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Barmé on Ba Jin

The following text by Geremie R. Barmé was circulated on the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture mailing list; I could not find it elsewhere on the web. It's an interesting counterpoint to more hagiographic memorials.

Dissenting from Ba Jin

by Geremie R. Barmé / 30th October 2005

I suppose you could say that Ba Jin and I agreed to disagree. In the end, he was disappointed in me; and I wasn’t too impressed by him. I became, and have remained, a Ba Jin dissident.

It started in 1978, when we shared column space in Dagong Bao (Ta Kung Pao), the Hong Kong-based but Communist Party run daily newspaper. The Cultural Revolution was over, and Pan Jijiong, the pre-1966 Dagong Bao corespondent in Beijing had been sent to Hong Kong to take over the paper’s cultural pages. He was there to add some heft to the pro-mainland cultural scene in Hong Kong. A mild, sophisticated and highly literate man Lao Pan was, at best, a patriotic fellow traveller of the party.

Jijiong and I met in 1978 through Fan Yong (the publisher of Sanlian Books and founder of Dushu magazine in Beijing) and my close friends Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Over the objections of more ‘politically correct’ (residual Maoist) editors, from mid 1979 Jijiong commissioned me to write regular pieces for ‘Dagong Yuan’, the cultural page of the paper, which he edited.

Pan Jijiong was also an old friend of Ba Jin’s and, from 1978, he started publishing a series of memoirs and essays by the Shanghai-based writer under the title ‘Random Thoughts’ (Suixiang lu). My essays (rather jejune cultural satires and observations on Hong Kong and mainland life that Pan Jijiong indulgently edited) appeared in the same space as Ba Jin’s ‘Random Thought’s in ‘Dagong Yuan’ on alternate weeks.

After years of studying and living in China, though now based as an editor in a Chinese-language magazine (The Nineties Monthly) in Hong Kong, I was avidly following the cultural changes on the mainland. I was fascinated by the hints of new writing that appeared there, and the tentative depictions of the Cultural Revolution and the years that preceded it in various cultural forms (fiction, film, poetry). In particular, I became interested in literary works related to confession and redemption in 20th century China, and post-1976 mainland China.

It was at this time that I translated with my friend Bennett Lee The Wounded (Hong Kong Sanlian, 1979), a collection of post-CR stories. I also followed closely Ba Jin’s meditations on his own past, and public remorse at his culpability and compliance during the Maoist years. Eventually, with his encouragement, I translated the first volume of Random Thoughts (Hong Kong Sanlian, 1984).

Through the good offices of our editor, Pan Jijiong, Ba Jin and I met in Shanghai and we became friendly. We corresponded as I worked my way through Random Thoughts; Ba Jin providing me with fascinating cultural details and information so that I could fully footnote my translation.

Ba Jin also paid me the compliment of mentioning one of my own Chinese essays in his ‘Random Thoughts’ a number of times. That essay was one of a series of public comments I wrote on post-1976 cultural repression. The ‘Beijing Spring’ of 1978-79 had been abruptly brought to an end by the party authorities and Wei Jingsheng (along with others) had been arrested. A number of important new non-official publications were also interdicted.

Like so many others whose lives had become enmeshed with friends, the culture and the intellectual life of the mainland, I felt despair as the cautious relaxation of the previous period came to an end. I expressed my sentiments in a number of veiled, though fairly obvious essays. One of these, published in Dagong bao in January 1980, was entitled ‘The Heterdox as Normality’ (‘Yiyang ye shi changtai’).

In that essay, I made pointed use of the word ‘seeking’ or ‘experiment’, tansuo, a term that was well known at the time as also being the name of one of the recently banned publications of the Beijing Spring. Among other things I wrote that, “To achieve truly advanced or innovative things [in China], people have to be allowed to experiment.” [要是想真正搞出一些尖端性的或有创新意义的东西来,非得让人家探索不可。]

Ba Jin liked the essay, so much so that he referred to it and the need for ‘experimentation’ in four of his ‘Random Thoughts’ columns (see Suixiang lu, nos. 36-40). Later, when we met in Shanghai he would indicate that he knew that in both this and other essays I had been referring to the repression of the Beijing Spring, the closing of journals and the arrest of dissenting innocents.

While he would write a number of moving pieces castigating his personal cowardice and mendacity during the 1950s and 60s, when he was a celebrated artist and enthusiastic fellow-traveller of the party, Ba Jin was far more reluctant to be critical of the post-CR cultural scene and the frequent repressions authored by the party, of which the Beijing Spring crack down was only the first. In his 1980s essays he would write, frequently and touchingly, about the need to be outspoken and honest; he was adamant that China, and Chinese writers, should not repeat the mistakes of the past.

However, as time went on—and the repressions (the arrests, bannings, censorship, harassment and debasement of cultural figures and intellectuals) continued—his circumspection was nothing less than egregious.

When John Minford and I produced Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (Hong Kong 1986; 2nd ed., New York 1988), a volume of cultural and historical works related to dissent and the struggle for freedom of speech and democracy in China, we made overt reference to Wei Jingsheng and many other people of conscience. The book appeared shortly before the student protests of 1986 and the outster of Hu Yaobang in 1987. In the second expanded edition of Seeds of Fire, we included the first English-language translation of Ba Jin’s important essay ‘On a CultRev Museum’ (see Seeds, pp.381-4), which had been published in Shanghai in August 1986. In an editorial introduction to our translation, we noted that Ba Jin had ‘remained conspicuously silent throughout the 1987 purge.’

As the repression of leading political and cultural figures was unfolding in early 1987, I wrote Ba Jin a letter. It was a personal appeal. I thought the further silencing of people of principle was an ominous development—and I was particularly aggrieved at the way that the courageous playwright and essayist Wu Zuguang (who was a man I had the privilege to know and become close to from 1977) was treated. So I wrote to Ba Jin, also a friend of Zuguang’s, China’s leading elder writer and an avowed champion of cultural honesty and outspokenness.

In my letter I said that I was an admirer of his essay on the need to establish a Cultural Revolution Museum, and I added that John Minford and I had translated it in the second edition of our book. But I also suggested that perhaps it was premature merely to put the cultural practices and political oppression of the past on display in a museum for, it seemed to me, that the spirit (and practices) that animated the horrors of the past was still abroad. As his translator, and an admirer of his stance on honesty and his pledge not to repeat the mistakes of his past, I thought that the purge of 1987 was surely a time for him to speak out. After having been in contact for nearly a decade, this time I received no reply.

Ba Jin’s public silence then, and subsequently, was plangent. Indeed, during the numerous post-1976 cultural purges (you can count them, for there has been one virtually every two years for nigh on three decades now, some mild and risible, others vicious and momentarily effective), the banning of books and the harassment of writers, during these long years of soft and hard terror, Ba Jin’s voice was not to be heard. He did not speak up on behalf of his fellow writers or editors, men and women who might have found some solace in the support of an untouchable literary giant.

When I was next in Shanghai and Nanjing, I met up with mutual friends of Ba Jin and mine. They told me that my letter had caused the grand old man quite some discomfort. I was criticized for my temerity in addressing our old friend in such an unseemly fashion. I, in turn, remarked that the writer was timorous.

From that time, I have been a Ba Jin dissenter.*

But now that Ba Gong, the name by which I knew him, has passed, and amid the adulatory readings of his life, I too must pause to reflect. Ba Jin was sincere when he wrote of his embarrassment over his long years of boosterism for a system that showered him with largesse. He was profoundly moving when he remembered his wife, Xiao Shan, and her death; and he was wise when he called for the establishment of a Cultural Revolution Museum.

Perhaps I am wrong to have hoped he would speak up directly for those harried, stymied and oppressed cultural figures in the post-Mao era. Perhaps I should appreciate that, after 1978, while many sought to gain greater freedom of expression, often at great personal cost, for some writers like Ba Jin just as precious was the right to remain silent.

[*I should note that Ba Jin did add his voice to the massive wave of public support and clamour in favour of the student protesters of 1989. He wrote a short letter about the students on 18 May 1989. (See New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, edited by Linda Jaivin and myself, New York, 1992, p.64.) However, when it was no longer politic to speak out, he fell silent once more.]

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