- Fact in Fiction: 1920s China and Ba Jin’s Family by Kristin Stapleton
Writers possess the unique power of observing and recreating the city in which they spend most of their lives. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo are perhaps the most well-known examples. Their fictional works bring Victorian London and mid-nineteenth-century Paris to life, allowing readers to experience sights, sounds, and smells of the historical cities. While weaving life dramas in a tangible urban environment, they also produced the form of “social literature,” as William Rowe calls it, that “aid(s) the historian in getting beyond conventional sources to see the more routine, seamy side of life.”1 China is blessed with its own urban writers. Lao She (1899–1966), for example, often drew inspirations from the “old” Republican Beijing. Those meandering alleyways and courtyard tenements set the perfect stage for him to trace Beijingers’ everyday happiness and misery and to make the city’s physical structure and cultural fiber sensible to readers. Stapleton’s new book presents another revealing case, the intricate and [End Page 199] intimate relationship between Ba Jin (1904–2005), an iconoclastic May Fourth writer, and the city of Chengdu that inspired his 1920s bestseller Turbulent Stream.
But unlike Lao She who often wrote fondly and nostalgically about old Beijing, Ba Jin was contemptuous of Chengdu. As Stapleton rightly demonstrates, Ba Jin felt the city to be gloomy, dark, stagnant, deprived of new ideas and entrepreneurial spirit, and ravaged by Confucian old-guards and despotic warlords. Living in such depressing place, family life became “isolating, oppressive, deadening, and even deadly” (5). Ba Jin vented his frustrations in actions and words. He abandoned his home city at the age of nineteen, and then produced Turbulent Stream, which struck the angry chords that many readers, especially the May Fourth youth, were prepared to hear: the decaying Chinese family became “the primary cause of China’s problems”—“the old generation was clinging to its privileges and bending all to its will, crushing the spirit of the young people who were in touch with the great ideas circulating around the world” (215). It was on the ruins of the patriarchal family and stifling city that new China would eventually emerge.
These relentless attacks not only elevated Ba Jin to the status of being the spokesperson of China’s New Culture Movement and one of the most revered literary icons of twentieth-century China, but also lent powerful support to two historical narratives that once dominated the China study field. One was the “modernization theory” championed by Princeton sociologist Marion Levy, who saw both the Chinese family and the nation of China as trapped in a timeless and outdated past, waiting to be rescued by Western modernity. Second was Harvard historian John Fairbank’s belief, summarized by Stapleton, that “a huge cultural gap existed between coastal cities like Shanghai, where foreign influence was strong and innovation flourished, and other parts of China, whose culture was seen as stagnant” (5). As Fairbank’s paradigmatic view goes, the history of modern China was a monumental process of coastal modernity liberating the tradition-bound interior and Western advancements’ triumph over China’s backwardness. Not challenging Ba Jin’s influence as a literary icon, Stapleton, however, calls his dark portrayal of Chinese family and his home city Chengdu, as well as the two historical narratives that his novels helped to substantiate, into question.
Employing the social history approach and the deconstructive mode of literary analysis, Stapleton opens up two worlds that enhance our understanding of the urban society in 1920s and 1930s Chengdu. First is the complex meaning of the Chinese family system. In the world of urban elite, the family embodied and perpetuated the hierarchical pattern of authority that privileged parents over children, men over women. Fixated on such Confucian cultural values, the elite family made itself the prime target of the May Fourth reform. But Stapleton also convincingly shows that the family performed a crucial economic function, providing a social safety net to both...