Sunday, September 21, 2008

Qian Zhongshu

Qian Zhongshu was a scholar and writer, known for his burning wit and formidable erudition.

To the general public, he is best known for his novel ''Fortress Besieged'' . His works of non-fiction are characterised by their large amount of quotations in both Chinese and Western languages .. He also played an important role in the of the Chinese classics late in his life.


Qian Zhongshu did not talk much about his life in his works. Most of what we know about his early life relies on an essay written by his wife Yang Jiang, Born in Wuxi, Qian Zhongshu was the son of Qian Jibo , a conservative Confucian scholar. By family tradition, Qian Zhongzhu grew up under the care of his eldest uncle, who did not have a son. Qian was initially named Yangxian , with the courtesy name Zheliang . However, when he was one year old, according to a tradition practised in many parts of China, he was given a few objects laid out in front of him for his "grabbing". He grabbed a book. His uncle then renamed him Zhongshu, literally "being fond of books", and Yangxian became his intimate name. Qian was a talkative child. His father later changed his courtesy name to Mocun , literally "to keep silent", in the hope that he would talk less.

Both Qian's name and courtesy name predicted his future life. While he remained talkative when talking about literature with friends, he kept silent most time on politics and social activities. Qian was indeed very fond of books. When he was young, his uncle often brought him along to tea houses during the day. There Qian was left alone to read storybooks on folklore and historical events, which he would repeat to his cousins upon returning home.

When Qian was 10, his uncle died. He continued living with his widowed aunt, even though their living conditions worsened drastically as her family's fortunes dwindled. Under the severe teaching of his father, Qian mastered classical Chinese. At the age of 14, Qian left home to attend an English-speaking missionary school in Suzhou, where he manifested his talent in language.

Despite failing in Mathematics, Qian was accepted into the Department of Foreign Languages of Tsinghua University in 1929 because of his excellent performance in Chinese and English languages. His years in Tsinghua educated Qian in many aspects. He came to know many prominent scholars, who appreciated Qian's talent. Also, Tsianghua has a large library with a diverse collection, where Qian spent a large amount of time and boasted to have "read through Tsinghua's library". It was probably also in his college days that he began his lifelong habit of collecting quotations and taking reading notes. There Qian also met his future wife Yang Jiang, who was to become a successful playwright and translator, and married her in 1935. For the biographical facts of Qian's following years, the two memoirs by his wife can be consulted .

In that same year, Qian received government sponsorship to further his studies abroad. Together with his wife, Qian headed for the University of Oxford in . After spending two years at , he received a ''Baccalaureus Litterarum'' . Shortly after his daughter Qian Yuan was born, he studied for one more year in the University of Paris in France, before returning to China in 1938.

Due to the unstable situation during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Qian did not hold any long-term jobs until the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. However, he wrote extensively during the decade.

In 1949, Qian was appointed a professor in his ''alma mater''. Four years later, an administrative adjustment saw Tsinghua changed into a science and technology-based institution, with its Arts departments merged into Peking University . Qian was relieved of teaching duties and worked entirely in the Institute of Literary Studies under PKU. He also worked in an agency in charge of the translation of Mao Zedong's works for a time.

During the Cultural Revolution, like many other prominent intellectuals of the time, Qian suffered persecution. Appointed to be a janitor, he was robbed of his favorite pastime - reading. Having no access to books, he had to read his reading notes. He began to form the plan to write ''Guan Zhui Bian'' during this period. Qian and his wife and daughter survived the hardships of Cultural Revolution, but his son-in-law, a history teacher, was driven to suicide.

After the Cultural Revolution, Qian returned to research. From 1978 to 1980, he visited several universities in Italy, the United States and Japan, impressing his audience with his wit and erudition. In 1982, he was instated as the deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He then began working on ''Guan Zhui Bian'', which occupied the next decade of his life.

While ''Guan Zhui Bian'' established his fame in the academic field, his novel ''Fortress Besieged'' introduced him to the public. ''Fortress Besieged'' was reprinted in 1980, and became a best-seller. Many illegal reproductions and "continuations" followed. Qian's fame rose to its height when the novel was adapted into a in 1990.

Qian returned to research, but escaped from social activities. Most of his late life was confined to his reading room. He consciously kept a distance from the mass media and political figures. Readers kept visiting the secluded scholar, and the anecdote goes that Qian asked an elderly British lady, who loved the novel and phoned the author, "Is it necessary for one to know the hen if one loves the eggs it lays?"

Qian entered a hospital in 1994, and never came out. His daughter also became ill soon after, and died of cancer in 1997. On December 19 1998, he died in Beijing. The Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the PRC government, labelled him "an immortal" - a term usually reserved for revolutionary martyrs.


Qian dwelled in Shanghai from 1941 to 1945, which was then under Japanese occupation. Many of his works were written or published during this chaotic period of time. A collection of short essays, ''Marginalias of Life'' was published in 1941. ''Men, Beasts and Ghosts'' , a collection of short stories, mostly satiric, was published in 1946. His most celebrated work ''Fortress Besieged'' appeared in 1947. ''On the Art of Poetry'' , written in classical Chinese, was published in 1948.

Beside rendering Mao Zedong's selected works into English, Qian was appointed to produce an anthology of poetry of the Song Dynasty when he was working in the Institute of Literary Studies. The ''Selected and Annotated Song Dynasty Poetry'' was published in 1958. Despite Qian's quoting the Chairman, and his selecting a considerable number of poems that reflect class struggle, the work was criticized for not being enough. The work was praised highly by the overseas critics, though, especially for its introduction and footnotes. In a new preface for the anthology written in 1988, Qian said that the work was an embarrassing compromise between his personal taste and the then prevailing academic atmosphere.

''Seven Pieces Patched Together'' , a collection of seven pieces of literary criticism written over years in vernacular Chinese, was published in 1984. This collection includes the famous essay "Lin Shu's Translation" .

Qian's ''magnum opus'' is the five-volume ''Guan Zhui Bian'', literally the ''Pipe-Awl Collection'', translated into English as ''Limited Views''. Begun in the 1980s and published in its current form in the mid-1990s, it is an extensive collection of notes and short essays on poetics, semiotics, literary history and related topics written in classical Chinese.

Qian's command of the cultural traditions of classical and modern Chinese, ancient Greek , Latin, English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish allowed him to construct a towering structure of polyglot and cross-cultural allusions. He took as the basis of this work a range of Chinese classical texts, including ''I-Ching'', ''Classic of Poetry'', ''Chuci'', ''Zuozhuan'', ''Shiji'', ''Tao Te Ching'', ''Liezi'', ''Jiaoshi Yilin'', ''Taiping Guangji'' and the ''Complete Prose of the Pre- Dynasties'' .

Familiar with the whole Western history of ideas, Qian shed new lights on the Chinese classical texts by comparing them with Western works, showing their likeness, or more often their apparent likeness and essential differences.

Qian Zhongshu was one of the Chinese authors best-known to the Western world. ''Fortress Besieged'' has been translated into English, French, German, , and Spanish.

Besides being one of the few acknowledged masters of vernacular Chinese in the 20th century, Qian was also one of the last authors to produce substantial works in classical Chinese. Some regard his choice of writing ''Guan Zhui Bian'' in classical Chinese as a challenge to the assertion that classical Chinese is incompatible with modern and Western ideas, an assertion often heard during the May Fourth Movement.

Posthumous publications

A 13-volume edition of ''Works of Qian Zhongshu'' was published in 2001 by the Joint Publishing, a hard-covered ''deluxe'' edition, in contrast to all of Qian's works published during his lifetime which are cheap paperbacks. The publisher claimed that the edition had been proofread by many experts. One of the most valuable parts of the edition, titled ''Marginalias on the Marginalias of Life'' , is a collection of Qian's writings previously scattered in periodicals, magazines and other books. The writings collected there are, however, arranged without any visible order.

Other posthumous publications of Qian's works have drawn harsh criticism. The 10-volume ''Supplements to and Revisions of Songshi Jishi'' , published in 2003, was condemned as a shoddy publication. The editor and the publisher have been criticized. A facsimile of Qian's holograph has been published in 2005, by another publisher. The facsimiles of parts of Qian's notebooks appeared in 2004, and have similarly drawn criticism.In 2005, a collection of Qian's English works was published. Again, it was lashed for its editorial incompetence.

Further reading

Innumerable biographies and memoirs in Chinese have been published since Qian's death.

An introduction to Qian's style of thinking can be found in the English translation of ''Guan Zhui Bian'':

Five of Qian's essays on poetry have been translated into French:

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