Fortress Besieged

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Fortress Besieged
Wei Cheng 1947 1st edition.jpg
Cover art of the 1st edition of Fortress Besieged, 1947
AuthorQian Zhongshu
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN978-0-14-118786-0 (2006 Penguin edition)

Fortress Besieged (Simplified Chinese: 围城; Traditional Chinese: 圍城; Pinyin: wéi chéng) is a Chinese satiric novel written by Qian Zhongshu, first published in 1947, and widely considered one of the masterpieces of twentieth century Chinese literature.[1] The novel is a humorous tale about middle-class Chinese society in the late 1930s. It was made into a popular television series in the early 1990s.

Origin and History[edit]

The book was begun while Qian Zhongshu and his wife Yang Jiang were living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. According to Yang Jiang, the successful production of several of her plays inspired Qian to write a full-length novel.

The writing of the novel began in 1944, and was completed in 1946. Many of the characters and much of the plot are taken from the experiences of Qian and Yang abroad and in China. For example, the opening scene at sea reflects their journey from France to China on board the ship Athos II.

The 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.
(Le mariage est une forteresse assiégée, ceux qui sont dehors veulent y entrer, ceux qui sont dedans veulent en sortir.)

The novel is known for its acerbic asides, such as describing one young lady in the following way:

At first, they called her "truth" because "the truth is naked". But then, she's not actually completely naked. So they amended it to "partial-truth".

Publishing history[edit]

The novel was published in Shanghai in 1947. The second edition was published 1948. The third edition in 1949. After the Communist Revolution, the book was not re-printed in mainland China again until 1980. In the meantime, it was also banned in Taiwan because of its satire of the Nationalist government.

Plot summary[edit]

Set in the 1930s it follows the misadventures of Fang Hung-chien (方鴻漸 Fāng Hóngjiān), a bumbling everyman who wastes his time studying abroad, and secures a fake degree when learning he has run out of money and must return home to China. The first part of the novel is set on the boat home, where Fang courts two young ladies.

Fang was the son of a country gentleman. A marriage had been arranged for him while at university, but the intended wife died before he could see her. After completing a degree in Chinese literature, he went to Europe where he studied at several universities without pursuing a degree. After being pressured by his family, he bought a fake degree from an American Irishman.

The year was 1937, and Fang was returning to China from Europe along with other graduating Chinese students. One fellow traveler was Miss Su, in her late 20s. She is quite pretty in a thin and pallid style, but her choosy attitude towards men means she is still unattached and getting slightly desperate. Another young lady on board was Miss Pao, who tended towards the tanned and voluptuous. Fang pursued Miss Pao with some success during the voyage. However, when the boat reached Hong Kong, Miss Pao disembarked into the embrace of her fiancé, a middle-aged, balding doctor, and Fang realised he had been used.

Fang then became more intimate with Miss Su. However, after they disembarked at Shanghai, Fang became occupied with finding a job, and attending matchmaking sessions arranged by his parents and father in-laws. After one failed attempt, Fang decided to contact Miss Su. While visiting her he also met her cousin, Miss T'ang, and another suitor of Miss Su's.

The second section follows his securing a teaching post at a new university - where his fake credentials are used to keep him in line, and in the third part, it centers on his disastrous marriage. The novel ends with his wife leaving him, while he listens to a clock chiming.

Translations and influences[edit]

English language cover art of the novel, from the Penguin Classics.[2]

The novel has been translated into many languages. These include a Russian version which appeared in 1979 and a German version in 1982. The novel was translated into English by Nathan K. Mao and Jeanne Kelly in 1979, and it was published by the Indiana University Press on April, 1980. This version has been updated several times. One was in 2004 by the New Directions Publishing with an additional foreword by Jonathan Spence.[3] In 2006, another updated version was published by Penguin Classics.

Since its re-publication in mainland China, Fortress Besieged has become internationally famous. Part of its popularity grew from its popular television series adaptation of 1990 and later radio series adaptation.

Aspects of the novel have entered the Chinese idiomatic lexicon. For example, the fictional "Charlatan University" (克萊登大學/克莱登大学), from which the novel's character obtained his PhD paper, is used as an idiom meaning an illegitimate foreign degree qualification or academic institution. Likewise, the novel's title, deriving from the French proverb, has given rise to a similar proverb in Chinese.