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: