Qian Zhongshu

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Qian Zhongshu
Qian Zhongshu 1940s.jpg
Born(1910-11-21)21 November 1910
Died19 December 1998(1998-12-19) (aged 88)
Nationality Qing dynasty
Republic of China (1912–1949) Republic of China
 People's Republic of China
Alma materTsinghua University
Exeter College, Oxford
Yang Jiang (m. 1935)
ChildrenQian Yuan [zh]
Parent(s)Qian Jibo [zh]

Qian Zhongshu (November 21, 1910 – December 19, 1998) was a Chinese literary scholar and writer, known for his wit and erudition.

He is best known for his satirical novel Fortress Besieged . His works of non-fiction are characterised by their large amount of quotations in both Chinese and Western languages (including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin).[1] He also played an important role in digitizing Chinese classics late in his life.[2]

Traditional Chinese: 錢鍾書
Simplified Chinese: 钱锺书[3]
Pinyin: Qián Zhōngshū
Wade-Giles: Ch'ien Chung-shu
Zi: Zheliang (哲良)
  Mocun (默存)
Hao: Huaiju (槐聚)


Most of what is known about Qian's early life relies on an essay written by his wife Yang Jiang.[4] Born in Wuxi, Qian Zhongshu was the son of Qian Jibo (T: 錢基博, S: 钱基博), a conservative Confucian scholar. By family tradition, Qian Zhongshu grew up under the care of his eldest uncle, who did not have a son. Qian was initially named Yangxian (仰先 "respect the ancients"), with the courtesy name Zheliang (哲良 "sagacious and upright"). 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 "fond of books", and Yangxian became his intimate name. Qian was a talkative child. His father later changed his courtesy name to Mocun (默存), 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. At Tsinghua, Qian earned the admiration of many prominent scholars,[citation needed] but rarely socialized and was considered arrogant by his peers; one of his few friends was the budding Sinologist and comparatist Achilles Fang.[5] Qian also frequently cut classes, though he more than made up for this in Tsinghua's large library, which he boasted of having "read through."[5] It was probably in his college days that Qian began his lifelong habit of collecting quotations and taking reading notes. At Tsinghua, Qian studied with professors such as Wu Mi 吳宓, George T. Yeh (Ye Gongchao 葉公超), and Wen Yuan-ning 溫源寧[6] and met his wife, Yang Jiang, who was to become a successful playwright and translator; they married in 1935. For the biographical facts of Qian's following years, the two memoirs by his wife can be consulted.[7] Yang Jiang wrote, "Zhongshu's 'foolishness' could not be contained in books, but just had to gush forth'".[8] In the mid-1930s, Qian taught at Kwanghua University in Shanghai and contributed to English-language publications such as The China Critic.[9]

In 1935, Qian received a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship to further his studies abroad. Together with his wife, Qian headed for the University of Oxford in Britain. After spending two years at Exeter College, Oxford, he received a Baccalaureus Litterarum (Bachelor of Literature).[10] Shortly after his daughter Qian Yuan (T: 錢瑗, S: 钱瑗) was born in England in 1937, he studied for one more year in the University of Paris in France. In 1938 he returned to China and was appointed a full professor at Tsinghua University, which, due to the war, had relocated to Kunming, in Yunnan province and become part of Southwestern United University.

Owing to the unstable situation during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, Qian did not hold any long-term jobs. However, it was during the late 1930s and 1940s that he wrote most of his Chinese-language fiction, including Fortress Besieged and the story collection Human, Beast, Ghost, as well as the essay collection Written in the Margins of Life. After Japan's defeat, in the late 1940s, he worked in the National Central Library in Nanjing, editing its English-language publication, Philobiblon.

The old gate of Tsinghua University, where Qian Zhongshu studied and taught

In 1949, Qian was ranked on the list of National First-class Professors (T: 國家一級教授, S: 国家一级教授) and commenced his academic work 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 (PKU). Qian was relieved of teaching duties and worked entirely in the Institute of Literary Studies (T: 文學研究所, S: 文学研究所) under PKU. He also worked as part of a small team in charge of the translation of Mao Zedong's Selected Works and poetry.

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 (T: 管錐編, S: 管锥编) (which Qian himself gave the English title of Limited Views) during this period. Qian, his wife, along with their daughter survived the hardships of Cultural Revolution, but their 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 TV serial 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 an anecdote goes that Qian when approached by a British admirer, remarked: "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.


Qian lived 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, Written in the Margins of Life (Traditional: 寫在人生邊上, Simplified: 写在人生边上) was published in 1941. Human, Beast, Ghost (T: 人‧獸‧鬼, S: 人‧兽‧鬼), 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 (T: 談藝錄, S: 谈艺录), written in classical Chinese, was published in 1948.

Besides 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 (T: 宋詩選注, S: 宋诗选注) 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 Marxist 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 (T: 七綴集, S: 七缀集), a collection of seven pieces of literary criticism written (and revised) over years in vernacular Chinese, was published in 1984, and has been translated by Duncan Campbell as Patchwork: Seven Essays on Art and Literature . This collection includes the famous essay "Lin Shu's Translation" (T: 林紓的翻譯, S: 林纾的翻译).

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 (in translations), 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-Tang Dynasties (T: 全上古三代秦漢三國六朝文, S: 全上古三代秦汉三国六朝文).

Broadly familiar with the 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.

It is a monumental work of modern scholarship that evinces the author's great learning and his effort to bring the ancient and the modern, Chinese and Western, into mutual illumination."[11]

Qian Zhongshu is one of the Chinese authors best known in the Western world. Fortress Besieged has been translated into English, French, German, Russian, Japanese and Spanish. "Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts" has been translated into English, French,[12] and Italian.[13]

Besides being one of the great masters of written vernacular Chinese in the 20th century,[14] Qian was also one of the last authors to produce substantial works in classical Chinese. Some regard his choice of writing Guan Zhui Bian (Limited Views) 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.[15] Ronald Egan argues that the work contains an implicit negative commentary on the Cultural Revolution.[16]

Posthumous publications[edit]

A 13-volume edition of Works of Qian Zhongshu (Traditional: 錢鍾書集, Simplified: 钱锺书集/钱钟书集) 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.[17] One of the most valuable parts of the edition, titled Marginalias on the Marginalias of Life (T: 寫在人生邊上的邊上, S: 写在人生边上的边上), 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 (T: 宋詩紀事補正, S:宋诗纪事补正), published in 2003, was criticized as a shoddy publication. The editor and the publisher have been criticized for neglecting such obvious printing mistakes.[18] A facsimile of Qian's holograph (known as 宋詩紀事補訂(手稿影印本) in Chinese) has been published in 2005, by another publisher. The facsimiles of parts of Qian's notebooks appeared in 2004, and have similarly drawn criticism on account of blatant inadvertency.[19] In 2005, a collection of Qian's English works was published. Again, it was lashed for its editorial incompetence.[20]

The Commercial Press (Shangwu yinshuguan) has, per an agreement with Yang Jiang, begun publishing photoreproductions of Qian Zhongshu's reading notes, totalling several score volumes in both Chinese and foreign languages.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lu Wenhu (1990). 管锥编谈艺录索引 [Indices to Guan Zhui Bian and Tanyi Lu] (in Chinese). Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company.
  2. ^ Liu Shengqing (劉聖清); Li Shiyan (李士燕). 文化傳信集團電子漢文史資料庫建設透視. People's Daily Online (in Chinese).
  3. ^ From the 1950s, in mainland China the two traditional characters "" and "" were both officially simplified into the character "", but since 2003 the two characters have been separated again, as "" and "" respectively. "钱锺书" is thus the current standard simplified form and is used, for example, in works by Qian's wife Yang Jiang, although the form "钱钟书", which was standard from the 1950s until 2003, remains in wide use.
  4. ^ (in Chinese) "On Qian Zhongshu and the Fortress Besieged" Archived January 1, 2007, at the Wayback Machine (T: 記錢鍾書與《圍城》, S: 记钱锺书与《围城》), 1985, collected in Yang Jiang's Selected Prose (T: 楊絳散文, S: 杨绛散文), Hangzhou: Zhejiang Literary Press, 1994.
  5. ^ a b Kelly, Jeanne and Nathan K. Mao. "Afterword." Fortress Besieged. By Qian Zhongshu. Tr. Kelly and Mao. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2004.
  6. ^ Wen Yuan-ning, and others. Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities. Edited by Christopher Rea (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2018), pp. 18-20.
  7. ^ Yang Jiang, tr. Howard Goldblatt, Six Chapters from My Life "Downunder", Seattle: University of Washington Press; Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1984; (in Chinese) Yang Jiang, We Three (T: 我們仨, S: 我们仨), Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  8. ^ Yang Jiang, tr. Jesse Field, "On Qian Zhongshu and Fortress Besieged." Renditions: A Chinese English Translation Magazine 76 (Autumn 2011), 91.
  9. ^ "The Critic Eye | China Heritage Quarterly". www.chinaheritagequarterly.org. Retrieved 2016-09-30.
  10. ^ His thesis is called "China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century", collected in Adrian Hsia (ed.), The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1998.
  11. ^ Zhang Longxi. "The 'Tao' and the 'Logos': Notes on Derrida's Critique of Logocentrism." Critical Inquiry. Vol. 11, No. 3. (Mar., 1985), pp. 385-398.
  12. ^ http://www.gallimard.fr/Catalogue/GALLIMARD/Connaissance-de-l-Orient-format-poche/chinoise/Hommes-betes-et-demons
  13. ^ http://www.aracneeditrice.it/index.php/pubblicazione.html?item=9788854859128
  14. ^ See, for example, the evaluation in Hsia Chih-tsing's A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 432-60.
  15. ^ (in Chinese) 《管錐編》為什么用文言? Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, 孫玉祥, 《太原日報》.
  16. ^ Egan, "Guanzhui bian, Western Citations, and the Cultural Revolution," ch. 5 in "China's Literary Cosmopolitans" (Brill, 2015)
  17. ^ (in Chinese) 钱锺书作品全集明年多家推出, 赵武平, 《中华读书报》.
  18. ^ (in Chinese) 对《宋诗纪事补正》的几点意见, 陈福康, 《文汇报》, 2003年6月15日.
  19. ^ (in Chinese) 《钱钟书手稿集》的编辑错误 Archived 2005-03-07 at the Wayback Machine, 高为, 《中华读书报》.
  20. ^ (in Chinese) 《钱锺书英文文集》的编辑错误, 范旭仑, 光明网.
  21. ^ chinanews. "商务印书馆推《钱钟书手稿集》 历时15年共72卷册-中新网". www.chinanews.com. Retrieved 2016-09-30.

Further reading[edit]

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

Two critical studies of Qian's life and works in English:

Literary works by Qian in English translation:

A selected translation of Qian's most celebrated work of literary criticism, Guan Zhui Bian, with critical introduction:

An essay about Qian's critical vision and early writings:

Five of Qian's essays on poetry in French translation:

  • Qian Zhongshu, trad. Nicolas Chapuis (1987). Cinq Essais de Poetique. Christian Bourgois Editeur. ISBN 2-267-00485-2.

External links[edit]