THE ARTISANS

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“When our hometowns vanish, we become rootless people, individual atoms existing in isolation within the ice-cold city,” writes Shen at the beginning, lamenting the decline of the village that has been inhabited for centuries. “We who left our hometowns have nothing to rely on, and are anxiously absorbed by the prosperity of urban life. Surrounding us are the faces of familiar strangers.” Like many young Chinese, Shen left the village for greater opportunity in the city, horrified by “what seemed to me like a dark future in the village.” He left at age 18 and did not return until 2001, 10 years later. “The swift decay of the village shocks me,” he writes, with no young people or children to be found. “Virtually every time I return, I see a newly added grave,” he writes. “Along with the declining population, one old house after another falls into disrepair and then disappears.” The author writes fondly of Mr. He, the bricklayer whose garden was the most beautiful in the village, and how he was one of the first Christian converts and thereby somewhat suspect in a place where the ways of the ancestors were deeply revered. Other characters in Shen’s affecting narrative include a tofu maker, a lantern maker, a tailor, a schoolteacher, and a carpenter, all with their own secrets and tragedies. Collectively, their stories transport readers back to a bygone time when the village was turned into an agricultural collective and, later, the period in the 1950s when the people suffered through a famine. Each fully fleshed character represents an element of an often hidden Chinese history; as Shen writes in this eloquent text, “each person, no matter how humble, contains an epic poem of their own.”

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