Analysis of Qian Zhongshu’s Fortress Besieged

Considered by most critics to be either the most important or one of the two most important works of modern Chinese literature, Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu (1910–98), depicts the complicated and often conflicted lives of a set of Chinese intellectuals on the eve of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). However, this summary in no way reflects the novel’s complex layers, which unfold in surprising and satisfying ways to form a unique masterpiece of the modernist condition.

Fortress Besieged distinguishes itself from other contemporary Chinese works in a number of ways. For example, where Ding Ling’s The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River (1948) concentrates on the land reform movement among farming communities, this novel focuses on the pseudo-intellectual community in China at the end of the 1930s. However, Qian’s representations of that community create a novel of seemingly infinite complexity, comparable to works by Western authors such as James Joyce. Throughout the novel, Qian embeds multiple references to and quotes from a wide range of cultural, historical, and political events from the East and West: everything from classic works of Chinese literature like The Analects and The Great Learning (Ta Hsüeh) and satires such as Li Ju-chen’s Ching-hua Yüan and Wu Ching-tzu’s Ju-lin Wai-shih and the confl ict between traditional and contemporary social practices to references to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and popsicles.

Qian also explicitly embeds numerous quotes from many different languages in the book: Readers frequently find excerpts from Chinese poetry as well as French and Latin phrases sprinkled throughout the novel, often on the same page as when Qian juxtaposes his descriptions of Kao Sung-nien with a commentary on Mandarin phraseology and a Latin epithet, or when he reveals the conflation between Pao’s mispronunciation of “Su Tung-p’o” and the French term tombeau. Qian’s frequent and extensive allusions and quotations create an extremely cosmopolitan world through which his characters must struggle. Perhaps the most important quotation is the novel’s epigraph, the French proverb from which Qian derives the novel’s title: “Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.”

This reference to marriage as a conflicted, relative state informs the novel’s main themes of multiple readings and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding. Through such means, Qian reveals how many of his characters may gain knowledge but lack understanding. Moreover, he reveals how the constant demands by societal norms create a tenuous position for everyone, especially for Qian’s protagonist, Fang Hungchien. By focusing on the travails that Hung-chien, his wife, Sun Jou-chia, and their friends undergo as they fruitlessly pursue happiness and meaning, Qian ultimately crafts a tragedy in which actual and metaphorical marriages assume, as the novel’s title suggests, competing and irreconcilable meanings. Through this tragic series of events, Hung-chien comes to represent the competing tensions that define his time. Moreover, Hung-chien demonstrates a constant lack of insight into events that propel him into a hopeless situation at the novel’s end. For example, he does not perceive until it is too late how others manipulate their relationships with him for their own gratification, whether those relationships are romantic (with Pao and T’ang) or political (with Kao and Han Hsûeh-yû). Qian dramatizes the tragic consequences of misinterpretation at the minute level when he has Hung-chien confusing T’ang with Su on the phone. These events are equally accidental (like his misinterpreting Aunt Li’s conversation with Jou-chia) and intentional (Kao’s deceptive offers for teaching positions). These and other incidents compound Hung-chien’s situation to the point of paralysis. Qian’s formulation of these individuals presents a bleak portrait of modern life.

Huters, Theodore. Qian Zhongshu. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Zhang Wenjiang zhu. Guan zhui bain du jie. Shanghai: Shanghai gu ji chu ban she, 2000.

Categories: Chinese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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