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A reader's guide to Fortress Besieged

Updated Friday 1st August 2008

More than one charlatan in academia? Qian Zhongshu takes on pseudo-intellectualism in the era after the Sino-Japanese War.

'Marriage is like a fortress besieged; those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out' (French proverb).

Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998) was a renowned Chinese writer and scholar, whose most famous novel, 'Fortress Besieged', was published in 1947. It concerns Fang Hung-chien, a feckless young man who returns to China after several years of idleness in Europe.

The tale begins in 1937, at the onset of the Sino-Japanese war. Although there are no battle scenes, the conflict has a deep impact upon the lives of the characters.

Hung-chien is under pressure, because he is expected to satisfy his family's expectations. Having acquired a bogus degree, he accepts a teaching post in a newly established university.

Soon he realizes that he is not the only charlatan in academia, and much of the book's humour is directed against bigoted pseudo-intellectuals.

The Great Wall Of China Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: ronancrowley under CC-BY-ND licence

Hung-chien lurches from one calamity to the next, disappointing his parents and, ultimately, alienating his wife.

'Fortress Besieged' is an intricately crafted comedy of manners, satirizing courtship and marriage. After Hung-chien marries Sun Jou-chia their respective families interfere constantly, disrupting and complicating their lives and contributing to the slow, painful disintegration of their relationship.

Hung-chien is a very ordinary man, with obvious flaws and foibles, but these faults make him all the more engaging. It has been suggested that he is a representative figure, reflecting the loneliness and vulnerability of his contemporaries. Perhaps, over and beyond that, his story has a timeless and universal significance.

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