Qian Zhongshu

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

Qian Zhongshu (November 21, 1910 – December 19, 1998) was a Chinese literary scholar and writer, known for his burning wit and formidable erudition. Qian is distinguished among other writers and scholars for his broad understanding of both Chinese classics, and Western literary traditions. His writings exhibit his broad and deep understanding of diverse traditions of ancient Greek, Latin, English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish authors. His works, thus, reflect cross-cultural, dia-chronical analysis.

During China's Cultural Revolution, led by Mao Zedong, Qian experienced persecution like many other prominent intellectuals. Qian was assigned to work as a janitor. His wife and daughter survived during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and his son-in-law was driven to suicide.

His satiric novel Fortress Besieged (圍城,围城) became a best-seller in the seventies, and in 1991 it was made into a television drama. Because he was well versed in classic Chinese, his writings often reflects the depth of Chinese literary tradition. His prose is known as one of the most beautiful modern Chinese.



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.[1]

Born in Wuxi, Qian Zhongshu was the son of Qian Jibo (錢基博,钱基博), a conservative Confucian scholar. Out of family tradition, Qian Zhongzhu 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"). When he turned the age of one, he participated in a Chinese Traditional ceremony where several objects are placed in front of the infant, and to observe which object is first to be touched. Qian 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 (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 mostly silent 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. 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 .[2]

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 Britain. After spending two years at Exeter College, Oxford, he received a Baccalaureus Litterarum (Bachelor of Literature).[3] Shortly after his daughter Qian Yuan (錢瑗,钱瑗) 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.

Teaching and research

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

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 (PKU). Qian was relieved of his teaching duties and worked entirely in the Institute of Literary Studies (文學研究所,文学研究所) 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 (管錐編,管锥编) during this period. Qian, his wife, and daughter survived the hardships of the 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 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 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, labeled him "an immortal."


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 (寫在人生邊上,写在人生边上) was published in 1941. Men, Beasts and Ghosts (人‧獸‧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 (談藝錄,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 while working in the Institute of Literary Studies. The Selected and Annotated Song Dynasty Poetry (宋詩選注,宋诗选注) was published in 1958. Despite Qian's quoting the Chairman Mao, and his selecting a considerable number of poems that reflect the communist perspective of 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 (七綴集), a collection of seven pieces of literary criticism written (and revised) over years in vernacular Chinese, was published in 1984. This collection includes the famous essay "Lin Shu's Translation" (林紓的翻譯,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.

Fortress Besieged

Fortress Besieged (Simplified Chinese: 围城; Traditional Chinese: 圍城; Pinyin: wéi chéng) was written by Qian Zhongshu, published in 1947, and is widely considered as one of the masterpieces of twentieth century Chinese literature. The novel is a humorous tale about middle-class Chinese society in the 1940s. It is also one of the most well-known contemporary Chinese novels in China, and was made into a popular television series in the early 1990s.

Origin and History

The book was begun while Qian Zhongshu and 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 novel was begun in 1944, and completed in 1946. Much of the characters and 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 aboard 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.

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".

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 printed again in mainland China until 1980. In the mean time, it was also banned in Taiwan because of its satire of the Nationalist government.

The novel has been translated into many languages. These include the Russian version which appeared in 1979, the American English version in 1979; and the German version in 1982.

Plot Summary


Since its re-publication in 1980 in mainland China, Fortress Besieged has become nationally 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, "Carleton University," from which the novel's character obtained his Ph.D. dissertation, is used as an idiom meaning an illegitimate degree qualification or academic institution. Likewise, the novel's title, deriving from the French proverb, has given rise to a similar proverb in 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 (全上古三代秦漢三國六朝文,全上古三代秦汉三国六朝文).

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.

It is a monumental work of modern scholarship that evinces the author's great learning and his efforts to bringing the ancient and the modern, Chinese and Western, into mutual illumination."[4]

Besides being one of the few acknowledged masters of vernacular Chinese in the 20th century,[5] 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.[6]

Posthumous publications

A 13-volume edition of Works of Qian Zhongshu (錢鍾書集,钱锺书集) 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 were cheap paperbacks. The publisher claimed that the edition had been proofread by many experts.[7] One of the most valuable parts of the edition, titled Marginalias on the Marginalias of Life (寫在人生邊上的邊上), is a collection of Qian's writings previously scattered in periodicals, magazines and other books. The writings collected there, are 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 (宋詩紀事補正), published in 2003, was condemned as a shoddy publication. The editor and the publisher have been criticized.[8] 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.[9]In 2005, a collection of Qian's English works was published. Again, it was lashed for its editorial incompetence.[10]


Qian Zhongshu is distinguished among writers and scholars, both in China or abroad, for his scholarly mastery of broad literary traditions which include Western literature and Chinese classics. His writings exhibit his broad and deep understanding of diverse traditions of ancient Greek, Latin, English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish authors. His works, thus, reflect cross-cultural, dia-choronical analysis.

Because he was well versed in classic Chinese, his prose reflects deep cultural traditions of China. His prose is recognized as one of the most beautiful prose written in modern Chinese.[11]

Although his novels were translated into other languages and received recognition outside of China, his novel did not receive much attention in China until the seventies. His novel, Fortress Besieged (1947), became a bestseller in the eighties, and in 1991 it was made into a television drama which turned Qian into one of the most popular writers in China.

See also

  • Chinese literature


  1. (Chinese) "On Qian Zhongshu and the Fortress Besieged" (記錢鍾書與《圍城》,记钱锺书与《围城》), 1985, collected in Yang Jiang's Selected Prose (杨绛散文), Hangzhou: Zhejiang Literary Press, 1994.
  2. Yang Jiang, tr. Howard Goldblatt, Six Chapters from My Life "Downunder", Seattle: University of Washington Press; Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1984; (Chinese) Yang Jiang, We Three (我們仨), Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. See, for example, the evaluation in Hsia Chih-tsing's A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 432-60.
  6. (Chinese) 《管錐編》為什么用文言?, 孫玉祥, 《太原日報》.
  7. (Chinese) 钱锺书作品全集明年多家推出, 赵武平, 《中华读书报》.
  8. (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.
  9. (Chinese) 《钱钟书手稿集》的编辑错误, 高为, 《中华读书报》.
  10. (Chinese) 《钱锺书英文文集》的编辑错误, 范旭仑, 光明网.
  11. Qian's novel such as Fortress Besieged (1947) is often used as a textbook for courses on modern Chinese and Chinese literature. Chinese Culture Seminar, Osaka Prefecture University.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Egan, Ronald C. Qian Zhongshu's reading of the Chinese classic: gauging the principles of Guanzhui bian. Hsin Chu Bank endowed lecture series on thought and culture. Hsin-chu, Taiwan: Program for Research of Intellectual-Cultural History, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Tsing Hua University, 1998.
  • Hsia, Adrian. The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1998. ISBN 9789622016088
  • Hsia, Chih-tsing. A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971. ISBN 9780300014617
  • Huters, Theodore. Qian Zhongshu. Twayne's world authors series, TWAS 660. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. ISBN 9780805765038
  • Mao, Yiran, Zhongshu Qian, and Zhongshu Qian. Cat by Qian Zhongshu: a translation and critical introduction. Hong Kong: Joint Pub.(H.K.), 2001. ISBN 9789620417955
  • Qian, Zhongshu, and Ronald Egan. Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters = [Kuan Chui Pien]. Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series, 44. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center, 1998. ISBN 9780674534117
  • Qian, Zhongshu, Yiran Mao, and Zhongshu Qian. Cat. Hong Kong: Joint Pub. (H.K.), 2001. ISBN 9789620417955
  • Qian, Zhongshu. A Collection of Qian Zhongshu's English Essays. Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia Pte Ltd, 2008. ISBN 9789814221498
  • Qian, Zhongshu. Fortress Besieged. Chinese literature in translation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979. ISBN 9780253165183
  • Yang, Jiang. Six Chapters from My Life "Downunder". Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984. ISBN 9780295960814
  • Zhang Longxi. Mar., 1985. "The 'Tao' and the 'Logos': Notes on Derrida's Critique of Logocentrism." Critical Inquiry. Vol. 11, No. 3.


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