PENGUIN CLASSICS £18.99 (426pp) £17.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu trans. Jeanne Kelly & Nathan K Mao
China's cracked classic
Friday 20 May 2005
Long before the Cultural Revolution, Qian Zhongshu had earned a reputation as one of China's most promising writers of fiction. He is immortalised as Mo-cun, the wry and phlegmatic hero of his wife Yang Jiang's Six Chapters from a Cadre's Life (1980). His Fortress Besieged (1947), a leisurely picaresque novel, occupies a watershed position in 20th-century Chinese fiction. Drawing on traditional Chinese techniques of social satire and storytelling, the novel also displays the influences of Western modernism.
It focuses on the experiences of one protagonist, the hapless and unheroic Fang Hung-chien, who returns to China from Europe with a bogus doctorate in search of a life and a wife (and doesn't do too well on either count). Though he courts many women, Fang's final choice proves to be erratic; we leave him on the brink of a break-up and a breakdown.
Yang's elliptical memoir of how she survived her Cultural Revolution experiences of "re-education" in the countryside is illuminated by a compelling portrayal of her long and trusting marriage to Qian. It's ironic, then, that the work for which her husband is celebrated cites a French proverb: "Marriage is like a fortress besieged; those who are outside want to get in, and these who are inside want to get out.'"
Qian doesn't see relationships between the men and women with any grace or graciousness: there are constant reminders of Sartre's belief that hell was other people. Two women appear in the hilarious opening section, which deals with Fang's journey back to China; others follow. None of them, including the one Fang eventually marries, is portrayed with any sympathy. But neither are the men.
Qian delights in tricks, subterfuges and double exposures. Here, he is equally concerned with the postures of Westernised pseudo-intellectuals towards art, life and history, and the changing attitudes of men and women to each other. History, too, casts a spotlight on the book. It is set during the early stages of the Sino-Japanese war, and though Qian makes no explicit comment the desperation of the protagonists can be seen as frantic displacement.
Qian transforms, and subverts, his own experiences with panache. A scholar who after an Oxford education returned to pre-liberation China and stayed on during the Mao years, he was, at the time he wrote the novel, already a happily married man. Jiang was with him in Oxford while he wrote his dissertation.
Like his marital adventure, Fang's academic career, too, reverses his creator's. Qian did very well at Oxford, writing about European literary images of China. Fang - in one of the novel's wickedest set pieces - sends off for a fake degree and cheats the fraud who tries to cheat him.
Fortress Besieged retained a cult reputation during the Mao years. After the fall of the Gang of Four, it enjoyed a full-scale revival, influencing a new generation. Ye Zhaoyan, whose Nanjing 1937: a love story (Faber) echoes and in some ways deepens Qian's work, actually wrote his thesis on this novel.
Qian's ability to see his life and times through the lens of very dark humour, along with his talent for incidental cultural and social observation and his cold and cruel wit, mark out this novel as one of its time's most original works. Fortress Besieged is also entirely devoid of the kind of ideological zeal that mars even some of the finest fictions by Qian's more politically motivated contemporaries. Its long-delayed reappearance of in English - perhaps as a cultural curiosity, definitely as a period piece of distinction - reminds us of those other hidden classics from pre-liberation China that await international recognition: among them, Ba Jin's Family and Xiao Hong's Tales of Hulan River.
Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' has been reissued by Saqi
|Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 East 17 bandmember Brian Harvey in 'very desperate situation’
- 2 Yorkshire man to win £10,000 off a £1 bet placed six years ago if Dan Jarvis becomes Labour Party leader
- 3 Vladimir Putin says Russia will fight for the right of Palestinians to their own state
- 4 Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
- 5 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
Cassetteboy joins forces with Russell Brand for Emperor's New Clothes film
Poldark, TV review: Demelza’s insouciance is almost as impressive as Ross’ pecs
Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear: Former Stig Ben Collins says show 'will always continue' with or without suspended host
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers