I got to know Mr. Tian Guangfu from a chance encounter 20 years ago.
At that time, I was still teaching at Tuojiang Middle School in Fenghuang County. One day, I was going to interview sister Fan Jinbi, winner of the “Five-Virtue Families”, but I didn't expect that her husband was Mr. Tian Guangfu, the grandson of Tian Mingyu, Shen Congwen’s teacher. It was unbelievable that the person who had compiled and published many works on Shen was actually such a short and old man in poor health with rather common features!
Tian Mingyu, Mr. Tian Guangfu’s grandfather, who styled himself as “Geshi” and “Banchi”, once studied under his own uncle, Tian Xingliu, a famous poet, with whom he later joined the Nanshe Society together. He had close contacts with notables such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Liu Yazi. In 1916, he returned to his hometown and taught at Wenchangge Primary School in Fenghuang County, where he taught Shen Chinese and exerted a tremendous impact on Shen. Later on, he entered the political arena and held many important positions. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he was engaged as one of the first researchers of the China Central Institute for Culture and History (CCICH). Mr. Tian Guangfu’s father, Tian Chengshang, was the first principal of Fenghuang No. 1 Middle School in the PRC. It can be said that Tian Guangfu is from a famous and scholarly family.
When talking about the teacher-student bond between Shen and his grandfather, Mr. Tian said proudly: “There were two famous teachers in western Hunan, one being Mr. Yuan Jiliu from Baojing as he taught a great man, Mao Zedong, while the other being Shen Congwen’s mentor, Tian Mingyu.” He went on to tell me, “When my grandfather was young, he was a well-known naughty boy. Having a foot-long piece of bamboo girded upon his waist and an eel-shaped knife girded upon a leg, he would wander around the market and temple fairs all day long, provoking trouble and fighting with others. At the age of 16 or 17, forsaking evil ways and returning to the right path, he studied diligently and made a great career for himself. Shen was also very playful when he was little, playing truants and making troubles. He was punished several times to kneel under a tree. Teaching Shen with his own legendary story of ‘the return of a prodigal son’, my grandfather changed Shen’s playfulness and turned him to concentrate on learning and make great progress. Later on, my grandfather praised Shen for being ‘talented yet upright, modest yet ambitious’. And Shen inscribed a poem on my grandfather’s Beihai Learning Atlas, which went as ‘Though staying in Peking for a long time, you are still honest and simple like an old farmer. Your writing is simple but elegant. It is refined though you started late. You write about the happiness of fish when you are by water and swan goose when you are on the height. Your mind and eyes are clear and healthy, close to the Moon Palace.’ to express his admiration and praise for his teacher.
Mr. Tian said with emotion that Shen had respected his grandfather very much and found opportunity to visit him every other month. The teacher-student bond between the two had lasted for more than 70 years. Although the two old people had passed away, every time Shen’s family returned to Fenghuang, they always came to his house to have a chat. Honoring such a family tradition of respecting teachers and valuing education was really commendable! Having said that, he slowly erected his thin and hunched body, and moved towards the inner room while leaning against the wall, mumbling about looking for something.
His house, which consisted of one bedroom and one living room, was simply furnished but crowded, with an old sofa, an old TV and a set of old-fashioned furniture. However, from the paintings and calligraphy hanging on the walls and the bookshelves occupying most of the space, the uniqueness, nobleness and wealth of the owner could be discerned. In the middle of the living room was the posthumous photo of his grandfather, Tian Mingyu. And next to it was a framed handwritten letter from Shen to his grandfather and Huang Yongyu’s calligraphy and painting. On the bookshelf were various collections of Shen’s works given as gifts and research monographs on Shen. Just as I was concentrated on browsing the bookshelves, Mr. Tian staggered out with a few books and periodicals in his arms. One was a collection of Tian Mingyu’s diaries, Diaries Written in Kuxuezhai. One was Selected Poems of Tian Mingyu compiled and annotated by his father, Tian Chengshang. The other two were publications, which included articles such as “Shen Congwen and His Teacher Tian Mingyu”, “Shen Congwen as Recorded in Diaries Written in Kuxuezhai” and “Shen Congwen’s Three Teachers”.
As he handed me the books and publications, he talked enthusiastically about the bond between his grandfather and Shen: “My grandfather liked to keep a diary every day before going to bed, for many years without interruption. Though unable to write during illnesses, he would immediately catch up on diary keeping after recoveries. From January 1951 to the day before his death on March 17, 1981, the time span was a total of 30 years. In 15 diaries, his interactions with Shen were recorded.” His words aroused my deep interest. Opening Diaries Written in Kuxuezhai, as expected, I saw the diaries mentioning Mr. Shen——
November 28, 1952 Sunny
Shen Congwen visited and we are appointed to have dinner together on the 30th. His attitude to work was good and his language and carriage were more comfortable than before.
May 24, 1953 Sunny and windy
Shen Congwen, Huang Yongyu and their families came to see me. Yongyu came to Beijing from Hong Kong to work. The efforts of young people are very gratifying.
May 2, 1956 Cloudy and rainy
Shen Congwen visited me today and we talked about things happening in the Fenghuang County over the twenty to thirty years and the merits of a certain person in the place. It is also important to write things out from a new point of view. And if things are not written out as a record, there will be no way for future generations to know about them.
February 10, 1974 Sunny
Shen Congwen and I are very close. He often advises me not to trouble myself with things. If I need anything, I can write a letter and tell him, then it will surely be handled properly and delivered.
October 3, 1975 Sunny
Shen Congwen met me here, chatting and laughing. But unfortunately, my ears were a little deaf and I couldn’t keep track of everything. We met for an hour and more before saying goodbye.
According to Mr. Tian’s recollection, because of his grandfather, he had close contact and exchanges with Shen.
At the beginning of 1965, Tian Mingyu, who was nearly 80 years old, took his grandson Tian Guangfu to visit Shen at No. 21 Dongtangzi Lane, Dengshi Street. After returning to his apartment, when he talked to his grandson about his past as a primary school teacher, he talked about Shen with deep emotions: “We are very proud that Shen is from Fenghuang. However, over the past years, there have been too few people who truly understand him and too many people who misunderstand him. In the old society, he stood out from hellish burden and bitterness with overflowing courage about life and took his own path toward becoming a famous writer of the generation, which is commendable. This is the trait of the Fenghuang people.”
In May 1982, Shen and his wife visited his hometown, Fenghuang. After returning to Beijing, he still constantly thought of his hometown. On October 15, he personally wrote a long letter to Tian Guangfu, expressing his love for his hometown: “In May, my family and I returned my hometown and stayed there for 20 days. I wanted very much to walk around the city and look around. But I was physically weak and was a guest at Huang Yongyu’s, so I was worried about slipping if I should go up and down the Baiyangling stone ridges. Thus, I only had the opportunity to walk to the west gate from the entrance of Dongmen Street and go back to the north gate. Some parts of the small street outside the South Gate, which I was interested in, seemed to be reserved, but I was unable to go to see it. I also failed to go to Biaoying, Honggongjing, Xiaojiaochang, and Qifeng Temple around the North Gate. What left the best impression on me were small houses around Shawan and small old buildings of the Xunlong Pavilion near the water and the mountains on the opposite side of the river. However, I didn’t have the opportunity to pay a visit, not even once... Baojing and Huayuan were the places where I had lived. I intended to stay in Baojing for at least a day or two, walking around and seeing everything that had changed or remained unchanged in the past 50 years. However, due to a restricted itinerary, I could not make arrangements by myself and had to return to Beijing in a hurry. What a pity! If I’m physically well, in a year or two, I will definitely have the opportunity to visit the counties again. I also hope to take a boat from Longtan to Baojing, from Baojing to Wangcun, and then from Mayang to Chenxi and to Taoyuan so that I can have a look at everything...”
Regretting that we didn’t meet sooner, Mr. Tian and I had a great conversation. Before I knew it, more than two hours had passed. When being asked about himself, Mr. Tian said very few words and said them lightly. Later, through various channels, I learned that he graduated from Changde Higher Teachers College in 1961 and was assigned to teach in a remote and poor rural middle school in Baojing County. Later on, he was transferred to Bier Town Ethnic Middle School. In the past 30 years, he has been diligent, exhausting his youth and talent like a candle with no regrets, burning himself while illuminating others. Making his due contributions to the education cause in the mountainous area, he won the honorary title of model education worker, etc. many times. In 1989, he was transferred back to Fenghuang County No. 2 Middle School to work, and in 1998 he was on medical leave at home. In addition to teaching, he devoted himself to the study of Shen, and was rigorous in his studies. He often consulted a large number of references for research on a small issue. Even though he is old and half paralyzed, he still insists on reading books and newspapers every day, living an optimistic life positively.
When I learned that his two sons had no jobs and made a living from street stalls, I asked him why he didn’t take advantage of his connections. He said: “Like grass being raised by dew, children need to make their own way when they grow up. A person does not have to become a celebrity or an expert, but he must be a good person. And he will have no regrets if he does things worthy of the society, others and his own conscience.” This may be the true portrayal of his outlook on life and decades of career.
When parting, Mr. Tian gifted me an autobiographical poem.
My county, Fenghuang, has beautiful water and mountains.Born in Qianzhou, my ancestral home is Mayang.
Hanging around and playing with water in early childhood, I studied in a primary school at an early age.
Studying in Zhengan by Tuojiang River in junior high school, I spent three years of high school in the heat and cold of Jishou.
Weathering two years of wind and frost at Changde Higher Teachers College, I taught in towns or townships of Baojing.
Giving birth to sons by the steam, I returned to the county in my fifties.
Teaching next to the Confucius Temple in No. 2 Middle School, I became half paralyzed in 1993 and 1996.
Nurtured by water and soil of five streams, I hope the descendants here will flourish.
Later, due to my change of career and transfer from the school, my job and workplace changed several times. Usually busy with official business and leaving Fenghuang to work and live in Jishou, I never saw Mr. Tian again. However, his low-key lifestyle, modesty, indifference to fame and fortune, willingness to suffer poverty and unwillingness to leave the right track have always been engraved in my heart.