Friday, January 31, 2014

'Fortress Besieged' Qian Zhongshu

Hell is a Chinese family, and the Devil is a Chinese woman.
Apocryphal saying

If this book had been written by a foreigner, the writer would have been accused of racism at worst, or cultural chauvinism at least. In reviewing it, I am conscious that I will lay myself open to the same charges because Qian Zhongshu sees many of the same features and voices many of the same criticisms that foreigners do about Chinese culture. Published in 1947 at the height of the civil war in China, Qian Zhongshu’s classic Chinese novel is an extended examination of Chinese mores and culture, in which that culture is subjected to a savage critique which is at once bitterly accurate and very funny.

After a few years in Europe studying, Fang Hung-chien returns home to China with a fake phd diploma in his pocket, no money and little prospects. It is 1937, the year the of the Japanese invasion of China, and Hung-chien’s homeland is in turmoil. After a spell in Shanghai making new friends and reuniting with old ones, he is offered a job in a new university in the interior. He travels there with some of his friends who have also been offered jobs there. Following a grueling journey, he finds the job was not everything he had believed it to be, and after his friend and colleague is fired following a scandal, he is bounced rather unwillingly into a marriage with another colleague. They leave the university and return to Shanghai to Hung-chien’s family to settle into a routine of family life of constant bickering between in-laws. This structure allows Qian Zhongshu to cast his satirical eye over several essential facets of Chinese life: the institution of marriage, family relationships and structures, the life of the literati/scholar, which has always been a staple of Chinese literature, the nature of the Chinese language. The many scenes of social interaction allow him to examine the way social relationships are formed and maintained, while the travel scenes provide an opportunity to look at life outside the enclaves of civilization in the cities, affording the reader a glimpse of the vast ignorance and poverty of the rural population.


The title of the novel refers to a French proverb which is the subject of a discussion among Hung-chien and his friends on the subject of marriage. Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those inside are trying to get out, while those outside are trying to get in. But the title has wider ramifications than just marriage, referring to the position of the individual within Chinese society in which the individual is crushed by the weight of 5000 years of culture, in which everything is ruled by precedent and tradition, in which the individual is imprisoned by formulas laid out for life choices and social interaction. This, of course, is a common view of China in the eyes of the Westerner, but here it is a Chinese (in fact two Chinese, Qian Zhongshu and his protagonist) who is articulating this view. “I still remember that time Chu Shen-ming or Miss Su said something about a ‘fortress besieged’. Lately I’ve been having that feeling about everything in life,” remarks Hung-chien to a friend. Most of us are not aware of the ideology restricting the choices and modes of being open to us; it takes a foreign eye (or a very great writer) to see what is invisible to the native. Hung-chien’s status as a returning student is important in this regard. The protagonist with Western experience allows the author to foreground a certain aspect of Chinese life which remains invisible to the Chinese, but which is often noted by Western observers, namely, nastiness. Nastiness appears in the novel in various forms, most obviously in the revolting descriptions of bodily fluids of which the book is full -the shitting and vomiting and spitting is relentless – but also in the deliberate nastiness that characterises most forms of social interaction depicted.

Two Chinese encounter one another in the park. One calls out to the other, “Eh, Ah Chow, long time no see! You are getting fatter and fatter! You must be getting richer and richer!” Greetings often take the form of extremely personal remarks broadcast out loud to the public at large in this way. Chinese social situations usually take the form of the group picking on one person and making fun of him, pointing out his thinning hair, his old shoes, his lack of children, his henpecking wife. Everyone laughs uproariously as witticism follows witticism – with the loudest and most appreciative laughter sycophantically reserved for the witticism of the most senior person present rather than the funniest remark. Meanwhile the victim, often compelled to stand while the others bully him, nods and smiles bashfully. It appears good natured fun only, but there is an undercurrent of real victimization: the struggle session is never far away from these kinds of social encounters. Episodes like these, which I have personally witnessed time and time again, are viciously lampooned in the novel’s scenes of social interactions, in which the characters engage in a form of small talk that appears to consist of non-sequitur and mundane generalisations but is in actuality full of one-upmanship, sycophancy, backstabbing, teasing and goading: they were talking as though expounding the truths of Zen with subtle jabs hidden underneath , which was enough to send one’s head reeling just listening to it…

One  of the virtues most esteemed by the Chinese is that of sincerity, a virtue that Westerners are more indifferent to because Western social interaction is not so two-faced as Chinese interaction is. Sincerity in Chinese culture is so highly prized because it is so rarely encountered, while the obverse is true of Western culture. This nasty two-facedness appears often in the novel, in scenes in which characters suddenly reveal their true selves, or in moments where Hung-chien suddenly realises that he has been the victim of double dealing.

This is most prominent in the scenes describing his marriage. Hung-chien marries Miss Sun, who up until this time has been merely a secondary character, a teaching assistant who accompanies Hung-chien and the others on their grueling journey to the interior, who remains in the background, blushing, bashful, and rather helpless. However, after her marriage she is revealed as a champion manipulator, one of the most memorable passive-aggressives in literature, rivaling only Martha Varden for her ability to reduce her husband to speechless anguish. This marriage has been called Nabokovian by Western critics of the novel, who seek thereby to cast it in the light of a distorted exaggeration, a kind of marital grand guignol. But it is actually an accurate, clinically realistic portrayal of most Chinese marriages I know of. There are moments during the courtship when Hung-chien has a suspicion of his future wife’s true character, but he dismisses it: Hung-chien’s suspicion flitted by without stopping, like a swallow over water. Miss Sun not only sought his advice, but was ready to follow his every word as well. This pleased him so much, it left no room in his mind for suspicion. And after the marriage, when Miss Sun has secured her man, she tells him: “After trying every ‘trick and scheme’ to get myself married to a husband like you, you think I wouldn’t look after him carefully? ….”

The Constraints of Language

It’s not that Chinese are incapable of anything other than nastiness – there are incidents of real kindness and genuinely sincere friendship in the novel. Hung-chien’s only true friend becomes his friend only after they have been bitter enemies and jealous rivals for the same woman, a woman who refuses both of them to marry someone more eligible. However, there is only a narrow range of formulas available for people to use as they navigate the minefields of social interaction. These formulas are so entrenched that they make genuine expression of self extremely problematic. Questions of status, seniority, precedence and family connections are more important than a true, equal meeting of individual selves. Part of the strength of these restrictive formulas lies in the very language the characters use:  characters (and narrator) are restricted by their language. Again, this judgment might be taken as simply a Westerner’s biased reading of Chinese culture. Consider for example this extract from Backhouse and Bland’s wildly popular Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914), in which the authors are describing the language used by the annalists of the official histories: [they] all use the same stock phrases, metaphors and arguments derived one and all from the classical authors of antiquity…. Later they say: we find the same set phrases, the same artificial gestures and the ready made emotions….events become stereotyped in fixed grooves and rigid patterns… But in this novel, again, it is a Chinese making the same observation about his own culture.

Hung-chien reflects that it is impossible for him to truly communicate his feelings because the very words and phrases he is using are so old, so set, that they are incapable of expressing the newness and uniqueness of his individual experience:

I just wish I could invent a fresh and fleeting expression that only I could say, and only you could hear, so that after I’ve spoken it and you’ve heard it, it would vanish and in the past, present or future there would never be another man using the same expression to another woman. I’m so sorry that to you who are without equal in the whole world, I can only use clich├ęs which have been worked to death for thousands of years to express my feelings. …

At another point in the novel, when Hung-chien is trying to write a letter to the woman he is courting, he reflects: he wished he could have written it in English, since the tone of a letter in literary style was so impersonal, while the tone of a letter in the colloquial style too easily turned into obnoxious familiarity. The range of choices, of voices, open to him when he writes in Chinese, and the range of interpretations of his writing, is highly restricted.

Qian Zhongshu is conscious as a writer of the great weight of tradition and encrusted meaning lying behind every word he uses, and he laments that fact that despite its great age, Chinese grammar is still immature and incapable of making clear distinctions, again, another criticism of Chinese laid against it by foreigners.

Kao Sung-nien was an old science scholar. The word’ old’ here is quite bothersome. It could describe science or it could just as well be describing a scientist. Unfortunately there is a world of difference between a scientist and science. A scientist is like wine. The older he gets, the more valuable he is, while science is like a woman. When she gets old she’s worthless.  Once Mandarin grammar reaches its full development, the time will come when ‘old science scholar’ can be clearly distinguished from ‘scholar of old science’, or one will say ‘science old scholar’ or ‘old science scholar’. But as it’s still too early for that yet, a general term of reference will have to do in the mean time.

Other modern Chinese writers have felt the same constraints about their medium, which is why, possibly, Qian Zhongshu’s great contemporary Zhang Ailing wrote her masterpiece The Rice Sprout Song in English rather than Chinese. Qian Zhongshu’s solution to the problem of the dead weight of Chinese is to enliven his text with quotations from Western sources and balance these with quotations from Chinese sources, so that the text is melange of Western languages and references and Chinese references to classical sources. One would of course expect this, given that most of the novel’s characters are educated Chinese of the scholar class. But then Qian Zhongshu goes even further by parodying his solution. One of the female characters at a polite social gathering makes Hung-chien nauseous with her strong body odor for which there is an elegant expression in classical Chinese as well as an idiom in Latin, both using the goat as a comparison: yun-ti and olet hircum (smelling like a goat). Another character is a Chinese who loves to throw American idioms into his discourse; there is also a parody of a Chinese poet who wants to write in the style of Eliot’s Wasteland, with fragments of quotations put together to form a new poem (with footnotes, of course): “There’s not one word without a source”  remarks Hung-chien on reading it. Qian Zhongshu is aware that despite his efforts he cannot inject new life into old Chinese: what looks like an original solution is simply an old trick in a new guise: “It’s almost like what poets call ‘scholars poetry’. Isn’t that style neo classicism ?” (which it might be in Chinese, but in Western literature, it’s Modernism.) Qian Zhongshu underlies the irony of his failed attempts to invigorate Chinese by infusing it with Western languages by having one of his characters remark: “For some reason all the good things from abroad always go out of whack when they come to China.”  Which is a common complaint amongst ex pats in China, but one that is being made in this case, again, by a Chinese.


The novel is as much about Hung-chien’s awakening to the true character of Chinese life as it is an indictment and satire on it. After watching his wife interacting (nastily) with the wives of his two brothers in the family home, he suddenly realizes: he’d been too accustomed to his family all along to realize how much enmity and meanness lay underneath… “What I can’t figure out is why someone like you, who grew up in a big family, know nothing about all the scheming and plotting that go on there” Hung-chien’s wife tells him after a particular nasty exchange with her sister-in-laws. It’s this series of realizations that provide the character with growth and change manifested as an increasing sense of loneliness, an awareness of self separated off from those around him but always under unremitting pressure to submit to the rigid formulas of social exchange, a fortress besieged.

Man was created to be lonely. Each one has to keep to himself and never have anything to do with anyone else to his dying day.

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