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Analysis Of A Modern China Family English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1538 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Pa Chin’s Family is a historical, semi-autobiographical narrative of the hardships endured by the members of an aristocratic family during the massive transformation in Chinese social and political order that took place during the early 20th century. The central conflict that is embodied in the novel is the inability of the individuals portrayed in the narrative to move past the often oppressive traditional social constructs that prevent them from moving forward in light of the new revolutionary paradigm that was sweeping the country. Three brothers, Chueh-hui, Chueh-min and Chueh-hsin, are the central figures in this narrative, and the struggle to balance the responsibilities imposed upon them by the traditional order and their desire for radical change defines the essential subject matter of the novel. These conflicting desires tear them apart and force them to either adapt or be left in the past.

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The work embodies the voice of a nation that was steeped in contradiction, and demonstrates throughout its passages strong underlying themes of societal disillusionment and unrest. By offering a unique insight into the most personal aspects of life during this tumultuous period of Chinese history, Family offers the historian a critical perspective on the psychological underpinnings of a society undergoing fundamental changes in structure.

The increasingly pronounced dichotomy between old and new is critical to the understanding of the narrative in this story. This is represented at numerous avenues, but is revealed most blatantly in a sequence where Chueh-hui’s ponders upon his grandfather’s sleeping body and through careful analysis comes to the realization that the old man ultimately represents “not his grandfather, but an entire generation” and that he himself was similarly the representative of his own generation. Reflecting further upon this observation leads him to the conclusion that “they could never see eye-to-eye”. (Chin 64). This conclusion is important, and foreshadows the inability of China to reconcile the two radically divergent world-views; there would be an ultimate clash between traditionalism and socialist progressivism that tears apart not only the country, but all the bonds that are held within.

This antagonism between the old and the new similarly crosses historical lines, with historical texts demonstrating a fundamental disconnect between the traditional constructs that served as the guidance of China’s actions on the world stage for generations and a powerful need for reform that threatened to sweep away these traditional systems. In Madame Sun Yat-Sen’s public address concerning the political left, she opens with the following:

“if China is to survive as an independent country in the modern struggle of nations, her semi- feudal conditions of life must be fundamentally changed and a modern state created to replace the medieval system which has existed for more than a thousand years. This task needs to be done by the method of revolution” (Cheng & Lestz 267).

Statements such as these reflect a growing animosity towards traditional social constructs, in this instance painting them as “medieval”. This attitude is indicative of an unwillingness to compromise with the past in order to move forward – it must be burned away to make room for the new.

Critically, it must be recognized that the ultimate impetus of this rebellion was not reform for the sake of general development or even reform for the purpose of furthering China as a nation, but as a means to catch up with the West. Here we see a marked transformation; China is no longer the smirking, dominant nation who expects Western nations to cow-tow to the whim of the Emperor, but a third-rate nation with a collapsing political system that is forced to play catch-up to the burgeoning Western powers. A palpable sense of inferiority can be observed when reading political material originating from this period, permeating all layers of Chinese society.

The New Life movement can be seen as an extension of this pathological national insecurity; it is an attempt to emulate the West. In Madame Chiang’s address on the matter, she states that “Each nation, according to its lights, has sought to find a way out of stagnation into normalcy. Italy has its fascism, Germany its Nazism… and America its New Deal” (Cheng & Lestz 295). This can be interpreted as indicative of China’s interests to pursue the developmental patterns of the West; in the psyche of the Chinese they can no longer carve their own path in history – only hope to follow the path of the West without losing the essential Chinese spirit, which is largely based on Confucian values. This attempt to reconcile the past with the present parallels many of the hardships endured by the brothers in Family.

An interesting aspect of the story is the employment of the third-person narrative in order to divulge the various characters in the story in a setting where there is clearly a great degree of confusion regarding social and moral normality. By nature of this form of narration, we are sometimes limited in the psychological motivations and inner feelings of many of the characters in the novel. This is an important plot device in some instances; we do not learn anything of Master Kao’s innermost thoughts until just before his death, at which point he is revealed to be a man of a good nature who holds only the best intentions for his family.

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In the narrative, three promising young women are ultimately destroyed by the family: Ming-feng, Jui-cheuh and Mei. This serves not only as the reason for Cheui-hui’s decision to abandon his family and, by extension, the traditionalist teachings of Master Kao, but a statement of the way in which traditional Chinese society exploits women in such a manner as to deprive from them the will to live. Despite the seeming lack of regard for their welfare, loss of the women is felt acutely by all members of the family, considerably more so in comparison to Master Kao, where after his passing the major concern is the dividing of his wealth and assets (Chin 295-296). This belies the fact that there was little love for the harsh Master amongst these closest to him; the love is a fascade, like all things in the traditional life.

The death of Jui-cheuh was especially hard on Cheuh-hui, who felt that the baby was an enemy who had taken his beloved, then went so far as to blame the entire social order and, by extension, his own conformity to the traditional order, for having made him so weak as to be unable to save the two women that he loved:

“What had taken his wife away was something else. It was the entire social system, with its moral code it’s superstitions. He had borne them for years while they stole his youth, his happiness, his future, the two women he had loved most In the world. They were too heavy a burden; he wanted to shake them off; he struggled” (Chin 309).

Throughout the novel we are confronted with a Cheuh-hui that is deeply troubled by his inner hatreds and insecurities; here it is manifested in a way that is blatant to the reader and presented in a way as to make the deep-seated societal dysfunction that is the underlying theme of the novel explicit in a dramatic fashion.

In Family, the brothers are ultimately driven apart, with Cheuh-hui leaving in disgust of the events that had taken place, and unable to reconcile with the past. Similar changes had also taken hold of the other brothers, whom had turned against the family either in fact or in spirit – with a deep chasm growing between the siblings with the elapse of time only narrowly being reconciled by last-minute efforts to make peace with one another. Examples of such attempts include Master Kao’s assertions that Cheuh-hui was a “good child” (Chin 289) and Cheuh-hui promising Cheuh-hsin that not only would he write, but that they would surely see one another again in the future. It is a hopeful yet sad parting, with each of the brothers attempting to make good with one another in the recognition of the fact that they have all been forced to endure extreme hardship.

Family is the biography of a China that cannot reconcile with itself through any means other than destruction of the old. As Cheuh-hui is forced to endure the loss of everything that he has cherished in his life in order to break free of the traditional order that has bound him to a life that is filled with sorrow and anger, China is also forced to contend with a similar situation . Change does not and cannot come as a compromise, such as Chiang’s New Life movement, but as a radical communist insurrection that simply erases the past and sews the seeds of a new future. While some of his brothers may be more willing to accept the family even in the face of its inevitable destruction, Cheuh-hui embraces the uncertain future; he recognizes that he can only move forward if he does not look back.


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