Presentation of Female Characters in Shen Congwen’s Short Stories
It is hard to believe that only half a century ago the lives of women were restricted by patriarchal ideology and shaped by inequality. Even in developed countries of the West, women suffered from lack of education and career opportunities, inequality of payment, domestic violence, absence of rights to do abortion and to get a divorce, or in some countries to even vote. In traditional Eastern societies, the situation was even more difficult due to strong ancestral traditions. However, even in such patriarchal society as Chinese, there were those who actively advocated women’s position in 20th century. One of such figures was a writer of short stories Shen Congwen (1902-1988). In his works, he pays attention to such human traits as dignity, will, and ability of men and women to respond to each other (Kinkley 18). This literary essay will concentrate on the analysis of three short stories by Congwen: The Husband, Staff Adviser, and Sansan. This paper aims at proving that Shen Congwen subtly advocates feminism by using dominating male title characters to paradoxically portray strength in their female counterparts.
One of the most known stories by Congwen is The Husband (1930). The protagonist of the story is a married Chinese peasant who at first seems to be content with life. However, his inferior status in Chinese society is revealed when a reader finds out that he is going to an urban area to see his wife who works in a brothel in order to support her family. Her husband is obliged to make his wife prostituting because of the extreme poverty they face in the rural area. The paradox of the story is that when the husband comes to visit his wife, he also has to wait in order to see her as well as other customers. When he finally does, he sees the changes that happened to her and starts to realize that no money is worth making his wife a prostitute. Thus, the author depicts the effect of poverty on peasants, in particular on their mentality, sense of dignity, and emotional state (Kinkley 220).
Unlike the male protagonist, the image of his wife is idealized. She is able to preserve her virtues, innocence, and freedom of soul even while working in the brothel. She seems to endure and even enjoy her work in a city. While her husband brings her “chestnuts” (a symbol of children they never had), she offers him “cigarettes”. She has accepted her faith and became “urbanized” (Congwen and Kinkley 42). Congwen, however, considers it is a sign of strong will rather than corruption of mind. The fact that she goes back to the country with her husband proves that she is a pure-hearted woman.
Congwen does not give names to his characters which makes the protagonists typical for the time. It is a typical situation for many peasant families rather than a story of one particular married couple. “There are many such husbands in Huang village. It breeds sturdy women and generous, honest men, but the place is just too poor…. It is not easy to get by…. so it is the custom that the women go away to make their living, and every male knows how much is to be gained from such a business” (Congwen and Kinkley 34). Hence, Congwen shows inequality of Chinese society in which women, although commanded by men, are the main force that financially supports a family. Subtly, Congwen also compares arranged marriage, traditional for Chinese society, with prostitution. As women are unable to choose their future husbands and often have to sleep with men they do not know, they are made prostitutes by their own parents influenced by social norms.
Female strength and dignity are the most contrasted with those of men around them in the story titled Staff Adviser (1935). The protagonist is the adviser of an army commander Zhao Songsan who represents moral depravity of a human being. Throughout the story, he is accompanied by themes of money and gambling. The adviser receives an opportunity to become a tax collector. He hopes to fulfill his dream of investing money in a growing mercury business. However, he gambles the money away and loses everything. Hence, Congwen shows not only gambling addiction but also greed that accompanies Zhao. This is the most illustrative in showing Zhao’s eating habits: “Stuffing it into his own mouth, the adviser clinked another glass with Butcher Wang, downed another in honor of the man from the medicine shop, and still another with old man Daring Wang. He drank a half bowl of bull penis and pickled cabbage soup…” (Congwen and Kinkley 179).
Zhao’s pregnant wife and child are absolute opposites of the protagonist: “The baby daughter, suffering from malnutrition, looked jaundiced and skinny as a pile of bones” (Congwen and Kinkley 181). Congwen does not give much description of Zhao’s wife. However, from many details it can be understood that she lives in her own quiet world not known to her husband. She is soft-hearted, caring, and honest as well as smart: “Seeing the rising price of housing in town and how everybody was vying to build new dwellings, his wife persuaded him to buy some land and build thatched-roofed houses on it” (Congwen and Kinkley, 186). The opportunity to become a tax collector also came to Zhao through his wife. Although he loves his spouse and understands that she is wise, he does not tell her about his mercury plan and does what he thinks is best. Congwen, hence, shows that Zhao is a dominating figure in the family; however, it would be better for each member of the family, including Zhao, if his wife was in charge of it (Kinkley 46).
The story titled Sansan (1931) has a clearly feministic theme. Congwen’s protagonist is finally a female. She is a daughter of the rural mill owner. Although Sansan is depicted as somehow naïve, pure, and happy girl, she had to undergone two losses: the work in a mill and an imagined love to a male from the city. She meets the man as he comes to the country to improve his health. Once again, Congwen contrasts people of the city and those living in a country. Urban citizens as well as the man form the city in Sansan are practical and pragmatic even in jokes: “If Young Master becomes a mill owner you’ll have fresh eggs whenever you want them, not to mention the other good things” (Congwen and Kinkley 231).
Another female character in the story is Sansan’s mother. As well as her daughter, she is kind-hearted, caring, and loving. However, she is also mature and wise. She is the image of Sansan when she becomes a woman and a mother: “Sansan could see that something lay behind her mother’s smile, but she could never figure it out….perhaps she was startled to see how Sansan had matured….So many things were hidden away in this old woman’s heart.” (Congwen and Kinkley 247).
In Sansan, Congwen again deals with such issue as arranged marriage. During 20th century many Chinese women did not have a word in deciding who they are to marry. Although Sansan is raised by her mother only, this woman is still a victim of social norms and will have to marry her daughter off without Sansan’s consent for it. Thus, despite the absence of a dominating husband (Sansan’s father), Sansan and her mother still live in patriarchal world that makes them oblige to its rules and limits.
Three stories analyzed in this paper are connected by common themes. In them, Congwen contrasts male and female characters. The more morally deprived is a male character the more morally pure is his female counterpart. However, Congwen’s portrayal of this dichotomy is very sophisticated. His characters are not simply black and white. Male heroes often also have their virtues. However, in difficult situations female characters turn out to show more strength and moral integrity than men.
Kinkley, Jeffrey C. The Odyssey of Shen Congwen. Stanford U Press, 1987.
Shen, Congwen, and Jeffrey C. Kinkley. Imperfect Paradise: Shen Congwen. University of Hawaii Press, 1995.