One of the most influential and widely-known authors of the May 4th New Culture Movement, along with Lu Xun, Ba Jin, Mao Dun and Lao She. Famed for his refined literary voice, his deep understanding of and sympathy for his home province of Hunan, as well as his passion for the simple art of telling a story. One of the heads of the modern Chinese canon, his works have been published in translation across the globe.
Shen Congwen was born Shen Yuehuan to a well-reputed military family in the southwestern province of Hunan. As was expected, he began a classical scholar's education when he was eight years old, yet he felt suffocated in the classroom and eventually cut more classes than he attended, running out to the borders of the town to gain the "natural education" that he so cherished later on. At fourteen, he joined a local army regiment, touring with them all over Hunan and into the provinces of Sichuan and Guangxi. It was during these years that he absorbed the experiences that he would years later distill into print and put together into the famous collections "Travels in Western Hunan" and "Fenghuang," stories of his hometown.
In 1922, the 20-year-old Shen Congwen abandoned the soldier's life, and traveled on his own steam all the way to Beijing, hoping to test into Peking University. His first attempt was a failure, and, faced with the reality of poverty, turned to writing and self-study. He spent his days in the library and his nights in his "tiny, suffocating apartment," writing articles for fifty cents per thousand words. Eventually, his work began to gain a readership; and when the well-known writer Yu Dafu and Xu Zhimo brought him into their circles, his literary career officially began. In 1926, he attempted to start up two literary magazines in Shanghai, both of which failed for lack of funding; but by 1933, he was head of the Arts and Literature section of Da Gong Bao, one of the most influential magazines at the time.
After the Communist takeover of 1949, Shen Congwen was assigned to the National History Museum in Beijing. Though it meant the end of his career as a writer, he continued to research the history of Chinese porcelains, clothing and other national artifacts, and wrote several influential essays and research texts on those subjects. In 1988, he made the final list of candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature, yet that was also the year he died, and the Nobel cannot be awarded post-mortem.
Shen Congwen is the featured author in READ PAPER REPUBLIC, week 24, 26 November 2015.