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Literary witness to century of turmoil
( 2003-11-24 09:03) (China Daily)

The only surviving literary master from his era, Ba Jin is a living witness to a precious past which we still hesitate to call "history."

Ba Jin
Ba Jin has long been canonized as one of a handful of monumental figures in modern Chinese literature. All the college literary textbooks devote a chapter to him, and he has held the post of chairman of China Writers' Association since 1977.

Ba Jin considers himself a son of the May Fourth Movement. He issued a rallying cry for the young in the 1930s and 1940s, and has been called the "conscience of intellectuals" over the past two decades.

Ba Jin influences his readers no less profoundly by his great personality than by his literary accomplishments.

The centennial of his birth is being celebrated with a series of big events.

The highlight is an exhibition in the National Museum of Modern Literature, which will run through January 31. In the exhibition, 50 well-known artists contribute a work on Ba Jin and his literary world.

A burning heart

As a teenager, Ba Jin didn't expect to become a novelist. His earliest goal was to be a social revolutionary.

Ba Jin at young age
The first rebellious move he took was to revolt against his family. Born in Chengdu of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Ba Jin was part of the third generation of a large, wealthy traditional clan. He spent his childhood among up to 30 clan members and about the same number of servants.

Every aspect of the clan reflected the suffocating and rotten feudal system it was rooted in. The patriarch, Ba Jin's grandfather, was the absolute god of the clan and controlled the happiness of his children and his grandchildren. The middle generation was corrupt and mentally crippled. The servants, trampled underfoot, lived or died like grass.

What Ba Jin saw sickened him. Several years after his parents died, at the age of 20 and with the help of his eldest brother, he left home for Shanghai. It was "just like getting rid of a terrible shadow," he later recalled.

Many paintings in the museum exhibition depict the dramatic moment when young Ba Jin embarked on a steamboat which was to carry him into his new life.

The scene is full of meaning as it demonstrates the spirit of the age. At that time, aroused by the May Fourth ideals, many young students like Ba Jin struggled out of their family shackles and ventured into the turbulent world outside, planning to reform society.

Ba Jin is a great promoter of that spirit. Only a few years after leaving home, his novels such as the "Torrent (Jiliu)," a trilogy composed of "The Family (Jia)," "Spring (Chun)," "Autumn (Qiu)," inspired many readers to be their own masters and choose for themselves. Ba Jin became the most influential writer of his time.

He called himself "a born rebel against any ritual." A staunch supporter of freedom and democracy, Ba Jin was attracted at an early age by the doctrine of anarchism. The philosophy was then popular among young Chinese students because it appealed to their wish to overthrow the semi-feudal, semi-colonial regime.

Harvest, a literary magazine where Ba Jin was the chief editor.
Before he left home, Ba Jin had already been an active participant in social activities against feudal tyranny.

In his 20s, he wrote many defiant political essays, translated a number of works of the famous Russian anarchist Kropotkin, and corresponded with leaders of the anarchism movement around the world. Sensitive, passionate and with a sense of the poetic, Ba Jin as a young man was constantly distressed during this period, for reality was so cruel and the future seemed so distant.

At the age of 23, Ba Jin left Shanghai for Paris, where anarchism originated and many exiled revolutionaries then sought refuge. He hoped to "find a way to save the people, the country, and myself."

A painting on show called "Ba Jin in front of the sculpture of Rousseau" depicts a scene typical of Ba Jin's Parisian life.

As he lived near the Pantheon, he would visit the sculpture of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his "enlightening tutor," on rainy afternoons to "pour down before him all of my sorrow and despair."

Several calligraphers contributing to the exhibition quote in their works Ba Jin's words: "I write just because the fire of my emotion is burning. Had I not, I would not have been able to find peace."

The words describe the compulsion behind Ba Jin's creative writing.

As he lived in his small, dark apartment in the Latin District of Paris, his feeling of distress and confusion grew and almost made his heart explode. To find an outlet for them, he picked up his pen and wrote down the fragments of his thoughts and emotions. From these fragments his first novel "Destruction (Miewang)" took shape, which was enthusiastically received by young Chinese readers when it was published in 1929.

Ba Jin returned to China at the end of 1928. Over the next 20 years he dedicated most of his energy to writing. Sometimes he would retreat to his study to write for a whole year, stopping only to eat and sleep. He was driven by his compulsion to express himself, as he once described:

"Before my eyes are many miserable scenes, the suffering of others and myself forces my hands to move. I become a machine for writing."

A feudal family

A remarkably prolific writer, Ba Jin completed about 20 novels and over 70 short stories in those years, as well as translating more than 20 overseas works.

The literary world created by Ba Jin is a world with young people at its centre.

Facing conflicting pressures at a time of rapid social changes, these young men and women are faced with dramatic moral choices, constantly balancing personal happiness with self-sacrifice. With pure ideals, ardent passions, and inborn weaknesses, they fight, suffer, fall and die. The agony caused by dark reality and the hope for a bright future colour their stories.

"The Family," which describes the oppressive and poisonous effect of traditional feudal families upon the young generation, is Ba Jin's most famous and influential novel. Some of the characters in the novel are depicted in paintings at the exhibition.

The book is written with his own family as archetype. On the same day it was first serialized in a newspaper, Ba Jin's eldest brother, long depressed by the strict hierarchy of the family, committed suicide.

The news further deepened Ba Jin's hatred of the feudal system, driven him to dissect its anatomy in a novel that became an enduring masterpiece.

Lost decade

After the founding of New China, Ba Jin was elected vice-chairman of China Writers' Association. For many years he devoted most of his time to his new post and did less creative writing.

If not for the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Ba Jin might never have felt the impulse to pick up his pen again. Yet at an advanced age, he surprised and profoundly influenced the Chinese intellectual world by revealing the mental and emotional storm that had assaulted him since the end of "cultural revolution."

Ba Jin was severely persecuted during that political turmoil. Having survived, he was rehabilitated and restored to the highest esteem in China. But he is unable to forget his past traumas as many others have done. He keeps the ashes of his beloved wife, Xiao Shan, who died in the "cultural revolution" after being denied medical care, in their bedroom. And terrible nightmares about those years haunt him in his sleep.

"Forgetting" is the thing Ba Jin fears most deeply. He hopes the nation will remember the disaster as long and clearly as possible, and learn from it to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.

For this purpose, he has called for the establishment of a "cultural revolution museum," for he believes "only by not forgetting the past can we be the master of the future" - words artist Yu Feng quotes in her calligraphic work in the museum exhibition.

From December 1978 to August 1986, Ba Jin composed 150 essays, which were first serialized in newspapers and then published as a five-volume collection under the title of "Records of Random Thinking (Suixiang Lu)."

During the eight years he worked on those essays his health was very poor, and many of the articles were written in hospital. It was the need to release his emotion and the responsibility he felt for later generations that forced him to work. "These essays should be my will," Ba Jin told his friend Huang Shang when first starting the project.

In the collection, he records the physical and mental torment the "cultural revolution" inflicted on his family and friends. The volumes include touching memorial essays about his wife and friends, such as Lao She (1899-1966), another top-notch writer who committed suicide after being persecuted.

However, what grieves Ba Jin most in retrospect are his own weaknesses that he said he unconsciously exhibited during those years. And what affects readers most are the relentless self-interrogations and painful repentance he makes throughout the book.

For example, Ba Jin said he followed the movement's instructions to alienate those persecuted. When he was charged, for a period he sincerely believed he was guilty. Weaknesses such as the absence of independent spirit and obedience to mental slavery made everyone unconscious accomplices of the human disaster, he said.

Ba Jin treats himself as an example of the Chinese intellectuals of the time, dissecting his own weaknesses to arouse the consciousness of them all.

A Jeremiah shouting in the wilderness, he has won the highest respect of Chinese readers by his earnest love, loyalty and solicitude to his country and people.

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