Exquisitely Divine

Border Town by Shen Congwen.  Harperperennial.  169 pp. $13.99

Border Town is what reviewers call a quiet novel, so quiet it might not be heard at all.  It is the story of a Chinese girl and her grandfather who live near a town named Caodong in the early part of the twentieth century.  The grandfather operates a primitive ferry to cross a river that is the primary source of commerce in Caodong; the ferry is like a barge with a rope above it, and he pulls it across the river hand over hand.  He’s had the job for fifty years.  When someone arrives on the other side and needs to cross, they yell at him, or throw a stone that hits his hut.  He goes out and brings them over.  When he can’t do it his granddaughter does.

One of my friends at the Chapel Hill Zen Center is a Chinese woman named Yashu who just graduated from Middlebury College.  I’ve taught a number of Chinese students through the years; at the Duke University Stanford School of Public Policy, where I was a writing instructor, we had two or three Chinese students just about every year, and I loved talking with them.  They were superb students, but almost none had studied, or even read, what I considered to be the great classics of Chinese spiritual literature, Laozi and Zhuangzi, nor had they read the I Ching or studied Confucius.  They were interested in the 21st century and in getting a job; they had little interest in the classics and hadn’t studied them in school.

Yashu is different.  She studied English and creative writing at Middlebury; she has a major interest in writing, and the Chinese classics, in Taoism, and now in Zen Buddhism.  When I asked her about contemporary Chinese literature, she mentioned a few titles, including Border Town.  These are books, she said, that any educated Chinese person would have read.[1]

Last week I happened across what seemed to be the offhanded words of the Pope when he was visiting Poland.  “To be attracted by power, by grandeur, by appearances, is tragically human. It is a great temptation that tries to insinuate itself everywhere. But to give oneself to others, eliminating distances, dwelling in littleness and living the reality of one’s everyday life: This is exquisitely divine.”  I was stunned by the beauty and wisdom of those words, especially in the midst of the cacophony of political conventions, television coverage, cell phone tweets, everybody on the go, motorcycles roaring up the mountain, tourists flooding Asheville in the hope of finding the best craft beer or the perfect hamburger.  What has happened to that divine life?

I was reading a novel that was a perfect illustration of it.

Cuicui—the girl in question—is thirteen as the novel opens (fourteen in Chinese years).  Her parents both killed themselves before she was born because they believed their love was hopeless, her mother right after she gave birth.  Her grandfather has raised the girl all her life; he is now 70, and worries what will happen to her when he dies.  Thirteen is considered marrying age where they live, and some young men are interested.  If this novel has a plot, that is at the heart of it.  The two sons of the leading citizen of Caodong, whose name is Shunshun, both have eyes for Cuicui.  Their father is hoping for the best result, as is Cuicui’s grandfather.  But whatever happens happens.  “It’s heaven’s will” in this novel does not seem to mean that God is willing it, exactly.  It seems to mean that it’s beyond the will of mortals.

It’s easy to romanticize an earlier time that certainly had its difficulties, just in getting along, leading a daily life.  It’s also easy to think that our lives are better because we “have” so much.  I was especially struck by one paragraph that described Caodong.  It gives a good idea of how the whole novel is written.

“On winter days, clothes and green vegetables could be seen drying in the sun in front of every doorway.  Sweet potatoes hung from the eaves by their vines.  Bags made from palm-bark rain capes, stuffed with chestnuts and hazelnuts, also hung under the eaves.  Chickens big and little disported themselves by every house, cackling.  Here and there would be a man sitting on the high doorsill of his house or splitting logs with an ax, stacking his firewood in the courtyard in neat piles like pagodas.  Middle-aged women wore blue cotton outfits starched stiff, with embroidered white cotton aprons hanging down across their bosoms.  They chatted as they worked, stooping in the sunlight.  It all reflected eternal peace.  Everybody passed each day in a pure quietude that is hard to imagine.  This measure of tranquility allowed everyone to consider their personal affairs and also their dreams.  Each and every denizen of this small town, within the days allotted by nature, nursed his or her own hopes of love and expectations of hate.  But what exactly where they thinking about?  That was unfathomable.”

I’d like to quote more but I just got an important text, and I gotta Tweet an insult at somebody.

Just kidding.

I realize that we can’t live this way anymore, that the world has moved far beyond that time (indeed, Border Town was banned in China from 1949-1979, and in Taiwan until 1986.  I cannot imagine why anyone would want to ban this book).  But I refuse to believe that we can’t live in the spirit of this book, slowing the day down some and appreciating the small things of daily life and seeing the divine everywhere.  Sad things happen in this novel (here come some spoilers, but nothing could possibly spoil this novel, which is all texture and no plot; at the end nothing has been resolved whatsoever): the boys vie for Cuicui and try to settle the matter for themselves, facing their own shortcomings (to court a girl you have to be able to sing, and one of them can’t); one of the boys is killed in a river accident, and the other is so despondent that he disappears; Cuicui’s grandfather grows ill and dies, though she cares for him as best she can; a huge storm comes up on the night of his death and sweeps the ferry away.  Yet people come together in these situations and do the decent thing; nobody’s out for himself and trying to get more than others; the point is to live in harmony, and take care of everyone, and have some good food, and drink wine together at the festivals.  Even the prostitutes in this town take their jobs seriously, and give men what they need, fall in love and have hopes and dreams like everyone else.  No one is left out.

In Buddhism we take vows to live a certain way, not that we succeed, but that we orient our lives in that direction, succeed and fail with those guidelines.  Works of art can illustrate that; they can uplift us as nothing else can.  Maybe Border Town is just a dream, a beautiful dream that Shen Congwen had before the modern world closed in on him.  But the dream continues.

[1] The two other titles she mentioned were Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu, and the work of Lu Xun, whose complete fiction has been collected in a volume entitled The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China.