Weicheng: Fortress Besieged
Written by scholar Qian Zhongshu in 1947, Fortress Besieged is a Chinese novel praised for its satire of intellectuals at the time. With its later sequels written by other writers, the book continues to delight readers to this day.
Fortress Besieged is a Chinese satiric novel written by the renowned scholar Qian Zhongshu (1910– 1998). Honoured as a “new The Scholars ”in the Chinese literary world, his novel took aim at intellectual circles and established Qian’s reputation as a master of modern Chinese literature.
The most famous quotation from the novel is: “Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.” The book was published for the first time in 1947 by the Chenguang Publishing Company.
Masterpiece of Satire
Qian Zhongshu was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu province in 1910. Initially named Yangxian, his courtesy name was Mocun and he used the pen name Zhongshujun. Qian was greatly influenced by his father Qian Jibo, a prestigious master of traditional Chinese culture. Having gained a sound foundation in Chinese culture during his childhood, he later attending Suzhou Taowu High School and Wuxi Furen High School. In 1946, Qian completed the full-length novel Fortress Besieged which was published in three editions over two years. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he worked as a professor in the Foreign Language Department of Tsinghua
University and a research fellow at the Literature Institute in Peking University, mainly engaged in translation and the research of Chinese literature.
His academic publications include Notes on Selected Song Poems, Four Old Essays and Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters, and in the 1950s, he was a member of the translation group for the Selected Works of Mao Zedong.
In his later years, Qian worked in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He made many achievements in traditional Chinese culture and cultural criticism, with his admirers even coining the word “Qianology” to refer to the study of him and his work.
Qian began writing Fortress Besieged, his only full-length novel, in 1944 and finished it in 1946. The novel was first serialised in the Shanghai literary monthly The Renaissance in a series of 10 issues from February 1946 to January 1947. The work was the product of an accumulation of the author’s embarrassing life experiences. Qian’s wife Yang Jiang (1911–2016) commented on the book, saying: “He collects materials from the times, places and social classes that he’s familiar with. However, the characters and settings are completely fictitious. Although several characters mirror those in reality, the story is totally imaginary. Several scenes contain some slight truths, but the characters are all made up.”
“Instead of a single storyline, the novel is made up of small scenes. In the novel, Qian reached his culmination in diction. So what makes Fortress Besieged different from ordinary novels is that readers should focus not only on the scenes but also the way the characters speak. The witty turn- ofphrase is the most successful element and most worthy of appreciation in the novel. Symbolism comes from the foreign wisdom quoted in the dialogue between the characters: ‘Marriage is like a gilded birdcage: the birds outside despair to get in and those inside despair to get out. So marriage and divorce are never- ending.’ And, ‘France has another saying, not about a cage, but about a besieged fortress, those on the outside want to get in, and those on the inside want to get out.’ This is the origin of the novel’s title. In its preface, Qian wrote, ‘In this book I intended to write about a certain segment of society and a certain kind of people in modern China. When writing about them, I didn’t forget that they are human beings, just human beings who are basically hairless, twolegged animals.’”
In 1990, Huang Shuqin directed the 10-episode TV series Fortress Besieged with the protagonist Fang Hongjian played by Chen Daoming. Yang Jiang prefaced the TV series by saying: “The main idea of Fortress Besieged is that those inside all want to get out, while those outside want to get in. Most desires in life are generally the same, whether it’s a marriage or a job.” In the novel, this idea is a frequently recurring theme. It tells people that life is full of “besieged fortresses,” ceaseless marriages and divorces. endless confusions and embarrassments.
Later, a 32-episode radio series, also named Fortress Besieged, was released. With the widespread success of the TV series, the work was seen by more people. In 1992, the writer Lu Zhaoming authored After Fortress Besieged, a sequel that continued the tragic aura of the original and was published by Chunfeng Literature Publishing House. In 1993, the writer Wei Ren continued on from After Fortress Besieged and created Fortress Besieged Finale, published by Rural Readings Publishing House. The sequels, despite being incomparable with the original, each left their marks on the study of Fortress Besieged.
Life as a Fortress
In the novel, Fang Hongjian, a “PHD graduate from Carleton University” becomes romantically entangled with a Miss Bao on a French liner sailing back to China, however she deserts him as soon as the ship arrives. Fang had lived an idle life in Europe, wasting away four years while he should have been studying. But under pressure from his father and father-in-law to return with his degree, he buys a fake PHD certificate from a charlatan. “The diploma seemed would function the same as Adam and Eve’s figleaf. It could hide a person’s shame and wrap up his disgrace. This tiny square of paper could cover his shallowness, ignorance, and stupidity.” Contrary to Fang’s expectations, his father-in-law publicises his “graduation photo” and experiences studying in Europe in the newspaper. After disembarking and reading the newspaper, Fang feels a wave of shame wash over him.
Fang’s fiancée had passed away without ever having seen him. As her father helped Fang pay for his overseas study, Fang visits him before then going to his hometown to see his parents. On his arrival, reporters swarm his home, photographing him in his western-style suit and referring to him as a celebrity in the county. Although many matchmakers come to his home, Fang does not like the rural girls in his hometown. So, after the Battle of Shanghai, during which the whole country descends into turmoil, Fang goes to Shanghai to work in his father-in-law’s bank.
Fang goes to see Su Wenwan, a girl who studied a PHD and whom he met on the liner back to China. At Su’s home, he becomes acquainted with her cousin
Miss Tang, who dreams of pure love and insists of her future husband that “I should occupy all his life. Before meeting me, he has no past and is waiting for me like a piece of blank paper.” Fang falls in love with Tang at first sight. However, Su has loved Fang all along. Fang worries about hurting Su’s feelings and cannot refuse her cruel-heartedly, even though he does not love her. He then decides to have dinner with Tang, but in order to disguise his intentions, he also invites Su. However, Su turns unpleasant when she discovers her cousin is also invited. As such, Su calls Fang to say she is sick and would not attend. Su hoped that Fang would cancel the date because of her illness, but unexpectedly Fang is only concerned about whether Tang will be present. Su becomes jealous of Tang and calls her to tell her to refuse the date. However, in a rage, Tang keeps the appointment, believing that she would not fall in love with Fang.
Su deliberately introduces her admirer Zhao Xinmei to Fang. However, Fang sees through Su’s trick and only becomes more besotted by Tang. In despair, Su starts to try and sabotage Tang and Fang’s relationship. Su embellishes Fang’s affair with Miss Bao on the liner and his previous marriage. Tang then angrily rebukes Fang with a broken heart. With nothing to say, Fang has to leave silently, his love dying in his heart. Su then marries a poet by the name of Cao Yuanlang instead of Zhao Xinmei. Both spurned, Zhao and Fang become good friends.
Later, Fang’s mother-in-law changes her attitude to Fang and claims that he was responsible for her daughter’s death. In a fit of pique, Fang quits his job at the bank and teams up with Zhao Xinmei to go teach at Sanlyu University. Their companions include Mr. Li Meiting, who expects to be made head of the Chinese Department, and a recent graduate called Miss Sun Roujia who has had a relationship with Zhao. Li carried several cases which Fang later discovers to contain smuggled goods. Miss Sun meanwhile, seems to be a gentle and considerate girl.
Zhao warns Fang not to fall in love again. However, Fang has not yet recovered from his former disappointment and shows a lot of care to the lonely Sun. Zhao jokes to him that his care has sowed the seeds of love. Zhao then warns Fang that Sun is not an ordinary girl, but a scheming one.
Beyond what any of the group had expected, Sanlyu University turns out to be a hotbed of cheating and intrigue, and Fang becomes deeply disappointed upon his arrival. Li Meiting’s targeted position as head of the Chinese Department is taken by Wang Chuhou backed by political force and Fang is also deprived of his professorship. Fang does not want to cheat the university, so he does not include his PHD education on his CV. Han Xueyu, head of the History Department and the most powerful person at the university, claims to the university dean that he has had work published in foreign academic periodicals. The arrival of Fang threatens Han’s position since Han also bought his degree from “Carleton University,” just like Fang.
Zhao Xinmei decides he cannot stay any longer in Sanlyu University and so he resigns and goes to Hong Kong. Fang Hongjian also hates the environment at the university and decides to quit. But, in the following semester, Fang is not even hired by the school. Sun Roujia turns out to indeed be a scheming girl. She knows that Fang would care for her and so comes up with a way to get Fang to propose to her. Fang does not realise Sun’s trap and so gets engaged with her. The two of them then leave Sanlyu University since Fang was not re-hired. Before leaving for Shanghai, the couple go to Hong Kong to see Zhao Xinmei. Sun knew Zhao spoke ill of her, and so hinders the communications between Fang and Zhao. Contradictions between the couple mount and Fang is left feeling rather sad.
Back in Shanghai, the couple complain about each other’s families because of the disharmony between them. Fang gets a job in a newspaper press, but his salary is only half of his wife’s. He then decides to take a job in Chongqing upon Zhao Xinmei’s invitation. Sun asks her aunt to find her
husband a high-paying job, but instead of showing gratitude, Fang feels that Sun and her aunt are looking down on him. He then beats Sun, who leaves home in a rage...
Simile and Satire
Fang returns to his chilly home absentmindedly. Suddenly, a simile Su Wenwan told him comes into his mind: “love is like a besieged fortress: those outside despair to get in and those within despair to get out.” Fang falls into a deep meditation: Life is also like a fortress. How many such fortresses had he been in? If he had married Tang and won her love, would that also be a fortress that he wanted to get out of?
Fang sighed about the nature of marriage and life. He had been anxious to get out of his marriage, but would only have to enter another one. Such a fortress of embarrassment existed in the whole of life, and as Fang said, “I have such feelings towards everything in life.” Life seemed to deliberately be fighting against him: he did not want a marriage but his father arranged a wife for him which brought him the opportunity to study abroad; he did not want a degree but he had to buy a fake diploma to satisfy his family; he did not love his admirer Su Wenwan; a misunderstanding between him and Tang led to them breaking up; and he worried about falling in love with Sun Roujia but finally they tied the knot.
In the novel, Qian Zhongshu described Chinese society during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression through Fang Hongjian’s life and emotional experiences. By means of his witty humour and soft satire, Qian portrayed a group of intellectuals, analysed their personalities and weaknesses, disclosed their spiritual predicaments, satirised the then-xenocentric phenomena in social and cultural circles and gave several philosophical reflections on life. Despite having been educated abroad and edified by western culture, the intellectuals in the novel lacked the courage to struggle against traditional forces and thoughts. Even the hero Fang Hongjian, the cold beauty Su Wenwan, the sordid academic cheat Li Meiting and the gentle and scheming Sun Roujia, all failed to manage their own lives.
Fang Hongjian, a classic character in Fortress Besieged, gets his name from a line in the Chinese classic The Book of Changes. In his book Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters, Qian explained that “Hongjian” meant “a flying bird which never finds a place to rest.” In Fortress Besieged, Fang was just such a bird, symbolising a group of spiritual wanderers eager to escape a fortress but continuously finding themselves inside another. Fang’s life could be summarised with the word “wandering” —he was kind but weak, clever but incompetent, honest but impractical, erudite but softheaded and spent his life wandering from one fortress to another.
Fortress Besieged is filled with exquisite similes, Chinese and foreign allusions as well as striking humour and satire. In Four Old Essays, Qian proposed the idea that “similes are the root of literary language.” His sophisticated application of similes along with his superior imagination enabled him to create several memorable similes in the novel. Fortress Besieged also features descriptions of typical and realistic personalities, vivid psychological descriptions and humorous expressions, all of which benefitted from Qian’s inventive application of simile. Fang’s “glorious return to his hometown” rocked the tiny county: the local newspaper printed a high-profile report on him and he was invited by his old school to present an academic report. In his speech, Fang said that only opium and syphilis had lasted in Chinese society from the last several hundred years of overseas communication. On hearing this, “the recording-secretary’s face flushed crimson, and her pen stopped, as if by hearing Fang Hongjian’s last remark her virgin ears had lost their chastity in front of the audience.” The description is consistent with Qian’s views that literary works should “convey the characters’ veiled psychology in a concealed manner,” as he wrote in his Preface to Notes on Selected Song Poems. Qian had a genius for grasping satirical details. Chu Shenming, a nearsighted character in the novel claims to be uninterested in girls, explaining that the reason he did not buy new glasses was because he hated to see girls’ faces clearly. Chu also claimed that he had only humanity without any beastly qualities. But, when talking with Su Wenwan, he became so exciting that his “pince-nez splashed into the milk cup.” This vivid detail clearly showed up Chu for the hypocrite he was.
The famous ancestor clock mentioned at the end of the novel was a wedding present from Fang’s father and was an “accurate” clock that was “only” seven minutes slow every hour. The clock is a satire on and an elegy to life—one which is more powerful than any words or expressions.
Marriage is a fortress besieged, as are jobs and life. In Fang’s eyes, life itself is a huge invisible fortress filled with endless pressures and restrictions which people can never escape. Over the past 70 years, Fortress Besieged has become a renowned classic. Qian described people’s helplessness when faced by this fortress in a transcendental and joking manner, and left his readers to consider life itself.
A poster for the TV series Fortress Besieged (1990)
Actor Chen Daoming (Fang Hongjian) and actress Lyu Liping (Sun Roujia)
Actors Ge You (second from the left) and Ying Ruocheng (far right) in Fortress Besieged
Qian Zhongshu, author of Fortress Besieged