The novel Family is the most famous work by Pa Chin. It forms the first part of his trilogy, Turbulent Stream, based on facts in the author’s autobiography. Many young readers of the early 20th century readily identified with poetic and tragic characters of Pa Chin’s novels. He is considered to be the most popular Chinese writer because every literate person in China and abroad can understand his works. The New Culture Movement was perhaps given an impetus by Pa Chin’s works. Pa Chin wrote with enthusiasm willing to influence and improve the life of his country with his works.
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The family was the favorite book of Chinese students, and even today, some teenagers can see the reflection of their own lives, sufferings, and struggles in this novel and other works by Pa Chin, though they describe a thing that has become history already – a rebellion of the whole generation against the old Chinese family system, which deprived the young of their freedom and their right to marry according to their own choice.
The topic of the novel Family (1931) was very timely. The novel depicts a traditional family in crisis. Many young men and women recognized themselves in the brothers Kao and other victims of their ancestors and traditions of the society. Family is the story of the large Kao family, consisting of four generations plus more than a hundred servants.
Yeh-Yeh is the patriarch of the Kao family. He controls all aspects of life in the compound consisting of five households. The conflict between old China and the new tide rising to destroy it is manifested in the lives of the three young Kao brothers.
Three Different Reactions to the New Change in China Represented by the Kao Brothers
Chueh-Hsin, the elder brother, is brought up in the family as a future head of the family. He feels responsible for the family and shows no resistance to traditions and Yeh-Yeh’s iron-fisted rules, even when it’s painful for him and for his dear ones. As the eldest brother, Chueh-Hsin has a high degree of power, but he cannot use it to make himself or the people he loves a bit happier. Chueh-Hsin falls in love with Mei Ping, his cousin.
Their love is mutual, but the girl is sent away and married to another man. Chueh-Hsin is married against his will to Jui Chueh – a bride chosen by his family. He hates his job also chosen by his family and tries to navigate through life with his “compliant bow” philosophy which means that he cannot oppose his elders under any circumstance. As a result, Chueh-Hsin can please neither his parents nor his younger brothers who want to break free. He learns to love his wife after she gives birth to their son. When Mei Ping returns home after her husband’s death, she becomes a servant for the family. After a while, the patriarch decides to sell her as a concubine.
Chueh-Hsin doesn’t help the woman he loved and she commits suicide. Nobody feels sorry for her except Chueh-Hsin and his brothers. Chueh-Hsin’s wife dies when giving birth to their second child. Chueh-Hsin stays alone with his love and hopes sacrificed to the traditional values. Even after Yeh-Yeh’s death, Chueh-Hsin continues living like he used to and doesn’t want to change anything. His losses destroy his spirit. The author disapproves of such passive attitude of people towards their own lives but feels pity for Mei Ping and Chueh-Hsin.
Chueh-Hsin’s younger brothers don’t want to follow his example and try to break away from the influence of the family. They study at school and accept Western culture and ideas. It’s their modern education that makes them want to change their lives. They read western literature and take to ideas of individualism. Magazines give them information on political movements. Chueh-Min, the second brother is determined to marry the girl he loves despite his family’s opposition, but he is afraid of possible consequences.
Chueh-Min is restricted to the family compound to stop his revolutionary actions. He leaves the compound of his family to continue his rebel and to marry a girl he loves. He is not passive like his elder brother and wants to be the master of his own fate. Old Yeh-Yeh acknowledges the wishes of Chueh-Min on his deathbed and understands that the happiness of all family members is more important than living a life according to traditions.
The youngest brother, Chueh-Hui, sees his family as an obstruction and loathes everything it represents. He is trying all his best to break free and live his own life.
It’s clear that the author identifies with Chueh-Hui who rails against the stifling conformity of traditional Chinese family life and doesn’t want to subordinate his will to the elders. The position of Chueh-Min is not active enough to change anything in life. On the other hand, such a point of view doesn’t give enough credit to the strengths in the family that held Chinese society together for many years and made it possible to preserve Chinese culture for future generations. The outcome of the struggle between individual and collective good is always in doubt because in any case, something has to be sacrificed.
Olga Lang, Pa Chin and His Writings: Chinese Youth between the Wars (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).
Martin, H. and J. Kinkley, eds. (1992) Modern Chinese writers: self-portrayals. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.