This important work by Chinese author Ba Jin (a pen name for Li Feigan) tells an extremely intriguing and memorable story that is often taught in history courses. One snowy night, two young men hurry home. They wear the same uniform and study at the same academy; they are brothers. Jue Min is the elder one, with a pair of glasses on his round face, while Jue Hui, the younger sibling, is interested in the anarchic and democratic ideals influenced by the May Fourth Movement in 1919. The brothers have grown up in a wealthy family that belongs to a typical feudal clan controlled by their grandfather, Venerable Master Gao. The boys’ elder brother is Jue Xin. Thus begins this quintessentially Chinese story, although the work was written in English by Ba Jin.
The three brothers display different characteristics and attitudes. Jue Min loves his cousin Qin and wishes they could study together after the academy rescinds its no-female rule, and then they could marry. Jue Hui likes a maidservant named Ming Feng, but he pays more attention to the rebellion against the autocracy than he does to the young woman. Jue Xin obeys the arrangement by Venerable Master Gao and marries Miss Li after graduating from a middle school, although he loves his cousin Mei very much and is eager to continue his studies. He knows that his two younger brothers are dissatisfied with his obedience, but he considers that he has no other choice. As the eldest son and the eldest grandson, has the filial duty to help his grandfather continue the family line, which has lasted for four generations. Fortunately, his marriage turns out to be happy. His wife, Rui Jue, is beautiful and mild, and their intense love produces their first boy, Hai Chen.
Jue Xin’s lover, his cousin Mei, lives a miserable life. She marries and becomes a widow within one year, and returns home to live with her mother because she could not bear her mother-in-law’s ill-treatment. The young people of the big family are sympathetic to her, especially Jue Xin.
Chinese New Year comes to the family, who live in Southwest China. Venerable Master Gao decides to celebrate the year’s most important festival, despite the battles and fighting breaking out around the city. The family reunion banquet seems to go well, but the peaceful day ends when soldiers enter the city after the Festival of Lanterns. Some relatives of the family flee to the Kao compound, including Qin and Mei. At the garden of plum blossom, Jue Xin meets Mei. She tells her cousin that she would rather die than live with the sorrow of being alive. Jue Xin has no idea how to comfort her, but he weeps with her.
Ming Feng, another tragic woman in the family, is about 17 years old and has worked as a maidservant for more than eight years. She wishes to marry Jue Hui, but she is not a free woman: Venerable Master Gao plans to send her as a mistress to Milord Feng, an ugly man old enough to be her grandfather. The poor girl is unwilling and cries for help, but none dare to dispute the patriarch. Before being sent to Milord Feng, Ming Feng enters the room of Jue Hui at midnight. To her he represents her last hope of salvation, but he is too busy working on his academic articles to notice the lovely girl’s depression. Finally, Ming Feng decides to commit suicide by diving into the pool in the backyard of the big house; a fresh life disappears soundlessly from the earth. Jue Min and others pity the girl, while Jue Hui now regrets his carelessness. However, none of the people could have changed Ming Feng’s fate. Wan-er is sent to Feng’s house instead, so that Venerable Master Gao can keep his promise to his friend. In his eyes, Ming Feng and Wan-er were only gifts; the only way they can avoid their unfair fate is to die.
Venerable Master Gao now directs his attention to Jue Min, deciding on a marriage between his grandson and the grandniece of Milord Feng. But this time his scheme fails. Jue Min refuses the marriage and goes into hiding with the help of Jue Hui. Venerable Master Gao grows angry and orders Jue Xin to find his younger brother. Furthermore, he intends to fulfill his arrangement by making Jue Hui the bridegroom. Jue Xin tries to persuade Jue Hui to agree, but his younger brother calls him a coward and says that it would lead to another tragedy. Presently the family hears the news of Mei’s death, and Jue Xin is heart-stricken. He hurries to Mei’s home to see his cousin for the last time and helps with the burial. The miserable experience awakes Jue Xin, prompting him to side with his brothers against their grandfather.
Venerable Master Gao grows weaker and weaker after his 66th birthday. He now wishes to see the whole clan reunited. He promised to release the engagement of Jue Min and encourages his grandson to study hard for the honor of the clan. Jue Min and Qin even receive his blessing to marry.
Jue Xin, although happy for his younger brother, is worried about his wife, who is soon due to give birth to their second baby. His uncles and aunts implore him to move his wife out of the city, as the coffin of Venerable Master Gao would be afflicted with the curse of the blood-glow. Jue Hui sees this as ridiculous and asks his elder brother to fight for his wife. But Jue Xin accepts the wrong decision again. Four days later, Rui Jue dies in childbirth without seeing her husband for the last time, as Jue Xin had been forbidden to enter the delivery room during the period of mourning for his grandfather.
Watching tragedy strike again and again, Jue Hui claims that he can no longer stay with his suffocating family. Supported by his elder brothers, he departs for Shanghai to begin his new life in the new world.
Family is the first volume of Ba Jin’s trilogy named Torrent. Regarded as a semi-autobiographical novel, it was finished when the author was in his 20s, a novel written by a young man and for the youth. Ba Jin demonstrates the common expression of intellectuals at a time when Chinese society was transforming from traditional Confucianism to enlightenment and individualism. He depicts the struggles and tragedies, love and hatred of the young generation. The novel is one of his representative works and has been studied for many years.
The most moving part of the novel reveals the deaths of three young women, Ming Feng, Mei, and Rui Jue. Neither the rich lady nor the servant girl has the right to choose her partner, but each is forced to accept her prearranged destiny, whatever it might be. They die miserably by an invisible killer—feudal rules. Ba Jin illustrates their tragedies with enormous sympathy and similarly enormous indignation. In this sense, some scholars point out that the novel projects feminist themes and criticism. Indeed, this is a primary reason that Family became so popular with China’s young readers at the time of its publication in 1933 and throughout the 20th century.
In his treatment of the male characters, Ban Jin describes two men possessing very complicated feelings. One is Jue Xin, the eldest brother. On the one hand, he is a victim of conservatism, obliged to give up his idealism and act according to established traditions and rules. He loses his women one by one and does nothing rebellious but cries in the corner. On the other hand, Jue Xin is an accomplice, helping his grandfather to find out where Jue Min is in order to force an absurd marriage. He insists on nonresistance, even though he agrees with his younger brothers. Jue Hui has mercy on him but also is angered by his obedience, reflecting the author’s own attitude toward this character.
Venerable Master Gao is another complex figure. He has a dream of a big family and does all he can to turn it into reality. Although he creates several tragedies, he makes his decisions according to ancestral rules and never considers that his decisions will hurt his children. On the contrary, he loves them. Withdrawing his order on his deathbed shows that he remained a kind grandfather at the end, even if he was an ironhanded patriarch.
As for Jue Hui, though he is a high-spirited youth rebelling against his family’s restrictions, he still possesses ideas inherited from his feudal family. For example, though he likes the maidservant Ming Feng, he never expresses his love or his hidden dreams: If only Ming Feng were a lady like Qin, he would marry her in a heartbeat.
In essence, Ba Jin exhibits the reality of a troubled age though his novel Family, a mirror of Chinese society during the early part of the 20th century.
Lang, Olga. Pa Chin and His Writings: Chinese Youth between Two Revolutions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Mao, Nathan K. Pa Chin. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
Ru Yi-ling. The Family Novel: Toward a Generic Definition. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.