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Ba Jin: A Century of Literary Greatness

Ba Jin (real name Li Yaotang), one of the greatest contemporary Chinese writers, will turn 100 on November 25, 2003. To honor his 100th birthday, at the one-month-long fifth Shanghai International Arts Festival that opened October 18, Ba Jin's autobiographical-like novel Family was put on stage in four different dramatic forms: Sichuan Opera, Shanghai Opera, Shaoxing Opera, and modern drama.  

Particularly, the modern drama version of Family, which featured stars like Sun Daolin, Xu Huanshan, Xi Meijuan and Chen Hong, caused great excitement at its premiere at the Shanghai Grand Theater on Nov. 10. To be loyal to the original book, the performance lasted over three hours. "Rehearsing Family was to receive a literary baptism," Director Chen Xinyi said. "We need patience to review literary works by Ba Jin as well as many other great masters."


Low-key birthday celebration


In Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, Ba Jin's 100th birthday is to be marked with low-key celebrations in compliance with the old man's wishes.


When the time comes, a small birthday party will be held at his Shanghai home. According to his daughter Li Xiaolin, Ba Jin doesn't want extravagant birthday celebrations to be arranged. "Actually, both the photo and document exhibition and the book Ba Jin in His Old Age are good birthday presents to my father," Li Xiaolin said.


The book will be released very soon, while the exhibition --entitled "Ba Jin in Shanghai: Photo & Document Exhibition Dedicated to Ba Jin's 100th Birthday" -- is scheduled to open in Shanghai on Nov. 25.


According to Feng Peiling, one of the exhibition's organizers, a large number of photos and documents reflecting Ba Jin's literary and social activities in Shanghai will be displayed. Also on display will be a set of 16 "Centenarian Ba Jin" stamps, which are to be issued nationwide in limited quantities of merely 2,000 sets.


Meanwhile, in Chengdu City, Ba Jin's birthplace, after half a year's repairs and whitewashing, the Huiyuan Garden took on an entirely new look in September. The captivating garden with an area of over three acres was originally built in 1987, authentically reproducing the scenes depicted in the novel Family. To mark Ba Jin's birthday, on Sept. 26, an exhibition entitled "Centenarian Ba Jin" was opened in the renovated Huiyuan Garden. On display at the exhibition was a 12-cm-long fountain pen Ba Jin used to write Family as well as two precious birthday gifts sent in 1989 by Bing Xin (real name Xie Wanying, 1900-1999), Ba Jin's close friend and a reputable Chinese woman writer.


Nevertheless, Ba Jin is a person who doesn't like to come out into the open. In 1984, his 80th birthday* coincided with the premiere of the movie Cold Nights adapted from his novel of the same name. Since then, Ba Jin's birthday celebrations have become a public affair in Shanghai. In the following years, on his birthday Ba Jin always stayed away from home. Later, trapped at home by illness, he had no other choice but to accept people's birthday wishes, feeling somewhat apologetic. "I'm old and ill. I owe a great deal to my readers. It's nothing to be celebrated," he said.


Indeed, Ba Jin is a selfless man. Despite personal suffering during the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976), he has buried no discontent and anger in his heart. To the contrary, as a writer, he always feels that he owes a lot to his friends, to his readers, and to the country…Therefore, he acted as editor-in-chief of the culture & life publishing house for 14 years, not taking a single penny of pay. In fact, Ba Jin is the only professional writer who doesn't draw his salary in China. In his old age, he donated his limited savings to the Modern Chinese Literature Library, Project Hope and charity foundations, and contributed his collected books, which number in the tens of thousands, to the National Library in Beijing and Shanghai Library.


Reading and writing throughout his life


Ba Jin was born on November 25, 1904 in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province, into an official's family. The May Fourth Movement -- a political and cultural movement against imperialism and feudalism that broke out in Beijing in 1919 -- imbued him with both anarchic and democratic ideas.


Initially, Ba Jin wasn't prepared to take up novel-writing. Influenced by 19th century Russian populists, what he was longing for then was to go to the countryside as a professional revolutionary to work for the happiness of the people. His pen name was chosen from the Chinese transliteration of the first syllable of the name Bakunin and of the last syllable of the name Kropotkin, two anarchists he liked.


In 1933 in Shanghai, Ba Jin completed Family, one of his "Rip Trilogy" that established his reputation. The trilogy also included Spring and Autumn. In Family, the fledgling author launched a fervent attack on the life-destroying ethics of feudalism that had lasted in China for thousands of years.


Throughout his life, Ba Jin encountered adversity twice, but each time he never gave up his reading and writing.


During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), while drifting from place to place, Ba Jin finished his "Rip Trilogy" as well as many other works including novelettes Ward Four and Garden of Repose and the well-known novel Cold Nights. At that time, he also acted as council member of the All-China Federation of Writers and Artists.


From 1966 to 1976, the turbulent "Cultural Revolution" swept across China. Along with many other renowned scholars and writers, Ba Jin was sent to the May 7th Cadre School -- which was nicknamed the "cowshed" -- to reform himself through labor in accordance with Mao Zedong's directive. By accident, he got hold of Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Kept in the "cowshed" every night, he secretly copied out the Divine Comedy-Hell by hand. In the daytime, either laboring in the field or receiving mass criticism, he silently read the poem.


Reciting Dante's Divine Comedy-Hell helped Ba Jin pick up his courage to struggle through hard times. Actually, Ba Jin's "predestined relationship" with Dante lasted long after he was set free from the "cowshed." In 1982 his translated works won him the Dante International Prize.


"I believe in the future a new Dante will write a new Divine Comedy," Ba Jin once said.


*In case of confusion arising from the dates in this story, official birthdays are often celebrated a year in advance in China. However, in the case of the writer's 80th birthday, his normal date was observed. In China, a person's age is reckoned by a traditional method, in which he or she is considered one year old at birth and adds a year each lunar new year.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da and Daragh Moller, November 24, 2003)

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