1937 was a rotten year for China. Japanese forces moved their operations from the Peking to the Shanghai region, the Nationalist lines in Nanjing collapsed, and the remnants of the resistance moved their troops deeper upriver through the Yangtse gorges.
A comedy of manners featuring a hapless antihero is not something you immediately associate with Chinese literature, but in Qian Zhongshu’s “Fortress Besieged,” a novel set in a year that would seem to have been utterly devoid of humor or the capacity for laughter, that is more or less what we have. The title comes from a French proverb that says that “Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.” The fortress, of course, can also be seen as China itself.
Zhongshu was one of the most accomplished scholars of his day, fluent in several European languages and familiar with the Chinese classics. He was, like the protagonist of his novel, Fang Hung-chien, a returnee student from Europe, having attended the universities of Oxford and Paris. And like Fang, the author taught for a period in the interior. “Fortress Besieged” was originally published in 1947, another painful period in Chinese history with the country engaged in a vicious civil war that would bring the Communists to power, an event that would leadto great problems for free-thinking academics like Zhongshu.
These great, wheeling historical events, however, are scarcely alluded to in this social novel. Instead, the author provides great insights into family customs, rank, duty, the intricate web of social affiliations, the conflict between the educated young who believe that matrimony should take its natural course, and Chinese social conventions. One recalls that, even in Chairman Mao’s China, marriages between “suitable” comrades were often arranged by party cadres.
The description of family expectations and the disappointments that ensue when they are not fulfilled are telling. Describing the true feelings of Fang’s parents and in-laws, the author writes: “The Fangs despised the Suns for their rudeness; the Suns detested the Fangs for their outmoded ways. And behind each others’ backs, each hated the other for not being rich.”
The theme of besiegement is amplified in several ways. Fang’s troubled teaching career, the dissolution of his marriage, the creeping impoverishment of the couple’s respective families, and the mounting pressures on the country at large are reflected in Fang’s ineffectiveness as a person. Whether on the war front or the home front, the prospects are bleak. The final chapters of the novel have long been regarded as one of the finest descriptions in contemporary literature of the breakdown of a marriage.
While wit and humor are highly valued components in classic Chinese novels such as “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” “Flowers in the Mirror” and “Journey to the West,” these works are impaired by a tendency on the part of their writers to expound on learned subjects for no better reason than to flaunt their own erudition. Although the writer has often been described as China’s foremost “scholar novelist,” Zhongshu, while making liberal reference to Chinese and Western literature, law, logic and philosophy, eschews long digressions for a more incisive and modern social commentary.
Zhongshu has an irresistible relish for wordplay, and even here he brings a contemporary touch of humor and social satire to his subject. Discussing the word “girlfriend,” he concludes that it is “the scientific term for sweetheart, making it sound more dignified, just as the biological term for rose is “rosaceae dicotyledonous,” or the legal term for divorcing one’s wife is “negotiated separation by consent.”
The anti-romantic pessimism of Zhongshu’s novel can be partly traced to his time at Oxford, when he came under the influence of writers like Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh. An expert on 18th-century English literature, he may also have been influenced by the novels of writers like Laurence Stern and Henry Fielding, drawing inspiration for the comedy of errors that characterizes the setbacks Fang and his band of fellow teachers encounter trying to reach their posts in the interior.
In the manner of the English picaresque novel, these Chinese Tom Jones’ and Peregrine Pickles, with their city ways and unwieldy traveling trunks, experience mishap upon mishap as they make their progress by steamboat, rickshaw, sedan chair and cranky local buses, overcoming the mosquitoes and bedbugs that are a feature of inns along the way, the monotony of steamed bread, the horrors of maggot-infested meat fried in wood oil.
From a writer who works from the dual perspective of Chinese and Western learning and experience, we have that rarest thing, a novel that can appeal to the tastes and sensibilities of readers both in China and the West.