Family Letters

An excerpt

Shen Congwen

Photograph by Sherman Ong

August 11, 1957

Beijing

Chongwen:

I had a cold for two days, a fever, it's very uncomfortable, and yesterday I asked for half a day off. It's Sunday today so I rested, and hopefully I will recover.

A water lily in the courtyard has opened up, it's honey yellow, beautiful yet sweet. The flower has a better sense of time than you: it wakes up on time every morning, and at four it shuts its eyes for the night. The mothers in the front and back of the courtyard all agree that this is a curious flower. The children sit around looking at it but no one dares touch it.

I took the pleasure of reading your work. In my opinion, you should not publish this straight away. Not every topic has to be so serious, but even if you are writing a novel against mahjongg, you are still exaggerating something insignificant. Also, it's not as if playing mahjongg is so harmful that you have to be against it or else, we still need to wait for more research on the matter, despite moments of clear discrimination against cardinal questions of right or wrong. We must consider if we want to publish this work. I hope you can write a better, weightier work. As you haven't written for so long, plenty of people are looking forward to and are concerned about your work. It might be better to not publish at all, but just write to practice your pen, just in case we have to recall it after it's been laid out. Do you think my views are too subjective, too arbitrary and unrealistic? Please criticize, please forgive, I just hope you won't be dejected. If you write more, you will write something great.

If I send you the newspapers after I've read them, I'm afraid it will be too late. Why don't you want to order copies in Qingdao? You can place an order at any time at any Post Office, it's more direct than ordering from Beijing. You really can order at any time. You should do that until you come back at the end of the month – wouldn't that be less hassle? Sometimes I don't finish reading the newspapers at home, so I want to keep those around, and it's inevitable that sometimes I will forget to send them to you. I'll still send you the ones from the last few days. The Wen Wei Pao from October made a point of mentioning Peng Zigang, and Chen Mengjia really did get in the newspaper. Today I received a letter from Shanghai's Li Xu'an, saying that Cheng Yingliu is gradually confessing. Now Li is also in charge of the display room for the institute, he wants you to keep helping purchase relics; he has a list. Seeing as you can't do it at the moment, I'll keep it for now.

Try to read new novels by contemporary writers, so that you can understand creative standards and processes. Some right-minded folk in the arts world will say with one voice that no work has been decent since liberation, that everything is formulaic and notional; even though I haven't read many of these novels, my work still allows me to read good manuscripts. The standard of some of the pieces is not that low at all. These we can learn from.

Whether or not you write the essay is beside the point. This is a rare opportunity to relax by the seaside, so don't shut yourself indoors all day. You need to take care of your health. Sleep more.

Your recent poems are better than the classical poems of the past, your emotions are healthy and mature; you really do seem to admire a few lines from old poetry: like "poplar" and "rouge," I keep thinking that it's not in step with the sentiments and emotions of people today.

In a moment I will go to the Post Office and if I see a copy of the latest Journal of Literature and Art I will send it to you. It has a detailed report on the issue of Ding Chen.

I have sent you newspapers up to the 15th. You should start registering for the 16th onwards and do it now. I hope that you are happy and healthy.

Zhaohe

August

If you see some pretty seashells, pick some out and bring them back. I don't want those extremely average ones: crude, big, and clumsy. If there are pretty stones I want some too, and in the winter I can use them to decorate daffodils.




1961, second half of January

Fuwai Hospital

San Jie,

My blood pressure was measured today, it has dropped very low: the systolic pressure is at 140. Although the diastolic pressure is only at 90, the doctor says the difference is not too big for someone my age. I found out that the main factor was food fried in corn oil. I had my blood tested for a fourth time, and my cholesterol has also dropped to below 200, and the issues are roughly just that. I found out that my heart isn't working so well. Therefore I am only taking one tablet of medicine to lower blood pressure, but it's not good to drastically lower it. After a few days my heart has to have some kind of treatment. My left arm will be treated with hot wax: I lie on a bed and a big piece of white wax covers my left arm for about 30 minutes. This is done every other day, and after tomorrow, once every day. What I eat these days is still too oily. Today I ate fish, quite a lot of it, about 300 grams per plate. Adding in 100 grams of oil, and the result is oily. According to the instructions, this is an effective way to lower my allotment of cholesterol (on the other hand it's a way of adjusting long-term lack of nutrition, or singular nutrition). This is carried out according to treatment solutions from Russia. In my view, though, I think "Eat well, keep thoughts at bay. Sleep well, shower once a day" is my ultimate aim. I heard that restructuring comes from qigong, but it will only be officially passed to me on Saturday. First thing is taking care of daily tasks: methods, processes, states, issues, ways of healing.  The core of it is qigong. Once you make a breakthrough, the method will seem easy to the extreme, and you don't need your brain at all. In the end it's acknowledging that the "guidance exercises" of those trying to become gods work, and the "deep meditation" of monks more than a thousand years ago work, and also the secret societies and sects "passing the dharma" ten or so years ago. They all had the right conditions for finding reasons to increase their acknowledgement and certainty, and to think that they are justified in thinking what they did. Now they call it "the control of relaxation of the cerebral cortex." In reality it's probably related to "self-hypnosis." Nowadays, we rely purely on medical information, and the word "hypnosis" is not mentioned, in case it is mixed up with witchcraft. We'll probably return to those two words again at another time.

I've finally finished reading Anna Karenina. There are positives in the book but also some weaknesses. When writing about people and things, Tolstoy's pen is bright and conscious — for example the horse race, the bird hunt, the harvesting of crops, and simple description of scenery are all very good. But if we take a closer look, his writing about people and how feelings change is affected and not natural enough. It seems deep but is not fleshed out. At first glance it's good, but upon closer inspection it is not entirely good. Tolstoy himself was unhappy about this, and that's reasonable. According to legend, the English version deleted important sections debating and criticizing the social system, and places where the ideas were too radical. The emphasis thus became a "tragic love story," which isn't the original purpose. Zhou Yang's translation seemed to have used this English version, so when the text talked about social problems, the dialogue is most unclear. Also, the exposés of the Russian upper classes and their boring lives, and their various clubs, etc, is quite good reading. I want to read War And Peace too, and Turgenev's Fathers And Sons and other works, so I can compare my impressions. The additional work on background detail is an advantage for Turgenev. There is relatively less character analysis; instead readers understand personalities and ideas through the characters' conversations — there is a definite advantage to this method. Compared to Tolstoy, who uses explanation to analyze emotion, Turgenev's method is far more natural. There are certainly other advantages to reading nineteenth-century classics: it gives me confidence that, if I wrote according to these methods, I could write something of equal value or — it shouldn't be so hard — something slightly better. What's hard isn't lack of characters to write about, or lack of events to write about, it's how to achieve a mood of ample freedom, in order to structure a story and proceed to write. What's hard is to find a place to write. I can still efficiently use my final years for a little longer. What I still often think about is writing a novella of sixty or seventy thousand characters, at the most eighty thousand characters. The scope mustn't be too broad, the set-up similarly minimal, and the people and events might as well be stripped down and treated in a plain way. If I can find a calm environment to write in, I can definitely write works of some weight. Of course this is only a present, subjective estimation. In reality there's a limit on how much my mind can be used, and the task may never be completed. The most difficult thing will be when I've finished writing: will it satisfy objective demands as well as win my own approval? It isn't easy to unite these contradictions. I hope I will have the chance to travel to the Southwest, and reap something from it. If, after a month, the doctors are still concerned over my heart, I might be forced into a different direction, because it would change the nature of my work. If I can work only half of every day, it'll be a blessing in disguise, as I could try again to plan a novella. Lately I have read some practically formulaic operas, plays and novels about despotic landlords, evil gentry, army officers and other evil men, none of whom are written with any depth. The good characters are not well rounded enough, and the structure of many of the stories was very ordinary. It's neither lively nor endearing. I should really use my pen, that's the truth of it. If I really wrote as seriously as I used to back then, five or six thousand characters a week, using four to six months to finish a novella, it should not exhaust me too much. If I finished it, I don't think it would be too unreadable.

I started reading some short stories in a magazine here, none of which were good. No one knows how to write, how to arrange a story, how to write dialogue, or how to write about people. I just couldn't keep reading. The people and events written up in newspapers touch people even less. When scenery description comes up in prose and poems, it's as if they don't know how to set it up, as if there aren't enough words: it's also unrealistic. Perhaps the standard anthologies are to blame. Everyone studies them and takes them as their example. The more they study, the narrower their scope, which eliminates our hope of seeing new styles or personalities in literature (perhaps we need to think of a solution).  It's as if no one has mentioned this problem in newspapers.  Just as the problem is in arts and crafts and art in general, all they do is write "good." In reality, they know what the problem is even as they discuss sales — that there's no market. Some people want to exhibit, but they fail. But they continue to produce. Change is awaited, without speaking up or protesting. Literature — when it comes to newspapers on the stalls — it's extremely rare to see a discussion on how to improve the current standards. The foreign literature they introduce, scraps of poetry for example, is not so good either. I don't know the cause of this. Is it because editors' attention doesn't fall on this, and they're not very objective, or is it something else? The few theoretical magazines here are read by only a few, and they look somewhat new. On the other hand, picture storybooks look oily and ratty from too many fingers. Most of the patients in this hospital are intellectuals, brainworkers. Are their brains so tired that they only want to read picture books to waste away their time? Or are the many lives here untouched by new literature? I share in the worries of Tolstoy's character Levin. Straight after eating dinner they go into the leisure room and already there are many mahjongg players seated there. A few female teachers and middle-school instructors are already smoothly playing the mahjongg tiles, their spirits high. They're so passionate when they play that they take me back to a society thirty or forty years ago. It's hard not to be sad. Because this makes me feel that there are still a good number of people in society who will use these outdated methods to have fun and find happiness. Or perhaps many people are happy to use this method to waste away the limited moments of their lives, and finding in books the happiness of truth is not a passion even of an "intellectual." This is another problem that should be mentioned somewhat in literature. Or discussed as a terrible thing! None of us should be overly pedantic, because society is accustomed to these developments. Especially since some books can't give most people more happiness than playing mahjongg does, so no matter how many books we have, it is still meaningless. I thought that People's Literature could actively experiment with sending copies of books to relevant departments whose employees have attended high school or university, and to doctors, nurses in hospitals and production units such as factories . . . primary and secondary school teachers . . . and attaching a survey sheet with some questions asking what books give readers joy, and what their impressions after reading are, etc., etc. For a while I remember being able to subscribe to new material on the train but now there are only illustrated books. I heard many people say that out of the contemporary novels they only like Tracks on the Snowy Forest. In the end they prefer thrillers, they transfer their customary emotions for reading Seven Heroes and Five Gallants to reading something new like Tracks, and that is what moves emotions for people. In reality these readers would be more willing to read the next Journey to the West or Water Margin. As for short stories, very few people are interested in them. As for poetry, poets have strong political stances, and the readers are simply put off by everything about them. They don't understand poetry, it's not interesting to them, and they don't know what it's going on about. We say that literature should be held up to the majority of people, but in all earnestness we don't understand what this majority is, and we are too flippant when we pay any attention to them. New works are too unimportant to readers, and you editors have scarcely paid attention to this. The benefits that new works of literature can have for readers have never concerned you. We can imply that you don't understand your readers at all, or your writers. The essays written by critics are even further from your readers. Many pieces are only read by those prepared to write their own literature, or education professionals. The pieces themselves have completely no relevance for the majority of the readers. This really deserves some attention! I have also been reading a few film magazines, most pieced together using old stories. I also watch television, and everywhere there are lords, princesses and generals... I think the combined effect of all of this is really very bad.

translated from the Chinese by Alice Xin Liu


Shen Congwen's letters are forthcoming from China's Yilin Publishing House. The Letters of Shen Congwen will also be published in English for the first time.



Read translator’s note

Shen Congwen (1902-1988) is one of the most influential writers in China's modern history. His Border Town, banned under Mao's regime, inspired the new generation of Chinese writers in the late-twentieth century, and was named the best novel in Yazhou Zhoukan's 1999 list of 100 best works of literature of 20th century China.

Alice Xin Liu was born in Beijing and left for London at the age of seven, returning when she was twenty-one. In that time, she had the good fortune of studying English literature at Durham University, UK, and of being taught traditional Chinese language and culture every summer by Communist cadre grandparents. Today Liu is an enthusiastic reader of Chinese, Japanese, and English fiction and poetry. Since translation was part of her consciousness at a very young age, it's hard to see an alternative path. In 2011, she finished a translation of a book of Shen Congwen's letters for Yilin publishing house in China.


Shen Congwen was born Shen Yuehuan in 1902 to a Miao family, in Hunan province. Compared often to William Faulkner, though less well-known in the west, Shen's oeuvre is set in the rural idyllic that is his home town, Fenghuang, and home province, Hunan. A vernacular writer, Shen Congwen never got used to city dwelling and, after the communist takeover, stopped writing fiction altogether in the last thirty years of his life. Even though he produced some non-fiction about the arts and crafts, his retreat and period of mental breakdown in the early forties are widely seen today as a tragedy for Chinese literature. Compounded by a crackdown on his work in China, the life of Shen Congwen has been mysteriously hidden for decades.

Famous as he is, what does the reader really know about him? That he accused a People's Literature magazine editor of not knowing how to connect with the masses? How did Shen feel about a China that had transformed itself into a battleground of propaganda rhetoric and conventional literature? What, indeed, did he feel his own place to be in this new climate? And why did he not write again; why choose silence? Many of these questions have answers in the letters, spanning three decades (1930-1961), he wrote his wife, Zhang Zhaohe—it is from these that I have excerpted and translated the featured passages.

These letters are from the later years, when Shen no longer wrote fiction, but continued filing away reports for his arts-and-crafts research. In them we sense his frustration, but also an obtuse spirit that did not easily allow for the merits of a contemporary literature, the spirit of someone who was aware of the trends but did not value them. The proposed novel against the game of mahjongg proves this point.

Shen was a recorder of minutiae. It is common knowledge that he had become a husk of the writer he once was: he was frequently portrayed as withdrawn and unhappy. It is therefore interesting to note his joy and humanity at the smallest of things—the wutong trees of Nanjing, fruit baskets on the train, his attention to otherwise insignificant daily rituals. Nothing is trivial. If Shen is on a diet, he will tell you how much weight he has lost to the gram. If he is going through a newspaper stand, he will say exactly what he considers wrong with literary magazines, newspapers and illustrated books of the time.

Obstinate, critical, judgmental: Shen Congwen is prevailingly negative and sometimes self-pitying. His wife, Zhang Zhaohe, did not indulge him and was rarely sensitive to her over-sensitive husband. And so the letters give us a sense of him not only as a writer and arts-and-crafts expert, but also as a husband, who could be in turns insecure and doting.

In these letters we witness Shen's frustration, his yearning to get well again and his hope to resume a life of writing. He says: 'What's hard isn't lack of characters to write about, or lack of events to write about, it's how to achieve a mood of ample freedom, in order to structure a story and proceed to write. What's hard is to find a place to write.'