|Family, by Ba Jin; 《家》巴金著
- Born in 1904 and raised in a landed gentry class in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, Ba Jin (巴金 or Li Yaotang 李尧棠) lived to be a centenarian who witnessed nearly all of the great social upheavals in modern Chinese history; his education began in China’s interior but brought him to Nanjing, Shanghai, and eventually Europe as he became a translator, publisher, writer, and the chairman of China’s Writers’ Association; it is no wonder that in several of his fictional works, personal liberation or intellectual enlightenment is always signified figuratively by a journey or trip taken by the hero or heroine from Sichuan to a metropolis like Beijing or Shanghai, which shows a deep contempt for provinciality and cultural conservatism; he was 7 when the Qing government was toppled in the 1911 Republic Revolution; by the time he turned 15, students in Beijing took to the street to protest a corrupt government, setting off waves of angry protest across the nation that culminated in the May Fourth new culture movement that aimed at indicting and rejecting Chinese cultural traditions; at 45 he witnessed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a new political order and the dictatorship of the proletariat under which he was to write for the remainder of his life;
- The mind of Ba Jin as an enlightened person and the style of his literary imagination as a writer would not be what they are if he had not known anarchism or translated works of Russian literature. Between 1926 and 1928, during his study abroad in France, he translated into Chinese Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread (Mianbao yu ziyou 《 面包与自由 》 240 pages) from French and German texts, and Ethics, Origin and Development (Lunlixue de qiyuan he fazhan 《伦理学的起源和发展》570 pages). Between 1929 and 1930, he translatedThe Memoirs of A Revolutionist (Wode zizhuan 《我的自传》550 pages). In his article “On the History of Russian Social Movements” (Eguo shehui yundong shihua 俄国社会运动史话 ), Ba Jin introduced anarchism as “. . . beginning with the assumption of achieving the freedom of the will by breaking loose all the shackles,” and declared null and void “the duties and obligations imposed upon the individual by society, state, religion and family.” “To me,” wrote Ba Jin in his article “On Anarchism” (Annaqi zhiyi 安那其主义), “the most satisfying aspect of anarchism is its emphasis on personal freedom, without resorting to official and rigid social organization.” Although a discourse developed in the West mainly as a critique of capitalism and critical reaction to industrial civilization through which a government could nationalize natural resources and the wealth of a country without the consent of the people, anarchism was eagerly embraced by many in China, a nation just emerging out of its agrarian society, with little nationalized industry or regimented production from which the anarchists wanted to free the individual citizens. Ever since the beginning of the last century, Chinese anarchists had been critical of the feudal family structure, the central location of Confucian culture. In 1907, Han Yi published his article “On Destruction of the Family” (《毁家论》汉一) and argued how the traditional family stood in the way of social progress. Another anarchist Li Shizeng called for what he referred to as “Ancestor Revolution” (《 祖宗革命 》李石曾), believing that the patrilineal values at the core of Confucian civilization were responsible for China’s stagnation.
- As a member of an anarchist group, Ba Jin naturally shared this critical view and felt the relevance and indeed the necessity to adopt anarchism in China because it was a way to alert the people to “. . . the fear of economic totalitarianism, the hatred for centralized authorities and a deeply felt love for freedom of the individual.” For Ba Jin, the discourse of anarchism was an intellectual enlightenment that made him more conscious of the human conditions he felt he had a duty to improve if China was to become a modern nation. His pen name, ba jin, is made up of two the syllables taken from the names of the two anarchists he admired, Bakunin (巴库宁) and Kropotkin (克鲁包特金). As aptly pointed out by Mau-sang Ng, the author of The Russian Hero in Modern Chinese Fiction, “Indeed the writings of Kropotkin were to remain a source of inspiration and comfort to Ba Jin throughout his early period, especially in times of distress. As he wrote in the preface to the translation of Kropotkin’s Ethics, ‘At the time when the revolution was crushed in Russia, Kropotkin frantically wrote his Ethics, and I was moved by the same spirit when at the time of the great massacre of Chinese people I put all my strength into the translation of this book.’” (pp.186-7) These literary activities gave Ba Jin insights into and appreciation of Russian literary works, especially works by Ivan Turgenev such as Fathers and Sons and Virgin Soil, which he took pain to translate: Fu yu zi 《父与子》1943 and Chunu di 《 处女地 》in 1944. Needless to say that “the Russian presence is most keenly felt in Ba Jin’s early fictional works;” (Ng) These works shaped his fictional imagination from which his famous novel Family was to come forth as testimony to his faith in anarchism.
- It is no wonder that the traditional family becomes the subject matter of his Family, for which he is perhaps best known. The traditional family in pre-modern China was a link in the social hierarchy that a Chinese person could experience most directly and intimately as a form of political oppression the anarchist wanted to abolish in order to emancipate the individual. Ba Jin’s novel was written within and mediated through this Chinese anarchist discourse; the story dramatizes the problems of such feudal institutions as foot-binding, concubinage, arranged marriage, ancestor worship, etc. Structurally, this full-length novel about the ups and downs of a family is not very different from so many classical Chinese novels such as The Dream of the Red Chamber. But thematically, it belongs to a completely different intellectual tradition. It is in France, as Ba Jin later recalls, “that these nearly twenty years of my early life weighed down on my heart like a nightmare. The nightmare cruelly destroyed the souls of many of my young contemporaries. I almost became one of the victims myself, but I was saved by ‘naivete’ and ‘boldness.’ In that, I was perhaps like Juehui.” Family signifies, among other things, a tension or antithesis of society and human nature, which is perhaps best articulated by the French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), an influential figure in European Enlightenment, who believed that man was good when in the state of nature. Both nihilism (in favor of rejecting all existing values) and anarchism (with the view of government and authority as harmful and unnecessary) grew out of this intellectual enlightenment. Thus the central hero Juehui can be seen to embody the tendencies in both political philosophies to interrogate existing values, to question authority, and to accustom people to the romantic idea of man as good in nature. In this sense, one could read the work as a variation of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in which the young nihilist hero Bazarov, who tells his brother, Pavel, that he will abandon nihilism when Pavel can show him “…a single institution of contemporary life, either in the family or in the social sphere, that doesn’t deserve absolute and merciless rejection;” such contempt for society, especially Russian serfdom, is also borne by Gao Juehui who finds social discrimination against the servant class morally incomprehensible. Also from an aristocratic and landholding family like Juehui, Bazarov prefigures his Chinese counterpart.
- In a sense, the novel is an intense dialogue between Western liberalism as culminated in the European Enlightenment and Confucian humanism as viewed by many intellectuals of the May Fourth generation. Although many read the story as a clear indictment of the latter by the former, the work, like many other ones by Ba Jin, is in fact much richer and more nuanced than just presenting an ideological position. The author tries to tell a human tale of our ambivalence to change and tradition, with all views well represented by a wide range of characters such as the three Gao brothers, Mingfeng the maid, Qin, Mei, who signify many degrees of attraction to and repulsion by Confucian values. The family scandals on the part of the uncles who take on mistresses on the side are created to dramatize the corruptive power of civilization: those moral or cultural figures like Feng Leshan or grandpa are hypocritical the same way adulthood can be seen as an unadulterated form of corruption, in contrast to the innocence of childhood. Much evil is done in the name of filial piety and kindness: indulgence in lust, wanton disregard of people’s will, especially that of women, practicing filial piety to an absurd degree where lives are lost when maids are treated as female slaves and concubines.
- However, a true and great master of fiction, Ba Jin was extremely skillful as he choreographed the conflict of human desires to belong and to be free, creating drama out of the complex human existence that offers man no easy solutions. Although oppressive in many ways, the traditional family is nonetheless depicted as the location of meaning, a platform on which all characters perform to achieve their individual identity. On this center stage, Juehui is not at all a star beyond reproach. His romance with Mingfeng seems quite self-serving in that it gratifies his ego as a savior and redeems his life as a member of the landlord class. It is then arguable that Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is a possible subtext in which the young nihilist hero Bazarov, also from an aristocratic and landholding family, falls in love with a young woman of humble origin, Anna Odintsova, as a way to redeem his own meaningless existence; such is the idea behind Juehui’s romantic passion for Mingfeng, a palimpsest of the redemption motif, also evident in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which the nihilist protagonist Raskonikov falls in love with a peasant woman named Sonia. Family, therefore, is not only an indictment of Confucian morality but also a critique of Western social thought such as anarchism or feminism. When reflecting on their suffering as women in Confucian China, characters such as Ruijue, Mei, Qin, and Mingfeng, show a divergence of views. Reference is often made to such Western literary works as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a declaration of women’s independence in a capitalist society that treats women as playthings, and almost a Bible to educated women of the May Fourth generation; the grievances of the various female characters thus amount to a collective accusation of the traditional female decorum and chastity. But these characters are also products of a feudal society and they still dream of being married and becoming housewives as the ultimate form of female self-fulfillment.
- It is not without a sense of irony that we come to see Ba Jin’s life as a cultural hero who put so much faith in the total emancipation and freedom of the individual from conventional mores and debilitating moral obligations. Despite or because of his status as a celebrity and famous writer, he was persecuted by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) like many writers and intellectuals, including his wife, Xiao San. As one of the greatest modern Chinese writers who has captured many important social changes of the twentieth-century in his popular fiction, Ba Jin sincerely wished that a museum of Cultural Revolution be built as a reminder of the dark side of modern Chinese history about which he had written so positively as an author of fiction.
Hands by Xiao Hong (1911-1942); 《手》萧红
- The story may appear just about a peasant girl with bad luck, it is really a literary exercise of writing about social class; as a member of the League of the Left-wing writers, Xiao Hong was advancing the vision of China on the verge of the communist revolution; in other words, the story successfully promotes the self-consciousness of the proletariat to which Wang Yaming belongs, a young woman embodying the down trodden oppressed class of land-poor and landless farmer class;
- She does not do anything to deserve the humiliation and scorn to which the rich girls subject her; she is looked down upon mainly because she does not belong to the bourgeois class all the others do in this English school for girls; her hands are black because she is from a family of dyers that receive 30 cents for dyeing a bolt of cloth; her accent and bad English pronunciation give her off, her bedding smells, and she has lice on her, all of which are stereotypical descriptors for the “proletariat”;
- Wang Yaming then has all the “characteristics” of the oppressed (working or laboring) class, despised by the wealthy and educated; those others at this learning institute that ostracizes her in every way it can form the collective portrayal of the bourgeois class: snobbish, callous and indifferent towards human sufferings; the principal, the housemother, the custodian, have no personal reasons to hate Wang Yaming except the fact that she clearly does not belong to this place for the rich;
- this type of literature to promote social change and social justice borders on socialist propaganda if it were not because of the aesthetics of literary realism; Xiao Hong moves the reader towards thinking about social issues critically, the same way American writer Lewis Sinclair does in his The Jungle depicting social conditions of the workers in a Chicago slaughterhouse (1906) as ripe for revolution; it is not by accident that the American novel appears in Hands and Wang Yaming realizes the similarities between working people everywhere;
- the message therefore seems to be that the solution for these people–the proletariat–lie in social movement and social change; Wang Yaming can put on her father’s oversized gloves to cover her hands; she can study twice as hard as other girls to learn English, but without a revolution the problems of people like her, her dyer family, can never be adequately addressed and solved.