In the latest issue:

Botanic Macaroni

Steven Shapin

What made the Vikings tick?

Tom Shippey

In the Lab

Rupert Beale

Will there be a Brexit deal?

Anand Menon

Short Cuts: Under New Management

Rory Scothorne


Bridget Alsdorf

Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison

Poem: ‘Country Music’

Ange Mlinko

On the Trail of Garibaldi

Tim Parks

Art Lessons

Peter Campbell

You’ll like it when you get there

Tom Crewe

Early Kermode

Stefan Collini

‘The Vanishing Half’

Joanna Biggs

At the Movies: ‘The Truth’

Michael Wood

The Suitcase: Part Two

Frances Stonor Saunders

Poem: ‘Siri U’

Jorie Graham

Diary: Getting into Esports

John Lanchester

News from the Old CountryJonathan Spence
Vol. 11 No. 17 · 14 September 1989

News from the Old Country

Jonathan Spence

2702 words
Qian Mu and the World of Seven Mansions 
by Jerry Dennerline.
Yale, 192 pp., £18, March 1989, 0 300 04296 5
Show More
Show More

At once the simplest and the hardest question one can ask if one studies China is ‘What does it mean to be Chinese?’ The question has real immediacy as the multilayered Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, South-East Asia and Australia, Western Europe and the United States, try to make sense of what the Chinese Communist Government has just done to hundreds of its own young people.

Professor Dennerline offers one of the subtlest, most sensitive and closely-reasoned attempts to answer the question that I have ever seen. The fulcrum for his story is the Chinese historian and philosopher Qian Mu (formerly Romanised as Ch’ien Mu), who lived in China from his birth in 1895 until the Communist victory of 1949, subsequently settling first in Hong Kong and then in Taiwan, where he still resides. Qian Mu grew up in a village in Jiangsu province – the ‘Seven Mansions’ of the book’s title – which was dominated literally, spiritually and economically by the Qian lineage, its remembered glories, its current wide interests in commerce, and the extent of its land-holdings and charitable estates. Intellectually, Qian was of an age group that ‘looked forward’, as Dennerline puts it, to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the end of the old autocracy. But the Revolution of 1911 and the Qing abdication of the following year brought not a new era of liberation for the Chinese but the horrors of warlordism, civil war and Japanese invasion.

Jerry Dennerline does not explore this general historical background in any detail; it is not important to his quest, which is to find out how Qian Mu came to believe what he believed, and how ‘in the worst of times’ Qian managed to hold onto his central values and to try and preserve and reinterpret them for future generations of Chinese. This book, then, is at once intellectual history, to be read with close attention to every nuance in the argument, and local community history rich in vivid detail. Jerry Dennerline’s previous work, a major study of the Chinese scholars’ reactions to the Qing conquest of the Ming in the 1640s in Jiangsu province just south of the Yangtze River, prepared him admirably for the task of reassessing the historical parallels and deep changes in rural Jiangsu two and a half centuries later.

Dennerline had two groups of interviews with Qian in Taiwan in 1983 and 1986, and also revisited Qian Mu’s home town in the People’s Republic, something Qian himself could not do. One of the many joys of this book is the sense it gives of the affection that developed between the ageing, blind Chinese scholar and his junior American interlocutor, probing always for meaning behind the generalisations, while sharing news from the old country with the exile. A moving example is Dennerline, groping to find some way of showing how bits of the old value system seem to have survived in the PRC, and telling Qian Mu about an encounter in Gansu province. There Dennerline met a woman worker, crippled since birth, who finally acquired dignity and a small regular income from a new job programme designed for the handicapped. When Dennerline asked her what she did with her new-found independence and cash she looked at him in genuine surprise. She had a family still living, she said, so of course she shared the money with them. ‘Conjuring up her image in his blindness,’ as Dennerline beautifully phrases it, ‘Qian Mu tapped the table to express his respect.’

The shape of this book is artful without being distracting, based on two modes of organisation. One mode is to sandwich the bulk of the text between two key passages of intellectual analysis, the first of which is a summary of Qian Mu’s views on Chinese culture and history as presented in an interview with Dennerline, the second Dennerline’s own rephrasing of those views in a way that makes sense to him as a historian. The other main mode is to present three sequential chapters on the world of Seven Mansions. One view is Qian’s, from his memoirs and reminiscences. One view is Dennerline’s, as a social historian, examining the rural community. And one, Qian’s again, is the old scholar’s short, affectionate homage to his parents, written long after their deaths, ‘Reminiscences on My Parents at the Age of Eighty’. It was coming across this text that first made Dennerline interested in Qian. By translating it here in its entirety for the first time (it runs to about thirty-five pages), Dennerline makes a real contribution to history, literature and biography; and by closing, rather than opening the book with these ‘Reminiscences’ he ensures that the reader will have the richest possible context in which to evaluate it.

What I called the ‘first mode’, the presentation of Qian’s and Dennerline’s views of the shape of Chinese culture and society, is not easy to summarise, as it is already so condensed. But what Qian tried to explain to Dennerline was his view of the Chinese sense of the rites (the li) that hold Chinese culture together. For Qian, the place in which a Chinese grows up, and which he loves deeply, is still no more than local, and so it cannot define national culture. But the scholar who practises li locally, to give meaning and order to his life within his own community and his own descent group, has within him the power to draw together the worlds of family, rites and community into a concept that has both a cultural and a national force – that of the ‘whole people’s descent group’ (minzu). But however carefully Dennerline studied the local community, Qian observed, he would never find culture’s broader meaning there.

Dennerline, in his reformulation of similar ideas near the end of the book, takes a different tack, one that springs from his own intellectual fascination with the intricate bonds and structures of Chinese society. Dennerline agrees that the li were central to Qian’s family world, but they were also full of meaning for the culture as a whole even in their local manifestations. The scholars both enforced and manipulated the concepts of li to structure their local communities and their estates so that they could act as a buffer between their localities and the state. The scholars interpreted all local customs as having dignity and meaning in a cultural sense as long as they conformed to the li. Thus local variations and all the richness of social and lineage custom that one can regard as Chinese were at the heart of the Chinese state and culture. Any Chinese state seeking in the present decade to revive a sense of Chinese culture which has any internal validity or intellectual coherence must grasp this sense of bonds to the local community and its customs, even as those change with agricultural revolution and rural industrialisation.

If that sounds very abstract – and I suppose it does – the fully concrete and engrossing detail of Dennerline’s second mode make it easy to see what both scholars mean. Qian’s initial picture of himself in his community and his national culture is one of an intellectual struggling in a political context whose disintegration is compounded for him by his father’s early death. But the sense of the li that Qian had received from his father, of the internal order and rhythms of his rural world, with its historical ties across the centuries of Qians, their libraries, and their learning, all gave Qian Mu an inner intellectual strength. He himself could and did rebel, and challenged authority when it was obtuse. But essentially, as both student and teacher (he was teaching in local schools at 17, to bring the family extra income), he always sought to reach consensus rather than use physical coercion. And his scholarship was no restricting net, but rather a spur to finding the fullest context of things – the precise taste of pork, or the exact sound of wind in the pine trees.

By learning, by thinking, by searching for the inner significance of his own cultural legacy, Qian felt ready, at the age of 42, to offer his own first major synthesis of his country and its origins. Qian Mu’s Outline History of the Nation, written in 1937 and 1938, is described by Dennerline as ‘a monument to national pride’, that spanned three thousand years of China’s waxing and waning fortunes, of foreign invasion and assimilation, and intellectual evolution. The pattern of this history was all China’s, to Qian, and it differed from the West’s pattern

as a poem differs from a drama. The one develops in a metre from rhyme to rhyme, always by the same rules; the other develops in stages, from act to act, always with a different plot. The one expands to fill a space when it is ordered and disintegrates when it is not. The other progresses from conflict to conflict toward some inevitable tragic conclusion.

China’s poems could never be understood by Westernised intellectuals who ‘presumed the universality of the dramatic form’.

Some of the ebullience and confidence of Qian Mu as historian must surely have come from the setting and the company in which he wrote the work, a beautiful and secluded temple built by rushing streams in the mountain countryside of south-west China, near Kunming, with his meals fresh-cooked from local produce by a loving, loyal old country woman. And few people can have been odder or apter companions for Qian in his labours than his temple neighbour, a poetry-loving, opium-smoking Taoist monk who made money for his simple pleasures by speculating in soya bean futures.

This vision of Qian’s raising and writing, which Dennerline calls in his chapter title ‘To practise when it is timely’ in homage to the Confucian view of correct action, is followed by Dennerline’s own exploration of Qian’s upbringing. Called ‘The Land of Streams’ from the local descriptive term for Qian’s home region, this chapter is really a freestanding essay, and an immensely skilful and evocative piece of social history. Dennerline’s goal is to show the way the li functioned in, and ordered, the many lives of Qians and others who lived along ‘Whistle and Swagger Creek’ in the late Qing dynasty. We see how the li integrated the nets of social custom, gave coherence and protection to a ‘little cosmos’ in which 42,000 people were struggling for livelihood on less than ten thousand acres of fertile paddy land. In this little cosmos, centuries of evolution had led to a complex landowning system which separated out land into subsoil and surface rights, so that those ‘owning’ the right to till did not necessarily (or often) have rights to the subsoil or the ultimate claim to the land itself. Minute social gradations based on such rights, along with multitudes of customary obligations in the spheres of religious ceremonial, or the playing of music at festivals and weddings, gave every family member status and identity. Charitable estates were a way of pooling lineage land so that the less affluent could still get an education and a ration of food. This was the system that enabled Qian Mu to be a scholar after his father’s death. And it is as we draw all these myriad pieces together, Dennnerline writes, that we can build up the full context in a way that Qian could not do, even had he chosen to. (Qian, for instance, had never seen some of the local genealogical records that Dennerline was able to locate for his research.) And from this in-depth study of the Land of Streams, Dennerline came to see that ‘history was inseparable from value.’ It was this that gave Qian Mu ‘his deep respect for China’s ordinary people, with their sense of place and the duties attached to it, and for China’s country scholars, with their sense of equity and their dedication to achieving it’.

In this way, Dennerline sets the scene for his translation of Qian Mu’s ‘Reminiscences on My Parents at the Age of Eighty’, written on Taiwan in eight days in 1975, when the author’s parents, had they lived, would both have been 110. Some Western readers, used to the steam and tumble of modern biographies, might at first think this bland or evasive, but they would be utterly wrong. Qian Mu is writing in a different genre, with modulations – wondrously caught by Dennerline in his quietly affectionate translation – that illuminate the family world in great depth. Qian Mu here constructed the world of values which he believed had constructed him. It is, above all, a world of loving order, even in terrible times: a world of social values made manifest every day through decorum and deportment and an inner sense of integrity. In other words, a world informed by li. That is Qian’s message, and perhaps there has never been a lovelier attempt to get it across. It does not matter that Qian’s father was sickly and clearly a prey to opium. It does not matter that Qian’s mother was illiterate. What mattered to Qian, what was so Chinese, was the way their actions fitted the community and the family, and the way behaviour and perception meshed. The Qian males in other parts of the lineage were losing that sense, losing the vision of scholarship and obligation and turning to breeding crickets and flying kites. But for Qian and his father the symbol of meaningful male life was the complete edition of the Five Confucian Classics, hand-copied by Qian Mu’s grandfather, and lightly stained with the old man’s tears, which was still kept in a family library while Qian Mu was a boy.

The ‘Reminiscences’ were written in 12 short sections, the first eight mainly about Qian Mu’s father, the last four about how his mother coped after her husband’s early death. The point of the essay, both the reason why Qian Mu wrote it, and why Dennerline used it as the centerpiece of his book, is surely that the parents can only be understood and described in the context of their family and community. To analyse them independently would be meaningless. It is in their social expression of internalised values that they make their mark and leave their name, so that years after his father’s death Qian Mu still cannot get the local shopkeepers to take his money when he goes to buy necessities. Yet there is nothing sterile or restrictive about this in Qian Mu’s eyes – only proof that the world is in order. And the depth of the love was always there, committed and passionate.

The little boy serving the dying father is a theme that occurs in other Chinese memoirs – especially poignant was the philosopher Kang Youwei’s description of his father’s illness and death some forty years earlier. But Kang’s memoir is so tinged with arrogance that it is hard to take. Qian’s is about his parents, not himself. Moving laments for revered mothers are also fairly common in Chinese memoirs, but I know of none that has quite the pathos and the brevity of Qian’s lament. She died when she was 77, and her son, 48, was far away from her in Chengdu, and unable to be at her side, or to carry out proper mourning rites. ‘I have often reflected,’ Qian writes, ‘on how the ancients likened parental love to the light of springtime. Whenever I was with her, I could feel this light in my body. Even a cat or a chicken in the house could feel it.’ Yet fate did not let them be together much. As Qian lamented: ‘Although my life spans the entire life of the Chinese republic, I spent only three of my adult years in the company of my mother.’ Across the history of that republic Qian Mu, gently nudged by Dennerline, reaches back to share his values with us. We may not accept or approve of them all, but it is hard to deny that there was something truly worth saying at the centre of his being.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences