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China And The Novel, Family By Pa Chin

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Autor:  anton  05 December 2010
Tags:  Family
Words: 2540   |   Pages: 11
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On May 4th 1919, five thousand students in Beijing protested China's diplomatic failure at the Paris Peace Conference. This was only the beginning of a much larger development. Eventually growing to the New Culture Movement, China's socially hierarchical system of strict tradition was clearly under attack by this. Published more than ten years later, Pa Chin's novel, Family flawlessly encapsulates the atmosphere of that time through the use of character development and symbolism. Pa Chin's steady usage of ambivalence as the leading theme efficiently summarizes the division that Chinese society experienced in several ways.

There are many opposing forces in Family, all of which play a large part in defining the divisional conflict. The clash between tradition and modernization is the most prominent of these and is more interconnected among other aspects of the novel, and will therefore be discussed foremost. Through this, we will discover why the life lived by families like the Kaos is senseless and hopeless in light of impending changes. The Kaos are essentially a doomed family.

The Chinese hierarchical system has been the central scheme for society up until the May 4th movement, and family life in Pa Chin's novel is representative of this. Classical Confucian morals teach the total obedience and submission of people of lower social status to those of higher status, and of the younger generation to the older. And so, we see this separation within the household with Master Kao at the top, his sons and grandsons below him, and the servants at the bottom, who must do as anyone in the compound says. The Kao family is very well off and is provided with anything they may desire, from material luxuries to entertainment, as long as they are within the walls of the compound. Once one leaves however, this high degree of freedom is taken away. In a similar manner, money can be spent on whatever one wishes, but only if it is first permitted by the head of the house, Master Kao. If the family does anything which goes against this system, the family could be reduced to poverty. This reflects the strict family orientation and social order of China, in that in order to succeed or advance in society, one is bound to the traditional ways, or will otherwise be pushed away from the society, thus being reduced to poverty. Ironically though, Master Kao started his life poor, struggling for an education. He eventually worked his way to the top to provide everything his family needed by exercising his own individual initiative. Any resemblance of this is quickly forgotten once his family is established in the closed-off compound.

This closed-off setting of the compound is a metaphor for the same closed-off thinking of the older generation, which is limited to Confucian teachings and morals. All elders have the most prestigious aspirations for their children: to obtain an imperial position in the government, as Master Kao's eldest son did. However, to do this one must pass rigorous imperial examinations. Being educated enough to qualify for one of these positions means being an expert of particular ways of writing in the Confucian classics and morals, which, as previously stated, focus on submission and obedience. So, even education is reinforcing to the traditional hierarchy. This type of education, however, is not being forced on the third generation of the Kao family. Instead, the younger brothers Chueh-min and Chueh-hui are educated through western literature from the works of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Zola. Master Kao hates this, showing the older generations persistence on the emphasis of traditional education versus the pursuit of modern education by the younger generation, indicative of social change during the period. Future and hope lay in the hands of the younger generation represented in Chueh-hui, Chueh-min, and Chin.

This responsibility of the third generation is tied into the larger scope of the author's intent of characterization, with each individual's position corresponding to those found in the New Culture Movement. Breaking down the younger group further, a significant difference is found among destinies in those of Chueh-min, Chueh-hui, and Chin. Chueh-min, at first glance, seems similar to Chueh-hui in that he feels almost as deeply as him about the revolutionary changes that society is on the verge of. The difference lies in his conviction. Chueh-min's passion for change pales in comparison to that of Chueh-hui. Chueh-min reads the same journals and magazines as his brother believing that change is a good thing, and he looks forward to when it may arrive, but he lacks the dedication to openly attack tradition and force the change upon himself. Therefore, Chueh-min symbolizes those that believe in the cause of the movement, but do no act. Chueh-hui, on the other hand, feels deeply about taking whatever steps necessary toward pulling the revolution his direction, and changing his life individually, symbolizing all true activists.

At the opposite end of this spectrum is the oldest brother, Chueh-hsin. His character is best represented through a conversation Lu Xun had with a colleague of his about an iron house. This house has no windows and is indestructible. Inside are many people sleeping, doomed to die. Now, imagine a cry from someone else outside the iron house. Chueh-hsin is one of these individuals who has heard the cry, woken up, and is now aware of his fate, doomed to face a more agonizing death.1 Chueh-hui discovers this about his older brother after an argument over Chueh-hsin's first love, Mei:

"As he stood gazing at his brother's agonized expression, he was struck by a frightening thought: It was a tragic truth that for people like Chueh-hsin there was not a shred of hope; they were beyond saving. Brightening new ideas to them, opening their eyes to the true aspects of the world only intensified their misery. It was like resurrecting a corpse and letting it view its own putrefying flesh." (Chin 1972)

This shows Chueh-hsin's doomed fate that, no matter what he does or feels, he is far too attached to the old ways of obedience to alter his own life for the better, which he himself is aware of. Chueh-hsin never disagreed with anyone his entire life, reflecting his unwillingness to change. This finally takes its ultimate toll on him near the end of the story, at the time of his wife, Jui-chueh's giving birth in the face of superstition versus rationality. The older members of the Kao family believe that a new birth in the family, shortly after the death of a related family member, will put a curse on the dead if the body is near the mother at the time of birth. This "curse of the blood-glow" forces Chueh-hsin to take his wife far outside the city to a house with less than sanitary conditions. While Chueh-hui implores for his older brother to fight against this "superstitious rot," Chueh-hsin never once openly disagrees with the order, going with his ever-constant way of thinking that it will never matter what he believes. Though awfully depressing, his inaction fittingly punishes him by taking the life of Jui-chueh after the birth of his child. His inability to pass through the closed door to see his dying wife symbolizes that even after the realization of his fate, he is powerless to change it as he pounds upon the very walls of the iron house itself. This theme of death and suffering is tragically incorporated with all characters that are bound, beyond saving, to the traditional system.

This brings us to the sad story of the bondmaid, Ming-Feng, and yet another facet of ambivalence, this time between the wealthy and servant classes. Master-servant relationships are never equal, with the servants on the unfortunate side, mirroring the harsh social order of China. So, it is of no surprise that the love between Chueh-hui and Ming-Feng is restrained and then cut short. Chueh-hui knows of the injustices in the system, and looks down on it for what it does to the lower class, which he treats equally unlike most others. His dilemma, in spite that he is perceptive enough to see the evil in the system, is that he is powerless before it. It is unconquerable by himself, and although he sympathizes with the servants, he feels their fate is predetermined. When Master Kao insists Ming-Feng be sent to Master Feng as a concubine, she takes her own life rather than accept her fate. In place of her, Master Kao sends Wan-erh, sacrificing her happiness and youth, which must be done to maintain his patriarchal power. This action is necessary to show the lower class its place in the compound, as well as to express the patriarchal roots from which Kao's character is based. This makes Kao's death that much more symbolic in the end. Ming-Feng's death however, was not entirely suicidal, from a predeterminist perspective. The author focuses highly on setting, and its symbolism in relation to Ming-Feng before and at the time of her death, which must be clarified before a full analysis is given.

At the start of the novel, Chin wastes no time in setting the tone for most of the story as dark and foreboding. His choice of words not only creates a depressing atmosphere for the reader, but also alludes to the old traditional structure of China: "This snowstorm will rule the world a long, long timeВ…the bright warm sun of spring will never return again" (Chin 1972). The snowstorm Chin refers to is the ancient feudal system which has oppressed China's people for centuries. This oppression has continued to block out any individualism among the people, symbolized by the bright warm sun. This opposition of brightness and darkness is used several times in describing the battle between the old system versus the new. Later, Chueh-hui, Chueh-hsin, Ming-Feng, and others are rowing on the lake in the compound. After some depressing dialogue, the lake itself is described:

"The surface of the lake suddenly turned dark, everything became wrapped in grey, without a single ray of light. The moon had hidden itself in a huge mass of clouds, which totally enveloped its brightness for a little while. Stillness reigned over the lake surface, broken only by the rhythmic splash of the oar." (Chin 1972)

Again, the author specifically intended for the lake to be illustrated as dark while any brightness around it had also been enveloped. The stillness that reigns over the lake symbolizes society's stagnation under the feudal system. Society cannot develop, and at this point is only minimally affected by individual action, the splashing oars. The darkness represents the evil hierarchal system. When Ming-Feng commits suicide, it is not coincidental that she chooses the lake as her eternal vessel. It is actually the evil system that kills her, and her final decision merely accelerates her inevitable fate, due to her unwillingness to believe in possible change, and her inescapable bond to her class.

No matter how small a splash in the dark lake of oppression, individualistic action was always the chief advocation of the intellectual Chen Duxiu. His passion for individualism and democracy eventually led him to the magazine New Youth, where his innovative dreams for a new society and western ideas could be easily spread. The same importance of literature is found in Family through Chueh-hui's involvement with the magazine Dawn. Not only do these publications challenge the encompassing feudal system by advocating the individual, but also the ancient Confucian tradition of writing. Dawn, like all other magazines and journals of the day, was most likely written in bai hua, the written form of the Chinese spoken vernacular. Traditionally, Chinese writing was only for the literate scholarly elite, used to display a writer's classical knowledge. Now, with a simplified writing system, the message could spread more easily. However, easily spread is all these ideas were since they are much easier said than done. It is simple to read articles about the revolution, but quite difficult when it comes to dedicating yourself to the cause. This is Pa Chin's reason for there being only one character В– Chueh-hui В– that truly acts on his beliefs. But this does not come without cost. Chueh-hui must endure many hardships for never truly achieving his ideal of changing the irrational system.

In a final point on characterization, female characters, while limited in development, are not lacking in substance. On the whole, the women in the story adequately reproduce the Chinese women of the time. Jui-chueh and Mei are both equally submissive to the family system as they are forced into arranged marriages. The only difference is Jui-chueh's happiness with Chueh-hsin, and Mei's sorrow as she is taken away from her true love, now Jui-chueh's new husband. Yet, Mei does not resist. Her marriage ends in her becoming widowed, and after seeing her hopeless love for one last time, in the prominent theme of suffering, she only complains about her fate, while doing nothing, and eventually dies. The two women complement each other in their faithfulness and self-sacrifice, signifying the women of the time, but also share a common flaw: their lack of individuality and free will. On the other hand, the more highlighted female, Chin, expresses her individuality well. Being of the younger third generation, the author is able to make her desire for wanting to attend a co-ed school more forward. This is a very bold idea for such a young girl to challenge the feudal system. Education is now to be used as a means of awakening other oppressed people and is no longer tied down as the only path towards social advancement.

Pa Chin's adoption of a particular point of view to filter the characters and events of the story successfully conveys his criticism of the feudal family system. His intent in characterization of individuals as representatives of a respective larger group in society makes his message clearer, as well does his writing style, using setting as a parallel to hierarchy. More interesting, is his choice of not allowing the hero, Chueh-hui, to fully achieve, or even understand, his quest for change, making the story that much more believable in terms of the actual movement: some grasped the chance for revolution while others hesitated in their reluctance to adapt to a new society. As Chueh-hui sets off to Shanghai, his splashes in the waters of change may be those of just a single individual, but the ripples will spread to others in the far reaches of the ocean that is China, bouncing back to create a revolutionary wave, who's ebb and flow will continue to shape the sands of society.


1. Chin, Pa. 1972. Family. Illinois, Waveland Press, Inc.


1. Lu Xun, Selected Stories (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), pp. 4-5.

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