- Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu
Qian Zhongshu (1910–1998), one of the literary giants of twentieth-century China, was a novelist, essayist, and literary critic of unparalleled erudition. Well versed in the classics, he produced highly esteemed scholarly works of literary criticism in classical Chinese, which include On the Art of Poetry (1942) and Limited Views (1978). He was also a polyglot immersed in the study of foreign literatures, whose dense writings frequently included citations from works written in Latin, Greek, German, French, Spanish, and Italian, along with classical Chinese. His novel, Fortress Besieged (1947), regarded as a modern classic, satirizes the pretensions of the intellectual class and remains widely beloved by Chinese readers.
Qian Zhongshu remains relatively unknown to readers outside of China. Part of this is a function of the density of his works, which do not lend themselves [End Page 220] easily to translation. In editing and translating Qian’s short stories and articles in Humans, Beasts, Ghosts: Stories and Articles, Christopher Rea takes on a daunting task and accomplishes it with admirable success. The volume captures the wit and leisurely style of Qian’s writings and makes available, for the first time, a collection of Qian Zhongshu’s short essays and stories to an English-reading audience.
Humans, Beasts, Ghosts includes two works by Qian Zhongshu that were originally published separately: the first, a collection of essays titled Written on the Margins of Life (1941); the second, a collection of stories titled Humans, Beasts, Ghosts (1946). The spirit of Qian Zhongshu’s articles and short stories is brilliantly captured in the succinct preface to Written on the Margins of Life. The preface begins with a simple analogy: life is like a book. The rest of the essay likens the art of writing to the art of living. Most writers, Qian asserts, can only claim to be book critics. He conjures up the image of a pedantic know-it-all who writes with a mission: he makes definitive pronouncements to instruct those around him, oblivious to his own limitations, and one presumes, the meaning and art of life itself.
This derisive portrayal of the serious critic is an example of Qian Zhongshu’s predilection for lampooning men of letters and his own literary profession, ample examples of which are to be found in his articles (“Explaining Literary Blindness,” “On Writers”) and short stories (“Cat,” “Inspiration”). His sympathies lie clearly with another type of writer, someone who finds meaning and inspiration not in grand themes, but elsewhere: in the marginal detail, the diverting tidbit, and the unexpected pleasures of daily life, examples of which are to be found in the essays collected in Written on the Margins of Life.
Qian’s interest in the seemingly ordinary and everyday can be gleaned from the titles of what might be referred to as his occasional articles—philosophical meditations prompted by an event or an object. “On Happiness” and “Reading Aesop’s Fables” are prompted by the act of reading; yet other essays are meditations occasioned by everyday objects (“On Windows”), emotions (“On Happiness”), or activities (“On Eating”), with an eye toward presenting the seemingly conventional and ordinary in a new—almost always, amusing and comedic—light. (A note on one extraordinary exception: “The Devil Pays a Nighttime Visit to Mr. Qian Zhongshu,” which records the author’s imaginary encounter with the devil, is relayed as an ordinary event in a similar comedic tone as the other articles in the collection). Exposed are a wide range of human follies and the absurdities and arbitrary nature of the habits and conventions that have come to define human life.
As Rea notes, Qian Zhongshu’s writings are “larded with an astonishing range of literary allusions and cultural references” (p. 4). Characteristic of Qian’s articles are also the use of uncommon analogies...