Qian Zhongshu Should Win the Nobel

Why the postwar novel Fortress Beseiged deserves a re-read – Brendan O’Kane

Qian Zhongshu is a tough pitch to win the Nobel prize in literature this year. He’s dead, for starters – traditionally an obstacle to many things, including winning Nobel prizes – and his total creative output consists solely of a few essays, several short stories, and a single novel. On the other hand, that novel, Fortress Besieged, seems to me to be the high-water mark of something significant, if hard to explain, so I’m going to make my best case for it being enough to secure Qian’s place in history. The book takes its title from a French proverb, sets its action in the China of the 1930s, and tracks the misfortunes of Fang Hongjian, a feckless, cowardly student returning from Europe with a mail-order doctorate in Chinese from an American university that exists only in the imagination of a crooked Irishman. It may be one of the most cosmopolitan books ever written; certainly it is, as literary critic C. T. Hsia said, one of the greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century.

We meet the protagonist, Fang Hongjian, in the summer of 1937 as he and his fellow Chinese students return to China aboard a French steamer. He livens up the journey by flirting unsuccessfully with two of the female passengers. In Shanghai, which has just fallen under Japanese occupation, Fang renews his acquaintance with one of the young women, a PhD named Miss Su – and promptly falls for her cousin. He clammily courts both women for a time before working up the nerve to break things off with Miss Su, who has been expecting Fang to propose to her. In retaliation, she destroys any chance he might have with her cousin.



Blade Runner with Bicycle Rickshaws

Cruising the Shenzhen strip for a nosh  Brendan O’Kane

Needless to say, there was a problem.

The signature strip on the back of my card had worn off from a year’s worth of pocket-borne abuse (I guess I’ll have to start keeping my sandpaper in the OTHER pocket). And without my signature, nothing – not the signatures on my passport or voter registration card or school ID or expired learner’s permit; not pleading; not whining “Come on, be a pal!” in Mandarin; nothing – would convince the bank teller to let me withdraw cash.

Story Club


A tale of crime and hamstrings by Diao Dou, translated by Brendan O'Kane 

Diao Dou, born in 1960 in China's Northeast, is one of the most exciting Chinese writers you might have never heard of. For our March story club, we bring you one of his most thought-provoking stories – a tale of the city, the people and the troubled polity. In a few weeks we will discuss the story with its translator, Brendan O'Kane, and perhaps Diao Dou too. As always invite you to write into [email protected] with your questions and comments, to join the conversation. – The Editors

Summer is high season for criminal offences, particularly at night.

I’m not just referring to crimes of a sexual nature.

That sexual assault is more prevalent during the summer months, and especially on summer nights, is a fact in need of little explanation. Indeed, summer nights facilitate many other forms of crime, as may also go without saying.

Brawling, for example.


Floor and Building

One word for two things, and two for one – Brendan O’Kane

I had originally meant to leave Beijing on the Friday after I arrived, but when I went to the main train station on Thursday to pick up a ticket, I was told that all the tickets had been sold, and that the next available ticket was for Saturday afternoon, and yingzuo.

Yingzuo means “hard seat,” and refers to a class of ticket that will get its holder a spot on a thinly-padded wooden bench with three other people. Yingzuo is considered uncomfortable by even seasoned travellers, ones who can understand Beijing cabbies and use Chinese-style squatter toilets without flinching.