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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Border Town

Shen Congwen

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To purchase Border Town

Title: Border Town
Author: Shen Congwen
Genre: Novel
Written: 1934 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 169 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Border Town - US
Border Town - UK
Border Town - Canada
Le passeur de Chadong - France
Die Grenzstadt - Deutschland
  • Chinese title: 边城
  • Translated and with a Foreword by Jeffrey C. Kinkley
  • Previously translated by Emily Hahn and Shao Xunmei (1936), Ching Ti and Robert Payne (as The Frontier City, in 1947),and Gladys Yang (1981)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : simple, solid

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 27/7/2009 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "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 -- the pounding of drums during the Dragon Boat Festival, the amorous ballads exchanged between young lovers and the songs the ferryman and Cuicui sing together in this vivid window into China's past." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Border Town is set in "a little mountain town called Chadong", and centers on a "solitary family: an old man, a girl, and a yellow dog" that live on its outskirts. The man is in charge of a small local ferry, and the girl is his orphaned granddaughter, Cuicui.
       Chadong is a placid and rather idyllic place. Conveniently:

They felt grief at such misfortunes as the death of a cow, the capsizing of a boat, or any other fatal catastrophe, but the disasters suffered by other places in China due to the awful struggles going on there seemed never to be felt by these frontier folk.
       The grandfather is dutiful and happy, satisfied with his simple and humble circumstances. He is very reluctant to accept any tips from any passengers for his work, aspiring to nothing other than the life he has.
       When the novel begins Cuicui is a young teenager, and in the years that follow she matures into a young woman, a transition she finds hard to comprehend and that Shen portrays well:
She seemed a little distant sometimes; she liked to sit on the rocky bluffs, fixing her gaze on a patch of clouds or a star in the sky. Grandpa would ask, "Cuicui, what are you thinking about ?" And she would whisper, embarrassed, "Cuicui's not thinking about anything." But at the same time she was asking herself, "Cuicui, what are you thinking about ?" And she'd answer, "I'm thinking about lots of things, things that carry me far away. But I don't know what they are."
       Life is humdrum, their days filled with ferrying people back and forth or simply taking it easy. Occasionally they venture into town, but there's always the issue of who should stay to mind the ferry.
       As Cuicui matures, her grandfather worries both about what she will do when he dies, and about her love-life -- especially given the tragic-romantic end her parents met. Men begin to take interest in her -- especially two brothers.
       There's little tension or anger to be found anywhere in Chadong. Everyone seems to get along, and is generous and kind. Even the brothers who are both interested in Cuicui can't bring themselves to fight over her. Nevertheless, their wooing of the girl does lead to tragedy -- and, eventually, tragedy is compounded. The novel, so pleasant and easy-going for so long, comes to a surprisingly melancholy end (rather than resolution).
       Shen's world includes death and destruction, but the causes are external, due to nature and fate. The human actors are almost all exceptionally kind, and even where they show reluctance or avoidance their reasons are entirely understandable. It's a testament to Shen's writing that such an unbelievable idyll is made almost convincing, and though his characters and plot are simple, it is an affecting and agreeable work.
       The translation seems to get Shen's tone down just about right, yet it often sounds a bit peculiar:
     As another month passed quietly by, the heartaches of all concerned seemed cured by the long summer days. The weather grew so hot that everyone was preoccupied with their sweating and they ate their fermented glutinous rice in cold water. There was no place left in their lives for heartaches and worries.
       A fine but small work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 January 2010

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Border Town: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Leading Chinese author Shen Congwen (沈从文) lived 1902 to 1988.

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