Pa Chin (Pseudonym of Li Fei-Kan)

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Olga Lang

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1991

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.

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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 learned from the West increased the value of his writings to readers responsive to everything modern. His simple but highly emotional and often poetic language also contributed to his success.

Like nineteenth-century Russian writers he is more interested in the portrayal of characters than in the story, and his novels lack what could be called "an exciting plot." Nonetheless, they always have a plot, and the structure of his novels, although plain, is often rather skillful. (p. 256)

[Pa Chin's] ability to transform his prototypes into typical figures stems from the fact that "phantasy" or creative imagination is just as important in his writings as the observations of life. For all the stress Pa Chin puts on observation of life he knows that "writing a novel is not like shooting a documentary film or writing history."…

The choice of Pa Chin's favorite literary genre was decided by his subject matter. He wanted above all to describe the life of his young contemporaries against the social background of the turbulent era in which they were growing up. Since of all literary genres the novel serves this purpose best he chose it for the realization of his most cherished literary plans. Because his novels were describing a new way of life and new ideas, it was natural for Pa Chin to turn to new literary methods. (p. 258)

In many of his short stories and in one novel Pa Chin used the "frame story," a device common in Western literature but new to China. He learned this technique from Turgenev and Maupassant. He shows his characters in action both in their public life and in their personal relations, often finding in their behavior when in love a key to their personality. He tells previous histories in flashbacks, and lets the characters reveal their feelings in dialogue and occasionally in interior monologues.

Pa Chin assigns a great part to the landscape and weather. They bring into relief the modds and emotional experiences of his heroes. Thus in "Rain," the cold, penetrating rain merges with the sorrow and despair of the people…. (p. 259)

Although Pa Chin usually tries to keep himself out of his narratives, in accordance with the objective method favored in late-nineteenth-century fiction, every now and then he does inject an evaluation of the experiences of his characters. Not satisfied with that he—more than any of his contemporaries—makes full use of Chinese custom, adding to his works introductions and post-scripts in which he explains his characters' motives and actions, describes his literary devices, and states the purpose for which the story was written. (p. 260)

[Though the author of many tragic stories, Pa Chin] was basically an optimist. In this assertion I am aware that I contradict the general opinion of Pa Chin as a lachrymose and melancholy writer, as well as the reproaches of pessimism often directed toward him. But I find these reproaches unjustified. Certainly Pa Chin describes many sad events, ruined lives, violent deaths, executions, suicides. How could it have been otherwise? A realistic writer, he had to describe the world around him, and life in China during the transitional period was hard, even tragic, with little scope for rosy colors. Having a keen feeling of compassion, Pa Chin could not help being often depressed and melancholy. But his sadness is not pessimism. His statement that he "never lost his faith" rings true. And he shows his readers that the way to end their own suffering and that of humanity is to fight. All three volumes of Turbulent Stream end with the victory of youth, of those who fight against the dark forces of the past…. Even when Pa Chin's heroic revolutionaries die tragic deaths they do not die in vain, others will continue their struggle. (pp. 260-61)

Often writing in great excitement Pa Chin wrote too quickly and did not revise his works properly. He does not handle his subjects with the economy characteristic of Turgenev, to whom he otherwise owed so much. Pa Chin's novels are full of repetitions, overloaded with details, some of them are too long—at least from a Western point of view. This reproach, however, would rarely apply to Pa Chin's short stories. Most of the stories are concise, they nearly always have an interesting theme, treat a range of problems, and depict a great variety of people. Here Pa Chin does not limit himself to Chinese intellectuals, but describes persons of various nationalities and classes.

Pa Chin's growth as an artist was not a steady process. His third novel, Family, is certainly artistically superior to his first two, Destruction and The Setting Sun. But several later novels, including the trilogy Love, are not up to the standard set up by Family, even though Pa Chin calls Love his favorite work. The period during and after the war was for Pa Chin a time of new creative achievements. He wrote the tender and sad little novel Garden of Rest, as well as the tragic Cold Nights, one of his best works. These novels might have marked the beginning of a new stage. But the Communist revolution interrupted his growth. He turned to an entirely different kind of writing. (pp. 261-62)

Pa Chin's writings before 1949 have been often criticized during the Communist era…. [Yet the] fact is that he made an important contribution to the victory of Communism in China. He helped to create among the intellectuals an emotional climate that induced them to accept the Communist revolution…. It was clear to his readers that feudalism and capitalism were "the systems obstructing the development of society and of human personality, the forces destroying love. (p. 265)

[Pa Chin had to prove to the Chinese Communist Party] that he had broken with anarchism. He did that first by removing all anarchist colors from the new editions of all his works…. [In] the new edition of his Collected Works, Pa Chin succeeded in erasing almost all traces of anarchism even from his essays and purely autobiographical works. (pp. 267-68)

The changes Pa Chin made in the story of his own life have of course destroyed the value of his biographical works. Their new editions no longer present a portrait of a young man of the time between the two revolutions. Changes in his essays and sketches and the omission of many of them from the new edition of his Collected Works also distort his image. Essays, however, are the least important part of Pa Chin's literary production, and not many people will read them now.

What matters most are the changes Pa Chin has made in his novels and short stories. Besides removing details identifying his characters as anarchists he has had to correct certain other "deviations" from the Party line; some of these corrections may not hurt the artistic value of his works, some do. One important demand was difficult to comply with: Pa Chin had to make his stories more optimistic. Almost all his stories are basically optimistic in spite of the sad endings of many of them. They always convey the belief that the sacrifice of young lives will help build a bright future. This kind of optimism, however, is considered too subtle now; more garish colors are needed. Pa Chin has tried to satisfy this demand. (p. 275)

Olga Lang, in her Pa Chin and His Writings: Chinese Youth between the Two Revolutions (copyright © 1967 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the author and publishers), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967, 402 p.

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