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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts

Qian Zhongshu

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To purchase Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts

Title: Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts
Author: Qian Zhongshu
Genre: Various
Written: 1941/6 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts - US
Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts - UK
Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts - Canada
Hommes, bêtes et démons - France
  • Stories and Essays
  • Collects Written in the Margins of Life (寫在人生邊上; 1941) and Human, Beast, Ghost (人獸鬼; 1946)
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Christopher G. Rea
  • With translations by Dennis T. Hu, Nathan K. Mao, Yiran Mao, Christopher G. Rea, and Philip F. Williams

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine introduction to a fascinating author, curious mix of pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts collects two short volumes of Qian Zhongshu's prose -- one of essays (of sorts) and one of four stories -- written during a time of great upheaval in China. Best known for his novel Fortress Besieged (1947) -- one of the great Chinese works of the twentieth century -- these are much smaller pieces, but in their variety, style, and content offer a good introduction to the works of one of the leading modern Chinese writers.
       Editor Christopher G. Rea's Introduction offers a useful overview of the author's life and place in the Chinese literary establishment, as the Sorbonne and Oxford-educated Qian stands apart from (and made fun of) many of the other leading writers of his time. Remaining in what then became communist China, Qian did not continue to write fiction, but remained a leading literary figure. These two collections are from a specific era, but they have been republished numerous times, and this closely annotated edition usefully provides text-variants from various editions in its endnotes.
       Almost all the pieces -- both essays and stories -- are marked by a sharp wit and their allusiveness. Qian's preferred style and method is to refer to and build upon the works (and sayings and maxims) of other authors -- a Robert Burton-like (as in The Anatomy of Melancholy) style that is remarkable for its wide range, as Qian is equally comfortable flaunting his Chinese learning as he is displaying his familiarity with Western literature and philosophy (and there's no denying: he knows his stuff). His range of references is astounding; packed in like this in the dense, short essays it can also be wearing.
       If ostensibly on some simple subject -- 'On Laughter', 'On Moral Instruction' -- Qian manages to nevertheless to connect a wide variety of thoughts and ideas in his short essays. Typical of his philosophy of life (and writing) is the approach he takes in his piece on 'Reading Aesop's Fables', where he offers cynical readings of several of the fables and the lessons that should be taken from them -- and contrasts his viewpoint with that of another famous thinker:

Rousseau believes that fables are detrimental because they make unsophisticated children complicated and deprive them of their innocence. I believe that fables are detrimental because they make unsophisticated children even more simpleminded and childish. Fables lead them to believe that in human affairs the distinction between right and wrong and the consequences of good and evil are as fair and clear-cut as in the animal kingdom. As a result, when these children grow up they will be tricked and rebuffed at every turn.
       Several of the essays treat the subject of writing and writers, and here too Qian is no romantic; the final piece Written in the Margins of Life is 'On Writers', and concludes:
     In brief, we should destroy literature and yet reward writers-- reward them for ceasing to be writers, for having nothing to do with literature.
       In his stories Qian also continues to play with some of these same ideas. The lengthy 'Cat' involves, among other things, considerable writerly ambition (without the necessary talent), while in 'Inspiration' a great writer -- "a nationally certified talent" -- is deemed worthy of contending for the Nobel Prize (something the Chinese were apparently already worried about back then; cf. Julia Lovell's The Politics of Cultural Capital), and so:
The government commissioned a panel of experts to have his masterworks translated into Esperanto, so that he could compete for the Nobel Prize.
       (Yeah, not surprisingly, that doesn't work out too well ..... Amusingly, too, one of the suggestions of how to react to this snub is: "we should establish China's own literary award as a protest against the Nobel Prize, and to save the right to criticize from falling into foreign hands" -- exactly the reaction when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.)
       Both the essays and stories tend to jump and meander about, one thought inspiring the next; 'Souvenir' is practically the only nearly-conventional story. Still, most of the fun with Qian is in the details and often very creative spins -- right down to the beautiful disclaimer in a Preface to Human, Beast, Ghost, Qian coming up with a novel approach to excusing any resemblance of any of his characters to any real person (or beast or ghost ...).
       A grab-bag of texts and ideas, tightly packed but deep -- one can return several times to each short piece and find yet more in them -- Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts is a fascinating and exhausting collection. An interesting, febrile mind is at work here, and though it doesn't make for the easiest of enjoyment, Qian is both funny and clever throughout Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts, and this volume serves as a good introduction to an author that is well worth knowing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 December 2010

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Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Qian Zhongshu (Ch'ien Chung-shu; 錢鍾書) lived 1910 to 1998 and was a leading Chinese author.

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© 2010-2021 the complete review

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