RAS Book Club


Author: Author Ba Jin (1931); trans. Sidney Shapiro

The first half of the twentieth century was a period of great turmoil in China. Family, one of the most popular Chinese novels of that time, vividly reflects that turmoil and serves as a basis for understanding what followed. Written in 1931, Family has been compared to Dream of the Red Chamber for its superb portrayal of the family life and society of its time.

Drawn largely from Ba Jin’s own experience, Family is the story of the Kao family compound, consisting of four generations plus servants. It is essentially a picture of the conflict between old China and the new tide rising to destroy it, as manifested in the daily lives of the Kao family, and particularly the three young Kao brothers. Here we see situations that, unique as they are to the time and place of this novel, recall many circumstances of today’s world: the conflict between generations and classes, ill-fated love affairs, students’ political activities, and the struggle for the liberation of women. The complex passions aroused in Family and in the reader are an indication of the universality of human experience. This novel illustrates the effectiveness of fiction as a vehicle for translating the experience of one culture to another very different one.

Li Yaotang (李尧棠; 1904-2005), who also wrote under the pen name of Ba Jin (巴金), is considered to be one of the most important and widely read Chinese writers of the 20th century. Born into a scholarly family in Chengdu, Ba Jin started writing his first works in the late 1920s. An anarchist for most of the Republican period, he formally renounced his anarchist convictions in the 1950s. He was criticized during the Cultural Revolution, during which period his wife died after being denied medical care. He was later rehabilitated in 1977. He suffered from Parkinson’s beginning in the 1980s, which left him unable to speak or walk for the last few years of his life.

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