Q&A with Shen Fuyu - Author of "The Artisans: A Vanishing Chinese Village"

December 28th, 2021

Born in Shen Village in Southeast China in 1970, Shen Fuyu grew up in a family of farmers. Years later, Shen, now a writer, returned to his hometown to capture the village’s rich history in the face of industrialization. The Artisans, his first book published in English (translated by Jeremy Tiang) is out today from Astra House. Below, he answers some questions about his process and inspirations in bringing his hometown to life.

You mention in the introduction of the book that once you left Shen Village at age 18, every time you returned it had changed for the worse—declining population, crumbling houses, and the encroachment of industrialization. Can you talk about this realization and how the idea for the book came to be?

In Shen Village, more and more elderly people are passing away, and more and more young people are leaving. Abandoned houses are being bulldozed, one by one. The village is emptying out, becoming rather desolate, and I realized my hometown was disappearing. As I grow older, stories of my hometown are not growing at the same pace. My hometown of today is not at all like the one I remember. I can't return to that lively place filled with laughter anymore. My heart was growing empty, like an uprooted tree. I was saddened by this loss, and I decided to make a record of the beauty of country life and how it is disappearing. If I didn't write it all down, there would always be a painful hole in my heart. I could only hold on to it by writing about it.

How did the people from your village, especially your family, react to the idea of the book?

A good number of people in Shen Village have read the book. They all like it very much. The people in it are familiar to them, but not that many are familiar with all these stories. Through my book, they rediscovered and understand their history. Many felt they were coming alive again. My father read this book several times. Among all of my books, this is his favorite. Thanks to this book, he felt that although I had left home, I had never really left.

Who were some of the key people who helped you put these stories together?

The person who helped me the most was my father. He didn't merely accompany me to interview people or record the events. But also told me details about the past that I could not have otherwise known about. My father went around the whole village, mobilized every single family. He also edited the genealogy of Shen Village. This genealogy played a decisive role in the writing of the book. I am grateful for all the artisans in it. They are the ones who brought their art to life in front of me. Their families have been really enthusiastic in telling me their stories. They trusted me and helped me in every way possible

The book goes into details of traditions, politics, religion, myths, and rituals. How did you approach writing about these significant topics?

During the interviews, and also in my earlier life and work, I learned a great deal about mythology, religion, politics and history. In a way, I broke it all down, and then tried to fit elements into each person’s story -- without leaving any traces. I didn't write about theories or abstract ideas, but rather turned them into details of their daily lives. Let people read about their destiny and accept it naturally. In fact, the vividness and multiplicity of Chinese culture shows up in their lives at all times.

Do you think that in preserving the memory of your village, you might help others who have lost their home village to modernization?

Books like mine can create a record of the people and events in villages that have disappeared or are disappearing. They can also let people who don’t have direct experience or memory of these villages, understand this history and culture. There is nothing we can do about changes in our reality. Only the written word can make time stop.

What was it like to grow up in such a close-knit society where the affections and feuds between families and neighbors can span several generations?

Living in a close-knit society feels very solid, safe and warm. China has always been a close-knit society. People are friendly and caring to their acquaintances, and will help each other. They are very wary of strangers. Now the countryside is slowly disappearing and survival requires atomisation. We will be more lonely, even helpless at times. Of course, in the tight-knit society of a small village, there was a kind of transparency towards each other -- no one had any secrets. There was also a sense of oppression. It was a completely different kind of life from city life.

You were able to capture a bygone era on the cusp of disappearing completely. How do you think the loss of that way of life and the elders who carry that knowledge effects Chinese culture moving forward?

The disappearance of China's agrarian civilization was totally sudden. The agrarian era was replaced by the era of industrialization and information technology in a very short period of time. People's ways of living have changed, but culturally they are in a state of anxiety and even confusion. The purpose of combing through traditional culture is to build a new culture that can keep up with its time.

Were there artisans you wanted to write about but didn’t make it into the book?

When the draft was already written I felt it was a little too thin and wanted to include several more artisans, but because their work was similar to others, I ended up leaving them out. On the other hand, there were also some other people in the village who were very fleshed out characters, but as they were not artisans but farmers, I did not include them in the book either. Some other material that I thought was good I included in another book, Half Summer River. Every time a book is published, there are always regrets of one kind or another. If I aspired to being completely satisfied, I would never be able to finish a book. After a book is published, I rarely read it again. Because I would always want to revise it and add more.

Could you give us an idea of what your research process was? Was it mostly interviews or were there some written accounts of the history of the village?

The book was written mostly using oral interviews. I have been a journalist for twenty years. Interviews are the most convenient way for me to gather information. And since Shen Village is my hometown, my interviews went very smoothly. While I was writing, I also consulted some historical sources, such as the genealogy and the county history. But I mainly used those materials as references.

What it was like to leave the village for more than a decade and come back? How did your perspective change?

When I returned to the village, it was no longer the home I knew. The closeness was still there, but there was no way I could live there anymore. For one thing, the relationships between people have changed. They are not as close as they used to be. All my former friends have left to work in the city and rarely come back. The old people in the village are mostly passing time, feeling lonely. The village has become neater, cleaner and more modern, but it has lost its vitality. There are very few people. There are also very few children. I don't know where to look for my hometown anymore. The vibrant, warm and feisty village has disappeared. Maybe anything that beautiful can only continue to exist in memory.

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