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BOTM March 2008 《围城》by 钱钟书


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Well, here it is April 1 and I am just starting Chapter 5. I have to say that I read most of Chapter 3 and all of Chapter 4 in English. The good thing about reading in English is that I can skim through a lot of the nonsense. Sorry to call it nonsense, but the author is very detailed and thorough and sometimes I just want to get to the story line! I hardly possess the talent to skim in Chinese. I have to know all the details as I have already made clear in previous postings. Even in English the book is not easy to read.

One things authors are often accused of is shallow character development. You certainly can't say that about our author. He seems to have delved quite deeply into the psyches of several characters at once. And he seems to have a very good grasp of human psychology.

While reading I was reminded of yet another western work ... Dangerous Liaisons. The characters certainly do become sabatoged by their own machinations!

Has a candidate been chose for April?

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Well, here it is April 1 and I am just starting Chapter 5. I have to say that I read most of Chapter 3 and all of Chapter 4 in English.

Chapter 3 and 4 are probably the best chapters in the book. You'd better skim through chapter 5 in English. It's this and that about their journey across the country. Every little idiosyncrasy is milked for a joke. It gets quite tedious after a while.

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I suppose we need to bring some sort of closure to this thread so we can get on with our discussion of April's reading. I continue to muddle on in English only and I'm still only on Chapter 7. I took Gato's advice and skimmed through Chapter 5, but I have been reading 6 and 7 rather carefully. However, I am beginning to get tired of all the characters. Even the hero seems to be a bit shallowly developed. This would be my main criticism of the author. I realize he is presenting caricatures, but it is hard to maintain interst in a caricature for so many pages! I am beginning to wonder how profound the divorce segment could be if Fang still isn't married by now. He must not have stayed married for long ... and obviously he will marry for all the wrong reasons.

(In re-reading I notice that this post contradicts a previous post I made where I said his character development was deep. Hmmm. I stand by shallow at this point.)

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It's not too bad, we had a wee break between October 2005 and . . .November 2007.

Everyone is welcome, I think, to work at their own speed and drop in and out as they wish. Having the monthly schedule just adds a bit of impetus.

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  • 5 years later...

Just read this.

The first third (or half going by chapters I guess) that introduces Fang Hongjian's life in Shanghai was hillarious and overall seemed pretty lighthearted.

The middle part set in San Lu U had some funny lines about academia in China (and elsewhere) that seem to be true even today, but I kept wondering if we were going to ever see Miss Tang again, not to mention Su Wenwan, Cao Yuanlang and Miss Bao. I really didn't like the characters at the university very much and it seemed like a waste to throw everyone out from the first half of the book. At least one of them reappears briefly towards the end of the book, but it seemed like too little too late.

The last couple of chapters put me in a dismal mood. Strange how the book goes from satire to tragedy. I'm also surprised Fang Hongjian changed so little. He starts out as a selfish bastard and ends up pretty much as the same. I guess therein lies the tragedy.

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  • 5 months later...

I'm sorry, but that article is just a plot summary and short bio. It doesn't even try to explain why the book is good, let alone the "greatest Chinese novel of 20th century".

See earlier posts above for more on why several posters here (including myself) think this a mediocre novel. There are many others who believe the same, but the contrary voices tend not to be expressed publicly as much (though there are a few public dissents).

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I now have two copies of 圍城 and the Dutch translation has just come out. I read and heard everywhere that what makes Qian Zhongshu great is his style, and I wonder: if I read it in Chinese (I can read Chinese alright but not as well as Dutch, obviously), would I miss out on that and thus not appreciate the book as much as I could? A lot of people here have read it, what do you think? Might make this my next one after 杜拉拉.

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  • 8 months later...



See earlier posts above for more on why several posters here (including myself) think this a mediocre novel. There are many others who believe the same, but the contrary voices tend not to be expressed publicly as much (though there are a few public dissents).


First post, even though this is an old thread, I felt compelled to reply to this, although not sure I can do so eloquently, I hope my point of view proves useful to others.


I read this book in the summer of last year. It took three weeks of a couple of hours a day. It is a couple of levels of difficulty above Yu Hua, for instance.


Whilst initially struggling with the language and surprised at the plot (when I bought it I thought it was going to be a war book...), by a third of the way through the difficulty not only objectively reduced, but I got the hang of his language, which once grasped, is a delight.


In retrospect, it is a Great Book. I hope I will read it again in the future. Character development and analysis is leagues ahead of anything I have read by, for instance, Yu Hua or Ba Jin.


What foreign readers need to remind themselves of when reading a Chinese novel, is that we read so much slower than natives. It is the equivalent of watching a film in slow motion. A meal that is described over four pages might take several minutes for the target reader to consume, but for us, potentially longer than the longest banquet.


So it is understandable that foreign readers get frustrated with the story, but without hopefully causing offence, I think that reflects more on the reader's ability than that of the writer's. Subtleness and good writing in a story causes a fluent reader to slow down, smile and contemplate the meaning, to one less fluent, it is merely another obstacle to bash through. 


My other suspicion, is that there are those readers who enjoy reading books in english, but do not necessarily enjoy reading what is considered to be literature. As a rough definition, literature usually contains stories where little happens, and all the rest contains stories where lots happens. Crudely speaking, it's the difference between a 3d blockbuster and an art house film. I was expecting a blockbuster when I turned to the first chapter, and was initially disappointed, but the art house film it turned out to be was quietly then magnetically engaging.

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I read the Dutch translation a while ago and really enjoyed it. Fang Hongjian doesn't have a good character, he has his faults and just muddles on because what else can he do, and he doesn't change into a better person over time. I actually really liked that.

I agree with most of what Basil writes, but I have to disagree with his ideas of what literature is. I don't have a definition ready myself, but I think that books in which a lot happens can certainly be Literature, much as movies with a story in which a lot happens can still be arthouse movies (those are in fact my favourite kind of movies). And I think 围城 is a case in point. There certainly is a story there, with things happening, and as a result of that other things happen, which in the end lead to a certain ending. And it's also certainly Literature.

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Thanks, opinionated first posts can always be a little risky.


I've been cheating a little bit, read 1984 and Brave New World in Chinese in the past month. Pushing myself very hard to boost my reading speed. Very difficult, even when the stories are familiar. Finished Brave New World last night, and started on its inspiration - 我们 by a Russian, "扎米亚金" today. Quite a few new words, had to open the dictionary, which I hate doing.


Reading can sometimes be very frustrating. When I read in English, I can block out the TV, conversation, etc. I cannot do that at all in Chinese, need absolute privacy and near silence. 


I'm very impressed with the people here who've managed to read 水浒传 and 三国。I hoping to work up to those at some point, but as I never learnt classical chinese, I'm taking the slow windy road.




I suppose you could also say that literature is character driven, and non-literature is plot driven. I'm sure wiki has something more definitive. My main point was that contrary to what those above said, 围城 really puts character under the microscope. It's a couple of hundred pages journey with a disagreeable coward... I haven't yet seen a translation, but... maybe it's dialect... I don't know, but it's really worth reading in the original when possible.

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It's been a while since I read the book now, so I don't remember all the details. The main reason I disliked the book and thought it a poor novel was that it was filled with cardboard characters. Some books that lack interesting or sympathetic characters can offer insight or wit as a saving grace, but that's not the case here. The book's main strength is in author's ability with wordplay, I liked the first few chapters, but as the novel dragged on, I found the wordplay excessive and could not save the book. I had no trouble with the vocabulary, it was really the story that was the problem.

You can find some reviews on douban with similar opinions:









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Hi Gato,


Maybe liking this kind of book is a matter of taste.


I disagree with your opinion, it has bundles of insight and wit scattered throughout the pages. I am surprised you did not notice it. 


Regarding the reviews that you found on douban, I'll make a few short comments:


The first one, who vaguely hopes at some point in the future to read it again quoted the author:




The book stands on its own two feet regardless of its reputation.


The second one seems to find the gentle satire distasteful, but reminded me that the book was a useful way to look into the past.


The third one, the most eloquent, even if he does descend into insulting all those who like the book as monkeys by the end says:




The book is definitely a result of the reverse culture shock of coming home to China from Europe, I'd say it is a better read than an 8 - legged -essay, but I'm guessing that this is also a bit of a derogatory sideswipe at some of the language used in the book. I'm guessing he struggled with some of the language.


He thinks the culture is just not there, lets compare that with what he considers to be good culture:




It's very difficult to compare long form novels with poems, and every single culture has previously believed that novels are 'crap' compared to poems. That's an attack on the genre and hard to counter, except to note that in the west, at least though maybe not due to relative merit, poetry finally fell out of fashion.




This guy knows what he likes, black coffee no cream and nobody else is allowed cream or sugar in their coffee either. I bet he hates whiskey and green tea too. I imagine he feels that painting with anything other than black paint is pushing the envelope. Rude? maybe, but he has just called a load of guys monkeys...




from the anger I'm guessing he was forced to read the book. Looking at his language use, I also have a sneaking suspicion that he upped his game for this review, almost as if slightly infected with 8 -legged -essay fever. Maybe that's why he's so angry.


4th guy,


Shares a similar complaint with 3rd guy




A giant amongst midgets? Maybe, Better than Ba Jin anyway, but it's a bit unfair to blame Qian Zhongshu for the cultural environment of the time. Maybe all the other great novelists were so scared of being called a monkey by their teachers and wives that they ended up composing crap poetry instead... and then berate him for not writing more, seemingly forgetting that it was a bit hard to write books in China for a short while. Comparing him to Tolstoy? Never read him, but I do prefer Dostoevsky over Mr. Qian.



As most of the reviews point out, it has "European humour" whether that's your taste or not might be completely subjective. I do suspect that it might be a giant amongst midgets, but it stands fairly tall amongst the giants as well. If you'd want a detailed account of what life was like in China for people who did not care about politics, before the nationalists were kicked out, it's a good resource. 


Incidently, I have met more than a few Chinese people who have told me they struggle to read novels written about the times before they were born. Maybe it's a symptom of compressed generations, maybe it's a symptom of stunted imagination, but what is clear is that being born Chinese is not a free ticket to enjoying Chinese books. I suspect many people would rather pay a wedge of money than be forced to read a book.... now there's a business idea....



Like one of the reviewers, I will try to read it again. Maybe I'll come to a different opinion on second reading, or maybe it'll strengthen my current opinion. I'll update when that happens, probably circa 2020.

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I'll give you a few examples of writers/novels I like to give you a sense of where I am coming from. By the way, I am native Chinese, but I went to school in the US. I used to be an avid reader of fiction, but I don't have much time for it nowadays. Most reading I do now is either for work or news/history-related.

For Chinese fiction writers of the 1920-1949 period, I like Lu Xun, Yu Dafu (郁达夫), and Eileen Chang. If you've read them, we could try to compare them with Qian Zhongshu. My biggest problem with 围城 is that it is tedious (the story is tedious, and the characters are tedious and uninteresting), and the wordplay can't make up for the tedium.

I am not sure what "European humor" refers to. But of the more humorous writers in English, I like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. I also like Kafka and Dostoyevsky in translation.

Hopefully, that gives you some background for my views on 围城.

I do favor stories that succeed in creating an emotional connection with the reader. There was no emotional connection here. That's probably the key problem.

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I picked those reviews apart purely to demonstrate that a negative review in Chinese about a Chinese novel is not necessarily more authoritative than one written in English.


The reference to “European humour” is quoting one of the reviews which I assume that, having endorsed them through posting links, you have read.


We like some of the same authors. In my opinion, in its painstaking attention to detail,  围城 reads a little like a Victorian/Edwardian novel. For some reason, Kim by Wells springs to mind.


How it fits into the Chinese literary Pantheon, I’ve already stated I believe it to be objectively superior to 巴金’s work. I’m assuming that, as you’d rather focus on comparisons with other authors, you agree. Progress!



I had a look on that site you linked to, douban, and searched for the book and read some of the comments. I found them quite interesting. Here’s a handful of them:


1. 翻来翻去一共看了差不多三遍 每次读的时候感觉都是很不一样 还真不知道怎么表达自己的感受


2. 第一次完整的读完,没看懂


3. 刚刚读完 不是很懂 读完只是不喜欢方鸿渐 孙柔嘉 觉得方太软弱 无能 的确是个Coward


4. 感觉大师的东西不过时, 


5. 不知道为什么,每次读这本书,读到最后一句"那个落伍的计时机..",不禁心头一颤,莫名的伤感涌上心头,有同感的朋友吗?


6. 看完这本书就被钱钟书的写作风格给征服了,很犀利,很幽默,特别是把女人比作是真理的那一段很经典。。。


I got those from here


There’s a range of opinions here. I find the first one most interesting:


“I’ve read this book about three times now, and each time I have very different feelings and I really don’t know how to put these emotions into words.”


Crap books struggle to elicit such an emotional range from the same reader. That this particular reader even struggles to put those feelings into words shows that somehow the book strikes deep. Such a response is not indicative of flat characterisation.


It’d be good to get some others to contribute to this discussion, as two warriors wielding unannotated books as weapons in a quiet thread will quickly revert to how they remember they felt about the book rather than score specific points on actual textual content. Vague comparisons don’t lead to specific conclusions.


I am sure there are many people better read than myself, quite possibly including your good self, who can compare Lu Xun’s elbows with Lao She’s knees. A well informed group discussion would be exciting and illuminating and hopefully one that would leave me feeling humbled through both lack of knowledge and paucity of perception.


Currently, however, I stand by my point: this is a Good Book, but one that as the quotes above prove, even native readers struggle to understand. Not only am I glad that I have read it, but that I got as much out of it as I did.

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