A central crisis in modern Chinese letters has been caused by the need to take account of Western forms. Some writers adjusted eagerly to Western literature out of a sincere admiration for Western culture; some grudgingly, out of a total rejection of China’s own “feudal” past; some out of a deeply ambiguous attitude, in which admiration for the West blended with the desire to preserve what was culturally valuable and historically charged in the Chinese tradition.

In no case was adaptation easy. Bombarded, within the few years between 1895 and 1910, by a range of works that included Rousseau, Byron and Goethe, Gogol, Ibsen, Zola and Dickens, Wilde, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and Dumas, Huxley, Spencer and John Stuart Mill (to name only a few of the more popular ones) Chinese intellectuals struggled to create valid and accessible literary forms while they reassessed their own heritage. In traditional poetry, the rules of meter, tone, and rhyme were rigorous and tied to the structures of classical Chinese; in the novel and the drama, though there was more openness to the cadences of everyday speech, there were conventions of plot, characterization, and dialogue that precluded a variety of nuance in the narrator’s voice and discouraged passages of prolonged introspection. In the short story, the indigenous tradition contained heavy elements of the magical, along with stylized treatments of the sensual and the violent, that were a far cry from the goals of Western realism.

It is not surprising that some Chinese, newly introduced to the world of Western literature through translation, found their own literature stifling; but they responded to the challenge, and the result was an almost unparalleled burst of creativity in the 1920s. By the 1930s, however, as even vaster reaches appeared to be opening up, and more and more Chinese intellectuals came, through study at home or abroad, to read at least one Western language fluently, the intellectuals were once again circumscribed either by the political and moral censorship of the Kuomintang, or by the demands of socialist realism and the “correct” anti-imperialist position advanced by the literary cadres of the Communist Party, both of which were justified by the exigencies of the protracted anti-Japanese war. Rare indeed were those who could still find their own voice.

One of these rare ones was Ch’ien Chung-shu, whose novel Fortress Besieged (Wei-ch’eng), set in 1937, was written during and after the Second World War and published in China in 1947. Ch’ien was born to a prosperous literary family in the exquisite Kiangsu city of Wuhsi and his precocity and linguistic brilliance were nurtured at the best local schools, at Tsinghua University, at Oxford (where he took a B-Litt), and in Paris. For the last decade nobody was quite sure how he had fared in the People’s Republic and for many scholars in the United States the greatest surprise and delight of the 1979 visit to the US of a delegation from the Chinese academy of social sciences was the fact that the group included Ch’ien—sardonic, erudite, elegant, purveying a sense of slightly world-weary charm, and quite delighted at his own survival.

Fortress Besieged has been described as modern China’s greatest novel. I haven’t read enough of the many Chinese novels to know the justness of that claim, but I can say that it is a vastly intelligent, skillful, and entertaining novel, urbane in tone, profoundly pessimistic in its conclusions. Its appearance in a vigorous and clear-headed (and on occasion truly lyrical) translation by Jeanne Kelly and Nathan Mao will immediately change the way Westerners think about modern Chinese literature, since it is so entirely different from either Mao Tun’s Midnight or Lao She’s Rickshaw,1 probably the two best-known novels in translation hitherto.

The narrative of Fortress Besieged can be easily summarized. In 1937 a Chinese student, Fang Hung-chien, returns to China after a period of study in France. Depressed by an unsatisfactory job in a Shanghai bank, he travels inland to accept a job at San-lü University in Hunan. There he teaches a year but loses his job; he marries one of the San-lü faculty, they return to Shanghai, and after a brief and increasingly unhappy marriage, they separate. As this story unfolds we find that Fang’s education in France had been paid for by the parents of his deceased fiancée, who despite their daughter’s untimely death still regard Fang in the traditional sense as their son-in-law; that Fang had failed his key exams and had purchased a fraudulent PhD; that before his marriage Fang had three other girl friends, one cheerful, sensual, and already engaged, one an intelligent but aloof (genuine) PhD, one naturally warm and sincere; that San-lü University is the back-of-beyond, with a depressed faculty one of whom holds a PhD from the same phony “school” as Fang. Fang, as it turns out, never really meant to propose to the woman he married; and when they get back to Shanghai she gets a much more highly paid job than he does.


The novel’s title first appears inside the book when a group of Chinese intellectuals are discussing Bertrand Russell’s divorces, in the kind of aimless and pretentious conversation that Ch’ien is relentless in satirizing. One of Fang’s women friends cites the French proverb that marriage is like a fortress besieged—those inside want to get out, and those outside want to be in. She uses the French phrase “forteresse assiégée,” and asks Fang if he has heard it. He has to admit that he hasn’t; but later he recalls the phrase and applies it to his feelings about the intellectual world of Shanghai and even to “everything in life.” It is the modern Chinese, we realize, who are trapped in this mental predicament.

“It’s a hard situation for the Chinese to stomach,” one is tempted to say, and certainly I have never read a book in which people throw up so much. Fang vomits at each of the key turning phases in the novel—in a Shanghai restaurant, in a bus in Hunan, in a plane en route from Kunming to Hong Kong, and repeatedly mucus and phlegm are spat out or swallowed, depending on emotion and context. (Ch’ien himself, interviewed about the novel on his 1979 visit to the United States, referred to it as being “youthful vomit”—using the English word in his Chinese sentence.)2 “Throwing up is like yawning,” says one character helpfully, “it’s contagious,” and one remembers that the root meaning of “Ou,” the word used to transliterate “Europe” into Chinese since the sixteenth century, is “vomit.”

Ch’ien makes the point in a different way at the very beginning of the novel. We first meet Fang sailing across the Inian Ocean en route from France to Shanghai. His ship, Ch’ien tells us in the second paragraph, is “The French liner, the Vicomte de Bragelonne.” This, it seems to me, is typical of Ch’ien’s wit, and also poses the central ambiguity in assessing how he intended such a piece of information to be absorbed. That the boat is French has no discernible importance for the plot: it serves only to open the way for a couple of epigrams about the French national character (i.e., they love order in their philosophy but their ships are always filthy) and to have some French passengers bound for Indochina aboard. Presumably that is the point for many readers. But for Ch’ien, who has grown up in China and studied in France, the Vicomte de Bragelonne is obviously the subtitle of Dumas père’s novel Dix ans plus tard ou le Vicomte de Bragelonne.

But ten years after what? The year is 1937, Ch’ien has just told us, so it is ten years after 1927; in other words, the novel’s characters are trapped by echoes of 1927, when the violent political struggles were at their height and the Communist Party of China, working with the Comintern, received its most shattering defeats at the hands of the Kuomintang. (Fang returns to Shanghai, where the most savage of Chiang Kai-shek’s mass killings took place in April 1927.) If one chooses to read Dix ans plus tard, one sees how the Vicomte, Raoul (Athos’s son), lives a life totally overshadowed by his father and the other three Musketeers. Raoul is a young man fighting to clear some space for himself, and only able to do it by a final foolhardy action that does not really emulate his glamorous precursors.

One could of course go on, and there are many paragraphs in the Dumas novel that illuminate Fang’s predicament—presumably Ch’ien does not intend for us to go so far, but how far does he want us to go? In other words, in answer to the central challenge often placed on “May 4” intellectuals by their Chinese critics, how much baggage of Western culture is the Chinese reader of Ch’ien meant to have? All one can really say is that without knowledge of Western culture one will miss the parody in Ch’ien’s story, and be unable to tell when the characters are genuinely erudite and when they are being merely pretentious. Western culture, in Ch’ien’s view, must be thoroughly absorbed if one is to understand the false uses to which it can be put.

Hsiao Hung’s China is a universe away from Ch’ien’s. The Field of Life and Death, written in 1934, is set in Manchuria, not far from Harbin where she was born in 1911, but the images seem universal ones from poverty-stricken rural China. The pain and misery in this book, as in Tales of Hulan River, are almost unbearable and clearly spring from Hsiao Hung’s observations of the countryside in which she grew up, from her father’s cruelty to his tenants, and from the misery and loneliness of her own life: “Hurry and grow up! It will be fine once you have grown up,” so she says her grandfather exhorted her. And she continues, with her characteristic brevity: “The year I reached the age of twenty, I fled from the home of my father, and ever since I have lived the life of a drifter. I’ve ‘grown up,’ all right, but things are not ‘fine.’ ” Her genius lies in her ability to write of rural life without judgment but in a tone of total acceptance; so that the villagers are shown as developing their own logic for each action they perform and gaining in dignity as a result, even at their saddest.


Each vignette or overlapping story is related through echoed images that give her short books an aesthetic coherence; they are not novels, not short stories, not novellas, but collections of perceptions around a given theme, each building up to a particularly tragic denouement for one of the female protagonists. Howard Goldblatt’s translations (one of them in collaboration with Ellen Yeung) are supple and convincing.

The haystacks of the wheat-growing families were piling higher and higher. Fu-fa’s haystack was higher than the wall. His woman sucked on her pipe. She was robust but small. As smoke drifted from her pipe, she combed the grains on the ground with the rake in her hand. Her nephew, cracking his whip as he passed under the shady patch up ahead, quietly sang his lonely song. She was moved by his song and nearly stopped her raking. The song continued to come from the edge of the woods.

Yesterday morning there was a light rain;
The young maiden donned her rain cloak;
The young maiden…gone fishing.

Hay, rake, song, woods, grain, whip—each will come again or is an echo of something passed. One can see why Lu Hsün wrote of Hsiao Hung (who died in Hong Kong when only thirty years old) that she was the very best woman writer in China.3

Hsiao Hung’s countryside is beyond politics. Japanese troops come, rape and steal, and depart; some young men join partisans, but we never see them in action and are told they are not really different from the bandits (when a young man returns from the army to his village he is “crawling like a half-dead snake”). As to the villagers, “when their eyesight fails they stop looking at things, when their hearing fades they stop listening, when their teeth fall out they swallow things whole, and when they can no longer move about they lie flat on their backs. What else can they do?” If there is a truly sympathetic character in the book it is the author’s own grandfather, watchful, experienced, comforting though obviously—in economic categories—a member of the landlord class.

Ch’ien Chung-shu’s novel is also beyond politics: its richness lies in its cultural overlays, its self-absorption, its ambiguities. The nearest thing to a clear political statement Ch’ien makes comes in the preface, where he refuses to dedicate his book to anyone: “Dedicating a book is like the fine rhetoric about offering one’s life to one’s country, or handing the reins of the government back to the people. This is but the vain and empty juggling of language.” Almost everything about both books, in other words, puts them firmly outside the pale of acceptable modern Chinese literature, as the Communist Party has defined it.

As swift and bleak a way as any to be reminded of those definitions can be found in the quotations from Mao Tse-tung’s 1942 Yenan Forum talks “On Literature and Art” and Mao Tun’s 1949 speech on culture as they are presented in K.Y. Hsü’s huge anthology Literature of the People’s Republic of China, the third volume in Indiana University Press’s fine “Chinese Literature in Translation” series to appear within a year. Mao Tse-tung’s remarks, pedestrian but clear, had the effect of banning all literary work bearing on economic and social questions that did not hold to the correct class line of exalting the worker, peasant, cadre, and PLO soldier, excoriating the landlord, foreign imperialist, capitalist, or agent of the Kuomintang. Mao Tun’s remarks spelled out in sharper detail what it was about the bourgeois and over-Westernized literary past that had to be rejected, and what the step toward progress must be:

Petty-bourgeois youth sought refuge in decadence—heavy drinking with girl friends in garden pavilions, fist-pounding on the tables, hysterical shouts of “Go among the people! Live among the people!” Enraptured with individualistic anarchism, these sons of déclassé families, who wore faded, unconventional clothing and had already exhausted every cent of their wife’s dowry and personal savings, would “passionately” and self-righteously yell: “Down with everything! After everything has been destroyed, utopia will then appear!” The metaphysical crazies, the sleep-walkers, the advocates of “art above all else” hiding out in their ivory towers at the crossroads, the futurists, the fin de siècle melancholiacs, the traditionalist reactionaries hoping to restore the past, the advocates of total Europeanization, etc., all came tumbling onto the stage at once. Finally, the shining light of Marxism-Leninism gradually brought order and clarity to all this ideological chaos.

The 947 pages of Kai-yu Hsü’s new anthology provide a sweeping survey of what this new “order and clarity” was to be, what Mao’s “victory on the cultural front” amounted to. Professor Hsü is a well-qualified guide, since he has already compiled an admirable anthology of twentieth-century Chinese poetry and given a somewhat episodic but useful survey of the literary situation in 1973 in The Chinese Literary Scene. (His own unpublished 1959 dissertation on Wen I-to, the marvelous poet who was killed by KMT gunmen in 1946, remains the best thing in English on a man whom Mao Tun’s remarks would also exclude from the acceptable world.)

Hsü has assembled a work in six chronological parts, with each part subdivided into prose (short stories, selections from novels, plays) and verse; the parts follow logical political watersheds in the People’s Republic: Yenan to 1955 (Korean war and early land reform); 1956-1958 (100 Flowers and anti-Rightist campaign); 1959-1961 (Great Leap Forward); 1962-1964 (Socialist Education Campaign and Mao’s partial eclipse); 1964-1970 (Cultural Revolution); and a section from 1971 on, entitled “The Aftermath: The Fall of the Gang of Four—Returns and Reversals.” This is an enterprising anthology with a wide range, the first effort on a large scale to survey all the literature of the People’s Republic, and I salute both the editor and the publisher for making the attempt.4 The trouble is that though some of the items are fascinating, a great many make pretty dreary reading.

Broadly conceived anthologies of national literature such as this one may be valuable in any of three ways: as literature; as source material for helping us to understand the economic and cultural milieu of the time; or simply as an index to the kinds of expression permitted within that society.

If we take Part I of Hsü’s anthology as a prototype, we find that most of the included pieces fall into the third category, that is to say, their main value is to show that certain materials were written by certain people following a certain political line at a particular time. That is not to say that the issues being dealt with in the pieces are not huge, the suffering described appalling, the heroism genuine—simply that when ambiguity and doubt are banished so thoroughly we lose the tensions and creative richness that might have led to art.

There are however several selections in what I’d call the second category, which give useful insights into China: Liu Pai-yü takes up the theme of a skilled industrial worker back from sick leave, finding a young woman worker in charge of his former domain. Li Chun shows an old man finally persuaded that he need not go on buying scraps of land at endless sacrifice to add to his own. A play by Ho Ch’iu shows how chicanery in cornering office supplies and equipment takes place among party cadres. In a story by Ai Wu a young man and young woman drive home to different villages on a cold night, while she scornfully rejects his only dimly suggested advances; here to the interplay between sensual and political feeling the author adds an element of suspense that is unusual in the fiction of the period.

But the story that leaps to our attention is “A Wine Pot” by Ts’ui Pa-wa, the story of a runaway adopted child pursued by thugs. In its raw power and its capacity to evoke poverty and terror, it reminded me of the work of Hsiao Hung or of Shen Ts’ung-wen, the Hunanese writer who in the 1920s and 1930s wrote brilliantly of rural life and the tyranny of local goons and bandits. A section from T’ien Chien’s long poem The Carter’s Story has some of the same power, but in part this comes from the wonderful translation by Cyril Birch which picks up the cadence of folk songs from old China and drives them to a shifting beat in the new:

This year then, after harvest
Flinty Stone sat in his field,
Sat in his field
By his side an empty cart
An old ox hitched in front.
On his back a few poor rags
Not enough for a man.
He picked up a stone from the ground,
Beat his sickle, cried out,
“Flinty Stone, who’s it all for?
Who’s it for—
Who’s it for?”

Part Two of the anthology, covering the 100 Flowers period, is a disappointing puzzle as presented by Hsü. Coming after a meager introduction (sample: “writers were not as eager to produce as the peasants and workers were”) the selections give us little sense of that upsurge of creative but allegedly “reactionary” energy that was to lead so many to be branded as rightists and to disappear from view between 1957 and 1978. The once wonderful poets Ai Ch’ing and Feng Chih are represented by merely dutiful pieces. Stories of land reform, model cadres, Yenan heroes, and bold bridge-builders repeat the basic values of the early Fifties but add little new (or old). Only when we have read almost to the end of the anthology do we find the reason why this section is so thin. Hsü obviously felt it more important to highlight the baneful effects of the cultural revolution by including in that section (i.e., section five) examples by writers who were purged during the mid-1960s, as opposed to writings that were produced during that period.

This difference is important and seriously skews the anthology. For if, in the 100 Flowers section, Hsü had included the subtle scene of late Ch’ing politics from Lao She’s Teahouse (written in 1957), the brilliantly conceived and historically allusive scene from T’ien Han’s play about Mongol oppression entitled Kuan Han-ch’ing (written in 1958), and the selection from Hsia Yen’s vivid film script “The Lin Family Store,” adapted from an old Mao Tun story (and released in 1958) we would have a much more accurate picture of the possibilities for creativity the CCP was willing to allow in the brief periods of euphoria, in the mid-1950s, following the First Five Year Plan.

As if this did not throw us off enough, Yüeh Yeh’s play “Together Through Thick and Thin,” which has some searing moments of dialogue between a bore frustrated wife and her upward-bound, impeccably socialist cadre husband, though it was written in 1956, is placed under Part Three, the 1960s, because that is when it was criticized.

After the anti-rightist campaigns of 1959 and 1960 obviously writers grew more circumspect, as can be seen in Hsü’s selections for the early 1960s. (Yet again if the redoubtable Teng T’o had had his satirical and historical anti-Mao essays included here his audacity would be seen as all the more striking.) As it is, one catches some subtle asides, especially from a few of the unregenerate old guard. But after reading this anthology, and praising some of the translators for formidable successes with often intractable material (John Berninghausen, Gary Bjorge, Bonnie McDougall, and Richard Strassberg in particular, as well of course as Cyril Birch), I am led to two melancholy observations: First, that it has to be a terribly good novel that can be excerpted in an illuminating way, and that most of the novels excerpted here do not stand up to such treatment, since we lose any feeling for such development of character as the complete novel might have made possible.

Second, though it is important (crucial even) for historians or economists to follow carefully the shifts in social policies from mutual aid teams to low-level cooperatives, high-level producers cooperatives, small communes, large communes and back to small communes again (i.e., the whole rural revolutionary process from 1950 to 1965), from the point of view of literature and personal character development it is hard to distinguish one from the other in a meaningful way. Which is one way of saying that by the time we come to the end of this anthology we feel that we have read the same story again and again.

It is instructive right after the Hsü anthology to read an attempt to cover one section of the same ground, written in the US by a woman who graduated from high school in Shanghai in 1949 and emigrated in 1971. Chen Yuantsung’s. The Dragon’s Village seems to be a largely fictional account (though it is billed as “an autobiographical novel”) of the first phases of land reform in a northwestern Chinese village, as told through the eyes of a young intellectual from Shanghai who has been assigned to the area.

One comes across many of the elements that writers in the PRC present in their own stories: the grimness of the poverty, the unending toil, the dread of hunger and disease, the casual cruelty with which women were treated, the attempt to foster intelligent analysis of the class realities of rural China, the problems of landlord counterrevolutionary activity, the difficulties of coordination with central authorities. But whereas the PRC writers carry at least a measure of conviction by the place and date of their writing, Chen’s task has to be to convey a sense of authenticity through her art.

She is at her most successful when she describes the young woman cadre’s attempts to communicate with peasant women and to overcome the natural and deep-seated suspicions that they have concerning her motives. But even though Chen has the freedom (denied to the writers in the PRC) to deal as frankly as she chooses with sexual themes or with the profound ambiguities of the party’s position, she is unable to give much coherence or sense of development to her tale; and she does not have Hsiao Hung’s ability to carry violence and degradation to the edge of art.

Chinese writers in Taiwan, of course, confront problems of a very different order. They are currently in a position closer to the Chinese intellectuals of the 1920s than to those in the PRC. Working also under the restraints of censorship that prevent a wide range of critical comment on the dominant Kuomintang and discourage explicit sexual description, they nevertheless manage to produce stories of considerable depth and subtlety. Joseph Lau’s anthology gives a useful introduction to this literature for those who are not familiar with it, and shows us the source of many current tensions and frustrations.

In his fine story “Earth,” Chang Hsikuo shows Chinese dealing with a range of choices denied to those in the PRC. Primary among them is the choice of making a living in the city or on the land, and Chang is honest in mocking the sentimentalists who think “creative return to the soil” is a simple matter. He acutely describes army veterans, vivacious girls in dance-halls, and unhappy Chinese students writing home from the United States; the dominant image the reader is left with (in a brilliant play on the story’s title) is of the hero as merchant sailor, drawn constantly out of and back to his only half-loved land.

This can be read as another version of Ch’ien Chung-shu’s theme in Fortress Besieged; the same theme is given great poignance in Pai Hsien-yung’s “Winter Nights,” a short and finely rendered account of the meeting of two university professors on the edge of retirement: one, a former Byron scholar teaching in Taipei, admires the bustling prosperous old friend who has become a professor at the University of California; but the Americanized professor, though sheltered by his plane flights and his conferences and his imposing list of publications, feels lost and empty. As for the professor in Taiwan, all he can do is hug the memory of those lost days when New China was young and finally stammer out a request for a job: “I wouldn’t go to America to teach Byron—what I mean is, if there is a school which needs someone to teach Chinese or something like that….”

Ch’en Ying-chen is represented in Lau’s anthology by a powerful story about a young detective trying to comprehend a universe where people live on their shared memories of once having buried Communists alive. Ch’en was given a ten-year sentence in Taiwan for his “anti-government” activities—and served seven of them. Again and again in Hsü’s anthology we come across writers in the People’s Republic who were sent to camps, or to farms, or silenced, or—like Lao She, Teng T’o, Wu Han, and T’ien Han—were driven to commit suicide. The continuing disclosures of such harsh treatment in the PRC have added much to our knowledge of these processes, and give a terrible sense of how great was the toll in human suffering during the Cultural Revolution.

Hsü’s anthology went to press a bit too soon for the last section—“Aftermath”—to be much more than a series of guesses at what the future might hold. Yet if the condemnation of the Gang of Four continues, writers are likely to have a legitimate forum for airing grievances against the party and that may lead to at least a partial opening of the shutters. An extraordinary declaration about repression has already been made to the fourth cultural congress in 1979 by the redoubtable and talented writer Ting Ling, who had been purged in 1958 following the hundred flowers episode. Ting Ling praised the ending of the Cultural Revolution excesses, but pointed out that it solved nothing to blame everything on the Cultural Revolution, while to say that feudal elements were responsible for it was simply ridiculous. The real danger, she said, is not feudalism but “cronyism.” “Cronyism” itself may not be bad, said Ting, but when it is combined with political power then it becomes terrifying. The interesting thing so far as current PRC politics is concerned is that this declaration was printed in the party organ Red Flag (Hung-ch’i) and so has now become available in the West.5

Among other powerful points that Ting Ling made is this: when the party imposes silence on its writers then it strikes at the very center of human hopes; but she adds that it is the whole society, not just individuals, who are responsible:

In this case it is not a question of receiving favors or settling scores with individuals; what we went through involves the whole society, there was no one person who struck me down…. Fifty-two years have passed since I started writing in 1927, but there has been a hiatus for me of twenty years since the events of 1958. In 1930 the Kuomintang banned my books, and after 1958 we ourselves banned my books. Most people who are now around thirty years old have never read my works.

Ting Ling says that she has rejected her friends’ advice that she should keep quiet, for she wants to bring these facts out of the dark places and into the sunlight. We now learn from other sources and interviews that as well as being made to work on the farms in her long period of withdrawal she was physically abused, the writings on which she was currently working were destroyed, and she was kept for a time in solitary confinement.6 In the light of such experiences, her statement is all the more powerful, and can be read as being of parallel significance to her “Remarks on Women’s Day” written in criticism of Maoist policies in Yenan in 1942. In view of recent crackdowns against even limited freedoms in China, moreover, hers was a brave act. One is reminded of a couplet by Mao’s childhood friend Hsiao San, which Hsü includes in Part Four of his anthology:

An old horse lying in stable
Still dreams of open spaces.

This Issue

April 17, 1980