Ch'ien Chung-shu Essay - Critical Essays

Chung-shu, Ch'ien


Ch'ien Chung-shu 1910–

Chinese novelist, short story writer, and literary historian.

Ch'ien's novel, Fortress Besieged, has been described as China's greatest contemporary novel. It is mocking and humorous, rare qualities in contemporary Chinese literature. Ch'ien was educated at Oxford and in Paris and is a revered academic at the Institute of Literature in the Academy of Social Sciences in Peking. Ch'ien has not written fiction since 1949.

Francis B. Randall

[The title of Ch'ien's book Fortress Besieged] must ultimately refer to China under siege, not only by Japanese invaders but by all the pressures and innovations of the West—to Chinese culture sapped by all of modern history and betrayed from within by the half-baked, semi-Westernized intellectuals who infest this novel. But these vast themes are approached through a much smaller one. This novel is a comedy of manners—albeit erudite, sophisticated, philosophical. In its foreground it deals with a young man's blundering relations with women, and climaxes with his failing marriage. The title is not Chinese but is taken from a cynical French proverb: "Marriage is like a fortress besieged; those who are outside want to get in; those who are inside want to get out."

A comedy of manners? set in China from mid-1937 to late 1939, the first two and a half years of the Japanese invasion? Can such a thing be? There is almost nothing here that we would expect from a novel of wartime China. First of all there is no war; it is referred to (the Japanese are sneered at for being "generous only with bombs"), but we actually see no bombing, no fighting, no Rape of Nanking. When the Japanese occupy Shanghai, these people go on living almost normal bourgeois lives in the unoccupied French Concession. There is no ghastly poverty; the characters are landlords' children, bankers' children, university professors, etc. They are sometimes out of...

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David Hawkes

[Partly, Fortress Besieged is] about courtship and marriage—a disenchanted look at the mating habits of the new, Western-educated, "liberated" Chinese of the 1930s and 1940s: the first generation who could freely choose, in some cases only to find that they were worse off in the outcome than their parents. But it is much more than that. It is also a portrait—an intelligent, merciless, mocking, often wildly funny one—of a society approaching collapse….

The novel is set in the period just before and just after the beginning of the war in China. It follows the fortunes (or rather misfortunes) of Fang Hung-chien, an intelligent, easy-going, well-meaning but unlucky and rather weak young man …; his return to China aboard a French liner from dilettantish studies in three European capitals, armed with a fake diploma obtained postally from a crooked Irishman in New York; his arrival in Shanghai where he is offered lodgings and a job in a bank by his deceased fiancée's father; the outbreak of the war; the bombing-out of his family …; a nightmarish journey into the interior in the company of several other appointees to a third-rate provincial academy; his experiences there with the appalling students and even more appalling staff …; his return, via Hongkong, to Shanghai with an unwanted wife; the miseries and humiliations of matrimony …; and finally the break-up, after one scene too many, the supperless return to a cold and empty flat, and the waking up in darkness—on the bed on which he...

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John Scott

Ch'ien Chung-shu's Fortress Besieged was first published in China in 1947, and notwithstanding its popularity and deserved acclaim it has not appeared in print since the 1949 Revolution. It remains the last of the few winners China has entered in the great novel race this century…. This sardonic black comedy has only recently been translated into any Western language, and it is the case that even the best of pre-1949, and certainly all post-revolutionary literature, in China remains pretty well outside the international main stream of the age. But Fortress Besieged can in one sense be considered a pace-maker, since it is the first and only Chinese contribution to that familiar genre, the novel of the anti-hero, and not merely because the protagonist, Fang Hung-chien, at one memorable juncture, delivers a disastrously embarrassing public address…. The ineffectual and dishonest, but sympathetic pseudo-graduate Fang armed with his utterly phoney Ph.D. returns from Europe to his homeland just in time for the 1937 Japanese invasion. Though the shadow of war and its consequent social crack-up remains a constant threat throughout the action of the novel it never amounts to more than a subdued if subtle accompaniment to the hero's own personal débâcle with the ludicrous progress of his love life leading to the final collapse of his short-lived marriage. Thus the state of matrimony and not beleaguered 1937 China is the real besieged...

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Robert E. Hegel

Fortress Besieged narrates the misadventures of an ineffectual returned student, Fang Hung-chien, in his travels, his first teaching position and his marriage. In every situation Fang is the victim of his own bungling: he fails to hide the proofs of his brief shipboard romance, his falsified academic credentials, his lack of genuine feeling for and sensitivity to his bride. He is emotionally and morally immature from the beginning; he makes no progress through his experiences. Each character he encounters is as shallow as he; Ch'ien Chung-shu caricatures the ridiculous posturing of each, pseudo-intellectual and common person alike. The list of human foibles laid bare is nearly inexhaustible…. Usually his exposure is accomplished through pointed similes, occasionally placed in the mouths of characters but far more commonly presented as epigrams in narrative asides ("heads of organizations are like the midwinter sun or that once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck: they come late and leave early"). Most involve references to classical and Western languages …, literature, philosophy and the like. In fact, one gets the impression that were all the similes to be removed, the text would be a small fraction of its present length.

But despite the nearly smothering weight of so much sarcasm, Fortress Besieged still manages to have a substantial plot and to present a rather profound vision of its intellectual protagonist. It seems to...

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Angela Jung Palandri

[Fortress Besieged] is predominantly a social satire…. Although it focuses on the Chinese intellectual or pseudointellectual class, especially sham academicians with shallow Western pretensions, it also deals with the broad spectrum of Chinese society permeated with ignorance, corruption, and hypocrisy during the early stages of the War of Resistance against Japan. The picaresque humor serves as comic relief to the prevailing mood of pessimism symbolized by the passive, nonaggressive protagonist's growing disenchantment with life.

Despite its large canvas and thematic complexity, the narrative is held together by artistic coherence. Its structural unity is achieved by means of a simple plot, according to Aristotle's definition—all the actions and events revolving around the hero (or rather anti-hero, in this case) follow in a logical sequence. The book consists of nine chapters. The first chapter provides the reader with the protagonist's background and reveals in the hero's character the flaws that lead to his downfall. Chapters Two through Nine deal in three stages with the protagonist's gradual alienation and descent into despair. (pp. 102-03)

[It] is clear that the story is commonplace, lacking the glamor of high romance or the thrills of sensationalism. But what makes this book extraordinary and delightful reading is not just the author's psychological insight into his characters or his display of wide erudition, but his manipulation of language…. It is this rich verbal texture that makes this prose narrative border on poetry. (p. 103)

Angela Jung Palandri, "China: 'Fortress Besieged'," in Journal of Asian Studies (copyright 1980 by the Association for Asian Studies), Vol. XL, No. 1, November, 1980, pp. 102-04.