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Ba Jin: a Centenary Literary Giant

It is said that to become a good writer, you have to be especially sensitive, innocent or philosophic.

Ba Jin, or Pa Chin, one of the most important and widely read Chinese writers of the 20th century, no doubt combined the three qualities.

After a long journey of 101 years in the world that he loved so passionately, the revered writer, who preferred to be known by his pen name Ba Jin rather than his given name Li Yaotang or Li Feigan, died of cell cancer at a hospital in Shanghai on Monday evening.

"Ba Jin is irreplaceable in China's literary pantheon," remarked Qi Ming, 72, a retired television cameraman and Ba Jin's 20-year friend.

Although China's literature world has been shoved to the sidelines for some years since mass entertainment filled the void, almost all the major newspapers, television and radio stations in China lavished their pages and air times on news of Ba Jin's death.

Tribute: People lay wreaths in front of a huge portrait of Ba Jin, one of the past century's literary greats, at the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature in Beijing yesterday.

Of all the major writers active in the first half of the 20th century, Ba Jin was probably the only one still living until his passing.

Ba Jin embraced life even as he suffered in the end. In the past six years, Ba Jin had lost the ability to walk or speak because of Parkinson's disease and lung complications.

In early 1999, he reportedly refused to have a major operation to insert a pipe into his throat to facilitate his breathing until he was finally persuaded by his family members and friends.

"From the day on, I live for you," he reportedly said, as he pointed to those around him in his hospital room.

"He was the noblest man," said Li Xiaotang, Ba Jin's son with his late wife Xiao Shan (1918-1972). "He always paid attention to other people's feelings and was willing to sacrifice his own."

The sensitive, altruistic touch in his writing and characters has been the major attraction of Ba Jin's creations.

Among his literary works amounting to 13 million Chinese characters, Ba Jin was best known for his trilogy Torrent (Jiliu), which was written between 1931 and 1940 and included three semi-autobiographical novels.

The three novels, namely The Family, The Spring and The Autumn, hit a chord with China's youth at the time and remained steadfastly popular throughout the century.

The novels attacked the traditional Chinese family structure and depicted the struggles and tragedies, love and hatred of the young generation in a saga of familial decline.

The bronze statue of Ba Jin is one of the treasures at the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature.

Gao Juexin, the hero of The Family, has been widely acclaimed as one of the most successfully depicted characters in modern Chinese literature.

The young man's passion to explore the world was fuelled by the enlightening "May Fourth Movement" or the "New Culture Movement" sweeping major Chinese cities in the 1910s. But he finally decided to stay in the courtyard of his declining feudal family, while his two younger brothers left it.

"The whole middle and middle-upper class were shocked at the novel because they could see part of themselves in Gao. The hero was a symbol of Chinese intellectuals in a time of changes," said Chen Sihe, professor and dean of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Fudan University.

"What's more, the writer was exploring the mind of Gao with understanding and sympathy besides criticism," he added.

The Gao family was inspired by the writer's own family, who hailed from Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province. The writer's father was a wealthy local county magistrate at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Ba Jin and his three brothers all received a broad education. Ba Jin himself studied English at the Chengdu Foreign Language School, travelled to Shanghai in 1923 and then to Nanjing, where he entered the preparatory school affiliated with the Southeast China University.

From 1927 to 1929, his family supported his stay in France.

The burdens of the decline of Ba Jin's family were all borne by his eldest brother, who abandoned his own dreams, sold family property to make ends meet, and committed suicide in the early 1930s when family businesses went bankrupt due to mismanagement.

Ba Jin was committed to anarchism and socialism in his early years. His pen name was chosen from the Chinese transliterations of the first syllable of the name Bakunin and of the last syllable of the name Kropotkin, two anarchists he admired.

However, Ba Jin was never prepared to become an revolutionary anarchist as his friends, according to Professor Chen, who has been studying the writer and his works since 1977.

While some other major or revolutionary writers like Lu Xun (1881-1936) believed writing to be his weapon as a soldier, Ba Jin regarded it as a critical insight into himself and into those around him.

His first novel Destruction (Miewang), completed in 1928 during his stay in France, was about a depressed young anarchist who found himself too weak to take any decisive actions.

Reflecting on the major works he wrote between 1927 and 1946, Ba Jin wrote in the preface to the English version of his Selected Works of Ba Jin: "When I am burning with passion, my heart is about to explode and I don't know where to place it; I feel that I must write. I am not an artist, and writing is the only part of my life, which, like my works, is full of contradictions.

"The conflicts between love and hate, thought and action, reason and emotion combine to weave a net enwrapping my whole life and all my works."

Being courageous enough to delve into and dissect his weakness and to share it with his readers, Ba Jin was one of the first Chinese intellectuals to share his true feelings about the chaotic "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76).

His prose collection, Random Thoughts (Suixiang Lu), has been widely acclaimed as "the greatest work of soul-searching of our time."

"It is not I who is unwilling to forget or to conceal. It is the bloody facts, the nightmares, that have kept me from forgetting," Ba Jin wrote. "Loving truth and living honestly is my attitude to life. Be true to yourself and be true to others, and thus you can be the judge of your behaviour."

Professor Chen attributed Ba Jin's longevity to his ability and courage to be true always to himself and to others.

"In this way, the writer could find the happiness of life, which has been concealed from too many of us," he said.

Chen remembered his meeting with Ba Jin in 1994 at Ba Jin's hospital room. The writer, who had suffered several major bone fractures, was then crouched in his bed after working hard on polishing translated literary works from Russian to Chinese.

However, he insisted that he recite the preface to his translation collection, asking Chen to write it down for him.

"I was surprised to find that every sentence of the preface was filled with a burning passion for life. I couldn't imagine the passion belongs to a 90-year-old man suffering from so much pain," Chen said.

Ba Jin never failed to express his passionate, persevering spirit.

"If you cannot find happiness in yourself, look for it in the people and you will see that happiness shines amid the most difficult lives," Ba Jin quoted from Russian music composer Tchaikovsky in his preface.

(China Daily October 19, 2005)

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