lin Pei-fang, who has fled to the countryside during the Sino-Japanese war. But the second part (also in six chapters) is narrated from an omniscient third-person point of view and relates Hu's gradual degradation and his violent end by murder. In general the novel shows how a money economy and urban corruption can tempt an honest young scholar to destroy himself.

The characterizations in Marriage are relative. No human can really know another human. Hence the reader never knows what any character is really like. Further, unlike Lu Xun, Shi Tuo takes no moral position. To him human behavior is senseless. Human beings are creatures of their own desires, and the power of life functions naturally through injury, assault, exploitation, and destruction.

—Richard P. Benton

See the essay on "The Kiss."

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