“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

The Young Couple, by Shen Congwen

“The Young Couple” illustrates the kind of sexual subject matter that eventually earned Hunanese writer Shen Congwen – one of the key figures of the New Culture Movement in the 1920s – the ire of the Communist establishment. He was denounced as a reactionary following the founding of the PRC, and his work was expunged from the literary canon of the twentieth century. After several attempts to commit suicide he gave up writing fiction altogether. Mo Yan’s mention of Shen in his Nobel prize acceptance speech serves as an indicator of the extent to which he has now been rehabilitated, but as late as the 1980s – when Shen was apparently being considered for the Nobel prize himself – he was still regarded as such an outcast that his death was barely acknowledged within China. His work has now been rediscovered by a new generation of writers such as Yiyun Li, who has translated several of his letters – which represent “the only available glimpse of those stories he might have written.”
—Dave Haysom

Jeffrey C. Kinkley's translation of the Shen Congwen novel Border Town (边城) is available from HarperCollins.
Alice Xin Liu has also translated some of Shen Congwen's letters for Granta and Asymptote.

Shen Congwen

One evening at dinner, Huang, who had moved to X___ village hoping that the quiet would cure his fragile nerves, was feeling helpless in front of a dish of bloody stir-fried chicken his host had made him. Suddenly, he heard a cry from outside: “Come on, come on! Come see what they’ve caught!”

The voice was urgent, as if something serious had occurred, and soon the whole village echoed with equally anxious responses. Even Huang, who had never really liked crowds, put down his rice bowl and walked out to the pond past the front gate chopsticks in hand to see what was going on.

Coming out the front door, he saw someone run past him to the south, hurriedly briefing those whom he met on the road: “Eight Roads Hill, on Eight Roads Hill, some real fun up there! If you’re gonna go, go now, before they send them to the regiment!”

As to exactly what had happened, Huang could not guess. Judging by the excitement with which everyone was rushing out to see it, it must naturally be interesting. Still, the definition of “interesting” in the countryside was not often intelligible to an urbanite. Huang imagined somebody might have caught a couple of wild pigs, and decided to go have a look.

He fell in behind the villager who had just run by him. They moved quickly over a series of mountain paths Huang had never taken before, turned, and Huang saw a crowd of people gathered in the valley. The spectators had for some reason formed a large circle and it wasn’t immediately clear what it was they were looking at. The villager Huang had followed rushed at the crowd in what seemed like a brave fury and started pushing people out of the way—an intelligent man, he had seen Huang behind him and decided it was necessary to show the city-dweller what kinds of things happened in the countryside. Those he pushed away seemed also to think that this was something the guest should see and quickly shifted aside to let Huang through.

Everything lay plain before his eyes.

What had been caught, it turned out, were two people. Huang, who had been hoping for wild pigs, was disappointed.

For many of the villagers, however, Huang’s arrival only intensified the novelty of the event. They looked at each other with expressions that said, “The city man’s seen it too,” and exchanged knowing smiles. Many of the women, amused by Huang’s button-down shirt, stared at him with a doubtful air, as if to ask, “Do you city people who wear those clothes have to deal with this sort of thing too?” While Huang understood that the sight of his hair, his leather shoes and pressed wool pants stimulated no less curiosity in the villagers than did the event that brought them all here, still he walked over to the two people who sat tied together on the open ground.

On getting closer, he received a shock: the prisoners were a young man and woman. They were both country people, both quite young. The lady was crying silently and without motion under the pitiless gaze of the crowd. Someone had stuck a spray of wildflowers into her hair, and the blossoms bobbed ridiculously whenever she moved her head. Quite an elegant impression, in a different situation.

Having seen the two clearly, Huang no longer required an explanation. This was one of those offenses only the young would commit.

The villager Huang had followed was a smart man indeed; though he knew that Huang was a “guest,” he filled him in anyway. It had happened like this: one of his fellow villagers was coming over South Mountain when discovered these two in the valley behind a hedge of long grass, doing in plain sight and broad daylight what would make anyone angry to see. This villager went immediately to find some of the men in the area, who ran back into the valley and caught the young couple.

Now that they’d been caught, what to do with them? The captors certainly weren’t responsible. Having been brought this far, they would eventually have to go to the village head for questioning and punishment; that was the common assumption. As to why they needed to be arrested in the first place, neither the captors nor captives were particularly clear. Yet the men who had grabbed the couple and dragged them here, though original affairs of sweating and heavy breathing had nothing to do with them, were now regarding the young woman with a stern satisfaction, which was of a higher order than sweating and heavy breathing. Women from the crowd approached the pair to scratch them across the face with their fingernails, indicating that their conduct was shameful; clearly, these village women did not believe good weather to be reason enough for doing such things with a man. The elder spectators merely looked on and shook their heads; likely they had forgotten the desires of their youth and, having children of their own, decided that language of the axiomatic sort was in need of promoting.

A faint evening breeze caressed Huang’s face. He heard the sound of a bamboo flute being played somewhere on the mountain and looked up. The sky was filled with a pink haze. He thought, if this scene were a poem, it would certainly have to include a woman.

He decided to try asking the bound young man, whose head was bowed as if lost in thought, where he had come from. It wasn’t a sin, after all.

His eyes being lowered, the first things the young man saw were Huang’s leather shoes. Shoes were not something he was accustomed to seeing; and so, while not forgetting where he was, the man indulged in a brief appraisal first of the square, black leather toes, then of the narrow-legged pants above them. Finally, hearing himself being questioned in a tone that was not like an interrogator’s, he looked up at Huang. While he didn’t know him, he could see that Huang was a sympathetic party, and shook his head softly to protest the injustice of the situation.

“You’re not from this area?”

This question was answered for him by a member of the crowd, who said he was not; and the speaker was not likely to have been wrong, as the number of his acquaintances was greater even than the total population of the area. Certainly not the girl, who was made up very differently than the local young women. The speaker knew the name of every female in his village. Before Huang arrived, several people had asked the couple their names and met with no success. As to where they were from, not even the busybody could say.

Huang looked back to the young woman. She couldn’t have been twenty years old and was dressed in a surprisingly clean robe of sky-blue linen. Her cheeks glowed faintly red and her frame was surprisingly long and slender, not unattractive at all. Her body shape was, in fact, noticeably different from the common village women of the area, and though she was crying, it seemed to be from fear rather than shame.

Huang wondered if the two had perhaps been eloping and immediately felt sympathy for them. He then considered how he might devise a way to remove them from these lunatics. Yet the friend who managed his lodgings had gone into the city and Huang had no idea who was in charge of the regiment at the moment; whether that person, faced with a crowd of people, might make even stupider decisions than had already been made, Huang could not guess. These people did not at all consider this kind of interference in others’ affairs unreasonable. Just as he was deep in thought, someone interrupted with a suggestion.

A man with a pockmarked face and the large, crimson nose of an alcoholic, looking as if he’d just put down his gourd and come to see the fun, had sauntered up to the pair on the ground. He touched the girl’s face with a hairy hand, mumbled to himself, and suggested that the two be stripped naked and lashed with brambles, then sent to the village head after they’d had enough here. He didn’t hesitate to yell as he made this strange proposal, which seemed to him quite an intelligent way to resolve the issue. If it hadn’t been for a fellow villager who tugged at his pant leg and pointed out that “The city man’s here,” he might very well have skipped consensus and gone straight to putting his plan into action.

Several of the women present, apparently incensed that this young lady could be so free as to give herself to a man right here in the mountains, were as eager to punish as the drunkard. Though they didn’t like the idea of stripping the two, they were enthusiastic advocates of “beating.” The children in the crowd were filled with an inexplicable excitement upon hearing this and ran off hurriedly in search of brambles. They had taken too many strokes to the back from their fathers’ cattle goads, and the beating of wild dogs, cats and thieves was of particular interest to them.

Huang saw that the situation was worsening and he had no power to stop it; yet right at this moment there appeared before the crowd a man, dressed in military clothing and with an officer’s bearing. His arrival threw all into confusion, as villagers piled on top of each other to relate the course of events to him and suggest their own solutions. Huang heard the villagers call him “Sergeant” and knew him to be a figure of power in the village, so Huang kept his mouth shut and waited to see how he would handle the situation.

The military man put on the expression he’d seen on the faces of parade officers in the city, staring at the crowd with knit brows, mouth tightly shut and an expression of severity and disappointment on his face. He cast his gaze over the circle of people, noticed Huang. The presence of a “city man” seemed to compel him to play up his status even further, so when the women and children gathered around him in a circle, he barked out, “Stand back!”

The sergeant stepped forward. He touched the cheek of the humiliated young man with the head of a stalk of foxtail he’d picked by the roadside; then he asked, in a voice like that of a customs officer, “Where have you come from?”

The young man was silent for a moment, then looked up at the sergeant’s face, noticed a mole below his ear. Finally he said: “I’m from Yaoshang.”

As if this were all the confession he required, the sergeant turned to the girl and, in the same tone of voice, asked, “What’s your surname?”

The girl didn’t answer, merely looked up at the sergeant, over at Huang and finally down at her feet in embarrassment. The shoes she wore were embroidered with pairs of phoenixes and were the kind of shoes that only wealthy villagers could afford. The sergeant continued in his slightly belittling tone:

“Where did you come from? You don’t tell me, I’ll arrange someone to take you to the county.”

All peasants dread meeting officials because, in a peasant’s eyes, the official is a kind of predatory creature. Yet sometimes one has no choice, one needs an official to settle a dispute, and in that case the objective is to borrow the official’s savage authority to beat down one’s adversary. The greatest worry is meeting the wrong official. So the mere mention of entering the county capital sent chills down the spines of many in the crowd. Yet the girl, bound tight to her young man there beneath the tree, appeared both helpless and resigned, and therefore unafraid of officials. She remained silent.

Someone in the crowd who couldn’t hold back interjected, “Beat ‘em!” Again with the old remedy, perhaps because the peasants of this region had a tendency to lie, and any official who didn’t employ the paddle, leather whip or bamboo switch in his interrogation was hard-pressed to get a single true word out of them. Thus, everyone remembered corporal punishment as the best method for acquiring information.

One villager suggested they fetch a millstone and prepare to sink the two in the pond. This was a threat. Another proposed forcing the man to drink urine and the girl to eat cow manure. This was ridicule. It was all this sort of infantile language.

The objects of these threats continued to make no response, and their silence gave an impression of brazen courage. This infuriated the sergeant, and he repeated the suggestions just made in a much darker tone than before, as if they were majority decisions. As the two had committed an offense against the community, the community’s judgment upon them was automatically correct and no city official could oppose it.

The girl shook her head and said almost inaudibly: “I’m from Yaoshang, going to Huangpo to see relatives.”

Hearing the girl beside him speak up, the young man now timidly added:

“Both going to Huangpo.”

“Both running?” asked the interrogator.

“No, both going.”

At this the crowd inferred that it had been a chance meeting on the road that caused the two to get together; there was a laugh.

The villager who had first discovered the pair now came back from the regiment headquarters. He had been up looking for the sergeant and now, finding him here, was as excited as a bandit delivering hostages. With shifty, blinking eyes fixed on the sergeant, he smilingly related what he saw these two shameless young people doing in the middle of the day. “In broad daylight” was, of course, the whole novelty of the situation, since according to the villagers, that was a time appropriate for napping in the fields and not much else, let alone for such activities as shouldn’t be done outside in the first place.

After hearing this statement, the sergeant naturally felt that this was an offense worthy of stoning; he had his feet underneath him. Yet he was also desirous to learn first about the young man’s background before he dealt with the two, as he could then conveniently fine him a hundred strings of cash or confiscate one of his family’s cows depending on what the usual laws mandated, while he himself could also take a cut. With this in mind, the sergeant’s demeanor softened noticeably and he continued his steady extraction of the young man’s confession.

The helpless young man could no longer hide anything.

In the end, the sergeant was able to get the captor’s entire history, including his finances, social position and family members. He gave a self-satisfied smile. Who knew that the young man would keep going: he also said he was the young woman’s husband. They were only recently married. Today they were coming along the road to Huangpo to visit her family, stopped to rest here, and the weather was so nice; so they sat down next to newly-bundled stacks of rice to look at the scenery and the flowers on the mountains. The breeze seemed perfumed and the birds were chirping so merrily that they thought of those things the young should do, and then they got caught.

Once he finished, the onlookers began to see in his and the woman’s bearing that theirs was not a spontaneous match. Yet the loss of romantic interest made punishment seem to them all the more necessary. Those who stood no chance of benefiting from a fine still advocated beating first and questions later. The young man’s claim that he and the girl were married had stiffened the sergeant’s resolve as well.

The fact that it was a married couple who had done such things in broad daylight and in plain sight actually provoked a greater hostility and disturbance, this of a kind peculiar to single men. These were male villagers who wanted a woman yet had no way to obtain one; having heard this man’s story, that they should now be resolute in their desire to punish him was also natural.

Having finally understood the situation from start to finish, Huang’s first reaction was pure surprise. Yet he came around eventually and addressed the sergeant, hoping to persuade him to let the two go.

The sergeant looked hard at Huang’s face, probably estimating whether or not Huang was an interpreter for foreigners. After a while, a special ID badge clipped to Huang’s belt caught his eye. Still unwilling to let on that he was a rustic himself, he smiled and held out a hand. It went unshaken, and the sergeant could only bring it back and pretend to wipe his palm on his pant leg. Then, with a slight irritation he said, “I can’t let them go, sir.”

“Why not?”

“We have to punish him. He’s shamed the entire village.”

“They made a mistake; why not let them apologize for it and be on their way?”

From within the crowd the red-nosed man called out, “Absolutely not, this is our problem!” At which point many of those who had been silently watching Huang defend the two erupted in vocal agreement. Yet when Huang turned around to find his opponent, the red-nosed man ducked his head into the crowd and squatted down to smoke a cigarette.

With the red-nosed man defeated, there now emerged a contingent of villagers supporting Huang. Several of these were women of the middle-aged sort, the kind who both feared city people and had a dreadful talent for gossiping. There was also someone who knew who Huang was, who tugged on the sergeant’s black silk shirtsleeve and informed him in a whisper whom he was talking to. The sergeant heard and realized that blackmail was out of the question; but he had to protect his identity in front of the people, and so (while he knew that he was talking to the boss) continued to talk like an official: “Mr. Huang, you’re right. But I’m not in charge of affairs here—we’ve still got to go to the regiment commander.”

“I’d like to talk to your commander, if that’s all right.”

“That’s fine, we can go now. I don’t have any problem either way—just don’t let any of these locals speak, is all.”

Huang had already seen through the sergeant’s guile. If Huang were going to see the commander, then the problem was the commander’s and the sergeant would go with him. A lane opened up in the crowd as people prepared to let them through. They took the captured couple along as well.

A group of spectators followed behind them as far as the commander’s front door, and there were some who didn’t leave even then. Night fell.

Negotiations at the commander’s office went favorably. Huang’s presence gave the artful sergeant no room to maneuver, and the ropes binding the unhappy pair were loosed in the courtyard. As if to curry favor with Huang, the sergeant reminded the girl, “Now thank the gentleman.”

The girl was in the midst of removing the flowers that had been stuck maliciously in her hair. Hearing the sergeant, she held her hands (and flower) together in front of her and bowed to Huang. Her husband saw her and followed suit. The sergeant took the opportunity to excuse himself, and the event concluded happily.

Huang accompanied the two young country people on their way out of the village, not a word passing between them all the way. Huang’s presence by their side kept the few idiots still loitering about the commander’s house from following them. He sent them as far as the foot of the mountain path, stopping there before asking whether they felt hungry or not. The young man replied that they could get to Huangpo by dinnertime. He said it was only a few miles to Huangpo, not far at all, and even at night they could see enough by starlight to find his in-laws’ house. At the mention of starlight the three of them looked up at the heavens: a few stars were out and there was a purple smear of distant mountains, an astoundingly beautiful evening.

“You two go ahead. They won’t make any more trouble for you,” Huang told them.

The young man replied, “Sir, if you live here, I’ll certainly come back to see you in a few days.”

“God bless a good man like you, sir,” the woman added.

The young husband and wife departed.

Standing on the short bridge at the foot of the mountain, Huang caught the aroma of flowers carried on the breeze and desired suddenly to have a token of the event. He thought of the flowers the young woman still carried in her hand and called out to them: “Hold on a minute, hold on! Leave me those flowers—drop them by the roadside and I’ll come pick them up.”

The young woman smiled and dropped the flower at one edge of the path, then waited for Huang to come retrieve it. Seeing that Huang wasn’t about to move, the young man walked back with it and gave it to him.

Their shadows disappeared behind a stand of bamboo and Huang was left at the bridge with a handful of withering, unnamed flowers. He sat and sniffed at the bouquet which had once left such strange memories on the head of a young wife. The unreasoning half of his soul felt itself gently swayed by the breath of an ambiguous desire.

He recalled the day’s entire course of events and felt that his world really was restricted. Were he to have a wife like that, he too would be beset by a host of dangers lurking invisibly around him. To stay here would only mean more irritation, he decided. While the scenery was beautiful, the people in the countryside were as tiresome as those in the city, and he prepared himself to go back either tomorrow or the day after.

Comments

# 1.   

Such a beautiful story and translation. I like how wistful romanticism is countered by the reality of the cruelty of people left to their own devices - puts me in mind of the film Dogville.

Conor, December 1, 2015, 12:38a.m.

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