Sentimental Education in Shanghai


In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that modern civilization, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive, and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East—had a receptive audience among many people in the West who had been forced by World War I to question their faith in science and progress. But when, traveling in the East, he exhorted Asians not to abandon their traditional culture, he was often heckled and booed.

In Japan in 1916 Tagore’s warning against the “special modern enthusiasm for Western progress and force” was mostly contemptuously dismissed. However, it was in China that Tagore’s praise for Asia’s spiritual traditions faced the fiercest opposition. The poet Qu Qiubai, who had been a student of Buddhism before embracing communism, summed up the general tone of Tagore’s reception in China when he wrote, “Thank you, Mr. Tagore, but we have already had too many Confuciuses and Menciuses in China.”1 Repeatedly assaulted with hostile questions, Tagore was forced to cut his tour short.

In the years after World War I, China was one of the largest and one of the weakest countries in the world. In previous decades, Western powers, and a rising Japan, had repeatedly forced unequal treaties and harsh indemnities upon the country. However, like Qu Qiubai, many leading intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu, editor of the radical journal New Youth and a founder of the Communist Party of China, called for a total rejection of Chinese tradition. They wished China to become a strong and assertive nation using Western methods, and they admired such visitors as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, whose belief in science and democracy seemed to lead the way to China’s redemption.

This intellectual consensus had formed early in China’s modern history. Growing up against a background of national humiliation and shame, the first generation of reform-minded intellectuals, such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), agreed that China needed to modernize, with or without its Manchu imperial rulers. After the disastrous Boxer Rebellion between 1898 and 1900, when Western powers and Japan crushed a popular uprising against foreign interference in Chinese affairs, even the tottering Manchus attempted Western-style reform. They abolished the traditional examinations for the civil service, established modern schools, and sent Chinese students abroad. Thousands of young Chinese were first introduced to modern sciences, engineering, medicine, law, economics, education, and military skills, and voluntary organizations dedicated to modernizing China sprang up in both China and the Chinese diaspora.

The collapse of Manchu rule in 1911, and the inauguration of the Chinese Republic, may have appeared to be speeding up China’s political and economic transformation. But warlords supplanted the Manchu rulers, and plunged much of the country into violence and chaos. Japan continued to press its mostly unreasonable claims upon Chinese territory, and on May 4, 1919, students in Beijing erupted in violent protest after the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference awarded to Japan the territorial rights previously held by Germany.

The protests were the beginning of the “May Fourth Movement,” the explosion of intellectual energy in China that crystallized a conviction which many Chinese shared and which continues to shape politics and culture in the country even today: that China has to throw off the shackles of tradition and urgently modernize itself in order to be a strong, self-confident nation. For the May Fourth generation the egalitarian ideals of the French and Russian Revolutions, and the scientific spirit underlying Western industrial power, were self-evidently superior to an ossified Chinese culture that exalted tradition over innovation and kept China backward and weak. In 1924, few of them were ready to listen to an apparently otherworldly poet from India holding forth on the problems of modern Western civilization and the virtues of old Asia.


In the Twenties and Thirties, most of the modern Chinese intellectuals and writers were based in Shanghai, the most Westernized of Chinese cities, whose bookshops offered magazines such as Harper’s, The Dial, and Vanity Fair along with translations of Joyce and Woolf and other modernist writers. Though dominated by foreign businessmen since the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai’s Western-style theaters, dance halls, cafés, racecourses, imported cars, and bookshops appeared to open up many possibilities of self-invention to young Chinese. Returning to China in 1937 after a few years in Europe, the young hero of Qian Zhongshu’s classic novel Fortress Besieged (1947) caustically observes, “Shanghai is certainly avant-garde culturally. The phenomenon of high school girls painting and plastering their faces to attract men is rare even abroad.”

Nevertheless, it couldn’t have been easy to be a Westernized intellectual in a city like Shanghai where Chinese in the so-called International Settlements were forced to use separate elevators, not admitted to foreign clubs except as guests, and prevented from using the most modern hospitals. The large Japanese presence in the city may have been even more tormenting. Many Chinese intellectuals saw Japan as an example of how catching up with the West in industrial growth and military skills could make an Asian nation strong if not unassailable. Most of the Western literature available in Chinese consisted of retranslations from Japanese, and many leading writers and activists such as Lu Xun and Sun Yat-sen had spent much time in Japan. At the same time, Chinese writers were daily confronted with growing evidence of Japan’s malevolent intentions toward China.

The Chinese hoping for personal liberation through the West or Japan couldn’t avoid reckoning with the political and economic degradation of their country. But as the critic Shu-mei Shih describes it, fiction writers in the Twenties and Thirties tended to avoid dealing with the more humiliating aspects of a foreign presence in China, of which Shanghai, with its racist and exploitative businessmen, opium traffickers, and evangelists, offered the most egregious example.2 Also, having developed an ambition to be seen as the equals of Westerners, many Chinese intellectuals felt contempt for their resolutely backward and poverty-stricken counterparts. As C.T. Hsia, the first major critic in English of modern Chinese literature, put it:

Perhaps in their younger days they had been proud of China, but this pride had turned into a frankly masochistic admission of what they saw as inferiority in every department of endeavor. Disgusted with pigtails, bound feet, and opium—palpable symbols of China’s backwardness— they were no less ashamed of her art, literature, philosophy, and folkways.3

Not surprisingly, faced with such inner conflicts, Lu Xun, a ferocious critic of traditional Chinese culture, became one of the many Chinese writers to embrace Marxism. Others, such as Shao Xunmei, a poet who edited the poems and drawings of Aubrey Beardsley and who became, briefly, the lover of the New Yorker writer Emily Hahn, seem to have resolved their ambivalences through a cosmopolitan dandyism.

Many decades later, the question of how China would become modern is far from being settled—despite, or perhaps because, of the long years of China’s isolation from the West enforced by Mao Zedong. In depicting Chinese tradition as moribund and comparing China unflatteringly to the modern West, the popular television documentary series River Elegy (1988) expressed the sentiments of many educated Chinese.4 For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese intellectuals, recovering from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, were united in their faith that swift political and economic Westernization could free China from its feudal past—a consensus that was disrupted but not broken by the killings of unarmed protesters near Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In recent years, however, young conservative nationalists have denounced what they see as the indiscriminate Chinese adoption of the decadent Western values of consumerism. Aware of its ideological vacuum, the Communist regime tried in the Nineties to resurrect Confucius as the source of values. More recently, writers and academics described as the “New Left” have highlighted the steep costs—growing social inequality and unrest, environmental damage—of China’s long-delayed integration into the modern global economy.5

* * *

China’s romance with the modern world seemed to have gone very sour when Qian Zhongshu wrote in the early Forties about the ineffectual Westernized intellectual in Fortress Besieged, a novel widely regarded as one of the masterworks of twentieth-century Chinese literature. The brutal Japanese invasion of China in 1937—the bombing of Shanghai and the rape of Nanking—and the apparent Western indifference to Chinese suffering had finally muddied the image of China’s cultural and political models. Disillusionment with Republican China’s fractious rulers—the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, the warlords, and the Communists—had also grown. The “New Life Movement,” Chiang Kai-shek’s campaign in 1934 to morally regenerate China through mass adherence to four traditional virtues—politeness, integrity, self-respect, and righteousness—seemed no more than empty rhetoric, given the obvious brutality and corruption of the Nationalist regime.

The May Fourth impulse to learn from the West had decayed into empty ritual. As Qian’s hero, the twenty-seven-year-old Fang Hung-chien, asserts,

Studying abroad today is like passing examinations under the old Manchu system…. It’s not for the broadening of knowledge that one goes abroad but to get rid of that inferiority complex.

Appropriately, Fang exerts himself as little as possible as a student in Europe, and buys a bogus doctorate from a nonexistent American university called Carleton in order to please his family. When the novel opens, he is returning to China after some idle years subsidized by his relatives; and for much of the year during which we follow him across China he seems best equipped to observe insincerity and pretentiousness within himself as well as in other Westernized Chinese.

Unable to decide what he wants, he manages to alienate the two modern women he courts. Drifting through Shanghai, he meets a Cambridge-educated poet whose heavily annotated modernist poem “Adulterous Smorgasbord” contains allusions to works by T.S. Eliot, Leopardi, and Franz Werfel, among others. Fang also meets a self-proclaimed philosopher who writes flattering letters to famous Western thinkers and who claims personal friendship with “Bertie,” Bertrand Russell:

“Do you know Russell well?”

“You could call us friends. He respected me enough to ask my help in answering several questions.” Heaven knows Ch’u Shen-ming was not telling a lie. Russell had indeed asked him when he would come to England, what his plans were, how many sugar cubes he took in his tea, and other similar questions that he alone could answer.

A rich comprador businessman who sees Fang as a prospective match for his daughter sprinkles his speech with what he thinks are American expressions while showing off his porcelain collection:

Worth quite a lot of money, plenty of dough…. Sometimes I invite foreign friends over for dinner and use this big K’ang-hsi “underglaze-blue-and-colored-ware” plate for a salad dish. They all think the ancient colors and odor make the food taste a little old time.

The deeper pathos of nouveau-riche aspiration lies in the businessman’s daughter’s bookcase, where, among copies of the Reader’s Digest and the screenplay of Gone with the Wind, Fang discovers a book titled How to Gain a Husband and Keep Him. Another young woman interested in Fang turns out to have plagiarized a poem from a German folk song.

If Shanghai’s modern veneer seems counterfeit to Fang, he is an even greater misfit in his native town. Fawned upon by his family, he struggles to ward off their attempt to arrange his marriage:

All his life he had detested those modern girls from small towns with outdated fashions and a provincial cosmopolitanism. They were just like the first Western suit made by a Chinese tailor with everything copied from a foreigner’s old clothes used as a model.

Revered locally for his European education, Fang is invited to deliver a lecture entitled “A Reevaluation of the Influences of Western Civilization on Chinese History.” His old-fashioned father presses upon him some Chinese books which claim, among other things, that “the Chinese were square and honest by nature, so they said the sky was square” and “foreigners were roundabout and cunning and therefore maintained that the earth was round.” Fang seems to express more than a personal sense of irrelevance and failure when he tells his bewildered small-town audience that “there are only two items from the West which have been lasting in Chinese society as a whole. One is opium, and the other is syphilis.”

* * *

The Japanese invasion of Shanghai disrupts Fang’s lassitude and forces him to accept a job offer from a university set up in the hinterland. On rickety buses and boats Fang and his companions make what turns out to be an epic journey through provinces full of the chaos of war and refugees. Their struggles with petty officials, prostitutes, and innkeepers inspire some of the best comic set-pieces in the novel. Here they are in a typical flophouse, considering whether to eat what looks like cured meat:

From the wall the waiter took a pitch black, greasy object and offered it for their inspection, repeatedly saying, “How delicious!” his own mouth watering as he spoke, fearful only that the fat meat would waste away under the greedy stares of the guests. Wriggling and squirming from its greasy slumber, a maggot on the meat awoke. Li saw it and was repulsed by the sight; from a distance his mouth pointed toward it and he exclaimed, “We can’t have it.”

The waiter quickly stuck his finger over the tender, soft, white object and pressing down lightly, drew a shiny, black, oily streak like a freshly poured asphalt road across the filthy surface of the meat. At the same time he said, “It’s nothing!”

Infuriated, Ku asked the waiter, “You think we’re blind?”

“Outrageous,” they cried.

…The commotion brought in the innkeeper. Meanwhile two other maggots in the meat also heard the noise and poked their heads out for a look…. The waiter, no longer able “to do away with the corpse and destroy the evidence,” merely retorted, “If you won’t eat it, then other people will. I’ll eat it to show you—”

The innkeeper took the pipe from his mouth and remonstrated, “Those aren’t bugs. They don’t hurt anything. Those are ‘meat sprouts’—’meat sprouts.’”

Modern satire usually requires as its backdrop a relatively stable society with clear rules of behavior. The social comedies of Evelyn Waugh, whom Qian admired, gain their power from the ordered conventions of Edwardian England. But violent disorder defined the China Qian knew, and made his task as a novelist hard.

Born in 1910, a year before the collapse of the Manchu dynasty, Qian was educated at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University and then at Oxford. Besides being a gifted scholar of classical Chinese literature, Qian was extremely well read in Greek, Latin, English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian literatures; his erudition may have kept despair at bay during the many difficult times in his life.

Returning to China from Europe in the middle of the war in 1937, he was forced, like his protagonist Fang and indeed like millions of people, to flee coastal territories invaded or occupied by Japan for the deep Chinese hinterland. He taught at an improvised university in Kunming, the capital of the southwestern Yunnan province, before returning in 1941 to Shanghai, then run by a pro-Japanese collaborationist regime, where he taught and wrote—much of Fortress Besieged among other things—until the end of the war.

* * *

Qian holds his characters to a personal aesthetic standard, when all other norms have collapsed. In his characteristically elegant and perceptive foreword to the new edition of Fortress Besieged, Jonathan Spence mentions Sentimental Education as a likely influence. Certainly, Qian has, underneath his exuberant comedy, something of Flaubert’s melancholy sense of life as a series of missed opportunities for happiness.

He also shares Flaubert’s keen eye for bourgeois deception and self-deception, and his scorn of platitudes about human progress. As Fang observes:

The uneducated are fooled by others because they’re illiterate. The educated are taken in by printed matter like your newspaper propaganda and lecture notes on training cadres because they are literate.

In a semiliterate society that measures intellectual accomplishments by academic degrees, impostors and frauds proliferate. Fang discovers that the chairman of his university department also has a doctorate from the nonexistent Carleton University. This academic also claims in his curriculum vitae to have contributed articles to the Saturday Review of Literature though, in reality, he has published only ads in the magazine’s personals section. (“Well-educated Chinese youth wishes to assist Sinologists. Low rates.”)

No one, however, has a more assured command of pompous clichés than the university president, who is

“fluent” in the disciplines of all three colleges and all ten departments of the school. “Fluent,” that is, in the sense of flowing smoothly, as in the “free flow of trains” or a “smooth intestinal flow.” …[At] the Literary Study Group…, he encouraged the audience to become India’s Tagore, England’s Shakespeare, France’s —uh—France’s Rousseau (also pronounced “loso“), Germany’s Goethe, and America’s—American writers were too numerous. The day after at the Physics Club’s meeting to welcome new members, having no atomic bomb to talk about yet, he could only call out a few times to the theory of relativity, making Einstein, all the way on the other side of the ocean, run a fever in his right ear and even sneeze. Besides this, he could even say “Shit” once or twice during a chat with the military instructor.

Fang resolves to be a “star professor” after discovering that “just as getting a degree is a matter of duping one’s professors with a thesis, so teaching is a matter of duping the students with the lecture material.” He joins the various academic intrigues at his department, but fails to secure his job. Before leaving for Shanghai, he drifts into an engagement with one of the neurotic modern women he keeps meeting throughout the novel. He doesn’t love her, but

apparently marriage didn’t require a very great love. Not detesting each other was already foundation enough for marriage…. In the dull state he was in now, his emotions did not constitute a burden on his mind, which was just as well.

This relationship, begun with so little promise, is doomed after it is exposed to the malice of Fang’s and his wife’s relatives in Shanghai. Fang begins to see marriage as a besieged fortress: those who are outside want to rush in, and those inside want to get out.

* * *

Qian’s narrative has a Stendhalian briskness, enabling it to move quickly from the humorous to the intellectual and the emotional. We see clearly the stages through which a weak but good man such as Fang loses his convictions and drifts into insincerity and falsehood. Remarkably for a comic, picaresque novel, Fortress Besieged contains much psychological drama, particularly in the last pages which contain what Jonathan Spence seems right to call “one of the finest descriptions of the disintegration of a marriage ever penned in any language.”

Here is Fang, leaving the house after a row with his wife:

His thoughts churned chaotically in his brain like snowflakes whirling about in the north wind. He let his legs carry him where they would. The all-night street lights passed his shadow along from one lamp to the next. Another self inside him seemed to be saying, “It’s all over! All over!” His scattered, random thoughts immediately seemed to come together at one point, and he was beset with anguish. His left cheek suddenly tingled. He found it damp to the touch, and thinking it was blood, was so shocked his heart stood still and his legs went limp. He moved under a lamp post to look, and when he found no traces of blood on his fingers, realized it was only tears.

Nevertheless, readers may be dissatisfied by a long novel whose main character fails to amount to anything. But then, as the Shanghai writer Eileen Chang once wrote, responding to criticism from Fu Lei, an important literary critic of the 1940s, that her fiction failed to realize the nationalistic and politically engaged ideals of the earlier literature of the May Fourth Movement:

My fiction…is populated with equivocal characters. They are not heroes, but they are of the majority who actually bear the weight of the times. As equivocal as they may be, they are also in earnest about their lives. They lack tragedy; all they have is desolation…. Although they are merely weak and ordinary people and cannot aspire to heroic feats of strength, it is precisely those ordinary people who can serve more accurately than heroes as a measure of the times.6

The shrinking choices, the sense of personal defeat, and the compulsion to compromise that Qian saw in his character’s life were partly also his own fate—and those of millions of Chinese. Qian chose to stay on in Communist China, and, though he quoted Mao in an anthology of classical Chinese poetry he published in 1958, his critics claimed that he wasn’t Marxist enough. During the Cultural Revolution, he and his wife were sent to do labor on a farm. “Rehabilitated” and allowed to travel abroad by the Deng regime, Qian published scholarly works but did not write another novel. He died in 1998.

Fortress Besieged was reprinted in China in 1980, and became a popular success, leading to a television serialization in 1990. It is not hard to understand the reasons for its continuing success. Pre-Communist China, especially the semi-colonial world of Shanghai, has been lavishly commemorated in much contemporary literature and film, including the Chinese TV version of Fortress Besieged, which evokes a fantasy of a lost arcadia.7

But many Chinese readers of the novel can also identify its characters and themes in China today. As the country, still largely poor, rushes headlong, under a nominally Communist regime, to embrace Western-style capitalism and consumerism, it not only imposes many psychological conflicts and tensions on its population; it also creates an unusually large number of Babbitts, plagiarists, and hucksters.

This frenzy among educated Chinese to acquire money and fame may seem pathetic to an outsider. But Qian refused to condemn his characters, and in fact treated them with sympathy. Fang himself leaves the reader with an impression of moral striving and seriousness. There is something noble and moving about his eventual failure.

He may seem an early instance of a type familiar to us from other works of twentieth-century literature. Thomas Mann, Italo Svevo, and Saul Bellow, among others, described how the modern Western intellectual, the product of a rich, bourgeois society, struggled to apply the lessons of his vast learning to his private life. But Fang’s own moral confusion seems to be caused not so much by his personal inadequacies, or by an excess of hedonism and materialism, as by the amorphous nature of his society. In this, he resembles the aimless, small-town characters of R.K. Narayan’s novels or the bored civil servant of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August: An Indian Story (1988) more than he resembles the tormented heroes of Italo Svevo or Philip Roth.

Far from being private, his dilemmas belong to a wider world in which large political, economic, and moral questions have yet to be settled. China’s chaotic recent history has ensured that these questions continue to haunt the country today. An insightful and entertaining work of fiction in its own right, Fortress Besieged gains resonance from its large and momentous backdrop of China in transition—a transition that still seems unfinished and grows more uncertain as educated Chinese, unmoored finally from tradition, grapple with the ambiguous promise of the modern world.

  1. For an engaging account of Tagore's visit to China, see Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980 (Viking, 1981), pp. 210–216. Also see "The Controversial Guest: Tagore in China" by Sisir Kumar Das, in India and China in the Colonial World, edited by Madhavi Thampi (Delhi: Social Science Press, 2005).
  2. For brilliant studies of Chinese modernism see Shu-mei Shih, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937 (University of California Press, 2001) and Lynn Pan, Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 2008).
  3. C.T. Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, third edition (Indiana University Press, 1999), p. 11.
  4. See the review of River Elegy in these pages by Frederic Wakeman, NYR, March 2, 1989.
  5. For an overview of the intellectual and political climate in the 1980s, see Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China's Predicament (Norton, 1992). For an account of recent intellectual trends within China, see One China, Many Paths, edited by Wang Chaohua (Verso, 2003); Wang Hui, China's New Order: Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition, edited by Theodore Huters (Harvard University Press, 2003); and Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, edited by Zhang Xudong (Duke University Press, 2001).
  6. Eileen Chang, Written on Water, translated by Andrew F. Jones (Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 17.
  7. The cult status of Eileen Chang in mainland China has at least partly to do with her fictional evocations of pre-Communist Shanghai. Everlasting Regret (1995), the best-selling novel by Wang Anyi, is partly set in Shanghai of the 1940s. A new translation by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, was published this year by Columbia University Press. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, China's best-known film directors, have also used the colonial city as a glamorous backdrop in Shanghai Triad (1995) and Temptress Moon (1996), respectively.