Pa Chin (Pseudonym of Li Fei-Kan)

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Nathan K. Mao

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2922

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)

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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 quo, letting them unwittingly reveal the evil, the suffering, and the necessity for reform. Few Chinese readers can be unmoved by his intense moral fervor or his humanitarian zeal…. In the trilogy the eternal war between right and wrong is waged not on the level of abstract moral principles but on a living stage, peopled by characters who seem real, for the moment, in spite of being exaggerated. Lastly, by appealing blatantly to the reader's emotions, Pa Chin satisfies the needs of many readers for what Aristotle called a catharsis of feeling. (p. 102)

The Fire trilogy is an expression of Pa Chin's feelings during the war. Its locales include Shanghai, the war zone, and Canton; its cast includes the admirable and the despicable. Despite the lack of moving battle scenes, exciting pictures of individual or group heroism, passionate love-making, and an exploration of the Chinese wartime psyche, the trilogy is memorable for Pa Chin's concentration on the emotions of patriotic men and women whose idealism and fiery zeal is symbolized by the title Fire itself. (pp. 108-09)

Hsiao-jen, hsiao-shih (Little People, Little Things), a volume of five short stories, is somewhat different in its portrayal of the lives of average people trying to survive as best as they can during the last years of the war. Gone is the high-flown propaganda justifying the war. If anything, the long war has made them into Wastelanders characterized by their enervating and neurotic pettiness as well as by physical and spiritual sterility. Gone also is much of human dignity. These small people have no ideals and merely want to survive. (p. 109)

In all the stories, the narrator is unobtrusive and faithfully reports what he has seen and heard. His descriptions are graphic and he records accurately the language used by these small people frustrated by their problems. In addition to providing unity to the stories, he also reveals his personal development. (p. 111)

Structurally, the five stories do not have plots in the usual sense. Instead, Pa Chin creates moods and crystallizes certain fundamental emotions in a way that few Chinese writers have ever been able to achieve. And it is these moods and these emotions that the reader remembers. The result is a series of moments, each complete in itself…. In each moment, Pa Chin presents true glimpses of the anguish of the human heart. Each story reveals the essence of the central character's life as Pa Chin sees it. (p. 112)

The general mood of sickness which prevails in Little People, Little Things is magnified many times in Ti ssu pingshih (Ward Number Four). (pp. 112-13)

The success of [this] novelette lies neither in its character analysis nor in its plot development. Both receive minimal attention from Pa Chin. He spends little time inside his characters' heads. He describes for the most part, what an outsider would have seen and heard—gestures, actions, talk, and the locale itself. The result is a tribute to his keen and sensitive powers of observation—not only of noises and odors but even, more importantly, of such human actions as eating, vomiting, screaming, excreting, dying. (p. 115)

The novel [Ch'i-Yüan (Leisure Garden)] has three major themes: the evils of wealth, the status of women, and the father-and-son relationship. (p. 117)

Leisure Garden is an interesting piece of work. Casual critics may fault its superficial handling of themes and characters, but a careful reading produces a different impression. Its structure, built on two centers of interest, is directly related to its thematic content; and the use of the narrator is a clever device. By framing the whole novel in the tightly packed events of a few weeks, Pa Chin achieves the most in narrative economy. Using the narrator-observer-actor to tell the story in retrospect provides a natural device for the selection of details and the organization of the plot.

Thematically, he handles the problem of money more subtly than he has elsewhere. No longer simply haranguing the reader about its evils, he shows how money has become a deterrent to an understanding by the rich of themselves and others. In dealing with the question of women, he demonstrates how little their status has changed since the May Fourth period…. And in his exploration of the father-and-son relationship, he negates his earlier belief that the family system is unmitigated evil and suggests that the family is a place where different types of human relationships can grow, and that human relationships are too diverse and too complex to be neatly categorized. (pp. 126-27)

As much as any other piece of writing by Pa Chin, Cold Nights stands out as one of his masterpieces, perhaps the masterpiece. It demonstrates an artistic maturity rarely seen in his previous works. Technically, it maintains the feeling of doom throughout through its use of the images of the dark and lonely night and the change of seasons; it gives the reader a feeling of participating in the action through its use of scene; it presents the conflicts among the major characters through dialogue; and it reveals the psyches of these characters through monologue. All these devices contribute to the suffocating intensity of the novel while they deepen the reader's understanding of the members of a modern Chinese family. (p. 129)

The dark and dismal settings not only serve as decorative backdrops to enhance the atmosphere of doom, they are also an important structural device, giving unity to the book. (p. 131)

Cold Nights is [thus] a mature piece of art. In it, Pa Chin has successfully illuminated the atmosphere, the moving scenes, the interpersonal conflicts, and the inner thoughts of his characters. It is also a work of bitterness and hate—a harsh indictment of Chinese society and of the Nationalist government…. By involving the reader in the mental and emotional experiences of its characters, Cold Nights, as a psychological novel, adds a significant dimension to the art of Pa Chin's prose fiction. To read such a novel is to enlarge the reader's knowledge of humanity. Herein lies the achievement of Cold Nights. (p. 142)

From the very beginning, [Pa Chin] was inspired by a sense of evangelical mission to do his best to help build a better society and a stronger China. He called himself a writer of conviction, and declared repeatedly that he was not an artist, that his message was more permanent than art, and that to further his convictions he would, if necessary, forsake his art without any compunction. He wrote for one purpose only—to arouse a hatred of "darkness" and a love of "light" and "truth" among his readers. (p. 143)

All through his life, he never wavered in his editorial mission regarding his country and his people. His writings reflect a sentimental journey from the optimism of the 1920s and 1930s to the despair of the 1940s. There is no doubt that his major achievement lies in the comprehensive picture he painted of China during those twenty-odd years. It is an artist's personal record, and it correctly reflects those tumultuous years.

An ideological writer, whatever Pa Chin read became grist for his authorial mill. His reading of foreign literature, including works by Japanese, English, American, and Russian writers, helped him form his ideas. Of major importance was his exposure to anarchist and populist literature, which provided him with the political themes he used in his early works. In addition, his reading gave him ideas for plots and characters. (p. 144)

[Pa Chin's] ideology conditioned not only what he chose to use in his works, it also deeply affected his style of writing. He said he admired those writers who could be succinct because he could not be. With his creativity resulting from moods of "white-hot" inspiration, it is no wonder that whenever he picked up his pen it was like "having turned on the water faucet," and by the time he turned it off, "water was everywhere." Because of his deep involvement with his material, he was unable to attain a sense of objectivity, and his works are usually overcharged with feeling, with heavy accumulations of grim detail; moreover, the author frequently intrudes to instruct and guide the reader….

His method, which reminds the reader of Balzac, Dreiser, and Thomas Wolfe, is perhaps neither as clumsy nor as ineffective as it appears. If his narrative method is obvious, it is by the same token never ambiguous or obscure. His own brooding presence as commentator results in a mightly singleness, a massive consistency, like the movement of a turbulent river rushing downstream. The reader is seldom simply shown anything, he is both shown and told. (p. 146)

His themes are reflected in his gallery of stereotypes, which includes hot-headed revolutionaries, political oppressors, student radicals, hollow intellectuals, minor bureaucrats, and ordinary people. In the novels which develop the family theme, for instance, he created authoritarian elders, submissive youths, and rebels. All his characters were drawn from people whom he knew well. As a result, many of them are convincing because they have characteristics with which his readers can identify. (p. 147)

Pa Chin made the reader care.

He made him care by taking him behind the scenes into the domestic privacy of his characters and by making him hear and see all that is said and done there. This enabled the reader to get inside Pa Chin's characters' minds as well as inside their houses. He alone among his contemporaries had the ability to play on the heartstrings of his reader, and the ability to gratify the sentimental urges of his time.

His characters represent universal values and yet they are individuals. Their failures and weaknesses call on the reader for the charity of his own involvement in humanity. Whether or not all his characters were developed with the same level of skill and to equal depth hardly matters; what is important is that he created so many memorable characters….

Since [Pa Chin's heyday] many of the issues he wrestled with have ceased to be of paramount interest. Unlike Lu Hsün, Mao Tun, Kuo Mo-jo, and others, Pa Chin can no longer be considered a teacher or even a creator of ferment. With the passing of time, his work can be looked on as pure art—and perhaps it has won more from this transformation than it has lost. It has perhaps taken a permanent place in the Chinese tradition, a place that stands above changes of taste or revolutions of time. We do not seek wisdom or guidance in his works, but it is impossible to imagine a time when, to a Chinese reader, A New Life, Family, Ward Number Four, or Cold Nights will cease to be among his most cherished literary pleasures. (p. 148)

Nathan K. Mao, in his Pa Chin (copyright © 1978 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, 170 p.

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