True happiness can come to us in our difficult times, if we look for it in others. Such was the philosophy of one of China’s greatest writers, who died last month.
Ba Jin was the pen name of Li Feigan, who died in Shanghai, China, at the age of 101. His novels were among the first in China imbued with both anarchic and democratic ideals.
He was one of the few writers in China who did not receive government pay. On his 80th birthday, he said: “I’ve lived on royalties all my life. It is the readers who have supported me.” He is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Although coming from a feudal family in Sichuan province, Ba Jin, saw the ancient family traditions fading in importance as China encountered Western civilization. The May Fourth Movement of 1919 (when students revolted over the shameful treatment China received from the Versailles Treaty) brought to the fore writers like Lu Xun, Lao She and Ba Jin, who roused China to greater self respect.
His last years were filled with suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He said: “When I lose my ability to work, I hope there will be several copies of fictions translated by Xiao Shan [his wife, who died in 1973] on my sickbed. After I close my eyes, please let my ashes be mixed with hers.”
He took 10 years off during the infamous “cultural revolution” (1966-1976) that almost destroyed China, and was fortunate to live through the turmoil. His friend Lao She died as that era began. It was an insane time when anything foreign, old customs, family ties or any lack of devotion to Mao Zedong was considered unhealthy for China. He was one of the first Chinese intellectuals to share his true feelings about the chaotic “cultural revolution.”
His first novel Destruction (Miewang), completed in 1928 during his stay in France, was about a depressed young anarchist who found himself too weak to take any decisive actions.
Reflecting on the major works, he said: “I feel that I must write. I am not an artist, and writing is only part of my life, which, like my works, is full of contradictions. The conflicts between love and hate, thought and action, reason and emotion, these combine to weave a net enwrapping my whole life and all my works”
He wrote: “It is not I who is unwilling to forget or to conceal. It is the bloody facts, the nightmares, that have kept me from forgetting, loving truth and living honestly is my attitude to life. Be true to yourself and be true to others, and thus you can be the judge of your behavior.”
Ba Jin’s writings never fail to reach the reader’s heart, making the most difficult of times to be more than bearable, instead containing an overcoming spirit. Ba Jin quoted the Russian composer Tchaikovsky in the preface of one of his books: “If you cannot find happiness in yourself, look for it in the people and you will see that happiness shines amid the most difficult lives.”
Britt Towery, a former Southern Baptist missionary in China, writes for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas.