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The French liner, the Vicomte de Bragelonne, was on its way to China.
Some time after eight in the morning, the third-class deck, still damp from
swabbing,was already filled with passengers standing and sitting about-the
French, Jewish refugees from Germany, the Indians, the Vietnamese, and
needless to say, the Chinese. The ocean breeze carried with it an arid heat; the
scorching wind blew dry the bodies of fat people and covered them with a
frosty layer of salt congealed with sweat, as though fresh from a bath in the
Dead Sea in Palestine. Still, it was early morning, and people's high spirits had
not yet withered or turned limp under the glare of the sun. They talked and
bustled about with great zest. The Frenchmen, newly commissioned to serve
as policemen in Vietnam or in the French Concession in China, had gathered
around and were flirting with a coquettish young Jewish woman. Bismarck
once remarked that what distinguished French ambassadors and ministers was
that they couldn't speak a word of any foreign language, but these policemen,
although they did not understand any German, managed to get their meaning
across well enough to provoke giggles from the Jewish woman, thus proving
themselves far superior to their diplomats. The woman's handsome husband,
who was standing nearby, watched with pleasure, since for the last few days
he had been enjoying the large quantities of cigarettes, beer, and lemonade
that had been coming his way.
Once the Red Sea was passed, no longer was there fear of the intense heat
igniting a fire, so, besides the usual fruit peelings, scraps of paper, bottle caps,
and cigarette butts were everywhere. The French are famous for the clarity
of their thought and the lucidness of their prose, yet in whatever they do, they
never fail to bring chaos, filth, and hubbub, as witness the mess on board the
ship. Relying on man's ingenuity and entrusted with his hopes, but loaded
with his clutter, the ship sailed along amidst the noise and bustle; each minute
it returned one small stretch of water, polluted with the smell of man, back to
the indifferent, boundless, and never-ending ocean.
Each summer as usual a batch of Chinese students were returning home
after completing their studies abroad, and about a dozen of them were aboard.
Most were young people who had not as yet found employment; they were
hastening back to China at the start of the summer vacation to have more time
to look for jobs. Those who had no worries about jobs would wait until the
cool autumn before sailing leisurely toward home. Although some of those on
board had been students in France, the others, who had been studying in
England, Germany, and Belgium, had gone to Paris to gain more experience
of night life before taking a French ship home. Meeting at a far corner of the
earth, they became good friends at once, discussing the foreign threats and
internal turmoil of their motherland, wishing they could return immediately
to serve her. The ship moved ever so slowly, while homesickness welled up in
everyone's heart and yearned for release. Then suddenly from heaven knows
where appeared two sets of mahjong, the Chinese national pastime, said to be
popular in America as well. Thus, playing mahjong not only had a downhome
flavor to it but was also in tune with world trends. As luck would have
it, there were more than enough people to set up two tables of mahjong. So,
except for eating and sleeping, they spent their entire time gambling. Breakfast
was no sooner over than down in the dining room the first round of mahjong
was to begin.
Up on deck were two Chinese women and one toddler, who didn't count
as a full person-at least the ship's company did not consider him as one and
had not made his parents buy a ticket for him. The younger woman, wearing
sunglasses and with a novel spread on her lap, was elegantly dressed. Her skin
would be considered fair among Orientals, but unfortunately it looked stale
and dry; and even though she wore a light lipstick, her lips were a little too
thin. When she removed her sunglasses, she exposed delicate eyes and eyebrows,
and when she rose from the canvas lounge chair, one could see how
slight she was. Moreover, the outline of her figure was perhaps too sharp, as if
it had been drawn with a square-nibbed pen. She could be twenty-five or
twenty-six, but then the age of modern women is like the birthdates traditional
women used to list on their marriage cards, whose authentication required
what the experts call external evidence, since they meant nothing in
and by themselves. The toddler's mother, already in her thirties, was wearing
an old black chiffon Chinese dress; a face marked by toil and weariness, her
slanting downward eyebrows made her look even more miserable. Her son,
not yet two years old, had a snub nose, two slanted slits for eyes, and eyebrows
so high up and removed from the eyes that the eyebrows and the eyes
must have pined for each other-a living replica of the Chinese face in newspaper
The toddler had just learned to walk, and he ran about incessantly. His
mother held him by a leather leash so that he could not run more than three
or four steps without getting yanked back. Bothered by the heat, tired, and
irritable from pulling, the mother, whose thoughts were on her husband who
was gambling down below, constantly scolded her son for being a nuisance.
The child, restricted in his movements, turned and dashed toward the young
woman reading the book. Ordinarily the young woman had a rather conceited,
aloof expression, much like that of a neglected guest at a large party or
an unmarried maiden at a wedding feast. At that moment her distaste for the
child surfaced so much so that not even her sunglasses could hide it. Sensing
all that, the child's mother apologetically pulled at the strap and said, "You
naughty child disturbing Miss Su! Come back here! How studious you are,
Miss Su! You know so much and still you read all the time. Mr. Sun is always
telling me, 'Women students like Miss Su give China a good name. She's beautiful
and has a Ph.D. besides. Where can you ever find such nice people?'
Here I went abroad for nothing and never even cracked a book. I keep house,
and I forgot everything I'd learned as soon as I had him. Hey! You pest! I told
you not to go over there. You're up to no good. You'll get Miss Su's clothes
all dirty for sure."
Miss Su had always scorned the poor, simple-minded Mrs. Sun and detested
children, but when she heard all that, she was quite pleased. Smiling
pleasantly, she said, "Let him come. I love kids."
She removed her sunglasses, closed the book she had been staring at vacantly,
and with utmost caution she clasped the child's wrist before he could
wipe his hands all over her clothes.
"Where's Papa?" she asked him. Without answering, the child opened
his eyes wide and went, "Poo, poo," at Miss Su, spitting out saliva in imitation
of the goldfish blowing bubbles in the tank in the dining room. Miss Su hastily
let go of his arm and pulled out a handkerchief to protect herself. His
mother yanked him away, threatening to slap him. Then sighing, she said,
"His father is gambling down below. Where else? I can't understand why all
men like gambling so much. Just look at the ones on this boat. Every last one
of them is gambling his head off. I wouldn't mind so much if it brought in a
little something. But my husband, Mr. Sun, he's already gambled away a tidy
sum and he just keeps going. It makes me so mad!"
When Miss Su heard these last petty remarks, she, in spite of herself, felt
a renewed contempt for Mrs. Sun. "You know, Mr. Fang does not gamble,"
she remarked coldly.
Mrs. Sun turned up her nose and sniffed. "Mr. Fang! He played too when
he first got on the boat. Now he's too busy chasing Miss Pao, so naturally he
can't spare the time. Romance is the big event of a lifetime, far more important
than gambling. I just can't see what there is about that Miss Pao, coarse
and dark as she is, to make Mr. Fang give up a perfectly good second-class
berth for the discomforts of the third class. I see those two are getting on
gloriously. Maybe by the time the boat reaches Hong Kong they'll get married.
It's certainly a case of 'fate bringing people together from a thousand li
Miss Su felt a painful stabbing in her heart when she heard that. To answer
Mrs. Sun and to console herself, she said, "Why, that's quite impossible!
Miss Pao has a fiance; she told me so herself. Her fiance even financed her
Mrs. Sun said, "She has a fiance and is still so flirtatious? We are already
antiques. At least we've learned something new this time. Miss Su, I'll tell you
something funny. You and Mr. Fang were classmates in China. Does he always
say whatever he pleases? Yesterday Mr. Sun was telling Mr. Fang about his
poor luck in gambling, and Mr. Fang just laughed at him for having been in
France all these years and not knowing anything about the French superstition;
Mr. Fang said that if the wife is unfaithful and has an affair, the husband
is sure to take first prize if he buys a lottery ticket, and he is sure to win if he
gambles. And he added that if a man loses at gambling, he should take it as a
consolation. When Mr. Sun told me all that, I scolded him for not asking that
Fang fellow just what he meant. Looking at it now, it seems Miss Pao's fiance
could certainly take first prize in the aviation lottery. If she became Mr. Fang's
wife, Mr. Fang's luck at gambling would have to be good." The viciousness of
a kind, simplehearted soul, like gritty sand in the rice or splinters in a deboned
fish, can give a person unexpected pain.
"Miss Pao's behavior is just too unlike a student's. And the way she dresses
is quite disgraceful-" Miss Su remarked.
The toddler suddenly stretched his hands behind their chairs, laughing
and jumping about. The two women looked around and saw that it was none
other than Miss Pao coming toward them, waving a piece of candy at the
child from a distance. She was wearing only a scarlet top and navy blue, skin-tight
shorts; her red toenails showed through her white, open-toed shoes. Perhaps
for a hot day in the tropics, this was the most sensible attire; one or two
non-Chinese women on board dressed exactly like that. Miss Su felt that Miss
Pao's exposed body constituted an insult to the body politic of the Chinese
nation. When men students saw Miss Pao, they burned with lewd desire, and
found some relief by endlessly cracking jokes behind her back. Some called
her a charcuterie-a shop selling cooked meats-because only such a shop
would have so much warm-colored flesh on public display. Others called her
"Truth," since it is said that "the truth is naked." But Miss Pao wasn't exactly
without a stitch on, so they revised her name to "Partial Truth."
As Miss Pao approached, she greeted the two women, "You're sure up
early. On a hot day like this, I prefer to loaf in bed. I didn't even know when
Miss Su got up this morning. I was sleeping like a log." She had intended to
say "like a pig," then on second thought decided to say "like a corpse." Finally,
feeling a corpse wasn't much better than a pig, she borrowed the simile
from English. She hastened to explain, "This boat really moves like a cradle.
It rocks you until you're so woozy all you want to do is sleep."
"Then you're the precious little darling asleep in the cradle. Now, isn't
that cute!" said Miss Su.
Miss Pao gave her a cuff, saying, "You! Su Tung-p'o's little sister, the
girl genius!" "Su Hsiao-mei" (Su's little sister) was the nickname the men
students on board had given Miss Su. The words, "Tung-p'o" when pronounced
by Miss Pao in her South Seas accent sounded like tombeau, the
French word for tomb.
Sharing a cabin with Miss Pao, Miss Su slept in the lower berth, which
was much more convenient because she didn't have to climb up and down
every day; but in the last few days she had begun to hate Miss Pao, feeling
Pao was doing everything possible to make her life miserable-snoring so loudly
she couldn't sleep well, and turning over so heavily it seemed the upper
berth would cave in. When Miss Pao hit her, she said, "Mrs. Sun, you be the
judge of who's in the right. Here I call her 'precious little darling' and I still
get hit! To be able to fall asleep is a blessing. I know how much you enjoy
sleeping, so I'm always careful never to make a sound so I won't wake you up.
You were telling me you were afraid of getting fat, but the way you like to
sleep on the ship, I think you must have gained several pounds already."
The child was yelling for the candy, and as soon as he got it into his
mouth, he chewed it up. His mother told him to thank Miss Pao, but he paid
no attention, so the mother had to humor Miss Pao herself. Miss Su had already
noticed that the candy cost nothing. It was just a sugar cube served aboard
the ship with coffee at breakfast. She despised Miss Pao for the way she put
on. Not wanting to speak to Miss Pao anymore, she opened her book again,
but from the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of Miss Pao pulling two
deck chairs over to an empty spot some distance away and arranging them
side by side. She secretly reviled Miss Pao for being so shameless, but at the
same time hated herself for having spied on Miss Pao.
At that point Fang Hung-chien came on deck. As he passed by Mrs. Sun
and Miss Su, he stopped to say a few words. "How's the little fellow?" Mrs.
Sun replied curtly, not paying much attention to him.
Miss Su said with a smile, "You'd better hurry. Aren't you afraid someone
will get impatient?"
Fang Hung-chien blushed and gave a silly smile, then walked away from
Miss Su. She knew perfectly well she couldn't keep him back, but when he
left, she felt a sense of loss. Not a word of the book sank in. She could hear
Miss Pao's sweet voice and laughter and couldn't resist looking at her again.
Excerpted from FORTRESS BESIEGED
by Qian Zhongshu
Copyright © 2004 by New Directions.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted February 8, 2004
<<Fortress Besieged>>is one of the greatest mordern Chinese novels about the embaressments and paradoxes among a very special group of Chinese scholars during the 1940's.The title <<Fortress Besieged>>is come from a French proverb,which meantpeople want to do something,but when they get it,everything is not as good as you thought it would be;just like besieged in a fortress,you hope you can go out,yet you are not;someone outside fortress hope to come in also cannot. <<Fortress Besieged>> reflected the most of darkness of elitists,they all hiden with a mask of knowledge,and usually thought they are the smartest people in the worrld.those characters'desires symbolized a rotten heart which had dirtied everyone already. I had never recommended any kind of classics,but <<Fortress Besieged>>is the one could applaused with the highest honors forever.Maybe readers could comphrehensized more,and beyond <<Fortress Besieged>>,because there is no method we can out of a fortress besieged our mind.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.