Shen Congwen. Border Town. Trans. Jeffrey C. Kinkley. New York: Harper, 2009. Print.
If Shen Congwen were an Italian or Italian-American, he would probably be called a paisan. It is often translated “peasant,” but in the vernacular it has a sense of honor—one of the guys, but one who is a friend.
The translator’s introduction suggests that Shen was the Orson Bean of Chinese writers. Americans may remember Orson Bean as an actor and comedian. He was blacklisted in the fifties because he had been a Communist. Some time around 1960 he had a change of heart and by 1964 was supporting Goldwater. That did not fly in Hollywood either, so he was informally blacklisted again. He did many commercial voice-overs but probably never had the career he could have had he not been attacked by both right and left.
Though Shen Congwen did not apparently change his views as Bean did, his sympathy for the simple rural people (call them peasants if you like) made the Nationalists suspicious of him. Although not evident in this novel, we are told Shen was skeptical of Chinese tradition, especially Daoism. That may have added to the disdain of the Guomindang sympathizers.
The river town of Chadong, where Border Town is set, is a fairly harmonious place. The people all seem to work together, drink together, and understand one another. There is no class conflict. Indeed, Cuicui (“Tsway-Tsway”), who lives with her ferryman grandfather by the ferry landing of a small river, is courted by the sons of her father’s supervisor and one of the most prominent men in town. There is no class conflict or peasant oppression here. So Shen’s work was banned by the Communists until some time after Mao’s death.
We also learn that Shen had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. We know that some Chinese who were so honored were not allowed by the government to accept the prize. We do not know whether that would have been the case with Shen because he died before the official announcement was made, and Nobels only go to living people.
So much for the translator’s introduction. Border Town is really a touching and understanding look into the life of ordinary rural Chinese. Westerners, especially Americans, can see from this story how Chinese take the long view. They have been around for some three thousand years, likely even in the same villages. This is the way they do and always will do things. There is a sense of timelessness in Border Town.
We are very much aware of generations. The teenaged Cuicui and her grandfather live on a small river near the Hunan-Guizhou border. The river flows and sometimes overflows. They go to town, especially to celebrate the annual Dragon Boat Festival. They are devoted to each other. Western readers are reminded that the parent-child relationship and respect for ancestors are much more important than the husband-wife relationship to the Chinese.
Cuicui is courted by two of the wealthiest and best-looking young men in town, brothers. She, though, acts relatively indifferent to them. What is more important to her is the sweet and gentle relationship with her grandfather and the daily rhythms of the ferry and the annual rhythms of the seasons.
We see a number of traditional customs. These are simply the way things are done. Cuicui can wait and observe. Life goes on till it no longer does.
This village is far enough from the more densely populated Eastern regions of China that there are not only hills but mountains. Living in the higher elevations are the newcomers—the army garrison and its descendants—who apparently arrived during the Manchu (Qing) reign. Along with them in the higher elevations, very typical of the hillier regions to the West, are the minority people, in this case the Miao, who moved to higher elevations when the Chinese settled the river valley a millennium or two ago. They all get along because they all are trying to make a living and to survive and, yes, to help one another.
This is no Shangri-La. Nature presents her challenges. A few people cannot be trusted, though everyone knows who they are. Some are snobs. Overall, though, there is a sense of harmony. It is a simple book about simple lives. Thoreau would have loved it—not because of any pantheism but because of the emphasis on simplicity and being in touch with the natural world.
One small part of Border Town reminded this reader of Finding God in Ancient China. While there are some mentions of a few Buddhist myths and Daoist rites, the God they really talk about and seem to believe in is the King of Heaven (Shang Di?) who resides in the West, and to whom Chinese Emperors offered sacrifices for millennia. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, indeed. (Psalm 122:6)