The Ancient Towns of Xiangxi


Shen Congwen was a prominent Chinese writer in the 1920s and 30s before war and chaos enveloped a generation. Though Shen hailed from a remote region in Western Hunan – a mountainous, ethnically diverse place known as Xiangxi – his stories concerning “the human spirit” found wide readership with the urban young in places like Shanghai. His writing painted a world where Han infantrymen rubbed shoulders with the exotic Tujia and Miao in a land of lush hills and jade rivers. Yet Shen’s Xiangxi is a paradise flawed, caught in limbo between ancient ways and an encroaching modernity. His stories are riddled with conflict and simmering with mute pathos.

His hometown of Fenghuang is a place where, as Shen Congwen once wrote, “Land was scarce, so most people’s houses were dangling-foot houses, half on land, half on stilts built over the water.” The writer’s grave is located on the outskirts of the river town in a quaint hillside memorial garden.

I arrive on a damp spring afternoon to pay my respects. There’s a sombre wooden plaque that reads: “Mr Shen Congwen, our country’s famous writer and historian, was born in 1902 in Fenghuang and died in 1988 in Beijing.”

Despite the fact that Shen was a mostly apolitical writer, that fact that his works were banned until the 1980s is largely eclipsed. He didn’t write again after the Cultural Revolution, busying himself in the Chinese Museum of History as a curator instead. Rehabilitated in 1978, Shen was at last able to revel in the global adulation bestowed on him as he influenced a whole generation of new writers.

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