An Irrelevant Writer: Yiyun Li Introduces Shen Congwen : Magazine : A Public Space

An Irrelevant Writer: Yiyun Li Introduces Shen Congwen

Feature Shen Congwen

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.



Further Reading


Border Town, Shen Congwen, translated by Jeffrey C. Kinkley


Selected Short Stories of Shen Congwen, translated by Jeffery C. Kinkley


The Odyssey of Shen Congwen, Jeffrey C Kinkley


Four Sisters of Hofei: A History, Annping Chin



In January 1934, Shen Congwen’s mother fell ill and he made the long and difficult trip from Beijing to Phoenix, in Hunan Province, to see her. At the time, Hunan was a war zone with the local military groups battling the communist militia, and in “Journey to West Hunan,” his essay about the trip, Congwen wrote of seeing reward postings for Mao Tse-tung and his partner General Zhu De on the road. But in his letters to Zhaohe, he lightheartedly describes the scenery and the people he encounters on the way back to his hometown. Congwen stayed in Phoenix through February, when his mother died. Later that year, his novel, Border Town, was serialized in the newspaper.


january 9, 1934 | second letter of the day | beijing

Dear Second Brother:

You have been away for only two days, and already it feels like ages. The weather is dreadful, the wind raging like a bully, roaring wildly. It is ten o’clock at night, and I am listening to the whistling between the tree branches and calculating your journey. Perhaps you are just getting off the train, or perhaps you are crossing the river now. Perhaps you are walking silently behind a porter on the part of the road that has to be covered by foot. The wind in Changsha—could it also be roaring ruthlessly and freezing my second brother’s body into a chunk of ice? [...] I told you I would worry, and it turned out to be true [...] Imagine, when you read this letter, you will already be home; and perhaps you are sitting under the roof, basking in the sunshine with your brothers; or perhaps you are with your mother—more likely you are sitting in her room [...] Ma, as usual, has a pot of longans and dates simmering on the stove, and the room is filled with their sweet fragrance. You are chatting with Ma, gossiping about this and that, and sometimes you touch Ma’s clothes to make sure she is warm enough. Suddenly your third brother enters with my letter. You are overjoyed when you see it, and then you open it to find all this nonsense about worries and coldness. Won’t this letter conflict with your happiness? I really should write: “Second Brother: I am very happy and have spent half a day jumping and laughing and being silly with Ninth Sister because, according to my calculations, you will be home today. Tonight we will each eat three bowls of rice to celebrate your safe arrival.” Wouldn’t that make you happier? But let me write that letter in ten days. When you get this letter, just think we are happy because you are reading my letter.

Here’s to the happiness and well-being of your whole family!


night, 9th


january 12, 1934 | taoyuan


I have arrived at Taoyuan. The ride was comfortable [...] My only unhappiness, which is small, is that I have to spend so much time on the road. The boatmen said it would take at least four days to reach Chenzhou, so it may be nine more days before I arrive home [...]

Sansan, be good and don’t worry about me. Being alone, whatever I see makes me think of you [...]

Second Brother

5 p.m., 12th

p.s. I saw this posted on the road: Hereby written by the man named Zhong Hanfu, who lives to the right of the old pine tree near Wenchang Building, Baiyang River. I have lost a piece of good wife, thirteen years old, with the name Golden Emerald, short face, wide mouth, one tooth bucked, gone now with no trace to be discerned. Anyone who finds her and returns her will get two silver yuan as reward. The pine tree is the witness that I won’t eat my promise. The end. Sansan—I copied the post without changing a word. The man would have been a wonderful storyteller had he had more education.


january 13, 1934 | first letter of the day

[...] The river is so beautiful—I can outline the river, but I can’t capture the sounds, the colors, and the lights [...] The mountains along the river [...] are still green with trees, and the water is so clear, it’s as if nothing existed in its place. The boat is hauled by two men, upstream through the clear river, and at the riverbed are colorful pebbles of all sizes. The steersman replied with a smile when I asked him his family name. “Liu,” he said. “How many years have you worked on the river?” “I’m fifty-three, and I’ve been on the river since sixteen,” he said. Sansan, think about those numbers. This man knows by heart the four hundred li of the river, how its routes change during flood and dry seasons. He remembers every shoal and deep, and perhaps he could even tell me how many rocks and boulders there are in the river! Indeed the bigger rocks, the ones with names, he knows them all! There are three boatmen: the steersman, and in the front two others, one child and one grown-up. Those two, in shallow water, punt the boat upstream, one striking on the left and one on the right, their metal poles making sharp sounds on the river bottom. When the water is deep and smooth, they row with long oars, the water splashing with a gentle rhythm. At the rapids they have to haul the boat with cables on their shoulders, sometimes crawling on the rocky beach on all fours. The boat is new, painted bright yellow, so clean it could be used as a holy shrine in a church. The cabin where I am staying is low, and I can hear the water passing the boat bottom, the sound soothingly small. There is a wall made of wood planks at the front of the cabin, so the wind doesn’t touch me at all. From where I sit, I can see the sky, the earth, and the water behind us. I thus spend my day looking at the water and thinking of you. When I am happy, I imagine that you share my happiness; when my spirits are low, I wish you were here so I would be less bored. At mealtime, sitting next to the boatmen, I wish you too sat next to me. I have seven more days on this boat, and that does not even include the rest of the journey. What do I do for these seven days? The weather is not good. The sky, sunless, is gray, and a thin fog covers the hills and the trees. I can’t take pictures, and it is not good weather to draw in, either. At least I can still write. Thank God my stories are set on the river; a boat is an appropriate place to work on them. If you had to choose only one place to write, where I am now is only too perfect. But I am so far from you, how can I write a story? I can’t write a story, but at least I can write to you, this is all I have been thinking. I will write four pages every day, and if I cannot finish what I mean to say in four pages, I will write more [...]

You must be sitting next to the table right now, finishing some chores.

Beautiful place, with its mountains and water. I am imagining that you are here with me in the cabin, looking out of the small window at the purple hilltops. I wish I could build a raft to surprise you—there would even be a vegetable garden on the raft. I wish you could warm my hands…

5 p.m., 13th


january 16 | fourth letter of the day | 6:15 p.m.

The boat has stopped for the day at Duck Nest [...] It’s too cold now to take a walk when we stop for the night. I like those stilted houses half in the air [...] Looking up from the boat, one longs to be in one of them. I can hear singing from the houses, where lamps are burning bright and people are making loud noises; the foremen from the rafts are enjoying themselves there, I know, and the boat owners and army officers are downing their liquor. The women serving the drinks and singing—they have cheap gold rings on their fingers. What a moving scene! But I feel melancholy when I write about these people; I know their joys and pains, and I can see them living away every day of their lives in this place. I don’t know why I am so easily carried away by this wordless sadness, it’s the same feeling I have when I read a story about the peasants in Siberia. It’s not only the surface of their lives; from my past experiences, I also know their souls. It’s such a sad life! I think I will write more about them! I have felt a lot on this trip, and will write more stories.

Sansan, the lights on the rafts are not to be missed. The river is not wide here, and the mountains on both banks are tall (taller than Lao Mountain in Qingdao); the night is very still, and you can hear people talking. The lambs are still bleating. For reasons I don’t understand, my heart feels tender with sadness. Dogs are barking in the distance; someone says, “Come back again, please come back next year!” It must be one of the women from the houses seeing off a boatman who is returning to his boat.

It is windy, and my hands and feet are frozen, but my heart is warm. Still, I don’t know why I feel so fragile. Only when I am near you am I less melancholy. I feel as though I am the same lonely soul from more than a decade ago, with nothing to my name, taking a trip upstream in a boat that’s carrying army uniforms. Nothing was certain about my future then: I was hoping for a position as an army clerk, earning four silver yuan a month, but no one would hire me; I longed to read but did not own a book. When the boat set anchor, I did not have a penny to spend. Sometimes I would borrow a uniform and take a walk in the street, watching everything closely: the sheet candies sold in the alleys; the pile of peanuts one could buy with one coin; women under the oil lamps, their eyebrows plucked to a thin line—all this I watched with fascination. On the way back I would allow myself to get lost a little, wandering along the river until both shoes were filled with mud. When I got back to the boat, before I could take off my shoes, the owner was already yelling at me: “Buddy, take off your shoes!” All night long, the boatmen sat or squatted around a small oil lamp, playing cards in the dim light, and having nothing to do, I would sit behind and watch them play. That was me, that was me! Sansan, do you know that I spent the best time of life—between fifteen and twenty—on this river, aimless years, imagine, how did I survive them? Who would have thought that I would return to the river today, on a small boat like this, and relive those memories. Who would have thought that I would be on this boat, thinking of a kind and beautiful woman who is worrying about me from afar! [...]

It is eight-thirty now, and you can still hear the voices along the bank, a busy night on the river. Farther away one can hear drumming—perhaps from a ceremony thanking some god for granting a wish [...] There is a woman singing, an extremely young voice, I can’t make out the lyrics, but I know many of these songs. Her singing reminds me of a trip I took alone to Jinzhou; at the guesthouse, a woman in the next room sang for half the night to entertain the travelers who came and went on mule carriages. I lay in a brick bed then, listening to her singing, and the men exchanging jokes [...] What a bewildering fate. Please love me, as only you can make me happy.

Second Brother

8:50 p.m., january 16th

p.s. I am going to sleep now. I hope you have a good sleep.


On July 7, 1937, the Japanese army invaded Beijing. On August 12, arranged by the Ministry of Education, Shen was part of a group of writers and intellectuals who fled Beijing. Zhang and their two young sons, Shen Longzhu (Little Dragon, two years and nine months old) and Shen Huchu (Little Tiger, two months old), were left behind, stranded in Beijing. After nearly nine months of traveling in hiding, Shen and his companions arrived in Kunming, Yunnan Province, where Southwestern United University, a wartime university that combined three schools from Peking and Tianjin, had been established.

Many of the letters Shen wrote to Zhang during this period were lost when Zhang and her two sons fled Beijing the next year, though in a letter she wrote to him, she said, “A letter in this wartime is worth ten thousand gold coins, and I must be the wealthiest person in all of Peking.” The following few surviving letters were written to Zhaohe from Yuanling, a small town near Phoenix where Shen was staying with his oldest brother, who helped many refugees fleeing the Japanese-occupied north.

Zhang and their sons finally escaped Beijing in November 1938, and the family was reunited at the end of the year in Kunming. Shen was a professor at Southwestern from 1939 to 1944, during which time he also wrote a number of essays and worked on his novel Long River, which was published in 1945.


april 12, 1938 | first letter of the day | yuanling

Third Sister:

[...] We have scheduled to take off tomorrow, and it seems that I won’t get another letter from you before leaving. You must have thought we were already on the road, yet I am still here, sitting on the porch and listening to the birds.

We will be on the road for at least ten days. Imagine, when we go to West Mountain it only takes an hour of driving, and here, we will be on foot for ten days! And the mountains are twenty times higher than West Mountain. The roads cut through the wilderness, and at times there won’t be any people for a hundred li, and it may be hard to find a place to stay dry from the rain or to start a fire. But one has to, at moments, give up his control to fate, so please don’t worry about me. Perhaps by the time this letter reaches you, I will have arrived in Kunming and reunited with our friends. If, by chance, something happens to me on the road (which is not unusual in wartime), you need not grieve. All I would like you to remember is to be a good person. Our country needs more people like you, and our family—the children, but more so I—will need you to be strong. The dead are gone, and the living should go on. It would be good if you could bring up the children and make sure they have good health and a decent education; teach them the diligence and kindness of their father, the wisdom and the tidiness of their mother—then, no matter what, they will be successful people. Please forget my weakness, and the torments I have brought you in the past few years. Please let go of all that is forgettable and don’t allow the pain to crush you. You are still young, with a long future ahead of you, with many things to achieve. I know these words will make you sad, but I can’t not say them [...]

I miss Little Tiger very much. It’s been half a year since I last saw him, and I can’t imagine him—what his hair is like, his eyes, his expressions [...] If you don’t want to leave Beijing, please find a way to live well and be happy. Thousands of people in this world have the desire to live on but cannot. We have things to eat and drink and places to stay for the night; this is already beyond good fortune. If we still find ways to torment each other, it would be as though we don’t take our lives seriously. Your idea of settling down in Yuanling is impossible. Even though the house is in good shape, what would we do to support ourselves? In the future, at a better time, perhaps we could think of settling down here. This place will go to Little Dragon and Little Tiger eventually. To the right of my room, there are a few bamboo trees, two plantain bushes, a patch of green grass, and a horse. It would take four or five hundred silver yuan to make the house suitable for the family, and we could make it the most comfortable and beautiful place without spending much. I wish in a few months you would all be here. Little Tiger would be delighted by all the birds. Little Dragon would ask to go into town, which would not be a long walk. There would be so much for him to see there. We could watch the fishermen fish by the river, and the fish, fresh out of the river, would be so delicious. The riverside might not be as picturesque as the seaside in Qingdao, and may not be as clean, but there are boats and rafts, and the colors and smells are so full of life. You would be particularly moved by the women crossing the river in the ferry with firewood or dry hay on their shoulders. Both banks look like a painting, as do the mountains, and the stilted houses, perched high on the hillsides. The color of our house is beautiful, and the moment you crossed the river you would be able to spot it. You would need to walk up many steps to the gate, where the high stone wall, covered with ivy, makes it look like a small city. At the top of the steps, when you opened the gate, you would be immediately overwhelmed by the freshest green. If you sit on the porch and watch the mountains, the green is indescribable, as are the many songs of the birds. Lately a starling visits every day, sitting on an old branch that is sprouting new leaves, chirruping, then resting and listening to other birds, and chirruping again.

The cuckoos haven’t started singing yet today.

Brother Huan

april 12th


april 12, 1938 | second letter of the day | yuanling | dusk

Third Sister:

[...] It’s almost dusk. One can still hear the starlings and Painted Eyebrows, and the bugle from the fortress. So much agony in my heart—no, I am only melancholy—no, I am merely tired. I should rest. I need rest.

When I think about how you are tired out by the children, my heart is filled with sympathy. If only we could rest in one place, the exhaustion would be nothing to us. We would sit on the porch, quietly, calmly, watching the smoke of other people’s cooking rise slowly over the mountain town and blend into a white patch of fog. In the white fog the chirruping of the birds and the noise from the world would come to us, floating, floating [...]

Our cook spent a day in the hospital and quickly died of cholera. His father arrived today to find his son already buried. The old man stayed in the room where the cook used to live, and at suppertime, I saw him walk timidly past the porch toward the kitchen. His fear made me very sad; it was pitiful. An old father like him, coming from far away to take care of a few things left by his dead son—his heart must be wrenched by pain, I can only imagine. He would not allow himself to cry. All he does is sit in his son’s old room, and at mealtime go into the kitchen where his son used to cook. The man who shares the room with the cook works in the horse shed, and he is also a silent man, the only sound he makes is when he knocks his pipe on the doorsill. Little Fifth Brother is gone, and it’s been raining all day, so even the horses seem listless, sneezing in the shed. The grass is green in the garden.

I would feel much stronger if you, Little Dragon, and Little Tiger were here with me [...]

I have a few of my books next to me: a selected volume, also The Journey to Hunan, Border Town, The New and the Old, The Salvaged Letters from Abandoned Correspondence—thirty years of my life in them. I am planning to start a big novel—and I will start work when I arrive in Kunming [...]

The cuckoos are coo-cooing again. The first time I heard them was from across the river; the sound was heartbreaking. No wonder the ancients said the cuckoos sing out of sadness, and in mythology they cry until their throats start to bleed [...]

I kiss you and the kids.

Fourth Brother

7 p.m., april 12th




april 13, 1938 | yuanling | 4 a.m.

Third Sister:

It’s not daybreak yet, and you can barely see the shape of the trees and the mountains in the white fog. Somewhere a family has been carrying out a funeral ceremony, the gongs and drums went on all night, monotonously, endlessly. They must be tired—the monks and the family, the guests and the hired help; in the wavering candlelight they must have been relying on the drumming and singing and praying to keep themselves awake, while their ears long for the first song of the roosters, their minds wandering to the kitchen where in the steamers eight-treasure porridge and lotus pudding are waiting, steaming hot. The drumming must have sounded the same a thousand years ago, and for a thousand years it has not changed [...]

We are all up, waiting to set out. When we go down the mountain, we will have to walk past an alley where the brothels are (You’s Alley). The dogs may wake up at our footsteps and bark, and the girls who have spent the night without customers will think we have just left the other girls’ rooms! From You’s Alley we will go to the main street, and the gate leading out of town will still be closed. Next to the gate we will see the tofu maker, already grinding soybeans for the day. When we leave the town we will see the river, its water having never stopped flowing for anyone! If we leave later, we may see the young women who spent the night with travelers on boats, coming back from across the river. The travelers are journeying on, the women are returning home. I’ve often seen these women on the ferries, standing silently; what occupies their minds I do not know. Do they have feelings outside of the things they have to do for a living, do they have dreams? Which of her visitors treats her with gentleness, which betrays her feelings? Who bullies her, and who cheats on her? What’s in her past, and what’s in her future? Life is like this. Every one of these women is like an ocean, her depth and her breadth beyond fathoming. It is said that in this small town there are five hundred young women who are in this business. If only they could write their own stories.

The roosters are louder now, and the help is here already. In twenty minutes I will be waiting for the ferry. At this very moment Little Tiger is waking you, and the lamp is on in your bedroom. Little Dragon is calling your name vaguely, turning around in bed. In this letter you will hear the cuckoos, the bugles, the roosters, and my brother and sister-in-law downstairs, making last-minute arrangements. And you will hear another voice: my darling.

Give my kisses to the two kids.

Fourth Brother

5:10 a.m.


In 1946, at the end of World War II, Shen was offered a position as a professor of Chinese literature at Beijing University. His disinterest in politics made him a target of leftist writers and scholars, who criticized him throughout the thirties and forties for beautifying life and for the lack of class struggle and class conflict in his fiction, calling him a “lower writer who serves the rich and powerful with his literary hackwork.” (Ironically, for decades Shen’s books were also banned in Taiwan by the very people whom his leftist critics considered his patrons and masters.)

In early 1949, with the civil war moving toward an end and Beijing about to be liberated by the Communist party, Shen rejected the Nationalist government’s offer to fly his family to South China (and eventually to retreat to Taiwan), though he rightly suspected that the decision would require the sacrifice of his writing career.

That March, a depressed Shen attempted suicide. In May, Zhang was sent to North China People’s Revolution University for a seven-month program to reeducate intellectuals for the new nation.

The following letters were sent to Zhang from Qinghua University, where Shen was staying with friends who taught there.


january 29, 1949 [estimated] | qinghua yuan

Little Mama:

What do I have to thank you? I am tired. All I need now is a rest, but I want to live on for you. How long this struggle will go on, I don’t know! I have to learn everything from the beginning, and I have to wait for my opportunities.




february 2, 1949 | qinghua yuan

Little Mama:

For fifteen years you have been saddled with me, a big burden that drags your life now, and now I am uneasy that you have to suffer this crisis. It’s my own problem, it has nothing to do with you! No one else is responsible for my pain; I have earned it myself. We live in a world where it is inevitable this day would arrive, with bigger calamities coming. This is life! This is the truth of the world! All is in place now, so I have to accept my fate. I have to reconstruct myself.

Don’t ever mention those who no longer treat us like friends. We should understand the rules of those citizens. It was my refusal to understand and follow their rules that led to this situation. I heard —— visited you today, and I can imagine you had nothing to say, and then cried afterward when you realized that the purpose of his visit was to see how you were reacting to our situation and to pry into our life.

“We have to live on even in the most difficult time, and we won’t ask for others’ help. We could become a couple of peddlers, tending a small and harmless business of our own.” You were wise to say so. I will live on. I will keep my struggle for you! But the storms are destined to come, and we have no shelter from the wind and the rain. How long can I keep up my struggle without losing my mind—one can only ask heaven for the answer! How can I fight against my fate?


p.s. Little Mama, your love, your kindness—they won’t save me from being damaged. This is my fate, and I must accept the sacrifice. The decision not to leave for the South, the decision to stay—these decisions were from the hope that the children would have a good education in the new nation. I have made my resolution to sacrifice! Please—could you give up your hope on a sinking boat, and save all your love for our next generation.


september 20, 1949 | beijing

Third Sister:

It is midnight now, and what you and Ba Jin said yesterday seems to be seeping into my body again while listening to music. You said, “If you could work for the army, I am here with the children, I can take care of us no matter what.” I have looked back at our life over the past sixteen years, my self-destruction in the last six months, and everything my madness has brought into our lives—all of a sudden I feel like a man waking up from a deep sleep. This is just what I promised you before: it takes effort to turn a big old boat around, and now its path is headed in the right direction, thanks to music. If I say so only you will understand and believe me.

I think I understand something now and I have also learned about life in a deeper way. I have a new resolution that I want to discuss with you. I will try to do things for “the people,” as you have hoped. I may still sound agitated, but you should understand that this reply is more or less from my reasonable and logical self. A patient suffering from a high fever and mania may try to take on too much work and refuse the kind suggestions from others to take a break—these reactions are because he is still ill. But at this moment my heart is very gentle, very gentle, and I am looking at everything gently. This is my answer to what you’ve always thought of me. Third Sister: I think I am changing slowly. Please don’t worry about me. I have made it through the most difficult stage, and I am feeling extremely kind and gentle toward the world.

I reread what I wrote in West Hunan. The weaknesses I detected in my fellow people are just what I should recognize in myself. It reminds me of what Ba Jin and Xiao Qian said yesterday, that I am not following the wise advice I gave to them when they were in pain. I’ve given encouragement to others, how can I not know how to encourage myself? I seem to have discovered myself for the first time, and wrote a poem to mark this return to life. I feel that I have been on the road, on and off, for a long time, and it is time to stop and rest now. I told you before but you did not believe me—but I hope you now understand what I mean: a boat set on its course, being old, has a very hard time changing direction!

A strange situation: all the truths from books, and all the wisdom and kindness in their words—they don’t make an impression on me. Nor can I be conquered by persecution. I have criticized and analyzed myself ruthlessly; I have tried to move forward with the new society; but I cannot discard my real self, and I cannot give up my own opinions and biases. But my real weakness is that when I face good music, I have to surrender competely. Only the experience of listening to music—not to those engineers of human souls who preach their truth and untruth, right and wrong—changes me. Music makes me feel very kind, it makes me feel like a child, it changes my whole being. I seem to have consoled and improved myself through different kinds of music, and now from this very long piece of music, I am gaining my rebirth.

I must make your life pleasant. If possible, I will request to go to the south or the northeast to participate in the land reformation.

It is never easy for one person to understand another; I have realized this over the past six months. I am being educated by reality, and I have learned so much about human beings. Everyone is saying that we need to “be closer to the people”; looking from the surface, I seem to be the only floating thing, but the truth is, I seem to be the only person who has acquired a good education, and from my different point of view, I understand more deeply the differences and similarities in human beings. If you don’t believe me, I can explain when my pen can handle more writing. I truly have to welcome the reality at this moment; the masses are moving forward and I will be carried forward with them. Knowing them, and knowing the movement of this society, perhaps at another time I can write about them, and I can preserve this time in words. This is more important than organizing historical artifacts—people in the future should know what it is to live now. Perhaps people would think I can no longer hold on to my beliefs, therefore I have to be closer to “the people.” Quite the opposite, I know myself well, and can easily see myself being on my own, being ostracized until my death—and even then I would not regret at all not giving in to the pressure of society. But it is not the time for me to be a hero or a drifter. I am willing to learn from the masses, and understand how people change; and to study how society proposes to reform me, and how the masses reform society. One day I will be able to write about this experience. I am studying how to be a member of this society, to learn from the masses, to run out of my gray storage room to where people are. I am moving in that direction already on my own. The first step is difficult only because my heart has been deeply hurt—this you won’t understand, and neither will those people who have brought me to this point. My decision to change myself is to satisfy some people, to appease the animosity that was caused by their long misreading of my work, and I need to make an effort to resolve that misunderstanding [...]

Please, Sansan, if you could understand this, then we can have a new life. I need your understanding. It will be the ladder and the chair to support me. It will be the source of all my energy.

Second Brother Congwen

midnight, september 20th



In 1949, Shen left teaching and took a position as a researcher at the National Museum of History in Beijing. Between 1951 and 1952, Shen, along with other writers and intellectuals, was required to join the Land Reform, the national movement that entailed the confiscation of landlords’ property and the public execution of the landlord class. Also in 1951, Shen’s younger brother, who had served in the Nationalist army and was injured in the war against Japan, was executed by the Communist party. The following letters were written to Zhang during this period, first from the boat trip up the Yangtze River, and later from Sichuan Province, where he was assigned to assist the peasants in carrying out the Land Reform.


november 1, 1951 | on boat, county wushan | 6 p.m.

Third Sister,

The boat has entered the Three Gorges, and the scenery is overwhelmingly beautiful. The children should visit some day—this is the best patriotic education! [...] There are steep cliffs on both banks. Most impressive are the walled towns and mountain villages, the stilted houses perched high on the cliffs; the oranges and tangerines have not yet been harvested and are bright and shining yellow on the branches. There are boats moored in the small inlets, with kids fighting and playing on the decks. The scene looks both familiar and strangely new. We are allowed a day of rest from political study to enjoy the scenery of the Three Gorges [...]

We are not allowed to leave the boat, but if we did have a chance to look at these mountain villages, it would be of some educational use. My dream would be to find some small village along the river [...] and stay there for a month or two. It would be good for me when I start writing stories again. Even writing about Land Reform you still need a good sense of the place. But of course such an opportunity is not easy to get now. The people in Sichuan, living in these mountains day after day, perhaps don’t find this place as impressive. But all human stories need a setting, and nature is part of the story too.

In three days we will arrive in Chongqing, and it is said we will be assigned to places near Luzhou along the Yangtze. I hope I will be sent to a small river village, but perhaps I should remind myself not to forget the importance of our work and get distracted by nature’s beauty.

We have our study sessions on the boat. The more I am educated, the smaller and more ignorant I feel. I must listen to the leaders with extreme caution so as not to blunder politically [...]

The mist falls on the river. But the painters and the composers on the boat seem to turn a blind eye to the beauty, oddly, as if this world has little to do with their official assignment [...]

I seem to be lonely, but I don’t feel so. Everything I have seen will come into my life as knowledge, as insight—and one day will come into my stories and become another kind of history.

[...] The dusk is falling now. The mountains have turned light blue, some places transparent and others mottled white and purple, as though oddly the mountains have taken on a life of their own. Odder still are the people who live here—oblivious to the changes in this world, minding their own business and living out their little piece of life.

More boats are coming, the noise coming from afar to near.

Second Brother


november 29, 1951 | neijiang | 5 p.m.

It was sunny for a brief moment, and now the world is shrouded in gray clouds again, gloomy but not cold. We had meetings all day, and after supper we trudged through the muddy roads to the town center [...]

It is dark now, and people’s voices are everywhere, as though everyone is part of a historical moment, and everyone is making this history, yet what they talk about is really the donations and taxations in the fall, and other trivial business. Everyone is busy preparing for tomorrow, and the peasant representatives from different villages are puttering about.

Earlier we were divided into sixteen teams to talk to the peasants—about two hundred of them, who have set up beds for the night, hay underneath them and grass blankets covering them—and listen to their life stories, going from age eight and on, till everyone was finished, at eleven o’clock. Then we made reports to our leaders, which took another hour, and after midnight, I fell asleep in a haystack. I heard the gongs strike all night long, every hour, a special sound, and at dawn the roosters started to caw. Before daybreak you could hear the peasant representatives talking, low and unintelligble, off stage. Later, when it was daylight, you could hear the knocking on the sieves at the flour mills, and then you knew the town was up. The ironsmith at the street corner must have a big fire burning by now; the sound of metal hitting is crisp and clear. It’s a market day today, and there must be three thousand people busy bartering and bargaining at the village center [...] The pharmacist’s counter is wiped clean; the butchers have taken the best positions by the roadside, big chunks of meat hang on bronze hooks [...] it is also time for the fall harvest and fall taxation, and the bartering is especially busy today. Some people have set washbasins under the roadside roofs, the enamel chipped, in which big basses, a foot or longer, are kept under vegetable leaves, waiting for buyers. Others sell marinated rabbit meat or fermented black beans. And then there are people holding mallard ducks (like swaddled babies) for sale [...]

It turned sunny today, and everything is clear and open. The streets here are not much different from thirty years ago, and I have a strange feeling that these market days have been going on from ancient time without much change. The metropolis is modernizing day by day, but the way of life in these smaller towns has not changed [...]

The tree leaves haven’t fallen completely, so the mountains are still green. In every valley there is a pond, the water clear and cold, with water lilies thriving. The bamboos are growing strongly in the mountains as though they are only there for decoration’s sake, and no one would harvest them for any reason.

The countryside is so quiet despite the reform, and I feel that, between its quietness and the noisiness of the human world, something is growing inside me, waiting to be written [...]


After Land Reform, Shen returned to Beijing and the museum, where he wrote copy for the exhibitions and served as a guide for the general audience. He enjoyed these responsibilities, though from the following letters to Zhang—written on business trips to provincial museums, one can see that he still observed life as a storyteller. Nor was Shen forgotten as a writer. In 1953, he was part of a group of twelve writers who were invited to meet with Mao Tse-tong, and was encouraged once again by different officials from the Writers Union to write fiction for the new nation.

However, Shen had never returned to fiction writing, and apart from a few travel essays, published in 1957, he spent the rest of his life as a scholar and only published books on ancient artifacts and other historical topics. His books had been out of print since the 1950s, and during the Cultural Revolution, the surviving copies of his books in libraries were burned as pornography. In the early 1980s, the ban on his work was lifted, and he was able to edit a twelve-volume collection of his work, and a five-volume selection from his early career as a writer, though, plagued by illness and disillusioned by his life, he never wrote a new story after he gave up writing.


october 12, 1956 | second letter of the day | jinan attic of guangzhi temple, jinan

Third Sister Zhaohe:

It was a sunny and pleasant day, perfect for an outing. There was a fair of sorts at Thousand-Buddha Mountain, but we worked in the museum all day, looking at the archives and the exhibit [...]

It’s late at night, dead quiet except for some vague drumming somewhere in the distance. Maybe the drummers are celebrating something, but up here in this attic, the sound makes me feel like I am in another time, another world. Outside my window is the same slice of moon as has been there before, and the drumming is filled with an uncorrupted feeling, but oddly, the more I listen to it, the more removed I feel from that feeling. I remember when I was in Sichuan for the Land Reform, there was a young chubby boy carrying a drum for me on his back who followed me and my companion, the president of some peasant union with a rifle on his back. At that time I was the simple one drumming, accompanying the people to confiscate a landlord’s property. We walked for a long time, through one field after another, and when we arrived at the landlord’s house, we made a big show, drumming in front of the gate loudly, which signified that the confiscation was taking place. The drumming now must be from other people who are carrying out some other revolutions—for the drummer, it is a simple motion, but for society, it is no less than the confiscation of private land, a great happening in history!

A few days ago, I walked to the marketplace, and I found a corner where storytellers gather, five or six performances altogether. Some have no more than ten people in the audience, including their friends and acquaintances. On one stage, a middle-aged woman, her face desolate, her body wrapped in an old fashioned indigo robe, was performing. Some of the audience were yawning, but because I, a stranger, was listening to her, she tried to act as if she were telling a very engaging story. A small reed basket was on the stage, for collecting money during intermission. Today we went to another marketplace [...] There were little crisscrossing alleyways, four or five theaters, and dozens of pubs that were all very clean. What was most interesting was a row of bookshops, five of them, where “small people’s books” were for sale or rent. There were thirty or forty readers, old and young, squatting in the shops and reading in the dim yellow light [...]

I looked at a few of these books: some were extremely poorly drawn; some were unrealistic; some were retold classics; and then there were also books about science, the explanations simple, the pictures not good quality. Only the books about heroes and model workers have some decent quality. In any case, these books are the masterpieces of our time, with at least a million readers, or perhaps even five million. Imagine the courage one must have to write such books! And a true writer might not even succeed if he does not follow the rules.



december 5, 1956 | changsha


[...] We visited a Buddhist temple yesterday, and saw more than a hundred nuns weaving curtains! Well, this at least has some precedent—if one looks into the history of fabric, some of the most famous silk was made by nuns. Today these nuns have been organized, and they can earn forty yuan a month, better than some of the elementary school teachers. The temple is extremely big, with plans to expand more of its weaving business. They do allow the nuns some time in the morning to read scriptures, and a few religious routines are still kept, though they also have a contest for model workers among the nuns. The older nuns do not have to work, and they receive their ration of food. The younger ones are free to return to the secular world, so in the near future perhaps some young and pretty nuns, when they reach marriage age, won’t have to fight the system to leave. Perhaps they only have to have a political meeting with other friends in the temple, and perhaps, more progressively, their marriages can be officiated by their esteemed master nun! And our modern playwrights may even have a new play: The Nuns Get Married. The nun in charge of receiving guests is about thirty-five, dressed in a clean robe, and is a very sympathetic character. She informed us of the annual production and the labor situation with great interest—she would be a good pr person if the temple is turned into a workers’ commune [...]

The most adorable thing about Changsha is that there is a kind of poultry that looks like a chicken and a duck but is neither—these birds, with black feathers, run along in the streets everywhere. It is said to grow really fast and can grow as big as eight or nine jin, and it is perfect for making smoked meat. Everything is developing at a tremendous pace in Changsha, and the laborers are strong and up for all kinds of work [...]




december 19, 1956 | phoenix


I arrived at my hometown yesterday afternoon. There are amazing mountain villages along the way. They are building houses everywhere and they still follow the old tradition of installing a plaque with the inscription “Magnificent Building, Lit with Brightness!” to bring good luck [...] We arrived at the station at half past four, and my older sister-in-law met us there with a tall bamboo basket on her back, and she even stewed a chicken! The district assigned a young cultural liaison officer to escort me. We had dinner at my older brother’s, and returned to the county administrative building for the night [...] The trees on the mountaintops have shed all their leaves; still, it was a beautiful sight. The streets were narrow, and I was amazed to see people riding horses in the street. There was quite a hustle and bustle in town. Last night was movie night, and I was asked to “enjoy life with the people.” The outdoor theater that had once been dedicated to the local god that guarded the town had been converted to an outdoor theater, and there was as much noise offstage as there was on the screen. I was told that there are one or two screenings a week, and one pays ten fen to see a movie. You have to pay twice if you want to see both screenings, and when the first screening is over people are yelled at to move out fast! Last night it was the Matchmaking of the Heavenly Fairies—seven fairy sisters visit the earthly world to find husbands, which rather satisfied the audience. After the movie, I walked among the locals through the side streets, and it was the same as forty years ago, when we would walk home after a night at the theater. There were peddlers and stands by the roadside, with peanuts or tangerines for sale. An old woman who watched the stand sat next to the stove, keeping herself warm. She makes six or seven yuan a month, and lives a long life [...]

I will visit schools over the next three days, listen to the reports of different work units, and visit a few new construction sites. I will also spend a day visiting my family graveyard and a couple old friends [...] The road is paved to the edge of town but the town itself is still ancient-looking, with run-down places. It is nice to see them, like a painting from the Song Dynasty.

I will visit our oldest family house today, and the places I frequented when I was a small and naughty boy. There are no more than ten people who know me in this town now. A few of them were playmates when I was young. I heard they were still living as laborers, loading goods or gardening vegetables, and I don’t know what they would think of me if we met again. The town, in my memory, felt familiar, but now it feels strangely removed.

This place leaves an odd impression on me because so much seems to have changed, but so much seems to have never changed. Many young children bump around in the street on stilts, my most favorite game when I was their age. Pickle stands are everywhere, and the old women, snuggling next to their stands with their hands in their pockets, still talk with the passersby affectionately. They are poor, yet they seem to have found true contentment in life. The officials are mostly from out of town, and they are putting down roots in this place. The radio station reaches all villages; day in and day out the loudspeakers broadcast revolutionary music, news reports, and all sorts of orders from the county government [...] The officials in town only buy imported goods from other places: cloths with flower prints, or cigarettes. There are over three hundred locals working on weaving the native fabric, twenty fen a yard, so beautiful yet nobody buys it [...] The cultural officials keep saying that we need to find the best of the local culture, while they turn a blind eye to the best in front of them.

I will bring some good fabric back for you. In one factory I visited, there were many old and young women weaving while chattering and laughing. If only they could understand what they are making is the best artwork—how happy they would be then! Many of the talented people here are the best resource, which the officials from out of town will never understand. Without a future their talents will die in time, which is something to dwell upon.

Second Brother



july 23, 1961 | beijing

Congwen Brother:

I received your last five or six letters, and I feel that I have a lot to say to you, but I don’t know how to make it clear. Your joy and pain in writing—I understand them well, and I hope this conference on art and literature will resolve your doubts. But I have to disagree with your attitude toward critics and your attitude, as a writer in a Communist country, toward your own writing. I don’t think you are looking at the bigger picture; you are paying too much attention to your own mood, and it is preventing you from seeing the uplifting things in life, and in that mood you cannot find the overwhelming passion to represent our society. You said you stopped writing not because you had nothing to say, but because you were intimidated by the critics. But creative work can’t live without criticism; art should allow criticism and rebuttals of that criticism. The purpose of Chairman Mao’s policy of “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought debate” is to encourage a wide range of criticism and different styles to represent the world; only in this way can the arts prosper. If you decide not to write because of others’ criticisms, it is a passive response. Remember when you were younger and trying to make a career of writing, you wrote day and night until your nose bled. Now the Communist party pays so much attention to the arts, gives writers all sorts of assistance and encouragement, and makes the best arrangements for them, while you refuse to write, despite your talent, only because of your insecurity about certain critics—in my opinion you are wrong to make this decision. Perhaps you no longer feel confident about your writing, and so you hesitate, and don’t know which choice to make—to write? Or not to write? What is troubling you? Of course there will be difficulties in writing, both subjectively and objectively; it is a complex process, but I think the important thing is to write in spite of the difficulties, and to improve yourself in the process. Not writing and only making useless comments vainly about society will leave you without any good books in the end. I hope you can stay in Qingdao for a longer time, one reason being that it is so hot this summer in Beijing, and you won’t be able to sleep well with the heat and the mosquitoes; also, you should at least write a piece or two so you won’t appear ungrateful for the Writers Union’s generosity in arranging a place for you in the resort. I don’t think that should be too difficult for you. Little Dragon will be home for a while, so it will be crowded at home, but of course these are all minor things, and you should decide for yourself. If you need money, please let me know. The sixty yuan I mailed earlier must have arrived [...]

Recently I read a poem published in “Soviet Woman” by Nazim Hikmet, and I am copying it here for you:


The Dead Little Girl


It is me knocking at your door

—at how many doors I’ve been

But no one can see me

Since the dead are invisible.


I died at Hiroshima

that was ten years ago

I am a girl of seven

Dead children do not grow.


First my hair caught fire

then my eyes burnt out

I became a handful of ashes

blown away by the wind.


I don’t wish anything for myself

for a child who is burnt to cinders

cannot even eat sweets.


I’m knocking at your doors

aunts and uncles, to get your signatures

so that never again children will burn

and so they can eat sweets.

[...] Our country should have our own writers and poets like him. If one can produce such work, one can become mankind’s pride. Don’t you think so?


july 23


afterword | august 23, 1995 | morning

Sixty years later, facing the manuscripts on the desk, proofreading the letters, I don’t know if I am dreaming or if I am reading other people’s stories. Our experience was absurd, but normal, too, what had to be endured by the intellectuals of our generation. There were smiles, and pains; contentment and fury; happiness, and excruciating, unspeakable suffering. The life Congwen shared with me—his life—was it a happy life, or an unfortunate one? I don’t know the answer. I did not understand him, not entirely. Later in our marriage, I understood more, but only now, after editing his manuscripts, have I begun to understand his whole being, and the burden he carried all his life. What I did not know in the past, I know now; what was not understood then, understood now. He was not a perfect human being, but he was a rare and kind person. He did not plot against the world; he loved his country and his countrymen; it gave him joy to be able to help others, and doing something was more important to him than owning something; he was pure and simple, and he loved all sorts of people and creatures.

If a writer has written one book that will be passed on to the coming generations, his life, I think, would not be unworthy then. Congwen has left more than one great book. The more I go through his papers—many of them scattered, some with openings but no endings, some with endings but missing beginnings—the more I understand his specialness and preciousness. It is too late! Why couldn’t I understand and help him while he was alive, supporting him rather than causing unresolved conflicts! It is too late to regret.

This book is for the readers who have loved him. It too is a small reflection of my love for him.

Zhang Zhaohe

No. 10

No. 10


Shen Congwen was one of the most influential writers in China’s modern history. His novel Border Town, originally published in 1934 and recently rereleased by HarperCollins, was banned under Mao’s regime, only to become an inspiration to a new generation of Chinese writers in the late twentieth century. ​


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