Pa Chin (Pseudonym of Li Fei-Kan) Essay - Critical Essays

Pa Chin (Pseudonym of Li Fei-Kan)


Pa Chin (Pseudonym of Li Fei-Kan) 1904–

Pa Chin is a Chinese novelist and short story writer. He chose as the target of his early work the social injustice existing in pre-revolutionary China, focusing in particular on the decadence of the traditional Chinese family system. His subsequent works were also informed by his strong social and political views. Pa Chin often sacrificed form to content, concentrating the thrust of his narrative on his philosophical convictions rather than technique. Although he was deeply committed to the Communist Revolution in China, his work was found lacking in didactic purpose by the Chinese Communist Party. He then rewrote his novels to conform to the rigid guidelines defined by the party. Despite his concessions to the party, Pa Chin was purged during the Cultural Revolution of 1966. He was subsequently "revived" in mainland China in 1977.

Pa Chin

[The great change in my writing] dates back to the movement launched by all our people to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea at the end of 1950…. (p. 85)

Life is not an affair of make-believe…. Nor can you counterfeit emotion. The struggles on the Korean front were so fierce that people felt strongly and knew exactly what they loved and hated. Living among new men of this kind, I could not fail to be influenced and inspired by them. That is why even today, eleven years later, I still remember that phase in my life so distinctly and am still writing about some of the soldiers I met in those days. (p. 86)

[My] past writings simply expressed the sorrows of men who had lost their youth, freedom of action, happiness and love, simply exposed the iniquities and injustice of the old system and the old society. But I could only diagnose the disease without prescribing a remedy…. My readers, like myself, were in agony in that suffocating atmosphere. We all wanted to destroy the old system and never stopped looking for a way out…. I can say that in none of my pre-liberation writing did I give way to despair. Even in the darkest days I never lost faith. But I could not shake off my agony because I had not linked myself with the people's revolutionary struggle. I floundered on, my ideas conflicting with my actions, my reason conflicting with my emotions, my ideal conflicting with reality. This went on till the liberation in 1949. This shows what an author writes is determined by his life, his outlook and feeling. (pp. 88-9)

Pa Chin, "Pa Chin the Novelist," in an interview with Chen Tan-Chen, in Chinese Literature, No. 6, June, 1963, pp. 84-92.

Olga Lang

More than any other modern Chinese writer, Pa Chin throughout his career has been the spokesman for youth. He wrote for youth and about youth, mainly about the young intellectuals. Pa Chin's works present a composite portrait of the young men of China in a transitional period, a counterpart of the portrait of Western young men in nineteenth-century European literature.

When describing his young contemporaries, Pa Chin portrays a variety of types, including those who live according to the traditional Chinese pattern, and those who espouse modern individualism and live a selfish life unmindful of the fate of their fellow countrymen. He concentrates his attention, however, on those who, to use his own words, "began to shoulder the responsibility for their country." The main characters of almost all of his novels are rebels and revolutionists. (pp. 2-3)

Pa Chin was not only a creative writer who described society but a revolutionary who wanted to change it…. [He] stated that he was so completely absorbed in the substance of his novels and short stories that he could not pay attention to their form. (p. 4)

Pa Chin describes the critical years [in China] from 1919 to 1923 in his most popular literary work, the trilogy Chi-liu (Turbulent stream), which consists of the three novels Chia (Family), Ch'un (Spring), and Ch'iu (Autumn). (p. 70)

[Principally] the trilogy deals with family life, and provides a rich source of information on the mores and inner relationships which characterized the upper-class Chinese family in this period of transition.

The picture it paints is a dark one. The author wanted "to utter his J'accuse to the dying family system," and he succeeded. Nevertheless, there are many poetic and warm descriptions of the traditional life, with its family gatherings, festivities, literary games and discussions, walks in the park, and boat rides on the lake. (p. 72)

Turbulent Stream is the most outstanding modern Chinese family novel, and as such it reminds one of Ts'ao Hsüehch'in's famous eighteenth-century family novel Hung lou meng (The dream of the red chamber). Of course the two works are not on the same level as far as their artistic qualities are concerned. Turbulent Stream does not possess the philosophical force, psychological depth, powerful characterization, or poetry of the eighteenth-century classic. (p. 83)

Autumn Day is unique among young Pa Chin's novels not only because it ends on a definitely pessimistic note, but also because there is not a single fighter or revolutionary among its characters—they are all simply victims of the old Chinese way of life. (p. 147)

The mixture of romanticism and realism characteristic of Pa Chin's creative writing would justify considering him a representative of the literary trend which in the 1930's received in Soviet Russia the name of "socialist realism." In his novels Pa Chin is more optimistic than most of the prominent modern Chinese writers of his and the preceding generation, and he is more inclined to depict characters who fight for a better future. (p. 158)

The most important of Pa Chin's contributions to the history of the young Chinese revolutionary intellectuals in the prewar Kuomintang period is a series of novels: Wu (Fog), (Rain), Tien (Lightning), and the novelette Lei (Thunder) which served as an introduction to Lightning. These were later published under the one title Ai-ch'ing ti san-pu-ch'ü (Love, a trilogy)….

The trilogy deals with many problems: revolution, revolutionary tactics, political faith, the purpose of human life, friendship, family, marriage, and love. The author's main concern, however, is the creation of characters, of men and women in the strata of Chinese society he knew intimately. As usual, in describing each of his characters he has as his starting point persons he knew…. He succeeded, however, in turning them into typical men and women of the time. (p. 171)

Like almost all Pa Chin's fiction, Love had a definite didactic purpose: to show its readers how to live, to give them models for emulation. This is especially true of the last part of the trilogy, Lightning. After writing it, Pa Chin felt that this story "was like lightning illuminating the dark skies." (p. 172)

[In general, however, Love] is less well-written than Pa Chin's autobiographical trilogy, and the characters here are less convincing. (p. 173)

Certainly Pa Chin's success was due mainly to the substance of his stories…. [But he] is much more skillful in his craft than he wants to admit. He knows how to tell a story and the new literary devices...

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Nathan K. Mao

With little idea of what a novel should be, but himself full of grievances, Pa Chin sought [in his first novel Destruction] to picture an unjust society and preach its destruction. Clumsily, he presents his vision of a corrupt society…. (p. 43)

The novel has many flaws. Pa Chin did not plan it as a coherent whole; instead he worked piecemeal, stringing together memories of his past and ideas obtained from what he had heard from friends. The effect, not surprisingly, is that in almost every chapter the tension falls as the author switches from one episode to the next, making no effort to consolidate the episodes into units as large as possible. (p. 44)

The primitiveness of Pa Chin's narrative technique is reflected in his characterization and in the development of his thesis…. [The] thesis that society is unjust and hence deserves to be destroyed is not supported by factual details. He has simply failed to present convincingly the evils of the ruling class and the sufferings of the poor, or to explore the roots of social evil and the importance of collective action.

His prose is readable; its sentences follow a subject-and-predicate construction. Generally eschewing flourishes, he relies on a simple vocabulary and on downright plainness…. (pp. 44-5)

Despite its obvious flaws, Destruction is made up of the usual themes, attitudes, and preoccupations of the Chinese novel of the 1920s. It expresses the hope that the time will come when "no one will ever cry, no one will ever suffer."… And it provides an initial probing of the Chinese intellectual's psyche in his quest to affirm life against the forces of negation.

Such a quest is elaborated with unexpected skill in New Life, which was meant to be another political novel about revolution. Even though the political theme differs little from that in Destruction, Pa Chin, almost against his own intention, succeeds in presenting a detailed study of a dangling revolutionary. (p. 45)

[As literature, The Love Trilogy] must be considered a failure. Interested only in providing answers to questions, Pa Chin pays little attention to literary requirements. He passes up opportunities to describe settings and gives no evocation of place. Manipulating a set of predictable circumstances …, he simply rehashes incidents he has already used in Destruction. The plot in Fog never lifts itself off the ground; those in Rain and Thunder are overly melodramatic; and the one in Lightning offers little excitement. His revolutionaries, as always, are too emotional and his description of social evils non-existent. His lovers … are wooden puppets used merely to illustrate different points of view. These novels contain neither the suffering nor the ecstasy one usually associates with love stories. And, regrettably, the daemonic force of sex is left largely unexplored. (p. 53)

In writing Snow, Pa Chin was aware of Zola's Germinal (1855). While Zola placed much emphasis on the effects of both heredity and environment on his characters, Pa Chin ignored the first and concentrated on the second. Like Zola, he was interested in telling his reader about working conditions in the mines and how the miners and their families lived, while keeping the action constantly moving and introducing a number of people, each of whom represents a different aspect of a miner's life….

While Zola did not allow his political enthusiasms to blind him to psychological realities and a sense of fairness, unfortunately Pa Chin's deep emotional involvement with ideological causes costs him his objectivity and the ability to develop psychologically convincing characters. (p. 58)

[Pa Chin] often identified himself as an anarchist, and used several anarchistic ideas in his early novels. (p. 59)

[These] early political novels describe a society sharply divided between rich and poor, in which only political revolution can bring about the abolition of social injustice. His major objective is to evoke, through his works, sympathy for the suffering masses. He attacks those in power as greedy, immoral, and oppressive in contrast to the invariably virtuous poor. With ideology dominating his works, he manipulates his characters with a ruthless insistence that they conform to his will and that they illuminate prefabricated themes rather than fulfill their inner possibilities. Consequently, many fade into abstractions. His methods are primitive, but the public he wrote for had not yet developed even the fundamentals of literary discrimination; they preferred clear-cut dividing lines between good and evil. And if nothing else, they found their feelings and aspirations articulated fully, if not always artistically, by Pa Chin. (pp. 60-1)

A casual reader of Pa Chin's early short stories may … dismiss [them] as lacking in artistry. But more patient readers will probably discover that Pa Chin is a fine short-storyteller, capable of using many techniques to illuminate the human condition, that he offers variety in structure, in points of view, in plot development, in characterization, in setting, and in his use of language.

This does not mean that all his short stories are good, for in fact he is an uneven writer. At his worst, his flaws are glaring: political propaganda, puppet-characters, and predictable plot development dominate; at his best, however, his strengths are also apparent: he involves the reader emotionally with his characters by showing why they behave as they do, by displaying traits that resemble the reader's own, and by stirring the reader's sense of what it means to be human. (pp. 62-3)

Pa Chin's choice of the fable form [for the four stories in Pagoda of Long Life] provides a change from his realistic portrayals of human existence. He probably believed that the reader needed a suspension of reality from time to time to go on living in a world dominated by war, slaughter, and an infinite number of daily atrocities. Lest the reader misunderstand his true intentions, Pa Chin's messages are stated overtly and without disguise, as one would expect in openly didactic fables. For Pa Chin is not really a fantasist. He fails to merge the kingdoms of magic and common sense by using words that apply to both; in fact, the mixture he has created does not come alive. His criticism of human nature is too didactic and the stories do not contain the mixture of realism, wittiness, charm, and mythology necessary for good fantasy. (p. 73)

Like The Golden Lotus and Dream of the Red Chamber, the Turbulent Stream trilogy is devoted to tracing the fortunes of a modern Chinese family during a transitional period in Chinese history when old and new values clash and come into conflict. However, unlike the other two works, the trilogy is more unified in its theme and devoid of their digressions…. Pa Chin attacks the system through the mouths and lives of defenders and victims of the rebels against the status...

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