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 (围城) became a best-seller in the 1970s, 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.
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.
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). Shortly after his daughter Qian Yuan (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.
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 (写在人生边上) was published in 1941. Men, Beasts and Ghosts (人·兽·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 (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 (围城) 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.
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."
Besides being one of the few acknowledged masters of vernacular Chinese in the twentieth century, 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.
A 13-volume edition of Works of Qian Zhongshu (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. One of the most valuable parts of the edition, titled Marginalias on the Marginalias of Life , 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 (宋诗纪事补正), published in 2003, was condemned as a shoddy publication. The editor and the publisher have been criticized. A facsimile of Qian's holograph (known as 宋诗纪事补正(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. In 2005, a collection of Qian's English works was published. Again, it was lashed for its editorial incompetence.
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.
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 1970s. His novel, Fortress Besieged (1947), became a bestseller in the 1980s, and in 1991 it was made into a television drama which turned Qian into one of the most popular writers in China.