Fifty Years of Literature Living (In Lieu of a Preface)
by Ba Jin
I’m a person who doesn’t speak well. It’s due to my being poor at speaking that I have thoughts I can’t express and feelings I can’t spill out, forcing me to resign myself to pen and paper. It is so that I may give vent to the blazing fire of emotions in my heart that I decided to write novels.
Though I’m not really a man of letters, I’ve been writing for over fifty years. Everyone comes to know literature from different paths. As for me, I’ve enjoyed reading novels ever since I was young. There were times when I forgot to sleep or eat as I lost myself in my reading, not for the sake of learning, but simply as a pleasurable pastime. Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I would become a novelist myself. I only began to write novels while searching for an outlet.
I come from the capital city of Sichuan province, and was born to a large bureaucratic family. I spent my childhood among twenty or thirty so-called “superiors” and twenty or thirty so-called “inferiors”. In my wealthy surroundings, I came into contact with the miserable lives of the attendants and the sedan chair bearers. Under the pressure of the hypocritical and selfish elder family members, I witnessed the painful groanings of their young lives. I felt as if all of society was suffering from some illness, yet I was unable to say precisely where the virus was or how to cure it. I regarded this large family as a despotic kingdom, and myself as a prisoner of its outdated teachings. My eyes saw many people close to me struggling and suffering, enjoying no youth nor happiness, and inevitably succumbing to a bitter death. Each one of them was murdered by corrupt feudal morals, traditional ideals, and the capriciousness of two or three individuals.
Leaving home was like shaking off a frighteningly dark shadow. When I was twenty-three years old I ran off from Shanghai to a land of both unfamiliar places and people, Paris, searching for the road to save the world and save myself. When I speak of saving the world, there’s obviously a bit of exaggeration there, but when I speak of saving myself, that is the truth. The situation at that time was like this: I had feelings I was unable to spill forth, and no place to release the resentment of my love and hate, as if I’d fallen into a boundless sea of misery, unable to find the shore. I could find no peace in my heart, and knew that without such peace, I would not be able to live on. In the spring of 1927 I lived on the fifth floor of a very small apartment in the Latin quarter of Paris. In the tiny room filled with the scent of onions and the stench of burning coal I was alone. I was in pain. In a place where sunlight was seldom to be found, I missed my homeland, and I missed my family.
As my motherland engaged in a battle between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, the people were suffering through a massacre. In Paris, there was a movement to rescue two Italian workers, named N. Sacco and B. Vanzetti, falsely accused of theft and murder, imprisoned for six years on death row in Boston, Massachusetts. One day, on a street where I often walked, I noticed everywhere hung fliers advertising movements to rescue them with “public speeches” and “protests”. I read the autobiography of the so-called “convict” Vanzetti, and within it found this passage: “It is my hope that every family can have a nice home, that there is bread in every mouth, that every soul can receive an education, and that everyone’s wisdom has the chance to develop.” This passage moved me to my core. Vanzetti had spoken the words of my heart.
My residence was right next to the Pantheon on Tournefort Street. Everyday I passed by the Pantheon. At dusk, I stood in the rain in front of the bronze statue of Rousseau. I faced the “Citizen of Geneva” who had “dreamt of eliminating oppression and injustice“ and related to him my despair and agony. I then headed back to my cold, lonely abode, sat down and, as if crying out for help, I wrote a letter to the inmates at the American prison. (I eventually received a reply in which Vanzetti wrote to me: “Youth is the hope for all humanity.” A few months later, he was put to death In the electric chair. It wasn’t until after fifty years that the pair was finally exonerated. In the preface to my first novel (Destruction) I list Vanzetti as my mentor.)
It was in this atmosphere and this frame of mind that I heard the heavy bell toll from Notre Dame de Paris marking the hour. I then began writing what resembled a novel. (This is one of the advantages of having read many novels, otherwise I wouldn’t have even been able to write anything even close to a novel.) I let my pain, my loneliness, and my enthusiasm, line by line, become words on paper. The love and hate of my past, the joy and misery, suffering and sympathy, hope and strife, all simultaneously came to the tip of my pen. I wrote quickly, and the burning of my heart gradually petered out. Only then could I blink my eyes in peace. The knots in my heart came undone, and I obtained salvation.
After this, whenever I had time, I’d grab a pen and paper and begin to spill out my feelings, consoling my young and lonely heart. In the second year, my virgin work was finished. In August, I sent my work from a small, sandy town in France back to China. I mailed it to an open-minded friend who worked at a bookstore in Shanghai, requesting his opinion. I also planned to find a way of having it self-published, so I sent it to my oldest brother for him to read. (At the time, printing wasn’t very expensive. I prepared a Chinese translation of a novel to sell to a Shanghai bookstore and planned to use the money made from that to print my own book.) I waited to the end of that year to head back to Shanghai. My friend told me that my novel would be serialized in “Novel Monthly”. He said that the magazine’s executive editor, a Mr. Shengtao Xie, was the one who read my novel and decided to introduce it to his readers. “Novel Monthly” was a magazine that was a leading authority of the time. He opened up a road for me, and allowed me, a person who didn’t even understand literature, a smooth entry into to the literary world.
In 1929, my first novel was serialized in “Novel Monthly” for four issues and was then published as a book in September of the same year. I presented it to my eldest brother, and he noticed that I had printed a dedication to him in front of the main text. In 1931, my eldest brother went bankrupt and committed suicide. I removed the dedication. I had written another novel specifically for my eldest brother. It was The Family, which had just begun the first day of its serialization in a Shanghai daily newspaper called Times. The following day I received the telegram bearing the news that my brother had killed himself in Chengdu. He didn’t get the chance to read even a single word of my novel. Yet it was through this novel that many people were finally able to understand him. They finally knew how a feudal family had destroyed a young and promising life.
I mastered writing novels in France. I’ll never forget my teachers: Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, and Romain Rolland. I learned how to fuse my writing and my life together, how to blend the author and the person into one. I believe that a literary work’s highest achievement is its uniqueness. It’s the author handing his heart to his readers. My novels are the product of my life adventures. Each and every work is the harvest of experience”. I give my work to my readers so that they may judge. I only insist on a single principle: don’t fabricate it. Aside from my French teachers, I also had Russian teachers: Aleksandr Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gorkii. I later translated two of Turgenev’s more lengthy novels “Fathers and Sons” and “Virgin Soil”. I’ve also translated some of Gorkii’s earlier short stories and am currently translating Herzen’s memoir. I also had a British teacher: Dickens. I even have had Japanese teachers, such as: Kajitsu Sōseki, Tayama Katai, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Mushanokōji Saneatsu, and especially Takeo Arishima. I haven’t read much of their work, but I memorized the translation of Arishima‘s short story “Chīsakimonohe”. Although even now I still haven’t mastered Japanese, I can still recite that one from memory. My Chinese teacher is Lu Xun. Within my writing, these teachers are present through their influence. But the most essential teacher I’ve had is definitely life: life in Chinese society. Everything I’ve been touched by in life has caused me to become an author. In the beginning I wasn’t able to control my words very well. There were many Europeanized sentences in my writing. As I continued writing, I learned, and I improved. Even today I’m still striving to improve my essays.
At the end of 1928, I left France and headed back to my home country, settling down in Shanghai. At first I would either write a short story or translate a short essay and try to contribute to the newspapers. After a while it was the editors taking the initiative to ask for my essays. I lived together with the friend who ran the open-minded book store. He lived upstairs; I lived downstairs. Since childhood I had always been hesitant to be a part of social interactions, and I was afraid to speak. I was unwilling to negotiate with strangers. Strangers interested in seeing my transcripts would need to go through my friend. I was able to maintain my quiet surroundings by not letting others disturb me. Sometimes after staying up all night in order to complete a short story, I’d leave the finished work on my desk, and in the morning as my friend went off to work he’d bring along my manuscript. For example, my short story “Dog” was written in this way and then published in “Novel Monthly”. The more my essays were published in the papers, the more people would come asking for a new manuscript. The friends I had in the literary world also gradually grew in number.
In 1933 I had said, “I’ve relied on friendship to live as long as I have.” During the first few years, I’d always immerse myself in writing for eight or nine months and then go on vacation and see friends. I was entirely reliant on my writing to get by at this point. So that I could keep writing, I’d avoid rushing ahead with my life. As a result, I wasn’t married until the age of 40. I didn’t have a home. My friend’s home had always been my home. I would travel around seeing different friends and also wrote a few “travel journals”. There were times when I’d shut myself in my study for a whole year, never ignoring my work. I remember once describing it like this:
“Each day, each night, warmth builds within my body, like a whip lashing out at my heart, countless painful images pass before my eyes, the sufferings of myself and the sufferings of everyone else. They cause my hands to tremble. I never stop writing. My surroundings shall forever remain monotonous as they are: In an empty, spacious room, before me are books and manuscripts piled high on top of my square table. On the sides are the windows that fan in the sunlight. There’s also a shabby sofa and two small, round stools. My hands are unable to curb the speed with which they move over the paper. It’s reminiscent of many, many people borrowing my hands to confide their pain. I’ve forgotten myself, and I’ve forgotten all that made up my surroundings. I’ve become a writing machine. From time to time, I squat down on my chair, or rest my head on the table. Or I’ll stand up, walk over to the sofa, sit down and begin writing like mad. This is how I finished my long novel “The Family” and other medium-length novels. My work has also helped me meet many new friends. They encourage me and even compel me to write more novels.”
This is my account of how I’ve managed to be known as an “author”. On January 28th, 1932, the war that began in Shanghai forced me to move my residence, but I never changed the way I lived my life. Nor did I stop writing.
Toward the end of 1934 I traveled to Japan. I really liked Japanese novels and I wanted to improve my Japanese. I lived in both Yokohama and Tokyo for a few months each. In April of my second year there, former emperor Pu Yi visited Tokyo. One day in the middle of the night, “criminals” came and took me to the Kanda district police station where I was held for over ten hours. Drawing on the experience of the past few months, I wrote three short stories: “Gods, Ghosts, and Men”. It was in August of that year that my Shanghai friend established a publishing company. He wanted me to return and become the editor of his new company, as I had been compiling collections of books during the past twenty years. So I set aside the time and energy to edit and translate works of literature. The time I had left to write was less, but the passion of my youth wasn’t yet extinct. My pen wouldn’t allow me to rest.
1937 was my second year of resisting the erupting war with Japan. I left Shanghai and headed south, arrived back in Shanghai, and then set out once again to the Southwest. My lifestyle had changed, but my pen never ceased writing. This is how the “Torrents Trilogy” was completed. I would have just managed to build a simple “nest” in one city, and I’d then be forced to leave empty-handed--save some lined paper I always kept with me--to go on to the next city. In those days, all I could do was rush about all over. I had no choice but to change the way in which I wrote. And in some places it wasn’t always easy to purchase a vial of ink. When I was writing “A Garden of Repose”, my briefcase had a stick of ink, a small-letter brush, and a large piece of folded up letter paper. On arriving in a new place, I’d borrow a small ink saucer, pour water into the saucer and rub the ink stick a few times, until I could finally sit down and begin writing. This reminds me of the Russian author of “Dead Souls”, Nikolai Gogol, and the circumstances in which he wrote in small inns. Like him, I also wrote an article for each road I traversed. I’d begin writing in a Guiyang hotel and not finish until I’d arrived in Chongqing, where it would then be taken to the publisher. While writing one night in a small inn in northern Chongqing, I arrived at the ending of “A Garden of Repose”. The lighting was dim. I found a small candle and lit it, but my thread of ideas still wasn’t at an end. The candle oil was soon used up and I genuinely wished for another candle so that I might continue my writing. ….Those kinds of days will certainly never come again. Later, although the beginning of my long novel “Cold Nights” was set at Chongqing during the war, it wasn’t written until after the war when I had returned to Shanghai. Some people think it is a very pessimistic novel. Even I had referred to it as “The Book of Despair”. I depicted the death of an honest intellectual, meaning to denounce the old society and to denounce the corrupt politics of the Kuomintang government. The novels ends with a cold, winter night in Chongqing. In Nice, France of 1979 there was a female reader who presented me a copy of the book hoping for me to write something on the inner sleeve. I wrote: “I hope this book doesn’t bring you any suffering.” In the past there was a period in which I was afraid every time people would mention this book in front of me. But later, out of the blue, I saw an old printing of a Japanese translation with the words “The Book of Hope” on the spine. Just think how much encouragement that meant to me! It was well said. Darkness had come to its end. Dawn had arrived.
Chinese citizens have obtained emancipation. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China I began studying Marxism. (Though I didn’t study it very well.) I wished to use this pen, which is used to writing of darkness and suffering, to begin writing of new people and new things, eulogizing the conquests and merriment of the people. However, I didn’t have enough time to familiarize myself with new people and things. At the same time, I also needed to participate in activities I really wished to participate in, take on jobs I really wished to take on. Therefore, my recent work has been more sparse. There was a time (1952) when I went to Korea. With the Chinese volunteer armed forces I “penetrated life”. It was my first time in contact with ordinary soldiers. I was a bit timid while living with them together. A person used to shutting himself in his study for long periods of time had come to a family of revolutionary soldiers. I was obviously stuck outside of my comfort zone, but at the same time I felt warmth. The officers and men of the platoon never once looked at me as if I were an outsider, but treated me as another member of the family. And since I had only recently arrived from the motherland, they were particularly affectionate towards me. In a place penetrated the most by war, love and detestation were expressed the most prominently. People are used to using concrete actions to express their emotions: every day is witness to emotionally moving deeds performed by a hero. Most of the men there were youth from the farmlands of China. Their glory came from the sacrifices they had made. They performed arduous work for contentment. And once the crucial moment had arrived, they all strove to be the first to give up their own life. Being around all of these people I felt ashamed. I often contrasted my heart with theirs. I’m unable to cease the battle deep within my heart. I often think of the time I was writing my 1945 work titled “Ward No. 4”. The book broker, Dr. Yang had said: “Become kind, honest, and be useful to others.” I fell in love with this kind of person. I fell in love with the environment and I began making friends with them. I no longer thought of writing.
After I departed, I returned again the next year. It is because those people, those heroic deeds, attracted my heart. Altogether I lived there for one year. After my second visit, I had even prepared to return again, but a different job interfered. I left the fighting life behind, and I gradually recovered my old habits. The familiar became the unfamiliar. My newly acquainted army friends and I also gradually drifted apart, to the point of losing contact completely. Consequently, the works I wrote were also fewer. Even writing on the heroes of the people was out of the question. Moreover, I frequently visited abroad, publishing various works focused on eulogies of human friendship, appraisal of new society, and new life prose. Yet all of this unexpectedly turned into “proof of crime”. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, my work was criticized as being “harmful to the socialist course”. I was labeled a “great literary tyrant” and “leading spy” and was shut in the “cowshed”. I endured all types of spiritual torment and personal humiliation. In those ten years I was stripped of all civil rights and freedom to release any publications.
There was a period of time when I genuinely believed in my persecutors: Lin Biao and the “Gang of Four” along with their henchmen, both big and small. I believed in all of their propaganda. I thought I was a sinner and that my books were “poison”. I was resigned to admitting my guilt and suffering punishment. I denied myself completely and was prepared for my reformation, to get a fresh start at life. Along with everyone else, I even wished Lin Biao and Jiang Qing “Ten thousand years of good health”. Within the first three or four years of the Ten Year Calamity, I was convinced to the point that I gave up writing. I believed that even working in the reception office at the Shanghai chapter of the Writer’s Association would make me happy. However the henchmen of the “Gang of Four” said that I wasn’t worthy of doing even this kind of job. It was as if by writing those books I had committed some monstrous crime. Today I find it very strange the way I believed their words, and how I earnestly, sincerely, and unashamedly exerted all my strength to follow their exhortations. But it was afterwards that I discovered it to all be nothing but a huge hoax. I had been made a fool of and was led to feel devoid of meaning and disillusionment. During this time it was very possible that I could have ended up committing suicide if it weren’t for my wife Xiaoshen at my side, her sentiments linking with my heart. Furthermore, I wasn’t resigned to merely “voluntarily wither away”. Little by little my mind was able to settle down. I could analyze myself, and analyze others. Then, even if I was to be “paraded through the streets and publicly denounced”, or be the target of criticisms in a mass rally, I was still capable of scrutinizing and researching their criticisms, and observe those making speeches. I gradually sobered up, and could think for myself. I also mastered the art of fighting.
In July of 1973, seven years after the public criticisms, the “Gang of Four” members: Wang Hongwen, Ma Tianshui, Xu Jingxian, Wang Xiuzhen and six others suddenly proclaimed that they had “resolved” to my problem as inciting “contradictions among the people, and not wearing the hat of the counterrevolutionary.” I was only permitted to do a little bit of translation work. Just like that, they turned me into a “non hat-wearing counterrevolutionary.” They drove me out of the literary world. I didn’t even request of them that they show mercy and give me a means of livelihood. I dug out a copy of Alexander Herzen’s memoir “My Past and Thoughts“ that I had prepared to translate over 40 years ago. Every day I would translate a few hundred words. It felt as if I was with Herzen back in the 19th century, journeying down a dark Russian road. Just the way Herzen cursed Nicholas I and the dark autocratic rule of the czar, I reviled the fascist dictatorship that was the “Gang of Four”. I was determined to believe that the days of tyranny wouldn’t last much longer. That is how I lived on, and lived to see the “Gang of Four” die out. It was my second emancipation.
I’ve picked up my pen anew, excited and cheerful. I feel a vast universe before me. I want to write, to write a lot. But I’ve been left with only a few years time. I’m already seventy-six years old. Before my eightieth birthday, I must act fast and not let my time be wasted effort. I’ve formulated a five year plan. I want to write two long novels, one “Writer’s Memoir”, five volumes of “random records”, and a translation of Herzen’s “Memoir”. Two of the thirteen books planned have already been released, and one is the first volume of Herzen’s “Memoir”. I must still struggle on to complete my final eleven books. I must also avoid the various disturbances that cause me to struggle finding time to write. Some people consider me to be a “noted public figure”, and they arrange many social activities for me. Others look at me as if I were a case study in waiting to be “saved”. They come to me to take notes. I am really only willing to be the type of writer that writes to his last breath. What do I write? I write novels; they don’t have to be true. But I’d really like to write about my own sufferings during the Ten Year Calamity, summarizing my entire experience. Those ten unforgettable years are a significant event in human history. Writers of all countries and of all times seldom have the opportunity to know such a terrifying yet ridiculous, eccentric and painful experience. All of us have turned in the exam. We withstood the test; each of us have performed. Today, I look back at the past ten years. I look at the actions and behavior of myself and the actions and behavior of others. It’s rather funny, and rather foolish. But at the time I really didn’t view things this way. I often thought like this: Suppose I don’t summarize the miserable life I had for the past ten years, dissect myself seriously, to genuinely clarify right from wrong. Then perhaps as another movement begins, I’ll once again become the other person. The cruel, savage, foolish, and absurd will look dignified and proper; using “ignorance” to reach the reform’s agenda. The debt on my soul can not be repudiated. I will write two long pieces, on one hand I’ll be repaying my debt, on the other I’ll be wrapping up my literature life of over fifty years.
I once said, “I’ve come to walk along the path of literature through my explorations of human life.” In over fifty years, I had times when I abandoned exploration; when I stopped exploring, I couldn’t write anymore. I began reading novels as a pastime, but I definitely didn’t begin to write novels so that the readers could also have a pastime. I’m not a writer, I only make writing a part of my life. My thinking has all sorts of limitations, but my attitude is a serious one. Jean Jacques Rousseau was the one who initiated me into writing, and I’ll never be willing to lie in my writing. I’m frequently dissecting myself. My life is brimming with contradictions. My writing is also this way. The conflict between love and hate, the conflict between thought and action, the conflict between reason and emotion, the conflict between the ideal and reality... All of this has been woven into a net, concealing my whole life and all of my work. Every piece of work I write is the cry of my pursuit for light. I’ve said, “the expectations of the reader are what encourages me on.”
When writing, I’ve never once reflected on the creative process, my technique of expression, or other such questions involving my skill. Yet when I have mulled over it, I only encounter questions: How can I make life more glorious? How can one be a better person? How can I help my readers? How can I show my dedication to society and the people? All of my essays have been written to achieve something. There’s never been a time when I moan or groan without cause. The henchmen of the “Gang of Four” named my “collection of works” the “Fourteen Evil Books”. But it is in those “evil books” that I had pointed out to readers sublime ideals and eulogized noble sentiments. To speak of the sublime might be bordering on exaggeration, but at least I never wrote of what was lowly. I never erected my happiness on top of someone’s suffering. My love for the motherland, love for the citizens, love for the truth, love for justice and for the majority of people I sacrifice myself. People aren’t only reliant on eating to live, nor are people living only for their personal enjoyment. What I expounded on in those works is this type of thinking. In 1944, in “A Garden of Repose,” I once again expressed the expectations readers hold to writers: “I feel you all rope in people’s hearts, causing mutual understanding. You remind me of the sellers of charcoal on cold winter days, the person giving away comfort in the midst of pain.”
In 1935, two years after “The Family” was published, I had said, “Ever since I took up writing, I’ve never once stopped the attacks on my enemies. What are my enemies? All of the old traditional concepts, all the irrational systems that prevent the evolution of society and development of human nature, all that destroys the power of love, all of them are my greatest enemies. In any case, I hold the barracks, having never made a compromise.” I was repeatedly criticized for that statement during the “Cultural Revolution”. But during that period, I actually made many compromises, even though I didn’t do so intentionally. “The Family” is my personal favorite work among everything I’ve done. I grew up in a household just like the one in the book. I depicted my grandfather and eldest brother just as they were-----One, the autocratic “have the last word” head of the household, the other, filially pious and the resigned to self-adversity junior , there were also those jockeying for positions, those immaturely jostling with one another, those benefitting at others’ expense, and all the men and women who said one thing but meant another-----my elders, and there were those who met with the destruction of their youthful life, and there were the “slaves” who suffered hardship and oppression. I wrote this novel and it feels as if I had excavated my family’s tomb. I read this novel and I still feel the love and hate of the burning torment. I see my younger self again, immature and naive as I was. But I still remember the words of the French bourgeois revolutionist Georges-Jacques Danton, “We must dare, and dare again, and go on daring!” I understand youth is beautiful, and I’m not willing to allow myself to be a trampled victim. I shouted out to a dying institution, “I accuse!” It wasn’t until I had finished writing “The Family” and its sequels, “Spring” and “Autumn”, that I was able to completely shake off the shadow of the Dark Ages. Today, in our new China, feudal families like the Kao family have long ago vanished. However, the terrible residue of feudalism hasn’t been cleaned up completely. The spirit of elder Kao still “hovers” about all over. Even though I’m over seventy years old with a head full of gray hair to prove it, I still have the burning heart and the inexhaustible passion of Kao Chueh-hui. I will observe my own promises and never set down the pen in my hand.
Four months ago in Beijing, the Chinese Writers Association held its third representative conference. I presented the closing address, during which I made the following statement: “Attending this conference today I’ve seen many newly emerged talents. Those with courage, conscience, artistic ability, and a sense of responsibility, they dare to think, dare to write, their creative ability is exceedingly prolific. The youth that see their motherland and the people brimming with love, the middle aged writers, I still feel that being a Chinese writer is a very glorious business. I’m about to walk to the edge of life. My writing time is extremely limited, but in my heart still burns the flame of hope. I still harbor ardent love for our socialist country and our unparalleled, kind hearted people. With everyone else, I will continue to fulfill my responsibilities, forever moving forward. To be regarded as a writer, one ought to take responsibility for the people and their history. I now understand even better: an honest, conscience-bearing writer is never a shortsighted, overly cautious person.
--- Ba Jin April 4th, 1980. “Turbulent Stream” Summarizing Preface
A few years ago I wept as I finished reading Tolstoy’s “Resurrection”. I had written on the flyleaf: “Life itself is a tragedy.”
In actuality, it’s nothing like this. Life isn’t a tragedy at all. It’s a fight. What are we living here to do? Or, so to speak, why must we have this life? Romain Rolland’s answer is “for the sake of conquering it”. I believe he’s correct in saying so. Ever since I’ve had life, in this world, even though I’ve only experienced twenty-some summers and winters, this short period of time hasn’t been spent in vain. During this period I’ve seen many things, and have come to know many other things. My surroundings are endless bounds of darkness, yet I do not feel solitude or desperation. No matter where I go, I can always see the torrents of life upheaving, creating their own path, traversing through disorderly mountains and crushed stones.
This torrent is forever violent. By no means will there ever be a time in which it comes to a halt. Furthermore, it is impossible for one to stop it on their own; there is nothing that can obstruct it. On its journey it will continue to throw off all kinds of spray, in which there is love, hate, joy, and also pain. It is all brought about by the galloping torrents, possessing the power of imposing mountains, flowing along toward the only ocean. What is the only ocean? And when will it finally be able to flow into this ocean? No one can know for certain.
I follow along just as everyone else does, living in this world, in order to conquer life. I’ve also participated in this “fight” before. I have my love, and my hate, I have my joy, and also I have my pain. But I certainly haven’t lost my belief: My belief in life. My life still won’t end. I don’t even know if there’s anything still ahead waiting for me. Even so, I still have a bit of a notion in regards to the future. Because the past isn’t a taciturn mute, it can teach us a few things.
What I wish to develop here for my readers to see is none other than a depiction of the past ten years of my life. Naturally, only a small part of life is discussed here, but the torrents of life, composed of love, hate, joy, and suffering, and how it they have come to be so restless, are already visible. I’m not a preacher, and I can not point out a clear-cut path to traverse, but readers can still search for it within themselves.
Someone once said that there were originally no roads, but because many people walked, roads gradually emerged. Others have said that roads have always been. There were many people walking because there were roads first. Who is right and who is wrong? I won’t be the judge. I’m still young. I still want to continue living. I still need to conquer life! I know the torrents of life will not stop. I’ll just wait and see where the torrent takes me!
--- Ba Jin. April, 1931
The wind blew urgently. Snowflakes that resembled cut up cotton fibers fluttered through the air. They floated down without destination, landing all about the earth. On both sides of a wall was a white road. From above the middle looked like a flagstone paved road with two broad streaks embedding the sides.
Pedestrians and two person sedan chairs were on the street. They couldn’t win against the snowstorm and their disposition reflected their irritated mood. The more the snowflakes fell the more there were. A vast expanse of whiteness filled the sky. It fell in all directions. It fell on top of umbrellas. It fell on the roofs of the sedan chairs. It fell on the straw hats worn by the sedan chair bearers. It fell on the faces of the pedestrians.
The wind played with the umbrellas, blasting on them from all four sides. There was even a time or two when its blowing caused the umbrella to fly straight out of the pedestrians’ hand. The wind howled in the air. The mournful sound together with the snowflakes’ pattering on the ground meshed to form an eerie music. The music pierced the ears of the pedestrians, as if to caution them: Snowstorms will forever govern this world; the bright and beautiful spring shall never return.
It was already nightfall, but the lamps on the sides of the street still hadn’t been kindled. Everything on the road gradually disappeared within the gloomy dusk. The road was covered with mud and water. The air was frigid, but a hope boosted the morale of the quick walking pedestrians on that lonely street. ------------That hope was a warm, brightly-lit home.
“Third brother, walk faster.” The one who spoke was an eighteen year old youth, with one hand holding an umbrella, and the other lifting the lower roll of his cotton-padded gown. He turned his head to see behind him, his round face flushed red from the cold air, with his pair of gold glasses set upon his nose.
The younger brother walking behind him was a youth of a similar build and similar clothing. His age was a bit younger and his face was rather thin, but his glasses shone brightly. “What’s the hurry? We’re almost there. ...Second brother. Today’s practice score was your best yet, wasn’t it? Your English was very natural-sounding and fluent. And you were pretty good when you played as Doctor Li.” As he spoke with enthusiasm, he picked up his pace, and the slush-covered cement splashed on the bottom of his trouser leg again. “That’s nothing, but I am rather confident,” said older brother Gao Juemin with a smile. He stopped walking and allowed his younger brother Gao Juehui to catch up to him. “You’re not confident at all. Your part as the copper wasn’t the least bit realistic. Didn’t you memorize those lines yesterday? How can you just go on stage and not remember? If it wasn’t for Mr. Zhu reminding you I was afraid you wouldn’t have been able to finish your lines!” The older brother spoke mildly without a reproaching tone. Juehui’s face blushed with embarrassment. He spoke with a hint of anxiousness, “I don’t know what happened. As soon as I got on the platform my heart just felt flustered. I felt as if the eyes of many people were watching me. I wished I could speak every line without any omissions...” A gust of wind attacked at the umbrella in his hand. He promptly shut his mouth and held on tightly to the umbrella handle. The breeze passed by and ended almost immediately. The center of the road was already piled up with the fallen, unmelted snow. Looking in the past, the pure white, on the surface were numerous footprints, old and new. You can often find one footprint on top of another, the new one concealing the old.
“I wish I could have recited the whole piece perfectly, without any omissions” said Juehui, continuing what he had begun to say. “But as soon as I went to speak, I couldn’t remember anything. This time I couldn’t even remember the lines that I normally knew so well. I needed Mr. Zhu to remind me of a few words so I could get on with my part. I’m not sure whether in the future, if during a formal performance, this will happen again or not. If it’s anything like this last time, then that’d be humiliating.” A serious expression appeared on the child’s somewhat naive-looking face. Their feet walked across the soft snow, making a gentle noise.
“Third brother, do not fret,” Juemin said consolingly. “Practice a few more times and you’ll be very familiar with your lines. You simply need to act with confidence. ... ...Well, frankly speaking, Mr. Zhu’s adaptation of “Treasure Island” into a script wasn’t done very well. I’m afraid it’s performance won’t get very good reviews.
Juehui didn’t make a sound, but he appreciated his older brothers affection. He was thinking of what it would take to perform the play well, to gain the praise of the guests and his classmates and to make his older brother proud. He continued to ponder the matter, and after a good deal of time had passed, he felt himself gradually enter into a strange realm. All of the sudden everything before his eyes had changed. In front of him was the inn known as the Admiral Pengbao. His longtime friend Bi’er lived there. He, possessing the vagrant qualities of the “Japanese troops”, after losing two fingers and undergoing many unexpected events, had finally found a trace of Bi’er. Within him the joy of vengeance mingled with indescribable horror. He calculated to himself how he would go about visiting Bi’er and what he would say to him. And he also wondered how to reproach him for betraying the clan and hiding its treasure, losing the trust and honor of the vagrants.As he thought of this, the English in the script he ordinarily remembered so well came naturally rushing to his mind. Woken up to reality, he cheerfully exclaimed, “Second brother, I understand!” Looking at him in astonishment, Juemin inquired, “What are you talking about? What’s gotten you so excited?”
“Second brother, I’ve just learned the mystery of good acting,” said Juehui, bringing a childishly complacent smile to his face. “I’ve been thinking, it’s just like I’m one of those Japanese troops, as a result, my speech naturally betrays me and won’t let me be strenuous enough in my pondering.”
“You’re right, that’s precisely how acting is,” said Juemin with a smile. “And now that you understand it at this level, you’ll be certain to succeed. ... ... The snow’s lighter now. Why not put away your umbrella? Up against wind this strong, it takes a lot of energy to keep your umbrella open.” He shook off the snow on the umbrella and put it away. Juehui also put his umbrella away. The two walked side by side with their umbrellas resting on their shoulders, their bodies leaning close in.
The snow had already stopped and the wind slowly eased its might. The tops of the walls and roofs of the houses were piled high with thick snow, faintly shining within the gloomy twilight. A few candle lamp shops were mixed in between the black lacquer gates of mansions, decorating the lonely street, disseminating a bit of warmth and light in the cold winter evenings.
“Third brother, are you cold?” Juemin said suddenly, looking a bit concerned.
“No, I feel very warm. While talking to one another on the road I don’t feel the least bit cold.”
“Then, why are you shivering?”
“Because I’m excited! I’m always like this when I feel excited. I start shaking. My heart beats violently. When I think of acting, I get nervous. But I actually really wish to succeed. Second brother, you’re not laughing at my childishness, are you?” As Juehui finished speaking he lowered his head and peaked out an eye at Juemin.
“Third brother,” said Juemin, with a hint of empathy in his voice. “No, not at all. I’m also like this. I also want to succeed. We’re both the same. So when we’re in the classroom and our teacher praises us, even if it’s simply a few words, no matter who hears it we’ll still feel happy with ourselves.”
“Right, you speak the truth.” The younger brother’s body inched closer to his older brother’s. The two walked forward together, having forgotten the cold, having forgotten the snowstorm, having forgotten the night.
“Second brother, you’re really great,” said Juehui as he gazed at Juemin’s face, an innocent smile forming on his face. Juemin also lowered his head and looked at Juehui’s shining eyes. He smiled for a moment and then began to say slowly, “You’re great too.” Afterwards, he started looking around again. He knew they were approaching home, so he said “Third brother, hurry up. After this turn we’ll be home.”
Juehui nodded his head a few times and the two picked up their pace. In the blink of an eye, the two entered onto an even quieter street.
The street lamps had already been lit, and inside the square glass casing the light of the clear lamp oil appeared even lonelier in the winter cold. The shadow of the lamp post rested gently on the snow. What few pedestrians who were on the street walked in a hurry: They left footprints in the snow and vanished into the silence. The deep footprints slept wearily, unwilling to move, until a new foot arrived to press down on them. Only then would they let out a low sigh, having been crushed into a strange shape. Hence the boundless white on the street no longer had the crystal clear foot impressions, but many large and small dark holes.
Quietly standing amidst the cold weather was a residence with a large black-painted gate. Two forever reticent stone lions squat on either side of the entrance. As the gate opened it looked like the jarring mouth of a mythical creature. Within was a dark cave. What was inside it? There was no one in sight. All of the mansions along the street had gone through the same number of generations, some having changed surnames a few times. Each mansion had its own secrets. The black paint on the main gate would peel off and would be painted anew. Yet even though it had undergone this change, they still do not allow the outside world to know their secrets. Having walked to the middle of the street and now in front of a much larger mansion, the two brothers stood. They stomped their leather shoes on the stone steps a few times, shook off the melting snow on their jackets, grabbed their umbrella, and walked in with large strides. The sound of their footsteps disappeared quickly within the dark cave. The front gate had regained its original tranquility. This mansion was like all other mansions. The entrance also had a pair of stone lions, and a pair of large red lanterns hung from the bottoms of the eaves. The only difference was the extra pair of giant rectangular stones beneath the flight of steps by the door, the wall which hung a plaque of wood with a couplet inscribed in it, and on the red foundation where one could see eight Han style characters: “guo en jia qing, ren shou nian feng”, meaning, “the country is kind to the family, people enjoy longevity and the land yields rich harvests”. Two large doors opened within. Atop each door stood a sword-wielding, multi-colored door god of colossal stature.
The wind halted, yet the air was still just as cold. Night had arrived, but it had not brought darkness. Up above was the gray sky. Below lay mounds of snow piled on the slate floor. Snow spread high across the large courtyard. In the center was a block-shaped flagstone corridor raised above the ground. A few pots of plum blossoms sat on both sides of the corridor, snow having accumulated on the branches.
Juemin walked in front. He had just walked up the first class stone steps leading to the left wing and was about to enter across the threshold when a young girl’s voice came yelling down from one of the upper left chambers: “Young second master! Young second master! You two have arrived just in time. We were just eating. Please hurry up, there are guests inside still.” The servant girl whom spoke was named Mingfeng. She was a young girl of sixteen and wore her hair in a plait on the back of her head. A blue quilt jacket bound her slim body. Her melon seed shaped face was smooth and plump, and when she spoke with a smile, dimples appeared on her cheeks. Her two shining eyes twinkled naively as she looked at them. Juehui smiled at her from behind.
“Alright, just let us put our umbrellas away and we’ll be there,” answered Juemin loudly, and he walked through the threshold, not even glancing at her.
“Mingfeng, what guests are here?” asked Juehui as he walked up the stone steps and stood on the threshold. “Mrs. Auntie and Miss Qin. You should hurry.” She turned and headed back to the main room after speaking.
Juehui gazed at her back with a smile. He waited for her back to disappear into the main room and then walked into his own bedroom. Juemin came walking out of his room and said “What are you talking about with Mingfeng? Hurry on up and go eat dinner. If we’re any slower the food might be all gone.” Juemin finished speaking and headed outside.
“No matter, I’ll just go as I am. Luckily my clothes didn’t get wet. I don’t need to change,” answered Juehui. He threw his umbrella onto the floor and immediately set out.
“You never put away anything. I tell you time and time again, but you just don’t listen. I guess a leopard really can’t change its spots.” Juemin complained but he still had a smile on his face. He turned around and walked back into the room to pick up the umbrella. He spread it open and carefully set it on the floor.
“What can be done about it?” Juehui spoke as he stood in the doorway, watching everything. He smiled and said,”My character will be like this forever. It’s funny that you’re telling me to hurry up, but on the contrary you’re the one delaying us.”
“You never admit you’re wrong. I just can’t beat you,” laughed Juemin as he began walking forward. Grinning as before, Juehui followed behind his brother. The shadow of a young girl showed up in his mind but vanished immediately as he walked into the main room. A new sight appeared before his eyes.
Six people sat around a square table. At the head of the table sat his stepmother, Zhoushi, and Aunt Zhang. On the left sat cousin Qin of the Zhang family and his sister-in-law Li Ruijue. At the end of the table sat eldest brother Juexin and younger sister Shuhua. Two empty seats were placed on the right side of the table. He and Juemin approached their aunt and paid their salutations, greeted Qin, and then sat down in the two empty seats. Zhangsao the maid promptly filled two bowls of rice for them.
“Why have you two arrived home so late today? If it wasn’t for your aunt coming to visit we would have already finished eating,” said Zhoushi warmly as she held her bowl.
“This afternoon Mr. Zhu told us to stay and rehearse our play, so we weren’t able to return until now,” Juemin replied.
“It was snowing very heavily just now. It must have been cold outside. Did you ride a sedan chair home?” asked Mrs. Zhang, half concerned, half out of politeness.
“No, we walked back. We never ride a sedan home!” Juehui replied anxiously after having heard the word “sedan chair”.
“Third brother always fears when people ask if he’s ridden a sedan before. He’s a humanitarian,” Juexin explained with a smirk. Everyone laughed.
“Well, it really isn’t that cold outside, and the wind has already stopped. Talking together on the road is actually quite comfortable,” Juemin politely responded to his aunt’s question.
“Second older cousin, you just mentioned something about a play. Is it the one you’re preparing for the opening of the fair? When does your school fair begin?” asked Qin to Juemin. Qin and Juemin were the same age, Qin only being younger by a few months, so she called him “older cousin”. Qin was a pet name. Her full name was Zhang Yunhua, but everyone in the Gao family liked to call her Qin. Among all of the Gao family relatives, she was the most beautiful and most lively little girl. She was currently a third year nonresident student at the first provincial normal school.
“It will probably be next spring, when the new semester starts. We only have a few weeks left of classes this semester. Little Qin, when does your school’s holiday begin?” asked Juemin. “Our school break starts in a week. They say it’s due to lack of funds, so we have to finish classes early,” responded Qin. She had already set down her rice bowl.
“Right now all the education funds have been moved to be used for military expenditures. All schools are this poor. But our school is a little different because our headmaster has made an agreement with a foreign instructor. Whether we have classes or not, they still get paid by their agreement. It’s actually cheaper to have a few more days of class. ... Apparently the headmaster has some relationship with the provincial military governor, so getting money is a bit more convenient,” explained Juemin. He also set down his bowl and chopsticks. Mingfeng twisted a washcloth for his face and passed it over to him.
“It’s not bad. So long as you have books to study, no need to mind anything else,” interrupted Juexin from the side.
“I’ve forgotten, which school is it that they’re talking about?” Mrs. Zhang suddenly asked Qin.
“Mother’s memory isn’t too good,” smiled Qin. “They’re talking about a foreign language technical school. I’ve told you before, mother.”
“You’re right. I’m old and my memory’s fading. While playing mahjong today I even forgot what I was trying to connect,” laughed Mrs. Zhang.
At this time everyone had already set their bowls down and wiped their faces. Zhoushi then spoke to Mrs. Zhang, “Sister, how about you go sit in my room?” He pushed back his chair as he stood up. Everyone stood up in unison and walked to the nearby room.
Qin walked in the back. Juemin walked next to her and in a low voice said, “ Sister Qin, Next summer break our school will be taking in girl students.”
Her expression of pleasant surprise was overdone. Her whole face lit up and a pair of large, watery eyes shined as she stared at his face, looking almost as if she had just been proposed to.
“Really?” she asked, still carrying a sense of disbelief about her. She suspected that he was really just pulling her leg.
“Of course really, when have I ever lied to you?” said Juemin. He turned his head to see Juehui standing not far to his side and added a sentence, “If you don’t believe me you can ask Third Brother.”
“I didn’t say I don’t believe you. This good news was just a bit abrupt for me,” replied Qin with excitement.
“It is happening, but implementing it will still be a problem,” said Juehui, taking over from the side. “There are too many people in our Sichuanese society that are defending traditional values. They have heavy influence, and they will certainly be opposed to it. A boy-girl school, never in their life have they even considered it.” He bore an indignant appearance as he spoke.
“It’s not that big of a deal. So long as our headmaster has made up his mind everything should work fine,” said Juemin. “Our headmaster said that in the case that no female students sign up for the entrance exam, he’ll have his wife be the first to sign up.”
“No! I’ll be the first to sign up!” animated Qin, seemingly inspired by some great ideal.
“Qin’r! Why don’t you come on in? What are you talking about over there at the entrance?” Mrs. Zhang called out from within.
“Go speak with Auntie. If you come to our room to play, I’ll tell you about this in more detail,” Juemin quietly hinted to Qin.
Qin silently nodded her head and walked over toward her mother. She spoke a few sentences in her mother’s ear and Mrs. Zhang began to laugh. “Okay, but don’t delay too long.” Qin nodded her head and walked back over to the brothers. They walked out of the main rooms together. She had just walked out when she heard the sound of mahjong tiles clacking together on the table. She knew her mother would have to stay to play at least four games.
Original English translation by Patrick Nowlin, copyright 2013.