Monday, January 28, 2013

China Blues

Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu  (圍城,围城

“1937 was a hellish year for China,” writes Jonathan Spence in his deeply informative introduction to this popular and highly acclaimed novel.  “After years of threats and corrosive expansion into Chinese territory, the Japanese finally moved to all-out war, first in the Peking region, and soon after in Shanghai…by the late fall of 1937, the Chinese troops had crumbled, and the Japanese advanced triumphantly through the largely abandoned defense lines to the Nationalist capital of Nanking.  There, in December 1937, the infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ brought death or agonizing humiliation to hundreds of thousands of Chinese men, women, and children…. It is into this bleak setting that Qian Zhongshu unceremoniously tosses his hapless hero Fang Hung-chien.” 

Widely recognized as the greatest Chinese novel of the twentieth century, Fortress Besieged is, for all its satire of western-leaning intellectuals, scholars, philosophers, doctors, and professors, a remarkably un-political story, given the chaos and suffering in which it is set, focusing almost myopically as it does on the picaresque, often comical bumbling of the wisecracking “moral weakling”, Fang Hung-chien.  The prodigal son, Fang returns to China, to Shanghai, on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, aboard the Vicomte de Bragelonne, a ship packed to overflowing with Chinese nationals, Indians, Vietnamese, French, and Jews in flight from Hitler.  With nothing but a fake diploma, no prospects for work, and the not unpleasant knowledge that his wealthy fiancée is dead, he sets out to find his place in the fraught and rapidly changing nation.  Yet the novel is hardly so serious as that, but asserts itself as a clever, unabashedly erudite comedy of manners in which we are introduced to a dazzling assortment of nationals and foreigners in late 1930’s China: “the lowly porters, shopkeepers, innkeepers, bus drivers, country folk, soldiers, prostitutes, and French policemen serving their mother country in her Concessions in China; the middle-class returned students, country squires, journalists; and the rising middle-class bankers, compradors, factory managers, Japanese collaborators, and others”, each delightfully, indelibly described.

Subtle, sophisticated, rife with allusions to Chinese and European philosophy, literature, history, culture, and folklore (each meticulously footnoted for those so inclined), Fortress Besieged is nevertheless a highly readable, highly satisfying novel for expert and novice alike.   

Qian Zongshu (Ch’ien Chung-shu, 1910-1998) is one of China’s foremost “scholar-novelists.”   A devotee of Hegel and Proust, and a master of classical Chinese, English, Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, and Italian, Qian is seen by many in China as the last link  in an unbroken chain of geniuses stretching back to Confucius.  Yet his life as a writer was anything but easy.  Having returned to China in 1938, like his character Fang Hung-chien, he, along with other intellectuals like him, was persecuted by Mao Zedong, forbidden to study and write and forced for years to work as a janitor. Besides being one of the few acknowledged masters of vernacular Chinese in the twentieth century, Qian was also one of the last authors to produce substantial works in classical Chinese, most notably his magnum opus, the five-volume Guan Zhui Bian, literally ‘the Pipe-Awl Collection,’ an extensive assortment of notes and short essays on poetics, semiotics, and literary history.

First published in China in 1947, Fortress Besieged was translated by Jeanne Kelly and Nathan K. Mao and published by New Direction Books in 2004. 

I’d like thank my friend Estelle Wu for her recommendation that I read Fortress Besieged.  I am grateful to her.

Peter Adam Nash

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