the center besieged…

In several of my WeChat circles, an excerpt from the snarky classic, Fortress Besieged (围城) by Qian Zhongshu has been activated by those sympathetic to the Hong Kong students. It is however not unequivocal support, after all Fang Hongjian was not so much a hero, as a first generation off the farm urbanite caught between competing value systems, not quite at home in either China or the West. Conflicted and going about causing conflicts, intentionally and not, as he tries to live his life in Republican Shanghai. I have roughly translated the passage below:

Fang Hongjian returned from studying abroad and began to challenge the system of arranged marriage. His father was a local gentry, impervious and coarse. However, his son was already grown up and the father did have some scruples. After thinking the matter over, he made a harsh statement, “Free love is fine, but you have to chose from among the village girls I introduce you to. Otherwise, there’s no marriage to speak of. Prepare yourself to be a bachelor!” In response, Fang Hongjian said that he would die before following his father’s order. None of the village brothers and uncles understood, and everyone had something to say on the matter, but they did agree on one point: it was a shame that wealthy Mr. Fang had spent so much money to educate his son. If he had known how it was going to turn out, it would have been better to share the wealth with everyone. Many unmarried uncles and brothers also silently wondered if Fang Hongjian would clear a path for them. Then nobody would have to marry a woman chosen by their father, instead they wanted to go to the provincial capital and choose a pretty college girl…


Indeed, published almost 70 years ago, the passage uncannily anticipates the situation in Hong Kong and the emotional dissonance separating many Mainlanders and Hong Kong people. I have talked with many Mainlanders who feel that Hong Kong has had too many special privileges, and inexplicably they want more, as if they were westerners and not (in keeping with the metaphor) fellow villagers. Yet there are also generation and education gaps. Many young people in Shenzhen (tentatively like the silent wishes of the unmarried brothers and uncles) and many overseas students (enthusiastically like Fang Hongjian) support the students and their goal of universal sufferage. The passage also highlights the cultural political stakes in the transition from rural tradition to urbane modernity because individual desire has replaced filial duty as the meaning of a man’s life (and yes, it was a book about the changing measures of men’s lives). Suddenly, the older generation is displaced by a world outside their control. But that’s the rub. They’re not going quietly and don’t see any reason they should.

Fortress Besieged has also shaped young Hong Kong’s understanding of youth, it’s transformations and challenges. Below the song, “Fortress Besieged” by Hong Kong band, KOLOR:

2 thoughts on “the center besieged…

  1. You and I can both speak to this Mary Ann, you an ex patriot and me a first generation national with the illustrious green card. I have spent years thinking and analyzing. We are sort of chronic transplant rejections, potentially needing a low level of steroids to keep us going. But there is an alternative,
    The culture in which we are raised makes certain assumptions, assumptions not questioned except for those who know otherwise. As an example, when we were growing up, you well now that I was not permitted to date. This would have been fine in Iran. Yet I knew otherwise and my love for Jack was pure and profound.
    When we are “chronic transplant rejections”, we have to question absolutely every aspect of out lives and this can often be a great burden. We do not have the luxury of cultural assumptions.
    Yet this is also the greatest gift we can have.
    In my experience, there are three groups of people (very rough and simplistic and i admit this beforehand):
    1. Those who reject their own culture and go to extremes in the culture to which they have acclimated. There is apparently come awful show about wildly rich Iranians who are over the top in every way. This is the perfect example. I don’t know the name of the show or I would tell you.
    2. Those who hold on tightly to their home culture. They become even more conservative than they were when they lived at home and this likely gives them some measure of security.
    3. Those who sit and think about each and every aspect of their lives: there is always more than one option for us (e.g. the dating example) and this can be a great burden. I have seen people fall into severe depression and literally be unable to function. You might agree that my father fell into this category.
    But then there are those who walk through this and cross that bridge, who see that there is something universally human in each and every person, We all bleed. We all want our children to be okay. We all worry about the state of the world and our horrid treatment of this wonderful earth. These people fundamentally know that a smile is universal, a funeral brings sorrow and love is what makes the heat flutter. These people, like Desmond Tutu, The late President Mandela, The Dali Lama, the scientists who flit from one place to another and the medical mission groups who will go abroad and learn from others as they touch them.
    I think that being a “chronic transplant rejection” affords us the opportunity to move beyond culture, language, upbringing, customs and onto a universal love, hope and renewal.

    It is this for which I strive in my own life.
    My best friend is a red headed woman who lives in China now….She lives this and i love her.

    • Dear M!
      I often return to Buddhism and Gregory Bateson. Both make the same point–we resolve a double bind through action, not through thought. That for me is where hope grows, in clear action. You do this in your medical practice, healing the wounded, crafting another possible life, and demonstrating that it is possible to grow beyond and despite inherited limitations.

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