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Chen Zhongshi: Father fueled son’s passion for literature

Author  :  Lai Chen     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-06-03

Chen Zhongshi’s literary achievements were strongly connected with his father Chen Guanglu’s influence. Raised in a rural family, Chen Zhongshi inherited his father’s diligence and toughness and his literary creation reflected his deep love for rural regions.

On April 29, famous writer Chen Zhongshi (1942-2016) passed away in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. The nation’s literary community has expressed profound sorrow over his death. Chen, the fourth winner of the Mao Dun Literature Prize, served as vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers Association (CWA) and honorary chairman of the Shaanxi Provincial Writers Association. He was known in particular for his novel White Deer Plain.

He had been a primary and middle school teacher, a party secretary and the director of district cultural center before he joined the CWA. He published more than 40 works and received many national literary awards.

White Deer Plain won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China’s top literature award, in 1997 and is a typical example of reflective literature in China. This novel tells a story of love and hatred between two families among three generations in the Central Shaanxi Plain, from the late Qing Dynasty to the early 1980s. The novel reflects the two families’ struggles in the context of changing times and political movements. It has been adapted into various media, such as a feature film, modern plays and Shaanxi Opera. The popularity of White Deer Plain drew the public’s attention to Chen and his literary talent. Chen’s success was closely related to his father’s selfless love and support.

Chen once said that his father was the person who he knew best. His father, Chen Guanglu, was 36 years older than him. Chen Zhongshi looked like his father.They both had big eyes, a high brow ridge and nose, a deep line on each side of the nose and a strong lower jawbone, which showed some heroic spirit in their melancholy temperament.

On Aug. 2, 1942, Chen was born in Xijiang Village, a small village in the suburb of Xi’an. Chen’s family was typical of a cultured rural household. Chen was the second son in this humble family. His great grandfather Chen Jiamo was a private tutor in an old-style school in the village who enjoyed high prestige among the villagers. Chen’s grandfather Chen Buying was also a private tutor. Although he passed away before his grandson was born, he left his descendants a big box of handwritten manuscripts.

Chen’s father was born on Aug. 11, 1906. Before the age of 20, Chen Guanglu worked as an apprentice in a grocery store and later went back to the village to work on a farm. He even once served as a leader in the production team for a commune. Chen Guanglu was a cultured peasant who could write calligraphy, use an abacus, and read ancient novels and Shaanxi Opera scripts. During rainy days or slack seasons, he liked to lie on the kang, a heatable brick bed commonly found in North China, and read his favorite books. During the Spring Festival, he voluntarily helped villagers write couplets to decorate their home. When villagers praised Chen’s father’s beautiful calligraphy, young Chen always felt very proud.

Although Chen Guanglu was educated, he did not have a considerable income to raise children. As a commune member, he had to engage in tedious and heavy agricultural work throughout the year and worked for the whole family.

But he respected knowledge and focused on his children’s education. He did everything he could to support his two sons’ education. In 1950, when Chen Zhongshi was 8, he went to the village primary school. Because of his good academic record, he skipped a grade and enrolled in the higher primary school in the nearby village in 1953. In 1955, young Chen received an admission letter from a middle school in Xi’an, which was far away from home. Chen Zhongshi lived at the school and went back once a week to get food to last him until his next trip home. But on one snowy day, young Chen was worried about the terrible weather and thought about how he could go home to get food. Chen Guanglu came to the rescue, appearing at the school to give his son a full bag of food. He had walked 25 kilometers to the school, and his overcoat was covered with snow. Chen Zhongshi said would never forget the way his father smiled at him and brought food to him, telling him it was not safe to go back home in such terrible weather.

Because of financial constraints, Chen Zhongshi understood his father’s hardship and suspended his schooling for a year. But with the help of financial aid from others, he went back to school in 1956. In 1959, he was admitted to the No. 34 High School in Xi’an. In 1962, enrollment at many universities sharply declined, and even young Chen, whose grades ranked first in the class, wasn’t admitted to university.

Chen Guanglu was devoured by guilt and thought that it was he who had delayed his son’s future. He encouraged his son to never give up and supported him to become a primary school teacher in the village. The elder Chen’s encouragement fueled his son’s ambitions and enlightened him to pursue his literary dreams. While teaching students at school, the younger Chen insisted on writing novels in his spare time. He inherited his father’s diligence and toughness, and finally received splendid literary acclaim.


Lai Chen is an associate professor at Fuzhou University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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