Imperfect Paradise

Shen Congwen

translated from the Chinese by Jeffrey Kinkley
University of Hawaii Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Imperfect Paradise is a collection of short stories by Chinese writer Shen Congwen (1902-1988). Shen Congwen's career effectively ended in 1949, with his works banned in both China and Taiwan due to his failure to follow either party line during the civil war. The twenty four stories included in Imperfect Paradise span the three decades before the revolution and showcase the extraordinary range of his work. A native of West Hunan, he drew on Miao folk tales as well as classical Chinese texts; he was also influenced by Western writers such as Joyce and Shakespeare and thinkers such as Freud. He writes about rough country justice, military barbarity and the uncertainties of the warlord period, intellectual malaise, family life, change, childhood and adolescence, and the contrast between city and country; he is as much at home in the countryside of West Hunan as in the metropolis of Peking, with a poor farmer, an itinerant puppeteer, or an avant-garde intellectual. His stories are in turns lyrical, earthy, allegorical, sociological, psychological, and erotic.

Kinkley and his collaborators have produced accessible translations which preserve much of the variety of the originals. Each story has a brief introduction which sets it in the context of Shen Congwen's life and Chinese history; occasional footnotes are used where necessary to explain the meaning of names or necessary cultural background. Also included are two "non-fiction" works, a collection of bawdy love songs from Zhen'gan and a short play based on a folk prototype. Imperfect Paradise is a potent collection: you could read it for a richly textured portrait of China in the first half of the twentieth century or you could read it for some of the finest short stories you will find anywhere.

May 1996

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%T Imperfect Paradise
%A Shen Congwen
%M Chinese
%F Kinkley, Jeffrey
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 1995
%O paperback
%G ISBN 082481715X
%P 537pp