Fact in Fiction:
1920s China and Ba Jin’s Family

By Kristin Stapleton

Reviewed by Johanna S. Ransmeier
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2019)

Kristin Stapleton, Fact in Fiction: 1920s China and Ba Jin’s Family Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. Iv-ix + 280. ISBN: 978-1-5036-0106-2.

For Kristin Stapleton, Ba Jin’s 巴金 most famous novel, Family (家), offers more than a lens on the collision between traditional Confucian values and Republican China’s revolutionary May Fourth era. From its publication as a serial between 1931 and 1932 to the present, early twentieth century activists and later scholars have employed the novel as convenient shorthand for the weaknesses of traditional China. The Gao household came to epitomize the unreasonable and backward demands of traditional family life in a modernizing world. In Fact in Fiction, Stapleton deftly expands on the novel, using its characters, Ba Jin’s life, and his own family, to launch her own finely wrought exploration of the author’s rapidly changing world.

In her introduction, Stapleton observes that critics at the time observed how Ba Jin’s novels failed to sufficiently capture the city in which their events are set. Instead, they contributed to the creation of “a stereotypical ‘traditional’ China that could be attacked by political and social activists of the 1930s and 1940s” (5). Yet, even given its universal critique of Chinese patriarchy, Stapleton demonstrates how Family, along with subsequent books in the Turbulent Stream (激流三部曲) trilogy, are deeply rooted in the particular culture of Chengdu in the 1920s.

Each of the chapters of Fact in Fiction takes as its starting point a character from the novel. Rather than see these figures as caricatures, Stapleton situates each as an essential type. Thus, for example, in chapter 1, the slave girl Mingfeng 鳴鳳, whose ill-fated love for the idealistic young Gao Juehui 高覺慧 is the “emotional heart of the story” (17) becomes an opportunity for Stapleton to investigate the lives of slave girls more generally. She evocatively describes these young women’s movements throughout the city, capturing what they would have seen in their daily lives, their place in Chengdu households, and the busy market for their labor. Included alongside this description is an example of a slave girl contract and an analysis of changes such contracts underwent at the time. The character of Mingfeng also provides an opportunity to consider the efforts of reformers, as well as the police, who hoped to abolish trafficking, and the various excuses that local elites made as they continued to enjoy the services of slave girls.

If Mingfeng is one of Ba Jin’s most universally sympathetic characters, then perhaps the most ambivalent character is that of the Gao family patriarch. Although responsible for many of the tragedies and misunderstandings in the novel, he also embodies a sensitive depiction of a culture in crisis. In chapter 2, Stapleton explores the lives of Chengdu’s elite, exposing the persistence of Confucian social organization, the philanthropic efforts of a gentry class struggling to maintain its legitimacy, and the kind of education that the Gao children, and indeed that of the young Li Yaotang 李尧棠 himself would have had before he grew up to become the writer Ba Jin. Connecting fictional characters to individuals from Ba Jin’s affluent extended family, Stapleton traces autobiographical moments in the novel. She gently suggests that Ba Jin’s struggles with his brothers and grandfather provided inspiration for the tribulations of the Gao children, and yet she also reads Ba Jin as surprisingly sympathetic to the plight of his elders. By enriching each of the novel’s central characters with a larger cultural context, Stapleton allows many easily missed nuances within Family to emerge.

Through Gao Juexin 高覺新, the eldest of the three Gao brothers, Stapleton introduces in chapter 3 the commercial development of Chengdu. She describes the real arcade where the fictional Juexin would have worked, and the increasingly cosmopolitan pressures of doing business in that world. Both in this chapter and in a later chapter devoted to “students, soldiers, and warlords,” Stapleton’s encyclopedic command of Chengdu’s urban development, the city’s relationship with its agricultural surroundings, and the intense political and military upheaval of the period illuminate the larger stakes behind the personal family crises in Ba Jin’s novel. The city is in as much distress as the inhabitants of the Gao family compound. For Ba Jin’s readers in the 1930s and 1940s, it would not have been necessary to emphasize this because they lived through these developments themselves. But reading today, Stapleton’s vivid descriptions of the succession of warlord administrations, the economic uncertainty, the street warfare, and the angry student protests makes us realize how these events critically shape one’s understanding of the novel. We should not forget that people in the real world supposedly inhabited by these fictional characters were dying or struggling to survive. Ba Jin himself certainly could not forget, with neighbors shot, teachers killed, and his own father dying of diphtheria after a battle. Family offered readers both an escape into elite lives and an introspective, psychological expression of the distress that surrounded them.

In the final chapter, highlighting parallels with his protagonist Gao Juehui, Stapleton addresses Ba Jin’s own political coming of age and activism. She shows how the views of the young men in the Gao family resonate with Ba Jin’s own changing ideas. Here again we receive a depiction of political protest and violence, as well as Ba Jin’s own determination (like Juehui) to leave the Chinese interior and head to the more modern east coast. Throughout Fact in Fiction, Stapleton compares Ba Jin’s version of Chengdu society with the work of contemporaries, like the essayist Wu Yu 吳虞 and the novelist, satirist, and newspaper writer and editor, Li Jieren 李劼人. Placing these writers’ perspectives alongside one another allows us to see Ba Jin’s style and politics in a different light. Whereas Wu Yu enjoyed purchasing slave girls to the point of “addiction” (26), Ba Jin wrote of their plight with compassion. Whereas Li Jieren sometimes attempted a sociological and realistic vision of all aspects of Chengdu society (as in his chronicle of the life of enlisted soldier, Chen Zhenwu), Ba Jin deftly sought to condemn China’s traditional family system.

As Kristen Stapleton asserts, taken together the novels that comprise the Turbulent Stream trilogy are “arguably the most significant account of the May Fourth Movement in all of Chinese fiction” (188). But they have not been sufficiently appreciated as intensely local stories. Stapleton’s meticulous and vibrant expansion of the world of Ba Jin’s Family reveals a city undergoing enormous strain, and yet galvanized for change. Stapleton enhances our reading of Ba Jin immeasurably. I can no longer imagine assigning Ba Jin’s stories without also asking students to read Fact in Fiction as they consider the broader social context of this novelist’s influential work. Stapleton makes reading literature for both what it reveals and obscures about history feel natural, and yet this ease also belies the strength of her accomplishment in this book. As much as Ba Jin gave his readers a scathing yet sympathetic portrait of the Chinese family in crisis to mobilize against, Fact in Fiction unfurls the drama of the city of Chengdu in the May Fourth era in even richer color.

Johanna S. Ransmeier
University of Chicago