Pa Chin (Pseudonym of Li Fei-Kan) Nathan K. Mao - Essay

Nathan K. Mao

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2922 words.)