Re-Casting the Human Character: The Significance of the Forge in Shén Cóngwén’s “My Education”

Chinese author Shén Cóngwén沈从文(1902-1988)  wrote a great number of essays that dealt with many of the complex metaphysical problems he grappled with over the course of his lifetime. Of the many ideas he explored, faith was one that he returned to on several occasions. He was a pantheist, taking elements he liked from various religions in order to create a comprehensive religious philosophy of how best to live one’s life (Kinkley 222). He disliked the reality he saw around him, replete as it was with rampant and seemingly senseless violence and disregard for the humanity of others. Ultimately, he believed that faith, more specifically faith in the idea of “universal love” and compassion, had to occur among mankind before the world could develop and grow into a better state than the one in which it found itself (81).

Faith alone is not the extent of Shén Cóngwén’s formula for world improvement, however. From further examination of his writings, as well as observation of his practices as a literary craftsman, it is clear that the creative process also played a large role in his conception of how best to go about bettering society. In many cases, he mentions them together, often as forces that complement and even intersect with one another. On other occasions, he contemplates relics of different traditional faiths not as religious objects, but rather as elements of creative, literary production. For Shén Cóngwén, it is not the case that faith and creativity are separate elements that are both necessary tools for man to be able to improve his surroundings. Rather, they are part and parcel of the same process, each necessary for the other to occur, two intertwined springs issuing forth from the same source.

I further argue that his unique conception of the integral way in which faith and creative production together elevate mankind to a divine-like state lies at the heart of his short story “My Education” [Wǒ de Jiàoyù 我的教育] (1929). The dangerous boredom of the narrator’s days is punctuated by nothing but gruesome beheadings until he ventures into the forge at his camp. It is only once he begins to actively engage in the production of ironware that he finally sees a way to end the mind-numbing boredom of his reality. His work in the forge gives him purpose and rescues him from the the cold disengagement from life that fills the existence of those who have not, through faith and creativity, discovered a higher mode of being that enables them to grow in love. With his growing interest in the forge, the narrator has started down the long path toward the elevation of his mind and with it, compassion that will drive him toward helping others and trying to make his world a better one in which to live.

As mentioned before, Shén Cóngwén was a pantheist. He was never a devoted believer of any one faith, but the idea permeates his works that some kind of spiritual or vital force existed beyond the reality of the everyday that would elevate the state of mankind. In his essays, he divides the experience of mankind into two separate categories, which he calls “living [shēnghuó 生活]” and “Life [shēngmìng 生命].” The first consists of the necessary but mundane and animalistic aspects of existence that include activities such as eating and fornicating. The second category refers to a higher, transcendent mode of reality that man could obtain through the search for what Shén Cóngwén terms abstraction. This abstracted form of Life, he insists, is the only way that man could “partake of divinity” (222-223).  The definition of “divinity” is simple for Shén Cóngwén. Love, for him, is a force that causes people to develop perspectives that transcend the banality of everyday affairs and that recognize the value of higher ideals (99). Love is thus the primary emotion that overtakes people who transcend the “living” aspect of their existence and enter the realm of true “Life.” He borrows from the Christian faith to describe the importance and value of “universal love” as a prerequisite for the world’s condition to improve (81).

The seed of the relationship between Shén Cóngwén’s conception of faith and that of creativity lies in his discourse on “Life” and Beauty. For him, they are one and the same—the “abstract” that he talks about as the key to “Life” is Beauty (223). Indeed, in his essay “Qián Yuān [潜渊],” Shén Cóngwén writes that mankind is very far from Beauty in its everyday state, close to the ground. God, however, is very close (150).  He is in essence claiming that Beauty, the aesthetic idea that most creative works try to achieve, is equivalent to God, to divinity.  He thus draws a direct link between the highest ideal of creative production and the highest aim of religious devotion.

Kinkley points out that the significance of this connection is that “Shén provided a rationale for craft and imagination in literature, without making them ends in themselves…” (223). While it is true that Shén’s connection of these two concepts provides justification for him to write exceptionally imaginative works, sometimes to the point of being surreal, there is a more important repurcussion of this linkage. It indicates that it is through creative production that the individual gains faith, becomes religiously devoted in Shén Cóngwén’s sense of the term, and eventually obtains “life.”  To be sure, Shén Cóngwén believed that “Creativity is…a divine expression of the life force” and that “One creates to overcome death, to achieve immortality through works” (223).  Shén Cóngwén thus draws an explicit connection between the divinity of creative expression as well as the possibility, through the creative process, of achieving “immortality.” By immortality, he means the sensation of faith in the power of creative production that eventually leads one to share in the divinity of “Life” and the sanctitude of brotherly compassion.

Shén Cóngwén’s practices and beliefs as an author in his own life demonstrate his idea that faith and the creative process enact each other. For instance, much of his early prose and poetry was inspired by the Bible, which he considered an ideal prose model for its lyricism (Kinkley 81).[1] As mentioned above, a major part of his own faith consisted in the model of brotherly love that he took from his scriptural readings. The source of one of the major tenets of his faith thus becomes the inspiration for much of his literary work. His faith enacts his creative process, just as the creative process he engages in enacts his faith by employing structures and motifs that connote much of the sacred imagery of the Bible. For instance, much of his early prose and poetry contains patterns that can be clearly, and sometimes are explicitly, linked to the style of various scripture verses (99; 119-121).

In this relationship, the Bible is not viewed as a religious artifact but rather as a creative inspiration, remarkable not necessarily for its content, but for its literary style. In Shén Cóngwén’s conception, then, the Bible itself represents the the creative writing process giving way to faith. It is the form and style of the work that continually inspires him to take its messages seriously. Indeed, Shén Cóngwén read the Bible every day into the 1980s, though he always said that he was not Christian (81). It is thus clear that he was inspired by its aesthetic value, which consequently enacted the faith that then urged him on to creative production of his own.

Indeed, at many points in his writing, Shén Cóngwén emphasizes the spritual, transcendent power of artists and their craftsmanship. Generally, he focuses on literary production, perhaps because of his familiarity with it. He concludes his essay “Qián Yuān” with the sober proclamation that writers must carry more faith within them than either artists or revolutionaries (150). The mention of artists and revolutionaries should not be ignored. He refers to each of them as having a different kind of faith, and thus as contributors to the propagation of the desire to obtain “Life.” It is not hard to think of artists as creators—their very job is to produce art. Regarding revolutionaries, faith in the ability for the world to be more loving and compassionate is both produced by and helps to create, in their imaginations, a vision of possible worlds other than the one in which they live. Thus, Shén Cóngwén’s assertion that both of these figures possess faith reinforces the notion that faith and creativity work together and enact one another.

However, his concluding remark positions writing as the most powerful craft of the three in its ability to propogate the faith that will inspire others to change the world. He argued that the barriers between one’s own Life and that of others were literally broken down by transcendent literature (Kinkley 223). The breaking down of barriers that keep mankind from being compassionate to its breathren is a key component of Shén Cóngwén’s ideas of faith and divinity—faith in higher ideals and abstractions leads to divinity, or the recognition of the necessity for brotherly love. Thus, in this assertion, he explicitly positions transcendent literature as the key to achieving this state of mind. Creative effort leads to not only artistic products, but also to faith and divinity. Conversely, faith leads to creative effort, as is clear from Shén Cóngwén’s specification that literature successful in this endeavor be “transcendent.” In other words, literature that will successfully enact faith in others already contains faith and the trappings of “Life” as one of its central components.

He also advised other authors to “put ‘religious emotion’ into their works—to create literary ‘amulets’ for ‘mesmerizing’ Chinese readers, imbuing them with the faith to go forth and change their world” (209). He thus explicitly urges authors to imbue the products of their creation with the fervor of true religious faith. He clearly envisions that the faith-filled emotion of authors will be strong enough to be absorbed by readers, who will then in turn be driven to go out and take steps to elevate the world around them to a higher state of existence. Faith is thus an inherent component of true creative production. At the same time, though, creative production is a necessary prerequisite of faith—it is the creative production of the authors that enacts faith in the readers to begin with. Thus, both processes enact each other.

Lest Shén Cóngwén be critiqued as a classist or snob, it is important to remember that, though he focused on the merits of the literary creative process, he by no means thought this was the only worthwhile creative pursuit. It has already been mentioned that he even conceived of revolutionaries as engaging in the creative process. Furthermore, his writings concerning his time in the army hint that the possible origins of his belief in the intertwined nature of faith and creativity might lie in folk art, rather than in highbrow literature.

Observing local people as he travels, he notes, “I got an elementary knowledge of how this people, over a vast stretch of time, created all kinds of art, through an individual life, using a patch of color, a bundle of threads, a piece of bronze, a heap of clay—or a group of words” (qtd. on 224). In the last item on his list, Shén Cóngwén references the artistic medium about which he generally writes, literary production. However, he is also fascinated with other modes of artistic production as well. He emphasizes the process of material creation through his listing of the various media with which the people he observed worked—“a patch of color, a bundle of threads, a piece of bronze, a heap of clay…”  To name the unfinished materials in this way highlights the nearly unfathomable quality of the realization that all of these ordinary objects can be fashioned into beautiful works of art. In this way, Shén Cóngwén hints at the life of the narrator in “My Education,” who is also a young soldier. Literary production belongs to a totally separate realm from the world of this uneducated boy, but he encounters the artistry of material craftsmen every day at the forge.

In contrast to the huge role that creativity plays in achieving and maintaining faith and, eventually, “Life,” one of the defining aspects of mundane, everyday existence is the utter absence from it of creativity. The narrator intones, “Soldiers have to follow orders. If you don’t, you’re beaten. That’s what our lives are all about” (2). As with most of his journal entries, he does not seem particularly perturbed by the fact that his life revolves around following orders. His characteristically detached and nearly-apathetic attitude is demonstrated by the absence of any kind emotionally-revealing language. This is a striking feature to be found in what is supposedly a private journal, and reflects the fact that the narrator’s existence is still immersed in the lower level of “living.” He has not discovered that life can be lived on a more abstracted plane, and thus has never thought deeply about the nature of his existence and the implications of such statements as that which he makes above. He goes through life listlessly, emotionally detached from his surroundings. Furthermore, the statement above highlights the utter absence of creative power and originality from this mode of existence. The narrator’s life is all about obeying orders, always staying within the lines of what is expected of him.

The negative consequences on the human spirit of these restrictions are evidenced when the soldier finds a man fishing and asks him why he is doing that. The man responds that he’s doing it to pass the time. The narrator reflects, “I had no idea there were still such free spirits in the countryside. Made me want to fish, too” (124). The soldier seems pleasantly surprised to find that a “free spirit” still exists in his environment, a person who does what he wants to. Fishing cannot exactly be called a creative effort, which is why it does not invoke any real emotional response from the narrator. Nevertheless, he realizes wistfully that he would love to once more have the freedom to fish if he felt like fishing. It is the withdrawal of small freedoms like this that ultimately wear away at mankind and suffocate any creative impulse people might have.

In his essay “Zhú Xū [烛虚],” Shén Cóngwén laments the fact that the constraints of societal dictums like law, while necessary to maintain order, cage the natural creativity of human beings by restricting them in every which way (124). The many limitations imposed onto mankind by social structures, such as the relationship of the soldiers to their commander, force them into leading conventional and unoriginal lives, thwarted from creative endeavors at every turn by the social ties that bind them.

Not only are the soldiers not free, but they also feel that their presence in the town is pointless. The narrator observes, “Not a one of us knows what we came here to do…I went with some others to see the Provost Marshal…and he didn’t know. He said, ‘Do I know what they mean by pacifying the countryside? All I know is how to judge cases and use the bamboo rods to get confessions out of people’” (127). The Provost Marshal’s reply highlights the sense of purposelessness that those near the bottom of bureaucracies often feel. He has no idea why he and the soldiers are doing what they are doing, and thus cannot reassure them of their purpose. He proclaims himself that all he knows how to do is to punish—to condemn people and force them to fit into arbitrary molds. People are forced by law and social constructs into particular roles of which they do not even know the meaning. Both this sense of purposelessness and this discouragement from breaking conventional boundaries invokes a suffocating sense of boredom in the soldiers.

Boredom permeates their lives. For instance, the narrator mentions repeatedly that he and his fellow soldiers occupied their time by once again cleaning out their guns. They are not even using their guns, one of the consequences of their perpetual condition of having nothing to do. As a consequence, the guns almost certainly are not in especial need of cleaning. This repeated, mundane activity thus indicates that the soldier are bored out of their minds, desperate for anything to occupy themselves from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep. The narrator even admits that, “With nothing…to do, we’re having a tough time getting through the days” (137). It is thus clear that the soldiers feel acutely the oppressive weight of their purposelessness. Their boredom is a result of their not being encouraged in any creative pursuit, so that their lives appear to them to be dull and meaningless. Without creativity, they have no ability to reach, or even to be aware of, a higher realm of existence that would give their lives purpose.

Bored with everything, starved for something to occupy their time, the soldiers develop a bloody, violent taste in entertainment. This reflects the animalistic aspect of “living” to which Shén Cóngwén refers in his writing. The soldiers eagerly look forward to court trials and beheadings because it gives them something to do. They seem totally unaffected by the suffering of the victims of these procedures. In one example, the narrator is watching a supposed “trial” in progress, though the trial does not seem to be conducted very fairly. “When they called the court into session, a soldier dropped a bunch of these giant bamboo rods on the ground with a clatter…it only took another three hundred blows for the criminal to confess” (130). To a more compassionate person, the “clatter” of the bamboo rods falling to the ground would be a cringeworthy reminder of the pain and suffering those rods are about to cause. The narrator writes his observation without so much as a single comment, however.

He proceeds to cold-bloodedly note down that it “only” took three hundred blows for the criminal to confess. Three hundred blows from a bamboo rod is not insignificant in terms of the pain it causes—for that matter, not even one is. Therefore, the placement of the word “only” reveals the stark absence of any compassion on the narrator’s part for the suffering of the person on trial. If anything, he sounds almost bloodthirsty, as though he is disappointed that the trial was over that “quickly,” and wishes the beating had gone on longer.

The detached manner in which the narrator watches beheadings is even more striking.  He details nonchalently, “…they dragged the “bandit” out of jail over to the big bridge at the head of the street and killed him. Chopped his head off, leaving blood all over the ground. We…saw the headsman bring the sword down on the guy’s neck with a whack.” (133). The matter-of-fact description of the decapitation, devoid of any compassion or other emotional feeling for the victim, conveys the narrator’s total disattachment from his surroundings. The choppy and blunt language of the passage suggests that he might even feel some kind of thrill at the violence of the spectacle. This makes sense, since it represents a distraction from the monotony of his life. The failure of even the beheading to move him to brotherly love indicates the extent to which his boredom has caused him to lose total interest in his surroundings. He is at this moment the emblem of “living,” as Shén Cóngwén conceives it. He feels trapped at the bottom of a senseless bureaucracy that forces him to stay within certain rigid boundaries without evidently having a purpose for doing so. This consequently instills in him a sense of purposelessness, which combined with the lack of creativity in his life leads to boredom.

This is not just any boredom,  but boredom in the sense of the French term ennui. These soldiers, including the narrator, feel a total sense of ennui and disengagement with their surroundings. Nothing interests them as more than a mere curiosity, even a spectacle as gruesome as a beheading. Their interest is briefly sustained by such events, but their souls, so to speak, are left untouched. Never satisfied and never dwelling on the deeper implications of anything, they are in constant search of new events to amuse them—perhaps more trials, more decapitations. However, they do not understand that they will never truly be captivated because they are missing those essential elements to leading a meaningful “Life”—that is, faith and creativity.

The narrator of the short story differs from the other soldiers, however, in that an interest in creativity is not entirely absent from his life. At one point, he reveals that he is interested in drawing. He writes, “Then I borrowed a pen…to draw a picture…I hung it on the wall…When the others saw it, they all asked me to draw one for them. Naturally I couldn’t refuse. I could paint a portrait…on a crummy candy wrapper if I had to” (127).  Here, for the first time, the narrator reveals that he passionate about something, and it is a creative process, to boot. He loves to draw. Of course, the narrator is by nature reticent, so he does not devote pages of his journal to espousing the pleasures of drawing. Nevertheless, his passion for the skill is clear. First, he cares enough about wanting to draw something that he goes through the effort of borrowing a pen, instead of just forgetting about it and doing something else This alone indicates that his urge to draw is strong. Secondly, he is evidently very good , judging by the fact that his skills are in high demand from the soldiers. This indicates that he has drawn before, perhaps many times.

He writes “naturally I couldn’t refuse,” as though he had no choice but to draw for all of them, but of course he could have refused. Nobody was forcing him to do all of that extra work. He thus attempts to disguise the enjoyment he gets from drawing with the same disengaged language he uses throughout his entire journal, but fails in this instance. His failure is mostly indicated by the last line, “I could paint a portrait…on a crummy candy wrapper if I had to.” This is first of all an admission of his skill, and also proof that he is aware of his talent in this domain. Secondly, it is doubtful that any external force would ever have a need to make him paint a portrait on a candy wrapper. Therefore, when he says “…if I had to,” it almost certainly implies that his need would be for his own sake, because of his thirst to draw. In other words, he is essentially expressing that he loves drawing so much, he could do it under any circumstance. He couches this talk in neutral-sounding language, though, because he is unaccustomed to vocalizing his private desires and dreams, even in an object as private as his personal journal. His interest in art is thus the first clue that he may possess the resources available to transcend the rut of the life he is in to enjoy existence at a higher level of experience.

The same kernel of interest in creativity that urges him to draw must be at work in causing him to be intrigued by the forge. In spite of the fact that the children who work in the bellows are very young and filthy from their work, he thinks of that space as more appealing than his own lot. There are pragmatic reasons for this—for example, he comments that the soldiers envy the blacksmith apprentices because their boss gives them lots of meat to eat (131-132). However, although he does not explicitly admit it and may not even consciously be aware of it, he also admires the attitude of the workers in the forge. He admires their skill, and observes that they are happy with their work (131).

He is glimpsing evidence of the faith that develops when one is engaged in creative pursuit. The blacksmiths in general are happier than the soldiers because their creative endeavors give their lives purpose and meaning. It is thus through their creative production that they seek abstraction, or “Life,” that higher mode of living which Shén Cóngwén describes. At one point, the soldier imagines himself in the shoes of one of the forge workers. He brags that he would have no trouble using the tools, and would in fact develop into a great worker within no time (143-144).

Once more, the narrator is couching his desires in disattached, neutral language, but what he means is clear. He is engrossed by not only the attitudes of the workers but of their creative production itself. Finally, he begins to work at the forge, and becomes captivated by his endeavors. He even admits, “I love this roomful of people covered with soot and rust, and I particularly like those things we make: wedges, bars, rods, and so forth” (154-155). It is hard to recall that this is the same narrator who reacted with such disinterest to the beatings and beheadings described in earlier entries. Gradually, his disattached language is fading, and he is allowing himself to become more in tune with his emotional life. Furthermore, the fact that he highlights how much he likes the actual products of his work suggests that what draws him in is the purposeful nature of the forge—the product of his labors is clearly reflected in the material goods he lists such as “wedges, bars,” and “rods.”

The story thus reflects the two planes of existence Shén Cóngwén describes in his writings. The life of the soldiers reflects the dangerous effects of the plane Shén Cóngwén calls “living,” such as the crushing sense of ennui bred from the lack of creative outlets for one’s energy and the sense of purposelessness that permeates many aspects of everyday experience. The forge clearly stands out in “My Education” as a prime alternative to the mundane and purposeless life of the soldiers. Figuratively, it is a space in which not only metal, but also the human spirit, is gradually transformed into a transcendent state. It is, in every sense of the word, a creative and faith-filled space.

It is important to remember, however, that according to Shén Cóngwén’s definitions, the narrator has not self-actualized by the end of the short story. That is to say, he has not yet achieved the ultimate effect of “Life,” which is the cultivation of a feeling of brotherly love and compassion for his fellow man. Nevertheless, it seems fairly likely that he is on his way to eventually reaching this goal. He is engaging in a creative process that lends meaning to his life and initiates his mental journey. If he continues his work in the forge, his faith in the meaning this production creates for him will ultimately lead him to transcend the existence he knew beforehand, with the soldiers.

In one sense, the narrator’s education hinted at in the title of the short story refers to his literal learning of blacksmithing techniques in the forge. In another sense, though, it reflects the seedling of faith that has been planted within him by his brief exposure to creative production, evidenced by his renewed engagement in the world around him. Although he has not fully realized this emotion yet, his behavior in the forge represents a first step toward the path to faith, enlightenment, and divinity that will endow him with a sense of love and compassion for his fellows. Although the short story is bleak, it contains a note of hope—if people like this young narrator could just be freed from the captivity of selfish “living” to see the reward that comes from “Life,” they would develop care and concern for the world around them and strive to improve it. Shén Cóngwén’s work is a call for people to become engaged in some kind of creative production. It is only through this that they can escape the dangerous, selfish monotony of everyday “Life” and transcend to a higher state of being. More importantly, it is only once all people reach this state that brotherly love and compassion can be enacted throughout the world.





Works Cited

Kinkley, Jeffrey. The Odyssey of Shen Congwen. Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1987. Print.

Shén Cóngwén. “Qián Yuān [潜渊].” Shén Cóngwén Biéjí: Qīsè Yǎn [沈从文别急:七色
]. ed. Zhāng Zhàohé [张兆和]. v. 16. Húnán [湖南]: Yuèlù Shūshè [岳麓书社],
1995. Print.

–.“My Education.” Imperfect Paradise. Trans. Jeffrey Kinkley. Honolulu, HI: University
of Hawaii Press, 1995. Print.

–. “Zhúxū [烛虚].” Shén Cóngwén Biéjí: Qīsè Yǎn. [沈从文别急:七色魇]. ed. Zhāng
Zhàohé [张兆和]. v. 16.  Húnán [湖南]: Yuèlù Shūshè [岳麓书社],1995. Print.

Zetzsche, Jost. The Bible in China:The History of the Union Version or the Culmination
of Missionary Bible Translation in China.
Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta
Sinica, 1999. Print.






[1] Jeffrey Kinkley does not specify which exact Bible Shén Cóngwén read, but only that it was a vernacular Chinese translation of a Protestant Bible (81). My guess is that it was most likely the Union Edition, which has been the most popular Protestant Bible in China since its publication in 1919 (Zetzsche 360-361)