Dylan Suher reviews Qian Zhongshu's Humans, Beasts and Ghosts

Translated from the Chinese by Christopher Rea (Columbia University Press, 2010)

Rarely are we afforded the privilege of having the nebulous anxieties of our lives transformed into concrete problems. I've recently had that uncanny luxury: My mother has informed me that I have too many books and that nobody knows what to do with them. My library long outgrew my childhood bookshelves, and then the hastily constructed contingency bookshelves we added late in high school, leaving me the temporary solution of stacking the books in neat piles on the floor around my bed. My mother, surprisingly, opposes the stacking method. She suggests that I simply sort out the less important books (Vanilla Ice's autobiography, Ice by Ice, comes to mind) and put them into storage. But I insist on a strict democracy in my library. If the signed masterpiece by the Nobel Prize winner is to distinguish itself from The 4 Hour Body, it should be by what lies between the covers, rather than by the position it occupies in my house. Besides which, I have a feeling that through prolonged contact, some astounding hybrid might emerge from these mismatched books, a 4 Hour The Sound and the Fury, say, or a fitness guide from the perspective of Quentin Compson. In any case, packrat that I am, I am sure that I can never know when I might need to revisit a book.

In the midst of this pressing crisis, I am comforted to know that my problems pale in comparison to those of Qian Zhongshu, a brilliant twentieth-century Chinese essayist and fiction writer. It is sometimes said that Leibniz was the last man who knew everything. This is perhaps true for the West; for the East, it was certainly Qian Zhongshu. Born into a conservative family and thus a classical Confucian education, he was the first son his family sent to a modern school rather than a private academy. At home he was drilled in the Four Books and Five Classics, but at school he quickly developed an enthusiasm for fiction, both in the Chinese vernacular and in a variety of foreign languages. He was asked to teach classes as a sophomore at Tsinghua University, and he later studied at Oxford. He was fluent in at least six foreign languages (including Latin) and wrote beautifully in both vernacular and classical Chinese.

Unfortunately, Qian was a talented man born into the wrong time. He came of age during World War II, and hastily relocated to the interior provinces, where he wrote most of his best work under wretched conditions. A series of essays he wrote during this period were entitled "Cold Room Jottings." Qian's library problem was thus quite grave, and his library was far larger than mine. I like to imagine Qian lugging giant steamer trunks filled with books from train to boat to hand-pulled cart to train, but I unfortunately know better. The war cost Qian his books, and most of the quotes in the works from that period were instead drawn from his impressive memory.

This fact is doubly intimidating once you read Qian's wartime essays, recently released in English, together with his short stories, in a volume entitled Humans, Beasts and Ghosts. Qian's essays are dizzyingly erudite, with intricate wordplay, quotes from multiple languages and genres, and elaborate allusions to obscure works from the Chinese tradition. He strings together references to the Song-dynasty poet Su Dongpo, the Qing dynasty with Wang Zhuo, the German Romantic philosopher Novalis, the Belgian symbolist poet George Rodenbach, and the 18th-century German poet and politician Barthold Heinrich Brockes—all in one short paragraph. The essays read as if Qian Zhongshu has convened an odd parliament: From one bench, Li He speaks for eccentric Chinese poetry; Proust rises in response, and then the two debate it out.

Perhaps as a result, Qian's essays little resemble the more expository nonfiction work currently in favor in the West. Consider this passage, from Qian's essay "On Windows":

Thus doors, which allow us to pursue things, signify desire, while windows, which allow us to dwell, signify enjoyment.... When entering through the front door, one must first be announced by the doorman, wait for the host to appear, and exchange a few pleasantries before explaining the purpose of one's visit. What a waste of thought and time compared to the delightful expediency of coming in through the back window! It's like using the index in the back of a book—a shortcut to learning that makes reading the main text from page one actually seem somewhat roundabout. This distinction, of course, is only relevant under normal social conditions. During extraordinary periods such as wartime one can scarcely talk about doors and windows when the room itself is in danger!
This series of feints and parries, where each sentence seems to be its own witty end and the argument (if there indeed is one) slowly evolves towards the absurd, is typical of Qian's style. His essays do not arrive at a conclusion so much as they meander and then finally dissolve. His essay "A Prejudice" begins with the title subject, then somehow brings up Plato's definition of man as a "featherless biped," offers a counterdefinition of man as the creature that never stops making noise, argues (based on poetry) that true silence actually incorporates some natural sound, argues that the absence of sound is not silence but death, describes the anger one feels towards a noisy upstairs neighbor, and then concurs with Schopenhauer that a true thinker ought to be deaf, so as to block out the noise that creates prejudice. The key word is irreverence. In one essay, Qian sits down with the Devil, and they discuss the problems of celebrity and the decline of the soul business in an atheist age.

The translator and editor of this collection, Christopher G. Rea, has done a fine job with a difficult text to translate. Rea has largely preserved Qian's wit, which, in the original Chinese, sparkles like Dorothy Parker's. However, Professor Rea is openly an academic and some translation choices are less than poetic ("every person's face can smile and throat emit laughter" "But wherefore?" "Possessing the casualness and nonchalance of spare-time diversion seekers"). Most regrettably, the essays are studded with explanatory footnotes. As Rea explains, in a sentence worthy of Qian, "Explanatory notes, often the banes of the literary translator, are absolutely essential or these works, which would otherwise be only partially comprehensible to any reader less familiar than the author with the Chinese and Western literary canons—that is to say, all of us." I sense a certain anxiety over the possibility that no sense will be made out of these essays. At times, the translator comes off as a harried tailor, pins in mouth, struggling to hem an unruly garment.

I wonder if this anxiety is not reflective of a broader anxiety, an anxiety over the type of eclectic learning Qian represents. Every newspaper, magazine, and blog seems abuzz with the "crisis of the humanities." In a review of the literature for The New York Review of Books, Anthony Grafton counts no less than eight recently published books on the subject of deep problems with the American university. In short, the idea is that contemporary American society either has no use for, or thinks it has no use for, the humanities and refuses to further support this collection of 'bums'.

With the humanities supposedly in peril, there is no shortage of champions seeking to defend the cause to the death, and to sell some books in the meantime. Some of these defenses are ridiculous. A Professor Robert N. Watson at UCLA argues that the humanities actually are profitable for the university, generating more revenue than they cost to maintain. If that truly were the case, I doubt that university presidents would be so high-minded in their pursuit of the utilitarian that they would decline to invest. On the other hand, more refined arguments eventually amount to about the same thing. When Philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, "Education is not just for citizenship. It prepares people for employment and, importantly, for meaningful lives," she is merely arguing that you do get a return on your investment after all: "citizenship," "meaningful lives," and good workers, as opposed to cold hard cash. This humanities thing pays out eventually, the crisis advocates say, just not in the short run.

Qian would have found this anxiety over the payout absolutely alien: He was content to wallow in learning, confident enough to play around with the dustiest tomes in his library and not necessarily look to make anything out of anything. Perhaps that confidence was a function of his background. Chinese written culture has been around for five thousand years. It is a matter of layers, interlocking scales, and it's hard to write a sentence without calling forth a poet or a story from the past. If that means anything, it at least is evidence that everything will come back around eventually, and it's irrelevant whether or not it will "count."

Americans, in contrast, have wagered a lot on whether or not culture has a tangible value: The nation is built on high-minded ideals. If learning and philosophy don't mean anything, could liberty and the pursuit of happiness be far behind? And America is a young country, with a national narrative of ever-increasing progress and ever-increasing influence. The Chinese know well the Romance of the Three Kingdoms maxim that the empire long divided must unite and the empire long united must divide, that societies fluctuate between chaos and stability, flourishing and declining. We Americans, on the other hand, are thoroughly unfamiliar with the cycles of history: In two hundred short years, America has never been long divided, and yet, at the same time, we've very rarely been particularly united. So perhaps ours is the anxiety of a young nation. With no real history to speak of, Americans are still not convinced that this liberal, democratic, civilized society thing won't just evaporate into thin air. We don't have the patience for Qian's free and easy wanderings, not when we constantly suspect that the republic could be at stake.

However, perhaps it is Qian's eclectic humanism which more closely resembles contemporary knowledge, and not the fears of the crisis advocates. The modern miracle of the internet, this flood of information, is a far cry from the efficient essay, the essay which proceeds linearly towards a readily comprehensible destination. Knowledge in these times is composed of a honeycomb of scattered datapoints, drips and drops of information accumulating in an aggregator or a linkhub until it constitutes an appraisable stream, random particles that collide in detectable explosions and then go their separate ways. Look at the front page of Wikipedia: On the date of writing, I see an article on a minor league baseball team called the Nashville Sounds, a picture of the Bigfin Reef Squid, and an item on Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space. Scattered books from a strange and diverse library brought into conversation—it's a Qian Zhongshu essay.

But I want to be quite clear on this point, and not fall into the trap of attributing yet another hidden value to the humanities, or—perish the thought—that irritating empty irony of the value lying in there being no value. The point should rather be that there is no end at all; that, if we lived in a less miserly time, we ought to be brave enough to admit that the humanities is simply a way of life (a dao, if you will), with no end and no dividend. We may be obligated to come up with various justifications in order to defend it, but in all likelihood, the truth extends no farther than this: It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, and blessed are all those who support it.

Qian's ideal for the examined life is embodied in his dialogue with the Devil, that old patron of knowledge. Two learned men sit across from each other and have a pleasant, witty dialogue late into the night. They pun and joke, theorize for the sake of it, and then mock their own pretension. They never take the world seriously, precisely because it is already more serious than they can bear. This way of living is an eternal joyousness that is attainable now more than ever: aggregators that endlessly dredge up more and more to read and learn; message boards on every topic under heaven; garrulous and argumentative listservs. The conversations never cease. A million schools contend, and we stay up all night joking and yelling and reading and somehow do it again the next day.

Which is to say, this is less an essay than a note to my mother. The books will not be put into storage. That would be as crude and stingy as a research university cutting out its French and Russian department. I regret to inform you that the plan is, on the contrary, to buy more books. And further, it may disappoint you to know that there is no other plan. I have absolutely no idea of what to do with all these books, and yet I intend to buy more, always more, enough to read from morning to midnight. Worst of all, I quite selfishly intend to leave these heaps of books in my room when I do eventually kick the bucket, leave them for the friends with whom I had silly, pedantic arguments and the family members whom I bored to tears to finally sort out and sell for mulch. But all those poor people who put up with me, all those people tasked with discharging this irritating burden, all those poor souls will know that, up till the end, I always at least had words—and God willing, they will always have them too.

Riccardo Moratto's translation of the essay, also presented here, is authorized by the author.

Read the translation in Italian

Dylan Suher is a contributing editor at Asymptote. He was born and raised in Brooklyn. He has published reviews, criticism, and essays in The Millions, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and The New York Times. He is currently a graduate student in modern Chinese literature at Harvard University.