Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Blame it on Maria Callas
I got up in the morning with a cold. After finishing breakfast, I sat down in front of my computer with my coffee to start my daily routine – an hour’s part-time work for Google to make my meal money, then writing, and stressing over not being able to write.
I listened to Maria Callas and surfed the web a little. There’s news that the famous writer Ba Jin had just passed away. I read a long speech given by him to some Japanese friends about his life. (for the full text in Chinese, click this)
Ba Jin is also from Chengdu, my hometown. Growing up he was considered a hero, a good son who brought honor to all Sichuanese. The irony is that in his work he lashed hard at the repressive society in Sichuan. Here’s what he said about his growing up experience:
“I grew up in a big landlord family, and spent my childhood between 20 or 30 so-called ‘upper-class’ people and 20 or 30 so-called ‘lower-classed’ people. In the wealthy environment I was in touch with the tragic lives of the servants and sedan carriers. Under the pressure of the hypocritical and selfish elders, I heard the moaning of youth.
I felt that there’s something wrong with our society. But I wasn’t sure what the cause was, or how to fix it. I regarded my big family as an autocratic kingdom. I sat in the prison of old social mores, watching many dear to me struggling, suffering, without youth, without happiness, and eventually succumbing to a painful death. They were killed by the feudal ethics, traditional ideas and the capriciousness of a few individuals. I left my family as if running away from an intimidating shadow.
When I was 23, I ran form Shanghai to a completely strange Paris, looking for a way to save the people, save the society, and save myself. To say that I wanted to save the people and the society, that was exaggerating. But to save myself, that was completely true…”
Ba Jin’s oldest brother, the proto-type for the protagonist of his most famous work, Family, committed the day before the book came out. Ba Jin had dedicated the book to him.
Reading his speech was a wild emotional ride for me. It reminded me of my teenage years shaking in tears while reading Family late at night. It painted a heart-rending picture of the absurdity of the Cultural Revolution in which he yielded to the communist control of his creative freedom. Most of all, I was surprised at the honest passion in this speech, given when he was probably in his 70s. Nothing short of a pure soul could voice yearnings so candid after the many tribulations in his life.
He was nominated once for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But Chinese did not see one of their sons winning the prize until Gao Xinjian, residing in Paris and contemplating the dislocated existence of modern society, wrote a book that befittingly explored humanity in a fashion appreciated by the Western critics and the Nobel committee.
I’d heard people dismissing Gao Xinjian, comparing him to other famous Chinese writers like Ba Jin. It is indeed a pity that readers outside of China are not more knowledgeable about Ba Jin’s work. But I don’t think it would have mattered to him a bit. Here’s a paragraph of what Ba Jin said about his work:
“My life is full of conflicts, so is my work. The conflicts between love and hate, thoughts and behavior, reason and emotion, ideals and reality… All of these weave into a net which covers my entire life, my entire work. Every piece of my work is the vocalization of my pursuit of light… When I wrote I never worried over creative method or expression tactics, etc. I spent all my time thinking and thinking about only one thing – how to make people’s lives better, how to be a better person, how to help my readers, and how to contribute to the society?”
Ba Jin remained to his last days a passionate son who suffered and wailed with China, with a humble yet persistent voice that reminded others of hope.
For a moment, Ba Jin’s words on his own life shook me as much as his book Family did to the teenage me.
Blame it on Maria Callas.
Here’s my little tribute to you, Mr. Ba Jin.