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

Border TownSeptember 26 through October 3 this year is “Banned Books Week“! Good thing someone one told me! So how fitting that I was lucky enough to receive Border Town, the pre-Communist Revolution masterpiece by Shen Congwen (1902-1988), who although virtually unknown in the West, is considered one of China’s best modern writers. Often compared to Faulkner, Chekhov, and Pearl S. Buck (!), Shen (and his works) fell victim to Mao’s reign of terror against intellectuals.

Originally published in 1934, this slim volume follows the seemingly pastoral life of a lovely young girl, Cuicui, just coming into her teens, who has been raised by her doting elderly grandfather since the love suicide of first her soldier father, then her too-young mother just after her birth. Grandfather is the rural town’s head ferryman, a stalwart working man who will not take any pay from his passengers because he is convinced that the government already treats him fairly with a regular wage.

Maturing gracefully into her adolescence, Cuicui finds herself the object of admiring attention, especially from two brothers who are both almost instantly entranced by her innocent beauty. When tragedy strikes the older brother, Grandfather becomes dismayed for Cuicui’s uncertain future as he grows more and more aware of his own mortality.

Kinkley, a Chinese history professor considered the leading American authority on Shen, offers a new, annotated translation of a simple, resonating story about youth and old age, and the uncertainties we all face. His foreword also provides a quick but illuminating glimpse into early 20th-century Chinese literature, as well.

P.S. Have to clarify about Banned Books Week per comment from recent visitor (thanks very much). BBW, which happens the last week in September (since 1982), actually CELEBRATES our freedom to choose what we want to read. To find out more, check out the American Library Association’s BBW pages or

Readers: Adult

Published: 1934 (original), 2009 (new English translation)


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese

12 responses to “Border Town by Shen Congwen, translated by Jeffrey C. Kinkley

  1. No books have been banned in the USA for about a half a century. See “National Hogwash Week.”

    • terryhong

      Sorry … should have been clearer: “Banned Books Week” refers to CELEBRATING books that were once banned … it’s happened in a week in September (probably to go along with back-to-school time frame, I’m guessing) since 1982 … I’m linking the above reference in the actual post to the American Library Association page on Banned Books Week. Or you can also click here.

      All of Shen Congwen’s books were banned in his native China for decades during Mao’s rule.

      Thank goodness book banning is rare in the U.S. Although every year, some library or school somewhere in the U.S. pulls certain titles off their shelves … and that’s a sad thing indeed.

      Thanks for visiting the site. And here’s to celebrating Banned Books Week later this month!

      • Would you please consider adding the censorship information and a reliable source to Wikipedia’s “List of Books Banned by Governments page? Thanks.

        • terryhong

          Glad we — I should say YOU — got all that worked out. Now readers will have that much more information out in the world.

          For those of you who want to see Dan’s edits and additions, check these links below:

          Dan also added a new page called a “redirect” for redirecting queries on Shen’s real name to his nom de plume:

          Thanks for being so patient with this Luddite, too!

          • Dear Terry,
            You have witnessed first hand my concern for advancing the cause of intellectual freedom and even linked to my recent efforts. Thank you, by the way, for making me aware of the censorship of Shen Congwen’s novels.  A government censored the work of a citizen then punished him.  That is censorship and worse.

            Compare what happened to Mr. Shen and his writings and his broken printing plates with what happens in the USA nowadays where inappropriate material is legally kept from children in a public library here and there, such as under Board of Education v. Pico. Do you see the difference?

            As a former American Library Association [ALA] Councilor said:

            “It also highlights the thing we know about Banned Books Week that we don’t talk about much — the bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children.  While I think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it’s totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all.”

            What happened to Shen Congwen is totally different from following existing law and common sense to protect children.

            Do you see what I am saying?  Legally keeping children from inappropriate material is NOT a violation of intellectual freedom; neither is it censorship. Banned Books Week [BBW] says it is. To that extent, BBW is a fraud.

            Would it not be better for the ALA to use BBW to address serious censorship and intellectual freedom violations instead of propagandizing people to willingly forego legal, common sense means to keep children from inappropriate material? 

            Shen Congwen is mentioned guess how many times at ALA.ORG.  Zero.  Nada.  Nothing.  Zed.  Zilch.  Silence–just like when Mr. Shen died and was buried in silence.  The high and mightly ALA who began BBW in 1982 said absolutely nothing about Mr. Shen 6 years later in 1988.

            Contrast that with the ALA’s constantly thwarting efforts to legally protect children from inappropriate material.  Like the time in Howell, MI, when parents attempted to remove a book from the public school that contained sex with animals.  The ALA’s de facto leader said the parents were racist because the author was black.  Result? The children still get to read the bestiality book in public school; Howell, MI, has lost local control to the ALA. Do you think removing a bestiality book from a public school has anything to do with Mr. Shen’s experiences?

            Terry, you are in a unique position to attest that what happened to Shen is totally different from legal efforts to protect children.

            You said, “Thank goodness book banning is rare in the U.S. Although every year, some library or school somewhere in the U.S. pulls certain titles off their shelves … and that’s a sad thing indeed.  Thanks for visiting the site. And here’s to celebrating Banned Books Week later this month!”

            Will you be willing to admit that book banning in the USA has not occurred for about a half century, legal means to protect children does not threaten intellectual freedom, and Banned Books Week inappropriately addresses itself to rationalizing the side stepping of legal means to protect children while ignoring serious censorship, like with respect to Shen, like the Cuban librarians, etc.?

            Wouldn’t it have been nice for the ALA to say at least a single word about Shen instead of calling parents racist for wanting to legally remove a bestiality book from a public school?

            Yes, the ALA is huge and well funded by, among other sources, the Playboy Foundation and George Soros, but that does not mean we lose our own brains and our own ability to think. Think about the ALA’s efforts to use BBW to oppose common sense. Think about the ALA’s total failure to mention even a single word about Shen Congwen anywhere on ALA.ORG. Instead, just a few month’s after Shen’s passing went unmentioned by the ALA despite the NYT obit and despite that BBW is the creation of the ALA’s Orwellian “Office for Intellectual Freedom,” the ALA publishes an article that says, “communism is just a word,” although book burning was finally mentioned, in the 29th paragraph. Of the 48 paragraphs, here’s the only mention:

            Any assessment of library service in China today must be tempered by the knowledge that the country is a mere 20 years away from the Cultural Revolution, during which schools and libraries at all levels were closed, books were either burned or locked up, and intellectuals in every profession were condemned, and a mere 50 years away from the Communist triumph of 1949, when the government decided the sole mission of libraries was to serve politics (according to Libraries and Librarianship in China by Sharon Chien Lin, Greenwood Press, 1998).

            No mention of Shen in this article or anywhere on ALA.ORG. The disgrace is not Shen’s, rather, it’s the ALA’s. It may be our disgrace if we do not speak out against this or if we continue to view the ALA as authoritative.

            Will you please rethink your statements regarding the ALA and its fraudulent “Banned Books Week”? Intellectual freedom is too serious a matter to be commandeered by the ALA to browbeat communities into sidestepping legal means to keep children from inappropriate material while ignoring serious threats to intellectual freedom.

            What would Shen do?

          • terryhong

            Not only am a Luddite, I’m also a Shen newbie. As this is the first book I’ve ever read by Shen Congwen, I can’t really speak with much expertise, so I thought I might seek the thoughts and opinions of THE Western authority on Shen, the book’s translator and Shen biographer, Professor Jeff Kinkley.

            Here are some of his thoughts (which he agreed I could share) …


            It appears that Mr. Kleinman is well-intentioned about keeping materials off school reading lists that the kids at a given age level are not yet mature enough to cope with, but his posting suggests an attempt to use unrelated bannings in unrelated contexts to criticize an ALA point of view that has little to do with Shen Congwen as such, and which I am not in a position to evaluate myself (and need not, in my capacity as a student of Shen Congwen and his writings). In defense of the ALA’s not mentioning the censorship of Shen, Shen was (is) hardly known in the US and it is not surprising that the ALA should not at first put him on their list. But that is not just due to censorship. Most college-educated Americans cannot name any Chinese writers. Perhaps not even (Tang dynasty poets) Li Bo (Li Po) or Du Fu (Tu Fu).

            There is a more general problem with saying that any particular author in China is or was banned. That both exaggerates the singularity of banning particular authors and understates the damage done by state control of literature to any particular author and to most all Chinese authors. In the early 1950s, the PRC effectively banned a great many authors like Shen. Above all, then–as now–a particularly effective technique of state (or really, Communist Party) control was and is simply to reduce the print runs of reprints by state publishing houses, to bowdlerize reprints, etc. Today, there is the even subtler (and effective) technique of allowing a book to be printed, but putting out a general order to literary journals, newspapers, and web sites within the official orbit of control to not mention a recently printed book, to reduce sales and the book’s impact. (This sometimes backfires; then again, outright banning of a book sometimes backfires even worse, causing banned book sales to skyrocket on the numerous book black markets–hence the value of subtler controls like publicity-banning.)

            The greatest “damage” done to Shen Congwen was probably the campaign of big-character posters denouncing him in Beijing in 1949 (the Communists took the city well before the official founding of the PRC in October of that year) and various kinds of pressure put on him that led him to attempt suicide. There was a period in the mid-1950s when he tried to see if he could better accommodate himself to the official establishment, which did publish a few short works of his then that were not deemed politically objectionable. But not for long. All regimes of literary control, really, tend to be complicated and inconsistent.

            By the time of the Cultural Revolution, officially 1966-1976, virtually all pre-revolution Chinese authors’ works were effectively banned (not necessarily removed from libraries, but how many libraries were open?), except for those by Lu Xun. (Oh, and there were the poems of Mao Zedong!) Few contemporary authors could publish and few new movies could be made. One could say that art, as most Chinese had known it, was mostly banned. Even the old (and most new) works of Mao Dun, the pre-Cultural Revolution Minister of Culture, were hard to get hold of. You certainly wouldn’t want to cite his views in a letter to the editor, or bring him up in a political discussion meeting. My favorite source on the control of Chinese literature is The Uses of Literature, by Perry Link. It is a vast subject.

            I was interested to read the Wikipedia articles on Shen Congwen. The articles are below average for Wikipedia, offering subjective opinions about which are Shen’s best works that most critics might not agree with, etc. Also, although Shen had Miao (Hmong) “blood,” he cannot exactly be called a Miao author. By bloodlines, so to speak, he was a quarter Miao, a quarter Tujia, and half Han. After 1949 he chose the Han nationality identity for himself instead of ethnic minority membership, as he feared he might be criticized for seeking special privileges (from affirmative action-type policies) if he were to trumpet his ethnic ancestry.

            Like ethnicity and like Wikipedia, one could write a book about Chinese names! I’m glad to see Dan’s redirect from “Shen Yuehuan.” I cannot say now how official the name “Yuehuan” was, but many Chinese consider the name they choose for themselves at about the age of 20, the _zi_ or style, to be as official as their birth name (“legal name”–ah, but legal in what sense, esp. in premodern times?), particularly since “birth” names may be bestowed belatedly, with the child at first only being known by his childhood or “milk” name. Authors, on the other hand, are often best known by their pen names, and even like to be addressed by them. (E.g., the wonderful current writer Mo Yan. I think Mao Dun [Shen Yanbing] and Lu Xun [Zhou Shuren] were commonly addressed by those pen names in their day, too. Certainly, if one were to write a letter to them, one would address them by their pen name. Perhaps that would be true for Mark Twain or Madonna, too.)

            As to censorship in the US, the relevant censorship would be political censorship. I guess it was mostly in the 1950s that American partisans of Chiang Kai-shek went into public libraries and stole or ripped up nearly all books about China, supposedly to help the cause of the Republic of China on Taiwan and root out American communism, and that would be just outside the fifty-year limit. More recently, though, there have been controversial attempts to protect children from works by Mark Twain and many others. Also, speeches by the president of the United States. I have not checked to see if the ALA has weighed in on these matters. These kinds of censorship are local (luckily) and often reflect the priorities of interest groups. A few years ago, a local New Jersey library had an art exhibition by painters who wanted to represent the hardships of being adopted. Adoptive parents wrote in and created a stir.

            In both China and the US, of couse, a common practice is to ban a book for one reason (e.g., for a political reason), then publicly state that the book is being banned for another reason (e.g., pornography).

            One could write a book. But then, many people have.


  2. litbirthdays

    I have linked this blog posting on the LitBirthdays blog, a weekly calendar of literary birthdays, for December 28 — Shen Congwen’s birthday.

  3. berita terbaru

    I’ve linked this blog posting on the LitBirthdays blog, a weekly calendar of literary birthdays, for December 28 — Shen Congwen’s birthday.

  4. litbirthdays

    As the writer of LitBirthdays blog, I was a little surprised to see this comment directed to my email, because I am not “Berita Terbaru” and I have no idea who that is. But it does not seem to do any harm, and anything that gets either of us more viewers is welcome.

    Perhaps Berita has a blog and she linked it to her blog?

    • I don’t personally know the original poster, either, actually! No links came through with her comment, so I went and found the URL for what she was referring to (thought maybe she forgot?), hence the link, and here you are! The virtual world is a strange and mysterious place for sure. But glad we connected anyway!

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