Shen Congwen (1902–1988), original name Shen Yuehuan, was a renowned writer, expert of historic and cultural relics, and a representative of the Beijing school of novel writing. He is considered one of a handful of literary masters in twentieth century Chinese literature. He was born in Fenghuang county, Hunan province, a remote and beautiful place at the conjunction of four provinces. His multi-ethnic background gave him an unusual bearing, a colorful imagination, and a cultural anguish which he concealed.
Having only an elementary school education, the young Shen Congwen studied the “big book of society.” He often played truant when he should have been attending school. He was thoroughly familiar with nature and the local customs of the people. At the age of fourteen, he joined the army, and came into closer contact with society, which helped him to build his strong character. In the summer of 1922, when he was twenty years old, he went to Beijing, then called Beiping, by himself. He educated himself and began to write under harsh circumstances. He wrote his earliest noted pieces. After 1928, he moved to Shanghai which had become the literary center of China. He wrote assiduously. Within a few years, his writings had been published by almost every major publication in Shanghai. His fame increased day by day. During this time, he met his future wife—an amiable and affable student named Zhang Zhaohe (1910–2003). Shen Congwen married her in 1932 and together they built their family. He returned to Beiping and entered into the most important period of his writing life. He became the editor-in-chief of the literary supplement of Ta Kung Pao. He encouraged and promoted young writers, and made the newspaper a place of literary importance of the Beijing school. He energetically popularized the differences between the Beijing and the Shanghai schools of writing, and initiated a campaign that encouraged the broad participation of writers in the south and north to join the “Battle of Beijing and Shanghai.” In the end, the imbalance between the northern and southern cultures was recognized by the general public. As the leading novelist of the Beijing school, various subsets of the school gradually formed around him. They advocated the independence of literature. During this time, his mother became gravely ill and he returned to his hometown. He witnessed the changes that had occurred (or sometimes, not occurred) over a decade in rural western Hunan. During this visit, he wrote Xiang xing sanji (Random sketches on a trip to Hunan). The War of Resistance Against Japan interrupted Shen Congwen’s life. In 1938, he and his family moved to Yunnan. During the war, in addition to his two famous works Changhe (Long river) and Xiangxi (Western Hunan), he also wrote a number of commentaries. After the Chinese victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan, he returned to Beiping where he wrote his last two works about western Hunan: Qiaoxiu and Dongsheng and Chuanqi bu qi (A romance quite strange). After finishing Biancheng (Border town), he originally planned to write about ten waterside cities. However, the plan was interrupted by allegations of left-wing writers that he was a “pink writer,” that is to say a writer of pornography. Students at Peking University posted signs criticizing him. He fell into mental confusion and even tried to take his own life. In the autumn of 1950, he gave up writing, but focused on researching cultural relics. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to a school of cadres in Xianning, Hubei province. Zhongguo gudai fushi yanjiu (Ancient Chinese costumes research), published in 1981, took him fifteen painstaking years to research. His contributions to the study of material cultural history have been recognized by scholars. In May 1988, he died in Beijing.
Shen Congwen’s highest literary achievements are his novels. They can be divided into the following categories based on subject matters: those works that show the uniqueness of western Hunan. Biancheng is a novel about rural life and the peasantry and reflects Shen Congwen’s cultural ideal. Next are those novels that yearn for spirituality. Yuexia xiaojing (Under the moonlight) is his reworking of folklore and stories from Buddhist sutras. The stories tell of love and the discovery of beauty; having discovered beauty, one will then discover spirituality. The next group of novels are those that describe the illness of modern urban civilization. Bajun tu (A portrait of eight steeds) describes rural vitality to highlight by contrast urban decay; it directly ridicules the love and moral outlook of urban dwellers. It is a mirror of life in modern cities. The last group of novels are those that describe political illusions. Cai yuan (Vegetable garden) shows how the political system dealt with remote communities such as western Hunan.
Shen Congwen was also an admired essayist. Some of his writings are about his personal life and he organically works the landscape of his hometown into them. Congwen zichuan, his autobiography, is about his literary life and his hometown, and Xiang xing sanji is a continuation of his autobiography. His writings on cultural relics are considered major works written in the second half of the twentieth century. These research-orientated writings, though short, are beautifully composed. They are colorful and pleasing to the eye.
In the 1980s, Shen Congwen’s literary works were re-published in China. His novels and prose writings have been translated into English, Japanese, German, and French, and are sold around the world. Many biographies, research papers, and monographs have also been published about him. Shen Congwen used culture to construct his ideal of the nation. His aesthetic ideal combines love, beauty, and spirituality as one unity; his philosophy that humans are able to peacefully coexist with nature can still give us inspiration.