OBITUARIES : Shen Congwen; Chinese Author Provided Vivid Picture of Rural Life in Chaotic Era

From Times Wire Services

Shen Congwen, a novelist whose works provide a vivid portrayal of Chinese rural life during the chaotic warlord era of the 1920s and 1930s, died of a heart attack, a former student said Friday. He was 85.

Wu Ningkun, an English professor at the International Relations Institute, said Shen--little known to the general reading public outside China but considered of vital importance within--died Tuesday in Beijing, where he had lived quietly in recent decades researching ancient Chinese costumes and folk arts. Wu added that Shen had been in poor health for the last five years and needed help to walk.

Shen’s novels and short stories, which put him at odds with several generations of Chinese leaders, describe rural life with an ironic eye and sympathy for free-spirited minority groups opposed to central control. His outspokenness got him into trouble when the Communists came to power in 1949.


The state-run Chinese media has not mentioned Shen’s death despite his partial rehabilitation after years spent cleaning toilets and suffering through other menial labor in the anti-cultural era under Mao Tse-tung.

Shen could describe tersely and without sentiment the casual violence of the 1920s and ‘30s, as warlords battled each other for power after the emperor was overthrown. But he also produced lyric descriptions of the pastoral life he knew as a child in central Hunan Province.

Many of his short works have been translated into English and other languages, and he is one of the most widely anthologized modern writers in English-language collections of Chinese literature.

Shen was born into a family of career soldiers. He was sent to military school at age 13 and joined a regiment two years later. He left the army after several years to work in a tax office and later for a newspaper.

In his early 20s, Shen went to Beijing to study and write. His short stories soon were appearing in the prestigious Short Story Monthly and the literary journal Crescent Moon, which helped pioneer the use of colloquial language in literature.

He gained fame in the 1930s with a series of longer works, including “The Border Town” and “The Long River,” both about rural life in Hunan. One of the first films to be released commercially in the United States, “Girl From Hunan,” was based on a Shen novel.

He also taught at various colleges, including Beijing University, until 1949 when he was publicly criticized as a reactionary. Shen tried to commit suicide by drinking kerosene and slitting his wrists and throat.

Even an old literary friend, the renowned woman novelist Ding Ling, by then a member of the official literary Establishment, criticized Shen as having upper-class ambitions. Ding died in 1986.

In a self-criticism ordered by the authorities, Shen wrote that his early work had “a style but no sense of life. Most of my writing was of no use to the people’s revolution.”