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...
(The entire section is 449 words.)