Cold Night is one of the representative works by Ba Jin (1904–2005), a highly respected Chinese novelist. It was finished in the middle of 1940s, when the author changed his literary style from fervid emotionalism to a more dispassionate analysis of human nature. Focusing on the destiny of ordinary people, Cold Night describes the happiness and misery of the China of that age. It also belongs to Ba Jin’s trilogy The World, a work widely regarded as the quintessential achievement of his fiction.
The story, which is set in Chongqing, the temporary capital of China during World War II, is about one man and two women. The complexity of the novel comes in part because the two women both love the same man but look down on each other. Their love and their discord lead him ultimately to confusion, poverty, and death.
One cold night, Wang Wen-xuan returns home after an emergency air-raid siren ends. He feels depressed by the absence of his wife, Zeng Shu-sheng. They had quarreled the night before, prompting her to move to her friend’s home. Wang Wen-xuan wants to apologize to his wife, but his mother opposes this. His father had died years earlier, and his mother had brought Wang Wen-xuan up alone. To complicate matters, the aging widow lives with her son’s family. She loves her son and grandson but hates her daughter- in-law intensely.
Zeng Shu-sheng feels an equal resentment toward her mother-in-law. She and her husband had been classmates studying education at a university in Shanghai and decided to carry on an educational experiment called rural and family-style school. But the war shattered their dream. She had to work as a clerk in a bank, while her husband joined a publishing company as a press corrector. Life was hard financially during the war years. To make matters worse, Zeng Shu-sheng insisted on sending her son to an expensive boarding school, which the family can ill afford. The day after they quarrel, Wang Wen-xuan goes to DaChuan Bank to meet his wife, in spite of his mother’s objection. Over coffee, Zeng Shu-sheng informs her husband that she will not return to him unless his mother leaves the home. Wang Wen-xuan keeps silent. As both women are important in his heart, he faces an unsolvable problem.
The young man returns home disappointed. His mother is waiting and has prepared dinner. Wang Wenxuan eats little. When his mother discovers that he has just met with Zeng Shu-sheng, she becomes angry. His mother persuades him to abandon Zeng Shu-sheng since she was not at all satisfied with her daughter-inlaw. She considers Zeng a live-in girlfriend, not a formally wedded wife to her only son, although the couple have been together for many years and have a 13-yearold son. Wang Wen-xuan can calm neither his mother nor his wife. He fl ees the house and goes drinking with his former middle school classmate.
Zeng Shu-sheng happens to find Wang Wen-xuan in the street; otherwise, the drunken man might have spent the whole night vomiting and sleeping out in the open. Zeng Shu-sheng rebukes her husband gently and, supporting him, takes him back to their home. Wang Wen-xuan enjoys the feeling of being taken care by his wife, and he holds her hand like a pitiful kid and begs her not to leave again. Zeng Shu-sheng agrees.
The whole family is now together again, which Wang Wen-xuan owes to having been drunk. It was not good to his health, but he would rather be ill if only his mother and his wife could get along peacefully. In fact, he is a weak man. He coughs, has fevers, even vomits blood now and then, but he dares not take a day off from work for fear of being fired. He can hardly support his family on his paltry wages.
In contrast, Zeng Shu-sheng is a beautiful and energetic woman. She cannot suffer a boring life in a confl ict-ridden family. She prefers to cheer herself up by dressing up, dancing, and dating. Her mother-in-law prefers to regard her as a waitress instead of a professional in the bank. Nevertheless, she earns more money than her husband, pays the exorbitant fee for her son’s private school, and bears most of the family’s expense. Wang Wen-xuan’s mother does the housework as a servant and at one point sells her gold ring to buy medicine for her poor son.
The Japanese army soon invades the northwest of China and quickly closes in on Chongqing. The city finds itself thrown into chaos. The citizens, including Wang’s family, consider fl eeing. Problems mount for the family. Wang Wen-xuan’s job is in jeopardy, and he is struck down with tuberculosis. Zeng Shu-sheng finds an opportunity for a job promotion and leaves for Lanzhou with her manager, a man who has loved her for a long time. Her decision comes with difficulty and not quickly. Even though she cannot bear the estrangement and discord in the family, she cannot discard her husband either, especially when he is ill and needs her support. But finally she makes up her mind to leave after a terrible quarrel with her mother-in-law. Wang Wen-xuan supports his wife’s choice. As he realizes that his illness is incurable, he will not discourage her from finding another kind of life. The decision for Zeng Shu-sheng to leave will also make his mother happy.
Wang Wen-xuan returns to his office with the help of a friend, but his colleagues refuse to have lunch with him for fear of being infected by his illness. He endures their unkindly treatment and comforts himself with the letters received from his wife. Zeng Shu-sheng is now working in Lanzhou, from where she sends money monthly. He relishes her short notes. One day Wang Wen-xuan receives a long letter from his wife, which at first greatly raises his spirits. But his happiness plummets as he reads further that Zeng Shu-sheng is asking for a divorce. He cries sadly, although he has known for some time that the end of their marriage would come sooner or later.
Wang Wen-xuan’s health worsens. Soon he is unable to speak and feels a steady ache in his lungs and throat. He communicates with his mother by writing on paper as his life becomes empty and hopeless. When the Japanese finally surrender, the citizens of Chongqing celebrate the victory, but the good news cannot stop Wan Wen-xuan’s slow and painful death from tuberculosis. He dies in a heartfelt moment, holding the hands of his mother and his son, with the clatter of a victory parade sounding outside the window.
Two months later, Zeng Shu-sheng fl ies back to Chongqing. She hurries home, where she finds that her husband has died and her mother-in-law has moved elsewhere with her son. She is shocked by the changes and wanders in the street aimlessly. Should she search for her son, or just fl y back to Lanzhou?
The novel illustrates three typical figures. The reader finds Wang Wen-xuan as a timid man oppressed by the hardships of life. Growing up in a family lacking a father, the young man reveals overt oedipal tendencies. Married or not, he desires to be tended by his mother. His mother lives with him and acts the dual role of kind mother and severe father. Wang Wen-xuan is used to relying on his mother emotionally although he loves his wife, too. As for the relationship of the couple, expressions such as “like a child,” “childish,” and “childly” imply that Wang Wen-xuan prefers a mother-like woman for a mate. But Zeng Shu-sheng would rather have a lover than another (adult) son. She feels sorry for her husband but has no courage to continue her strifefilled life. The quarrels between the two women are the main reason for her leaving, in addition to which her emotional tie to her husband has changed from love to mercy. But in the eyes of Wang Wen-xuan’s mother, it was this woman who robbed the love of her son and did not show her the proper respect. Theirs is a turbulent family in a turbulent nation. The feeling of the family is cold, leaving a sense of tragedy without hope.
Chen Si-he. Study on Bajin. Beijing: People’s Literature Press, 1986.
Wang Ying-guo. Focus on Bajin. Shanghai: Artistic Press, 1985.