The Devil pays a nighttime visit to Mr. Qian Zhongshu


Scholar Christopher G. Rea is the editor of a new book of translations of Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu.

In an article on The China Beat, Rea says Qian “might be called the best Chinese writer you’ve never heard of”.

The book includes translations by Rea, as well as Dennis T. Hu, Nathan K. Mao, Yiran Mao, and Philip F. Williams and an introduction to Qian and his work.

In the China Beat post linked above, Rea provides a short biography of Qian:

One hundred years ago today, Qian was born into a scholarly family in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. Tutored in the classics from a young age, he went on to become modern China’s “foremost man of letters,” in Ronald Egan’s words, accumulating encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese and Western literatures, and putting it to use in his scholarship and creative writing.

A graduate of Tsinghua University, Qian studied European literature at Oxford and the Sorbonne before returning with his family to China in 1938 after the outbreak of war with Japan.

While teaching at various universities in southwestern China and Shanghai during the war, Qian composed a collection of essays, Written in the Margins of Life (1941); a collection of short stories, Human, Beast, and Ghost (1946); and a novel, Fortress Besieged (serialized, 1946-1947), as well as occasional poems and reviews, and a major work of poetry criticism. In 1949 he was recruited to teach at his alma mater in Beijing, and he remained in China after the communist takeover, having turned down several job offers from abroad. In 1953, he transferred to a literary research institute based at Beijing University, which in 1977 became part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Qian Zhongshu’s fate in New China was, to a certain degree, similar to that of many Chinese intellectuals. He stopped creative writing, and his research was repeatedly interrupted by political campaigns. Unusually, due to his linguistic prowess, he was assigned to an elite group tasked with translating Mao’s poetry into English. He and his wife, the scholar-writer Yang Jiang, nevertheless suffered ideological criticism and, during the Cultural Revolution, were sent to rural Henan province for “re-education” and “reform” through agricultural labor. During the cultural thaw after Mao’s death, both resumed publishing and had their long-forgotten works “rediscovered” by the Chinese public.

This biography obscures the talent and self-possession that makes Qian’s literary and scholarly output during periods of war and political turmoil so remarkable. Widely read in modern and classical Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Latin, Qian pioneered a new model of comparative literature that drew out resonances in cross-cultural patterns of figurative language.

Below is a chapter from Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts, reproduced with permission from the publisher:

The Devil Pays a Nighttime Visit to Mr. Qian Zhongshu

“You and I should have met long ago,” he said, taking the chair closest to the brazier.
“I’m the Devil. You’ve been tempted and tested by me before.”

“But you’re a conscientious fellow!” A sympathetic smile crossed his face as he spoke. “Even though you’ve fallen into my traps before, you haven’t recognized me. When you’ve succumbed to my temptations, you’ve only seen me as a lovable woman, a faithful friend, or a pursuable ideal. You’ve never been able to tell that it’s me. Only those who have been able to resist my temptations, such as Jesus Christ, have recognized me for who I am. But we were destined to meet today. A family was holding a commemorative vegetarian banquet involving sacrifices to spirits and ghosts, and they invited me to sit in the place of honor. I was tied up with that engagement for most of the evening and had a few too many drinks, so my vision got blurry, and while making my way back to my dark dwelling I entered your room by mistake. Electric lights in the interior provinces are a travesty — your house is as dark as Hell! But it’s colder here than where I live. There, sulfuric fires burn from morning to night, which of course would be unthinkable for you here — I hear the price of coal has gone up again.”

Recovering from my surprise, it occurred to me that I should fulfill my duty as host. I addressed my guest, “It’s an honor to receive your midnight visit. You darken my humble dwelling!2 I only regret that I’m the only one here to receive you, and I apologize for not having prepared a better welcome! Are you cold? Excuse me a moment while I wake the servant to prepare tea and add coal to the fire.”

“No need for that,” he said, staying me with the utmost politeness. “I can only sit for a minute, and then I’ll be on my way. Besides, let me tell you . . .” His expression became serious, yet intimate and sincere, like a patient reporting to his doctor that he is impotent, “. . . fire can’t warm me up anyway. When I was young I wreaked havoc in Heaven by trying to usurp God’s position. I didn’t succeed, however, and ended up being cast down to suffer in the frozen depths of Hell [1] — much like how in your mortal realm the Russian tyrant exiled members of the Revolutionary Party to the Siberian tundra. The cold air has driven all the warmth in my body into my heart, making me cold-blooded amid the heat. I once sat on a heated brick bed for three days and nights, but my bottom remained as cold as a pitch-black winter night . . .”

Surprised, I interrupted him, asking, “Didn’t Barbey d’Aurevilly also once say—”
“Yes,” he replied with a chuckle. “In the fifth story in Les Diaboliques he mentions my unwarmable bottom. This is why one abhors celebrity! As soon as you become famous you have no more secrets to speak of. All your private affairs get publicized by interviewers and reporters, and just like that you’re deprived of your material for an autobiography or a confessional[2] Should I decide to write an account of myself in the future, I’ll have to make up some new facts.”

“Wouldn’t that run counter to the purpose of an autobiography?” I asked.

He laughed again. “I never imagined that your knowledge and insight would be as pedestrian as a newspaper editorial. This is the age of the new biographical literature. Writing biographies of others is also a type of self-expression, so there’s no reason not to insert your own views or write about others as a way of showing yourself off. Conversely, autobiographers invariably don’t have much of a ‘self ’ to write about, so they gratify themselves by rendering a likeness that their own wife and child wouldn’t recognize.4 Or they ramble on about irrelevant matters, noting the friends they’ve made and recounting anecdotes about other people. So if you want to learn about a person, you should read biographies he’s written of others, and if you want to learn about other people, you should read his autobiography. Autobiography is biography.”

I couldn’t help being impressed by this, and I inquired politely, “Would you permit me to quote that line of yours in the future?”

“Why not?” he replied. “Just be sure to use the formula ‘as my friend so-and-so says.’ ”

I was delighted, and replied modestly. “You think too well of me! Am I worthy to be your friend?”

His response dashed my hopes. “It’s not that I think well of you and am calling you my friend; it’s that youare attending to me and claiming that I’m your friend. When you quote the ancients in your writing, you should avoid using quotation marks to show that the words have been used before, but when you quote a contemporary, you always have to say ‘my friend’ — this is the only way to solicit friends.”

Despite his frank talk, I plied him with a few more courtesies. “Many thanks for your excellent advice! I never expected you would also be such a writing expert too. You already surprised and impressed me just now with your mention of Les Diaboliques.”

His reply was almost sympathetic. “No wonder other people say you can’t escape your class consciousness. You think I’m unworthy to read books, don’t you? I may be from the lowest stratum of society — Hell — but my aspirations have always aimed upward. I’ve done a fair amount of reading in my day, especially of popular magazines and brochures, and the like. That’s why Goethe praised my spirit of progress and my ability to roll along with what the newspapers call the ‘great wheel of the age.’[3] I knew you were a man who enjoys literature, so I mentioned a few famous literary works to demonstrate that I have similar interests and expertise. Conversely, had you been a prolific writer who opposed book reading, naturally I’d change my tune and tell you that I, too, considered it unnecessary to read books . . . yours excepted. Reading your books, after all, makes me feel that life is too short — how could I have the energy to read ancient tomes? I discuss inventions with scientists, archaeology with historians, and international affairs with politicians. At art exhibitions I talk about connoisseurship and at banquets I talk about the culinary arts. But that’s not all. Sometimes I instead talk politics with scientists and art with archaeologists; after all, they don’t understand a word I say and I’m happy to let them pass off my phrases as their own. When you play the zither to an ox, you don’t need to pick a good tune! At tea parties I usually discuss cooking on the chance that the hostess will pick up on my comments and — who knows—perhaps invite me to taste her own cooking a few days later. Having muddled by like this for tens of thousands of years I’ve gained something of a reputation in this world. Dante praised me as a refined thinker and Goethe spoke of me as worldly and knowledgeable[4]. One should be proud to have attained my status! But not me.

On the contrary, I’ve grown more and more humble, often reproaching myself that, ‘I’m nothing but an underworld ghost!’[5] Like people who belittle themselves as ‘country folk,’ I worry that empty words are not enough to express my modesty, so I use my body as a symbol. A rich man’s gigantic sack of a belly signifies that he has ‘plenty in the bag,’ while a thinker’s bowed head and back arched into the shape of a question mark signifies his tendency to ask questions about everything. That’s why . . .”

As he spoke, he extended his right hoof for me to see the extremely high heel on his leather shoe, “. . . the shape of my legs is so incredibly inconvenient [6] — it symbolizes my modesty and ‘inferiority.’ I invented foot binding and high heels because I sometimes need to conceal my deformities, especially when I transform into a woman.”

I couldn’t help asking, “Some people who have gazed upon your elegant countenance have said that the towering horns on your head look a bit like — ”

“That’s right,” he cut in, “sometimes I take on the appearance of a bull[7]. This of course is also symbolic. Since bulls are often used for sacrifices, I manifest a spirit of ‘Who will go to Hell if not me?’ Furthermore, mortals love to ‘blow their own bullhorn,’ but a bull certainly can’t blow itself — at least its biological structure won’t permit it to do so. So, my bull shape is indeed a symbol of modesty. When it comes to false courtesy, I can’t compete with you scholars and men of letters. The cocky ones, instead of refusing your flattery, will accept it as if you owed them a debt, regretting only that you didn’t pay them back with interest. False modesty takes other forms too. Some will respond to your praise with protestations that they are embarrassed and unworthy, like a bribe-taking superior who, finding the bribe too small, returns it intact so that his subordinates will double it and send it again. Lender and superior alike maintain that praiseworthy people still exist in this world—at the very least they themselves. But my modesty could not be more sincere. In my view, if I have nothing to be proud of, how could other people be proud of me? Having always been cursed by others, I completely lack such vanity.

However, although I’m not a writer, many literary works have come about because of me. On that score, I’m more like . . .” He spoke without a trace of embarrassment — the nerve! The only color on his black face was reflected from the burning red coals in the brazier. “. . . a beautiful woman who doesn’t actually write poems herself but inspires countless love-struck poets to use their broken hearts—no! — their broken throats to sing her praises. Byron and Shelley, for instance, both wrote poems inspired by me[8]. The packs of lies one often finds in newspapers and magazines also owe to my influence.”

“I’m impressed you have the energy,” I remarked. “Newspapers around the globe are talking about nothing but war. At a time like this, shouldn’t you be busy putting your destructive arts to work on massacres and invasions? How did you find the time in your busy schedule to come chat with me?”

“You mean to send me on my way, don’t you?” he asked. “Well, I should be leaving. I forget that nighttime is when you mortals rest. We’ve chatted our fill today, but I still want to set you straight on a few things. You do me wrong by saying I’m involved in war. I have a peaceful disposition and absolutely oppose the use of military force. In my view, everything can be resolved with treaties. Just look, for instance, how civilized Dr. Faustus and I were when he swore a blood oath sealing the contract to sell me his soul![9] I used to be inclined to violence, but after my coup failed and I was expelled from Heaven I took my underlings’ advice and accepted that a battle of wits is better than a battle of strength[10]. Since then, I’ve substituted temptation for fighting. As you know, I’m in the soul business. God selects a portion of mankind’s souls and the rest fall to me. Who could have guessed that during these past few decades business would be so light I’d be supping on underworld wind? In the past, human souls could be divided into the good and the bad. God would keep the good souls, and I would buy and sell the bad ones. The mid-nineteenth century, however, suddenly saw a great transformation. Apart from a small minority, almost no humans had souls, and those who did were all good people who fell under God’s domain. Soldiers have souls, for example, but their souls ascend directly to Heaven, so nothing is left for me. Modern psychologists promote ‘soulless psychology,’ a field that would never have emerged in ancient times, when everyone had souls. Now, even if there are a few souls left over from the ones God has selected, they’re usually smelly and filthy. If they don’t reek of laboratory medicine they’re either covered in a layer of dust from old books or stink of money. I’m of a fastidious temperament, and I refuse to pick up leftovers from the rubbish heap. Bad people exist in the modern era too, of course, but they’re so bad they have no personality or character; they’re as inert as inorganic matter and as efficient as machines. Even poets disappoint me. They go on and on about baring their souls, but once they’ve finished baring them nothing is left over for me. You think I’m busy, but I’m so idle I’m going stir-crazy. I, too, am one of the unemployed — a sacrificial object of modern material and mechanized civilization. Plus, I’m burdened with heavy family responsibilities: I have seven million offspring to support[11]. I do still have social engagements, of course—someone of my level of prestige always does. Tonight I came from a dinner. In times like these I don’t have to worry for lack of dinner invitations; I just find it depressing that people don’t let one use one’s talents to earn a meal.”

He said no more. His loneliness filled the air, reducing the warmth of the brazier. I was about to ask him about my own soul when he abruptly stood up and announced he was off. Wishing me a good night, he said that we might have a chance to meet again. I opened the door and saw him out. The boundless darkness of the night awaited him in silence. He stepped outside and melted into it, like a raindrop returning to the sea.

You can buy Humans, Beasts and Ghosts from Columbia University Press or Amazon.
Wikipedia has an entry devoted to Qian, including some good links

  1. [1] Book 1 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost describes how the Devil was demoted for having rebelled and created a disturbance in Heaven. Canto 34 in Dante’s Inferno says that the Devil suffers in ice. 
  2. [2] Garçon and Vinchon’s Le diable, for example, collects a number of popular tales about the Devil. 
  3. [3] In the “Witch’s Kitchen” section in part 1 of Goethe’s Faust, the witch blames the Devil for changing his form and the Devil replies that since world civilization constantly renews itself, he changes to keep up with it. 
  4. [4]
    In canto 27 in The Inferno the Devil calls himself a logician. In the “Study” section in part 1 of Faust, the Devil says that although he is not omniscient, he is quite experienced and knowledgeable. 
  5. [5] Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Devil’s Thoughts” and Robert Southey’s “The Devil’s Walk” describe the Devil using politeness and modesty to cover up his pride. 
  6. [6] On the Devil’s lame foot, see Alain-René Lesage’s Le diable boiteux and Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil, part 2, chap. 4. 
  7. [7] Regarding the Devil’s frequent manifestation in the form of a bull, Psalms 106 in the Old Testament says that the heretics made a bull statue, which they worshipped. In later eras it was said that the Devil appeared in the form of a goat, which Defoe describes in detail. 
  8. [8] The preface to Southey’s long poem “The Vision of Judgement” says that Byron and Shelley were both demonic poets. 
  9. [9] Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus records that Faustus pricked his arm and wrote the entire contract in blood. 
  10. [10] See Paradise Lost, book 2. 
  11. [11] Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum records that the number of little devils totals 7,405,926. 
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