Ba Jin

Grand old man of Chinese literature


Li Yaotang (Ba Jin), writer: born Chengdu, China 25 November 1904; married 1944 Xiao Shan (died 1973; one son, one daughter); died Shanghai 17 October 2005.

Ba Jin was the last of China's 20th-century literary giants. More than any other writer of his generation, he inspired and chronicled the various social and political movements that swept his country for so many decades.

He was born Li Yaotang, 101 years ago next month, in China's south-western Sichuan province. As was the custom at the time, he adopted a new name (a "style") upon entering adulthood, calling himself Li Feigan. In the early 1920s he lived and studied in Shanghai and Nanjing, before embarking on a year of study in France in 1927-28.

It is unclear if he did any real studying there, but he travelled and read widely and also starting writing. His first novel, Miewang (Destruction), was serialised in China in 1929 and became an instant success, making "Ba Jin", his pseudonym, a household name. Many claim that the origin of this pen name was the first syllable of the Chinese transliteration of "Bakunin" and the last syllable of the Chinese transliteration of "Kropotkin", the references to the famous Russian anarchists an indication of the author's early interest in the anarchist movement.

Ba Jin's entry into Chinese literary circles (mainly located in and around Shanghai at the time) coincided with the rise of the movement for a "New Literature". The New Literature was written in the vernacular language, which had only just replaced classical Chinese as the country's official written language. In terms of genre, the New Literature drew heavily on Western examples, preferring the realist novel and short story over traditional romance, the spoken drama over Peking Opera and free verse over rhymed lyrics.

The movement for a New Literature was embedded within a larger social movement, known as the New Culture Movement, spearheaded by young, partly Western-educated intellectuals, which aimed to overthrow Confucian tradition and modernise China on the basis of science, democracy and respect for the freedom of the individual. Participants in this movement advocated all manners of change, reform or revolution, some more extreme than others, and Ba was certainly not alone in his anarchist leanings. Perhaps the one thing on which all New Culture advocates agreed was the necessity to overhaul the Confucian family system and to allow young men and women to make their own life choices, including especially their choice of marriage partner.

Nowhere is the case against Confucian-style patriarchy and in favour of youthful rebellion made more eloquently and persuasively than in Ba's most canonical novel, published in 1933 and simply entitled Jia (Family). Written in remarkably simple vernacular (which has also made Family a perennial favourite among Western students of the Chinese language) and filled with the kind of melodrama that one would nowadays find only in television soap series, Family follows the young male protagonist's struggle to liberate himself from his highly oppressive family. Members of the different generations of the family represent the various degrees of enlightenment and Westernisation, making it a microcosm of Chinese society at the time.

In many ways, the novel epitomises what the New Culture movement was about and what now appears as melodrama represented serious and difficult personal choices for millions of young people at the time. As Bonnie McDougall and Kam Louie put it in their standard textbook history The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century (1997):

Many of Ba Jin's readers, both male and female, were inspired by these stories in making choices in their own lives. It is in this sense that Ba Jin was the most influential writer of his time.

Throughout the 1930s, Ba Jin was highly productive and active on the vibrant Shanghai literary scene. His name shows up in virtually all the leading literary journals of the time, as well as in newspaper gossip columns. Living solely off the royalties of his works (something he continued to do all his life), Ba developed a unique skill to present social and political messages in easily digestible, slightly risqué packaging.

This is evident in one of his most often-anthologised short stories, entitled "Dog" (and carrying the subtitle "La Hundo", the use of Esperanto another indication of his anarchist leanings). The story features a nameless male protagonist, identified only as having "black hair, black eyes and a yellow skin". He roams the streets of Shanghai as a beggar, experiencing humiliating treatment at the hand of Western imperialists. Having been called a "dog" on one such occasion, he then makes it his goal in life to become a real dog, his deepest desire being to scurry against the legs of women that pass him on the street. The story is littered with references to male submissive sexuality but at the same time succeeds in instilling its contemporary readership with a deep sense of anger against the treatment of all Chinese people at the hands of foreigners.

Shortly after the Second World War but before the Communist take-over of 1949, Ba published his last novel, which is now considered by many to be his finest. Han ye (Cold Nights, 1947) explores the difficulties of young people leading the New Culture life style as they are faced with poverty, illness and constant disapproval from the older generation. The emphasis is on the female character Zeng Shusheng, her struggle to combine her career with her modern-style marriage to the sickly (according to some, masochist) Wang Wenxuan and her difficulty in placating her meddling mother-in-law. The triangular relationship between the man and the two women is explored in considerable psychological depth and with much less recourse to melodrama.

When the Communist state was established, Ba threw in his lot with the new regime. Although he had never been a Communist Party member, his popularity as a writer and the general gist of the social messages in his writing made him the ideal kind of person to be included in the Communist Party's "cultural united front".

Ba Jin thus became one of a number of pre-1949 literary celebrities who were canonised by the new regime, while at the same time discouraged by its policies from continuing writing the way they used to. In the case of Ba, there was an additional problem in that his earlier interests in anarchism were frowned upon.

Rather than writing much new work, Ba spent years carefully editing out all references to anarchism from the 20 or so novels and countless stories that he had published before 1949, leading to a "cleansed" edition of his collected works that continues to be the standard edition today. He did not change his pen name, but denied that it had anything to do with Bakunin and Kropotkin and instead linked it with the name of a Chinese friend he had made while living in France. (Conveniently, the friend had died there.)

As was to be expected, Ba's past inevitably caught up with him during the Cultural Revolution, when he was heavily persecuted. After the Cultural Revolution, he was rehabilitated and rose to the highest position of cultural authority in the country: the chairmanship of the Writers' Union.

During the 1980s, he wrote no new fiction but instead focused on writing prose essays (published in English translation in 1984 under the title Random Thoughts) in which he explores with remarkable candour the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Pushing the regime's newly found tolerance to its limits, Ba all but denied the official attempts to blame a spurious "Gang of Four" for all evildoings of the period, questioning instead the guilt of all Chinese people, himself included, who allowed to let it happen.

With the painful sincerity of these "random thoughts", and especially with his famous (though officially ignored) suggestion that there should be a museum in China to commemorate the Cultural Revolution, Ba captured the hearts and minds of a new generation of young readers and gained a form of respect not based on official canonisation and unrelated to his earlier work. No other writer of his generation who survived the Cultural Revolution managed to achieve this.

The "official Ba Jin", i.e. the "grand old man" of broadly leftist socially engaged realism who was the most famous critic of the "old society" that Communism did away with, was for many years put forward by the Chinese authorities as its officially backed candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Unconfirmed rumour has it that, for this reason, an already very ill Ba Jin was kept alive in hospital for many years, despite his repeated requests to be allowed to die.

Ba Jin's 100th birthday was celebrated with pomp and circumstance last year, including a celebrity-studded stage performance based on his novel Family.

Michel Hockx

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