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Pa Chin: 家 (Family)

The novel of generational change is certainly not unique to literature. This novel is about how China is starting to move from being a feudal society to becoming a twentieth century one. Pa Chin uses the well-to-do bourgeois family (rather like his own) as the model for how China needs to change. All the generations of the Kao family live in the same compound under the control of the family patriarch, a man who will, in accordance with custom, brook no opposition to his commands. The story follows the fate of three brothers, orphaned sons of the patriarch’s oldest son. Chueh-hsin, the oldest brother, loves his cousin Mei but has to accept an arranged marriage, while Mei is married to someone else. Jui-chueh, Chueh-hsin’s wife, is an excellent wife and mother but is well aware that her husband loves someone else. Chueh-hsin represents the old style, as he is unable to fight for his rights or the rights of his family and he ends up losing both Mei and Jui-chueh because of his weakness. The second brother, Chueh-min, is somewhat stronger. When his grandfather tries to marry him off, he resists, as he loves his cousin Chin and is determined to marry her. However, his rebellion is merely centered around the girl he loves.

It is the youngest son, Chueh-hui, who is the real rebel. He is also in love – in fact with two girls. The first is the bondsmaid, Ming-Feng, who is given as a concubine to an old man and kills herself rather than go and the second is Chin, the woman loved by and who loves his older brother. But his focus is on more political rebellion. He works for a variety of student, left-wing papers while, at the same time, opposing the strict family traditions, religious traditions and the exploitation of the poor. In particular, he pushes his weak oldest brother to act (but in vain). Eventually, he has had enough and, at the end of the book, he leaves home to go to Shanghai (the novel is set in Chengdu).

Pa Chin tells a sympathetic tale of a family trying to change many hundreds of years of history and there is no doubt where his sympathies lie. He is not entirely focused on the men, giving a sympathetic account of the women’s attempt to gain some liberation, in particular cutting off their braids, a real act of rebellion. We also get a portrait of the actual situation in Chengdu between 1918 and 1920, with Chengdu occupied by different armed forces as really happened. Class struggle, generational struggle and sexual struggle are not normally the meat of a good novel but Pa Chin tells a fine tale against this backdrop.

Publishing history

First published in Chinese 1933
First published in English 1958 by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing
Translated by Sidney Shapiro