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Famed Chinese author Ba Jin dead at 100

Branded a counterrevolutionary, he translated crucial Russian works
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ba Jin, one of China’s most revered communist-era writers who attacked the evils of the pre-revolutionary era in novels, short stories and essays, died Monday in Shanghai, the official Xinhua News Agency said. He was 100.

Best known for his 1931 novel “Family,” the story of a disintegrating feudal household, Ba Jin also translated the Russian writers Ivan Turgenev and Pyotr Kropotkin.

Ba Jin worked well into his later years writing essays and compiling anthologies of his work.

He was part of the young intelligentsia in the early 20th century that looked to Western philosophies — Marxism, anarchism, and liberalism — for solutions to China’s backwardness and social inequality.

Born Li Yaotang on Nov. 25, 1904, in the western city of Chengdu, he later changed his name to Ba Jin, taking the first syllable in Chinese of the surname of Mikhail Bakunin and the last syllable of Kropotkin, both Russian anarchists.

No information on survivors or funeral plans was immediately released.

“Never for a moment will I put down my pen. It is kindling a fire within me,” he wrote. “Even after I have been turned into ashes, my love, my feeling will not disappear from this world.”

Born to a landlord’s family, Ba Jin joined the Chinese anarchists as a teenager.

Ba Jin spent his early adulthood writing fiction and editing anarchist publications, and in 1936 joined the Literary Work Society, an organization of progressive young writers headed by Lu Xun. Most of Ba Jin’s heroes were rebels.

In “Family,” his favorite work, he portrayed tensions between feudal, patriarchal controls and rebellious youth fighting for personal and social goals.

Another of his well-known novels, “Cold Night,” published not long after World War II, told the story of a couple whose dreams are shattered by the war and who become estranged amid disease and discord.

His biographer, Olga Lang, said his works were successful as much for their social importance as their literary significance. He wrote about the restrictions he knew from his upper-class upbringing and examined the plight of workers and peasants.

Ba Jin said he wrote “to expose enemies. They include all the old traditional concepts, the irrational systems that obstruct progress, all the forces that destroy human nature.”

“Since I’m not good at speaking, I have to turn to writing to express my feelings, my love and hatred, and to let out the fire within me,” he said.

Ba Jin was branded a counterrevolutionary and purged during the 1966-76 “Cultural Revolution,” during which many writers and artists were persecuted and art was completely subordinated to politics. He was labeled a class enemy, banned from writing and forced to clean drains.

He did not reappear until 1977.

Later, at a time when writers were just beginning to take chances again and feel some security about their status, he complained, “Why is it that our writing cannot be at the forefront of world literature?”

“Where else have authors in the world throughout history gone through something so terrifying and ridiculous, so bizarre and agonizing?” he asked.

Ba Jin proposed that the government create a museum to the Cultural Revolution so that later generations could learn from its horrors and avoid a repetition. The suggestion was ignored.

In his later years, Ba Jin suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease but still took on several honorary posts such as chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association and a vice chairman of a top government advisory group.

In 1984, he was a guest of honor at the International P.E.N. Congress in Tokyo, and delivered an address entitled, “Literature in the Nuclear Age: Why do We Write?”

Ba Jin’s wife, Xiao Shan, a translator of Turgenev and poet Alexander Pushkin whom he married in 1944, died of cancer in 1972.