Authors: Silvia Gramegna, Valentino Zhao
Fortress Besieged (围城) is a Chinese satirical novel. The title comes from the French proverb “Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out”. Published in 1947, Fortress Besieged is the only novel ever written by Qian Zhongshu. It humorously describes the war-torn 1930s Chinese middle class and is recognized as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century Chinese literature.
The main character is Fang HongJian, a bumbling everyman who returns from his studies in Europe with a fake college degree. The story begins on his way back to China aboard a French steamer. To liven up his journey, he flirts unsuccessfully with two of the female passengers.
After disembarking in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Fang renews his acquaintance with a lady named Miss Su and promptly falls for her cousin, Miss Tang. Once she discovers it, Miss Su, who was expecting the protagonist to propose to her, destroys every chance he might have with her cousin.
With his heart broken and dissatisfied about his job in Shanghai, HongJian takes a teaching job at Sanlü university, a recently opened school in China’s interior. This turns out to be a bad decision from the very beginning of the short journey…
Fortress Besieged‘s unique sense of humor makes it a rather smooth read, although the themes covered aren’t simple. The main character is a feckless coward who ends up being used by other people all the time. He is a gormless fraud who is frightened by only the thought of being debunked. He is a dull deserter that follows blindly what other people tell him and what he’s “supposed to do”. But every action he makes is just reasonable because he’s that kind of person. It makes it more lifelike, and lifelike summarizes every aspect of the book. Marriage is not the fortress besieged: life is.