Ba Jin – 1904-2005 – the last survivor of his generation

For the last 56 years, China has been a literary wasteland – utterly devoid of the freedom of expression necessary for literature to flourish. For great Chinese writers one must look to the first half of the 20th century. Ba Jin, the first author to write full-length popular novels in vernacular Chinese rather than the traditional and elitist classical script, died this week in Shanghai, aged 101 years. He was the sole survivor from this first generation of radical mass-market writers.

He was often compared to Charles Dickens as his earlier novels exposed the evils of traditional Chinese feudal society. Traditionally in China, the population looked to writers for guidance, hope and new ideas. His most famous work was the semi-autobiographical trilogy Family (1937), Spring (1938) and Autumn (1940). The books follow the trials and tribulations of the young members of a large family who struggle to break away from their old-fashioned parents, only to encounter stubborn opposition and tragedy. The works are now compulsory reading for all Chinese junior school students.

Real name, Li Feigan, he was born into a family of officials in Sichuan Province in 1904. He adopted the pen-name Ba Jin because the two characters are part of the Chinese names of the famous early Russian anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin. As well as revolutionary Russian writers, his other literary inspirations came from the intellectuals who led China’s “New Culture” movement in the early 1920s. During that period he joined the nationwide calls for democracy and national modernization among China’s students and intellectuals.

Ba Jin initially welcomed Mao’s New China with its lofty ideals and promises of peace and national re-construction. He even kept faith during the anti-rightist/class enemy purges of the 1950s, the restrictions on freedom of expression and all the mind-numbing political exhortations. However, the Cu1tural Rev0lution finally caused him to lose faith in both Mao and communism. He and his wife, as well as many of his fellow writers were imprisoned and tortured during this period by teenage Red Guards blinded by ideology and the cult of Mao. His wife died in 1973 after being denied medical treatment.

He was quietly rehabilitated in 1977, and four years later was made chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association. However, he never fully recovered from the horrors of the 60s and 70s. In 1985, he called for an end to all restrictions on writers in China and advised that the country should build a museum to properly remember the victims of the Cu1tural Rev0lution – ‘lest later generations should ever forget.’

He received his final wish, his words are engraved in stone at the entrance to China’s only such museum in the mountains near Shantou in Guangdong province.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

Rest in peace, Mr. Ba Jin. It has been a hard but fruitful life.

To be honest, there were times when I felt that you shared more with Dickens than just your penchant for social realism and criticism – that, like Dickens, all too frequently you indulged in the sentimental (especially in your earlier prose), that your style of writing was dated, that you were overrated – but ultimately no one can deny your place in China’s literary and cultural history, your status as a lion of letters. That’s something not even the Cultural Revolution and the CCP can take away.

China’s literary scene has made progress in the past decade, but still, clearly something has been lost. A fearlessness, an idealism, a purity of emotion almost painful to read in its earnestness, a sense of urgency in putting words to paper…China sure don’t make writers like it used to.

You were the last and one of the best. Wherever you are, Heaven or the great old teahouse in the sky, I hope you’re having a grand old time with Ding Ling, Xiao Qian, and all the rest of the old vanguard.

October 21, 2005 @ 3:02 pm | Comment

Has China also lost the wisdom of the past? Where are the modern sages now? I feel that Communism has succeeded, if only temporarily, in making Chinese literature obedient and tame. Confucius, Mencius and their brothers & sisters would be weeping from the Heavens if they saw modern China.

But there will always be people to challenge the status quo. It will take time, but things will get better at some point.

Rest in peace, great teacher.

October 22, 2005 @ 1:28 pm | Comment

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