This report is taken from PN Review 130, Volume 26 Number 2, November - December 1999.Qian Zhongshu - A Life (1912-1998)
On 20 December last year, one of the most important and dignified literary voices of modern China died in Beijing. Qian Zhongshu was 88. His death attracted obituaries in the Times, but little other media interest in the UK. He left life, as he lived it, with the lowest possible profile.
Qian, and his wife, Yang Jiang (who survives him) are the most celebrated literary couple China has produced this century. They belonged in many ways to a scholarly tradition, at odds with the elevation of class struggle, and outing of intellectuals inaugurated during Mao Zedong's reign. Qian had received the equivalent of a classical Chinese education growing up in Shandong. He was to draw on this in his later, highly erudite and abstruse work, partially translated into English as 'Notes and Enquiries', a work in which much of even the vocabulary would be unknown to modern Chinese readers.
By 1949, and the Founding of the People's Republic, Qian and Yang had already notched up lengthy periods of travel and study in Europe and America. Like his tragic contemporary, Lao She (who 'committed suicide' in the Cultural Revolution), Qian had come to Britain in the 1930s to study at Oxford. He had also, a decade later than Deng Xiaoping, lived in Paris - but in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Sorbonne, rather than at Deng's Renault Factory. These itinerant experiences were to inform his 1946 book, Wei Cheng (translated into English as Cities Besieged), ...
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