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Sentimental Education in Shanghai

Fortress Besieged

by Qian Zhongshu, translated from the Chinese by Jeanne Kelly and Nathan K. Mao, with a foreword by Jonathan Spence
New Directions, 395 pp., $16.95 (paper)


In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that modern civilization, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive, and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East—had a receptive audience among many people in the West who had been forced by World War I to question their faith in science and progress. But when, traveling in the East, he exhorted Asians not to abandon their traditional culture, he was often heckled and booed.

In Japan in 1916 Tagore’s warning against the “special modern enthusiasm for Western progress and force” was mostly contemptuously dismissed. However, it was in China that Tagore’s praise for Asia’s spiritual traditions faced the fiercest opposition. The poet Qu Qiubai, who had been a student of Buddhism before embracing communism, summed up the general tone of Tagore’s reception in China when he wrote, “Thank you, Mr. Tagore, but we have already had too many Confuciuses and Menciuses in China.”1 Repeatedly assaulted with hostile questions, Tagore was forced to cut his tour short.

In the years after World War I, China was one of the largest and one of the weakest countries in the world. In previous decades, Western powers, and a rising Japan, had repeatedly forced unequal treaties and harsh indemnities upon the country. However, like Qu Qiubai, many leading intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu, editor of the radical journal New Youth and a founder of the Communist Party of China, called for a total rejection of Chinese tradition. They wished China to become a strong and assertive nation using Western methods, and they admired such visitors as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, whose belief in science and democracy seemed to lead the way to China’s redemption.

This intellectual consensus had formed early in China’s modern history. Growing up against a background of national humiliation and shame, the first generation of reform-minded intellectuals, such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), agreed that China needed to modernize, with or without its Manchu imperial rulers. After the disastrous Boxer Rebellion between 1898 and 1900, when Western powers and Japan crushed a popular uprising against foreign interference in Chinese affairs, even the tottering Manchus attempted Western-style reform. They abolished the traditional examinations for the civil service, established modern schools, and sent Chinese students abroad. Thousands of young Chinese were first introduced to modern sciences, engineering, medicine, law, economics, education, and military skills, and voluntary organizations dedicated to modernizing China sprang up in both China and the Chinese diaspora.

The collapse of Manchu rule in 1911, and the inauguration of the Chinese Republic, may have appeared to be speeding up China’s political and economic transformation. But warlords supplanted the Manchu rulers, and plunged much of the country into violence and chaos. Japan continued to press its mostly unreasonable claims upon Chinese territory, and on May 4, 1919, students in Beijing erupted in violent protest after the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference awarded to Japan the territorial rights previously held by Germany.

The protests were the beginning of the “May Fourth Movement,” the explosion of intellectual energy in China that crystallized a conviction which many Chinese shared and which continues to shape politics and culture in the country even today: that China has to throw off the shackles of tradition and urgently modernize itself in order to be a strong, self-confident nation. For the May Fourth generation the egalitarian ideals of the French and Russian Revolutions, and the scientific spirit underlying Western industrial power, were self-evidently superior to an ossified Chinese culture that exalted tradition over innovation and kept China backward and weak. In 1924, few of them were ready to listen to an apparently otherworldly poet from India holding forth on the problems of modern Western civilization and the virtues of old Asia.


In the Twenties and Thirties, most of the modern Chinese intellectuals and writers were based in Shanghai, the most Westernized of Chinese cities, whose bookshops offered magazines such as Harper’s, The Dial, and Vanity Fair along with translations of Joyce and Woolf and other modernist writers. Though dominated by foreign businessmen since the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai’s Western-style theaters, dance halls, cafés, racecourses, imported cars, and bookshops appeared to open up many possibilities of self-invention to young Chinese. Returning to China in 1937 after a few years in Europe, the young hero of Qian Zhongshu’s classic novel Fortress Besieged (1947) caustically observes, “Shanghai is certainly avant-garde culturally. The phenomenon of high school girls painting and plastering their faces to attract men is rare even abroad.”

Nevertheless, it couldn’t have been easy to be a Westernized intellectual in a city like Shanghai where Chinese in the so-called International Settlements were forced to use separate elevators, not admitted to foreign clubs except as guests, and prevented from using the most modern hospitals. The large Japanese presence in the city may have been even more tormenting. Many Chinese intellectuals saw Japan as an example of how catching up with the West in industrial growth and military skills could make an Asian nation strong if not unassailable. Most of the Western literature available in Chinese consisted of retranslations from Japanese, and many leading writers and activists such as Lu Xun and Sun Yat-sen had spent much time in Japan. At the same time, Chinese writers were daily confronted with growing evidence of Japan’s malevolent intentions toward China.

The Chinese hoping for personal liberation through the West or Japan couldn’t avoid reckoning with the political and economic degradation of their country. But as the critic Shu-mei Shih describes it, fiction writers in the Twenties and Thirties tended to avoid dealing with the more humiliating aspects of a foreign presence in China, of which Shanghai, with its racist and exploitative businessmen, opium traffickers, and evangelists, offered the most egregious example.2 Also, having developed an ambition to be seen as the equals of Westerners, many Chinese intellectuals felt contempt for their resolutely backward and poverty-stricken counterparts. As C.T. Hsia, the first major critic in English of modern Chinese literature, put it:

Perhaps in their younger days they had been proud of China, but this pride had turned into a frankly masochistic admission of what they saw as inferiority in every department of endeavor. Disgusted with pigtails, bound feet, and opium—palpable symbols of China’s backwardness— they were no less ashamed of her art, literature, philosophy, and folkways.3

Not surprisingly, faced with such inner conflicts, Lu Xun, a ferocious critic of traditional Chinese culture, became one of the many Chinese writers to embrace Marxism. Others, such as Shao Xunmei, a poet who edited the poems and drawings of Aubrey Beardsley and who became, briefly, the lover of the New Yorker writer Emily Hahn, seem to have resolved their ambivalences through a cosmopolitan dandyism.

Many decades later, the question of how China would become modern is far from being settled—despite, or perhaps because, of the long years of China’s isolation from the West enforced by Mao Zedong. In depicting Chinese tradition as moribund and comparing China unflatteringly to the modern West, the popular television documentary series River Elegy (1988) expressed the sentiments of many educated Chinese.4 For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese intellectuals, recovering from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, were united in their faith that swift political and economic Westernization could free China from its feudal past—a consensus that was disrupted but not broken by the killings of unarmed protesters near Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In recent years, however, young conservative nationalists have denounced what they see as the indiscriminate Chinese adoption of the decadent Western values of consumerism. Aware of its ideological vacuum, the Communist regime tried in the Nineties to resurrect Confucius as the source of values. More recently, writers and academics described as the “New Left” have highlighted the steep costs—growing social inequality and unrest, environmental damage—of China’s long-delayed integration into the modern global economy.5

China’s romance with the modern world seemed to have gone very sour when Qian Zhongshu wrote in the early Forties about the ineffectual Westernized intellectual in Fortress Besieged, a novel widely regarded as one of the masterworks of twentieth- century Chinese literature. The brutal Japanese invasion of China in 1937—the bombing of Shanghai and the rape of Nanking—and the apparent Western indifference to Chinese suffering had finally muddied the image of China’s cultural and political models. Disillusionment with Republican China’s fractious rulers—the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, the warlords, and the Communists—had also grown. The “New Life Movement,” Chiang Kai-shek’s campaign in 1934 to morally regenerate China through mass adherence to four traditional virtues—politeness, integrity, self-respect, and righteousness—seemed no more than empty rhetoric, given the obvious brutality and corruption of the Nationalist regime.

The May Fourth impulse to learn from the West had decayed into empty ritual. As Qian’s hero, the twenty-seven-year-old Fang Hung-chien, asserts,

Studying abroad today is like passing examinations under the old Manchu system…. It’s not for the broadening of knowledge that one goes abroad but to get rid of that inferiority complex.

Appropriately, Fang exerts himself as little as possible as a student in Europe, and buys a bogus doctorate from a nonexistent American university called Carleton in order to please his family. When the novel opens, he is returning to China after some idle years subsidized by his relatives; and for much of the year during which we follow him across China he seems best equipped to observe insincerity and pretentiousness within himself as well as in other Westernized Chinese.

Unable to decide what he wants, he manages to alienate the two modern women he courts. Drifting through Shanghai, he meets a Cambridge-educated poet whose heavily annotated modernist poem “Adulterous Smorgasbord” contains allusions to works by T.S. Eliot, Leopardi, and Franz Werfel, among others. Fang also meets a self-proclaimed philosopher who writes flattering letters to famous Western thinkers and who claims personal friendship with “Bertie,” Bertrand Russell:

Do you know Russell well?”

You could call us friends. He respected me enough to ask my help in answering several questions.” Heaven knows Ch’u Shen-ming was not telling a lie. Russell had indeed asked him when he would come to England, what his plans were, how many sugar cubes he took in his tea, and other similar questions that he alone could answer.

A rich comprador businessman who sees Fang as a prospective match for his daughter sprinkles his speech with what he thinks are American expressions while showing off his porcelain collection:

Worth quite a lot of money, plenty of dough…. Sometimes I invite foreign friends over for dinner and use this big K’ang-hsi “underglaze-blue-and-colored-ware” plate for a salad dish. They all think the ancient colors and odor make the food taste a little old time.

  1. 1

    For an engaging account of Tagore’s visit to China, see Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980 (Viking, 1981), pp. 210–216. Also see “The Controversial Guest: Tagore in China” by Sisir Kumar Das, in India and China in the Colonial World, edited by Madhavi Thampi (Delhi: Social Science Press, 2005).

  2. 2

    For brilliant studies of Chinese modernism see Shu-mei Shih, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937 (University of California Press, 2001) and Lynn Pan, Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 2008).

  3. 3

    C.T. Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, third edition (Indiana University Press, 1999), p. 11.

  4. 4

    See the review of River Elegy in these pages by Frederic Wakeman, NYR, March 2, 1989.

  5. 5

    For an overview of the intellectual and political climate in the 1980s, see Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China’s Predicament (Norton, 1992). For an account of recent intellectual trends within China, see One China, Many Paths, edited by Wang Chaohua (Verso, 2003); Wang Hui, China’s New Order: Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition, edited by Theodore Huters (Harvard University Press, 2003); and Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, edited by Zhang Xudong (Duke University Press, 2001).

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