Prose Study: Border Town by Shen Congwen

FRom the pRL / translated work (chinese) / C20TH / asia / china

“Whatever the future may hold, the sights and sounds, and fears and hopes, of West Hunan’s old society are preserved in literature. Few other Chinese regions are so blessed.”

Jeffrey Kinkley (Shen Congwen biographer) in The Odyssey of Shen Congwen
In this sixth episode of CCTV documentary series Great Masters of the Past you can visit Fenghuang County – the scene of Border Town – and find out about the culture of this West Hunan province as well as learn about Shen Congwen’s life and achievements.


This short novel, written in 1934 by Shen Congwen (in Chinese 沈从文, 1902 – 1988), opens a window onto life in China before the communist revolution of 1945 – 1952. The setting is Fenghuang County, an idyllic rural area in the far west of Hunan Province. Here Cuicui lives with her grandfather, who operates a ferry boat across a river outside the small provincial town of Chadong. The boat connects the two ‘worlds’ of Shen’s story: his idealised countryside scene is tucked away in a forgotten part of the world, seemingly locked outside of time; but the town is a gateway to China’s interior lands and forces of modernity are slowly creeping towards their sleepy rural paradise.

The plot of Border Town develops around Cuicui, who is coming of age and beginning to feel the first tugs of romantic love. Cuicui spends her days helping her grandfather with the ferry and doing simple chores around the house they share. He is a respected figure in the town, performing his duties with pride, and refusing payment from his passengers. While her life is happy and carefree, her new feelings challenge her devotion to her grandfather. She is conscious that life in the town offers something different to all she has known and her curiosity wars with her desire to stay with her grandfather. For his part, he sees the changes in Cuicui who is growing into her beauty as he is passing into the twilight of his life, and he worries about what might happen to her if she is not married before he dies.

From this simple story of love, family duty, and doubts about what the future might bring, Shen Congwen paints a vivid picture of early 20th Century rural life in China. As the grandfather searches for a husband for Cuicui, he tries to balance his genuine concern for her feelings with a growing sense of urgency as he realises his time is short. All this plays out like a Chinese watercolour painting of the townspeople, against a backdrop of customs and traditions, celebrations, private conversations and the thoughts and acts of individual people.

Because of his resistance to the politicization of art and literature following the Chinese Revolution, Shen’s writing was unavailable in China for many decades. But after 1990, his contribution to Chinese Literature was re-assessed and Border Town once again became available and was widely read. It has recently become symbolic to a new generation of Chinese people, providing a fascinating image of life in rural China before the communist revolution overthrew the old social order.

IB Learner Profile: principled

“We act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness and justice, and with respect for the dignity and rights of people everywhere. We take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.”

IB Learner Profile

Shen Congwen was a champion of literary integrity and artistic independence – even when his principled beliefs put him in conflict with the government of an entire country. Although his work has recently been re-adopted by his home country, for decades he was neither published nor read in China and never wrote another novel after 1949. What’s more, he wrote highly principled characters: in this story Cuicui feels a natural desire to leave her elderly grandfather, but is conflicted by her sense of duty. As you read, take a moment or two to reflect on the principles you hold dear, and ask what you would do should these principles be threatened by external forces – or by your own internal thoughts and fears.

Lang and Lit Concept: communication

How do writers ‘speak’ to readers through texts? Shen Congwen passed away in 1988 – and the world he writes about in Border Town has largely vanished from 21st century China. To what extent is his work a vehicle for communicating a picture of the past that could easily be forgotten? By studying literature as an art of communication, we are exploring the relationship between readers and writers from the present and the past; in this case, hearing a voice from the past and a faraway land that few of us will ever get to see.

1. An Idyllic Setting

“Chadong was built between the river and the mountains. On the land side, the city wall crept along the mountain contours like a snake. On the water side, tiny boats with awnings berthed along wharves constructed on the land between the wall and the river.”

The story opens with 13-year-old Cuicui living with her grandfather in a remote cottage with their faithful companion, – an old yellow dog. After her mother’s death, Cuicui’s grandfather brought her up as if she was his own daughter. She becomes dutiful to her old grandfather, helping him in his chores and even with his work: Cuicui’s grandfather is a ferryman, transporting people across the White River to the nearby town of Chadong. As the grandfather becomes aware of his old age, he worries about Cuicui’s future and starts looking for potential husbands for Cuicui.

The opening chapters of the novel describe the lovely rural area of Fenghuang County, a secluded rural paradise, against which the lives of simple country people like Cuicui and her grandfather play out. In this section, you’ll pay particular attention to the rich setting of the novel, and learn about the literary tradition of pastoralism, as well as consider how Shen Congwen brings this part of the world vividly to life.


Learner Portfolio: Pastoral Idyll

“Congwen paints rapturous images of nature; his writing sings with the joyful sounds of peasant life. Readers not only see rural China, they also hear it.”

This statement is from the Publisher’s Weekly review of Border Town, (dated 27th July 2007). Write a one-two page Learner Portfolio entry about the setting and backdrop of the novel. How does Shen Congwen set the scene in a particularly rich and evocative way? What images does he present? What devices does he use to make his setting particularly rich and lush?

2. Cuicui’s coming of age

“Cuicui was growing up, given to blushing now when certain things inadvertently came up in conversation. The passage of time was ripening her, as if urging her forward, making her pay attention to new things… Her girl’s body had now completely filled out, and she had reached the age when she experienced a miracle of nature each month.”

This sketch by Li Chen was inspired by characters in Border Town.

Two years pass and, as Cuicui grows older, she starts to wonder about life in the town. She looks forward more and more to the Dragon Boat races, an annual festival enjoyed by all the people in the town. While remaining devoted and faithful to her grandfather, she nevertheless daydreams and is often occupied with romantic music and imagines nighttime dances.

For his part, her grandfather meets two suitable young men, brothers, of an eligible and well-to-do family in town. Increasingly concerned with the passing of time, Cuicui’s grandfather has to decide which of the two will make the best match for his young charge… and Cuicui, more than ever before, has thoughts and desires of her own. In this section you’ll study Cuicui’s ‘coming-of-age’ and the increasingly tense dynamic between her sense of duty to her grandfather and the unknown – but alluring – feelings developing inside.


Learner Portfolio: Conflict with the Self

Write a one-two page Learner Portfolio entry about Cuicui’s inner conflict as it develops over the course of the novel thus far. Remember to include not only the ways you think she is changing, but also your analysis of how Shen Congwen’s writing is particularly evocative when it comes to suggesting Cuicui’s hidden thoughts and feelings as she grows older.

3. Tianbao and Nuosong

A common saying in the borderlands was: “Fire can burn and water can flow anywhere; sunshine and moonshine also reach everywhere; and so, too, does love.” It was not remarkable that the sons of a rich fleetmaster had fallen in love with the granddaughter of a poor ferryman.

Having secured Shunshun’s approval to arrange an introduction between Cuicui and his sons, Grandfather moves ahead with his plan to have her engaged to be married before he becomes too old. He asks Nuosong (No. 2) to act as intermediary as he tries to arrange a meeting between Cuicui and his preferred choice of husband: Tianbao, No. 1, the elder of the two brothers.

But the course of true love never did run smooth. As fate would have it, Nuosong was the first to have met Cuicui and he had already fallen in love with her. Despite her Grandfather’s preference for Tianbao, Cuicui had also developed feelings for Nuosong. The two brothers confide their feelings in each other; according to local tradition, love rivals should fight for the right to marry the girl – but, unwilling to shed each other’s blood, the brothers come up with a more ingenious solution. They will take turns serenading her by singing across the river. Whoever she responds to first will be the victor and win the right to marry Cuicui.


Learner Portfolio: The Noble Peasant

In Border Town, as well as in many of his other works, Shen Congwen reverses typical prejudices and stereotypes of peasant people. While poor, his country folk do not suffer from poverty. Thanks to their close connection to nature, they are robust and healthy. Life is not easy, and the rural world is not always kind; but those who struggle and work hard are rewarded. In Border Town, even those on the margins (such as bandits and outlaws) are described in warm – and even respectful – tones.

Using Tianbao and/or Nuosong as case studies, create a presentation about rural people in Border Town. You might like to complete this portfolio entry in a different way, by creating a character profile or a visual guide. Share your work with your class before adding it to your Learner Portfolio.

4. Chariots and Horsemen

“And so the days became a time of unhappiness. Cuicui felt that she was missing something. As she saw the days pass before her. she seemed to want to be caught up in a new kind of human relationship. Yet it was beyond her.”

As Tianbao and Nuosong begin their seduction of Cuicui by singing to her across the river, grandfather worries more and more about the passing of time. He can feel his age, and worries that he will have to leave her before Cuicui can be married. For her part, Cuicui is becoming increasingly confused by the events around her and increasingly retreats into a world of dreams and imagination. She too begins to worry about her grandfather’s advancing years, and tries to relieve him of some of the burden of his work. And all the while, fate has a tragedy in store for the participants in this family drama.


Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Border Town; as Border Town is a novel the literary form is ‘prose’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

5. Grandpa’s Story

“There came another roll of thunder, and then, overpowering the sound of the rain, the deadening sound of something giving way… the hanging caves by the stream bank must have caved in! They feared that their boat was crushed under collapsing rocks.”

With Grandfather’s plans in ruins, and time running short, his meddling becomes increasingly poignant as he tries to do what he thinks best to secure Cuicui’s future. Unfortunately, Shunshun blames grandfather for the tragedy that has befallen his family, and misunderstandings flare up between the older and younger generations as well.

Uncaring of human dramas, and swelled by fierce thunderstorms, the river runs high and once again breaks its banks. How will the story of Cuicui and her grandfather end? Will she find the marriage that they have both dreamed of – before it’s too late?


Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Border Town, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 compare and contrast skills).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you may have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. Animals and images drawn from the world of animals are a rich source of inspiration for writers. Discuss how animals are used to develop central ideas in literature you have studied.
  2. ‘Coming of age’ stories are ones which present the psychological, moral and social shaping of a character. Discuss how the protagonist develops in literary works you have studied.
  3. How is ‘home’ depicted in the works you have studied and what is its significance?
  4. Often the appeal for a reader of a literary work is the atmosphere a writer creates. Discuss the ways atmosphere is conveyed, and to what effect, in literary works you have studied.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Throughout this literary study, you’ll learn much about Shen Congwen’s rich and evocative writing style, particularly when describing the rural backdrop of life in Border Town. You can use these lessons as a way into the essay that all Higher Level students must write. Should you choose to write about Border Town, you might be interested in investigating a topic connected to the natural environment or the rural idyll that forms the backdrop to this story. Questions you might ask include, but are not limited to, these examples:

  • Explore the symbolism of the landscape in Shen Congwen’s novel Border Town.
  • In what ways does the natural world figure as more than simple backdrop in Border Town by Shen Congwen?
  • Explore the role and function of animals and/or images of nature in Shen Congwen’s Border Town.
  • How and why does Shen Congwen so closely connect Cuicui with the natural world in Border Town?
  • Explore the relationship between the natural world and human life as depicted in Border Town by Shen Congwen
  • What is the importance of the river that runs through Border Town by Shen Congwen?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course) students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Border Town would be a good choice to discuss in this oral assessment. The novel explores themes of family, coming of age, history, happiness, the roles of men and women in society, nature – even death and dying. Now you have finished reading and studying Border Town, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, come up with ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

In Border Town, Shen Congwen inverts typical prejudices against poor country folk. They may have no money, but their lives are not blighted by poverty, ill-health or vice either. Rather, their close connection with nature has a revitalizing effect on characters, who find happiness in a life without money.

Shen Congwen never wrote another novel after 1948. His writing was censored in China and he was heavily criticised in Beijing for his belief that literature should stand outside of politics. Nevertheless, after his death in 1988, his work was reappraised in his home country, and Border Town has been widely read by a new generation who can rediscover ways of life that have almost completely disappeared into the past.


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