In an essay for The China Beat, Christopher Rea, assistant professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia, calls Qian Zhongshu, “the best Chinese writers you’ve never heard of.” So who was Qian?
Qian is perhaps best known as the author of the novel Fortress Besieged but as the forthcoming collection Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays reveals, Qian was also a talented short story writer and essayist. As Rea writes, Qian had an urbane wit and breadth of vision that distinguished his essays and fiction. His work, Rea suggests, transcends the political readings that seem to dominate Western interpretations of Chinese writers.
This, despite the fact that Qian’s life was very much shaped by Chinese history and politics. Qian and his wife remained in China after Mao and the Communists took power in 1949. He was assigned to translating Mao’s poetry in English but during the Cultural Revolution as sent off for re-education. After Mao’s death Qian’s work enjoyed a resurgence once again.
Rea concludes by summarizing the meaning, impact, and legacy of Qian’s work:
Qian himself treated life like “one big book” and claimed to be content with merely jotting down “piecemeal, spontaneous impressions” in its margins. In fact, the panoramic vision we find in Qian’s “jottings” marks him as one of the twentieth-century’s great literary cosmopolitans. If he remains little known in the West, it is mostly because he wrote in Chinese.
Qian’s writings thus pose a challenge not just to overpoliticized views of China, but to the presumption that to be cosmopolitan is to play on the West’s terms. Living under three governments (Nationalist, Japanese, and Communist), Qian’s most “political” act was to establish his own autonomous republic of letters. Worldly and multilingual, he chose to live in China and write in Chinese. This is not to romanticize Qian as an “apolitical” author or, conversely, a patriot. The point is rather that he sustained an extraordinary degree of creative independence from his immediate circumstances. In Qian’s works, then, we find one “China” that rarely makes headlines.