Date of this Version
June 27, 2008 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
China Beat is a global operation (with posts being written thus far everywhere from Beijing to Boston, Colorado to Cambodia) but it is edited at the University of California, Irvine, and more than a few CB pieces have grown out of casual conversations held on this campus. This post, for example, began when one of us mentioned to Xia Shi, who moved here from Beijing last year to do graduate work in history, that an interesting essay on the novel Fortress Besieged had appeared in the June 12 issue of the New York Review of Books (alas, only a teaser for this essay by Pankaj Mishra is available free online if you don’t subscribe), and she asked if it had dealt with the old novel’s popularity among members of her generation. It hadn’t. And her explanation for the 21st century relevance of this pre-1949 work seemed well worth sharing, so we asked her to write about it.
Wei Cheng (Fortress Besieged) has been hailed by some critics as “the most delightful and carefully wrought novel in modern Chinese literature” and “perhaps also its greatest.” (See Hsia, C.T., arguably the novel’s earliest proponent, AHistory of Modern Chinese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) Written by Qian Zhongshu in 1947, it is an acerbic comedy about the hapless hero Fang Hongjian’s wanderings in middle-class society. Its 1979-translated English title is based on a French proverb: Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out. The British equivalent of this French saying draws a picture of a gilded bird cage with the birds outside wanting to get in, and the birds inside wanting to fly out. Both these versions are mentioned by Qian’s characters.