Qian Zhongshu, 2 Stories from the Collection Men, Beasts, Ghosts (1946)

It’s been far too long since I read a Chinese novel, but I didn’t want to invest myself in something big, so I grabbed this quick and cheap book (2 euros only!) containing 2 short stories from the collection Men, Beasts, Ghosts.

The first one, Souvenir, is deceptively simple: a young wife of a rather bland civil servant is tempted into an affair with her husband’s cousin, a dashing air pilot who later dies in action. But one gets the feeling that she is more in love with the idea of having an affair rather than falling for the lover himself. She herself is quite shallow and conceited, but I felt pity for her. She married for love, which was rather modern in 1940s China, but discovered too late that her husband was not the one she thought. She wants to manipulate the cousin in a sort of seductive play, but in the end he just forces her to have sex and she falls pregnant, something she clearly hadn’t imagined. The title in French, “Pensée fidèle” (faithful thought), highlights Qian Zhongshu’s irony and satire against love and marriage. The husband, ignorant of the affair, wants to name the baby with the dead pilot’s name.

The second one, Inspiration, is even more satirical and comical. It’s about a famous Chinese writer who arrives in hell just after his death and awaits the Devil’s judgment for his reincarnation. It’s largely a harsh criticism against vain and stupid writers of the time. Perhaps they recognized themselves, but I wasn’t really touched by this story.

The main interest of these 2 stories for me was to see a pre-communist China devoid of the usual themes of the time, such as the city lust and corruption, the atrocities and inequities of war, the appalling poverty in the countryside, or the iron grip of old traditional families on the younger generation. These themes are to be expected when you read a modern Chinese novel, but not here. In “Souvenir” there are indeed references to the war but never head-on. Qian Zhongshu’s world is surprisingly extemporal and Westernized. It leaves me wondering how the Chinese culture would have evolved without the big Maoist rift.

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