May Fourthers: Are They Reliable Sources?

Jeff Kyong-McClain

A generation ago, probably a significant majority of Anglophone undergraduates who took classes on modern Chinese history were introduced to the plight of the oppressed in early 20th-century China through Ba Jin’s novel, Family (家). Surely, one reason was simply logistical: professors assigned the book because it had long been available in English translation, and there was not that much else for a bookstore to order. But, in all likelihood, many of those professors were themselves believers, at least at some level, in the New Culture/May Fourth Movement ethos which permeates Family and paints traditional (Confucian) China as decrepit, corrupt, and oppressive, in need of reform or revolution. 

To the undergraduate mind (present author not excepted), the stark tradition vs. modern contrasts (most notably in this case, between filial duty to the family versus the freedom of youth), albeit from a work of fiction, can easily come to seem like a simple ethnographic description of the way things actually were. Kristin Stapleton’s Fact in Fiction attempts to set the record straight, examining the historical context of the novel (and the Turbulent Stream (激流) trilogy, of which Family is one part), by providing a detailed and nuanced account of life in 1920’s Chengdu, both the setting for Family and Ba Jin’s hometown. Professor Stapleton is the right person for such a project, as she is a recognized expert on the history of Chengdu, and a meticulous scholar, who here culls not only other literary representations of the city (most notably those of Li Jieren), but also writings by Western observers, local newspaper and other periodical accounts, and provincial and local government reports.

Stapleton bluntly lays out the problem early: ‘Ba Jin played a significant role in helping to create a stereotypical “traditional” China that could be attacked by political and social activists of the 1930s and 1940s’ (p. 5). Fact in Fiction can be viewed as an elaborate annotation to the novel, providing necessary context to the 21st century reader. The basic arrangement of the book is that each chapter looks at one or several character types from the novel, complicating each with historic examples. There are chapters or sections on slave girls, the gentry, the urban poor, entrepreneurs, students, soldiers and warlords, New Women, and reformers, among others. Through it all, the reader does indeed come away with a quite comprehensive sense of the city in the 1920s. Stapleton adroitly mines her sources, creating a compelling picture of a diverse and lively town, where when the traditional and modern met, there was not always tension. We need not go into detail about each character, some examples will suffice. Her chapter on slave girls in late 19th and early 20th century Chengdu is almost worth the price of the book, as it clearly delineates the different sources, types and possible outcomes of household slavery. In her chapter on the gentry, Stapleton quite convincingly shows that Chengdu’s gentry, even those born of old money, were not wholly given to defense of some staid tradition. Many, for example, while not giving up on traditional medicine, nonetheless supported the arrival of Western-style hospitals, and even sent their children to Western missionary-run schools, hardly exemplars of obtuse devotion to unchanging Confucianism (pp. 72-3). Or, regarding warlords, which Stapleton has particularly strong knowledge of from her previous research, they were themselves often reformist to some degree, or at least took pains to appear as such. As an aside: her section on soldiers and warlords also gives a concise but convincing account of what warlord fighting in a city was like. In her last full chapter, Stapleton lays out a plethora of ways in which people of various classes sought to reform Chengdu: through the proliferation of printed material, demonstrations, building modern industry, and working with international reform organizations, like the YMCA. By the end of Fact in Fiction, one feels that Ba Jin was just a bit cranky after all, as he fled ‘traditional’ Chengdu for ‘modern’ Shanghai.

Fact in Fiction is a welcome addition to work on urban life in early 20th-century China. It does its job convincingly, to show the ambiguities and the possibilities of the time and place, which were lost on the young, often left-leaning radicals like Ba Jin, and those of us who have continued to read them. Still, while there is far more to commend than not in Fact in Fiction, to the present author’s mind, Stapleton at times overplays her hand. So, for instance, we are informed how a literary critic, a sociologist and a historian (all in the Western academy) understand the value and meaningfulness of Confucian family ritual (pp. 77-80). But, one might wonder, on what grounds should we accept the modern academy’s understanding of the profundity of ritual, rather than Ba Jin’s understanding of it as a formulaic part of maintaining oppressive hierarchies? Or, consider the chapter on the ‘New Woman’: After restating the theses of two recent scholars who purport to show that women in traditional China were not as oppressed as the New Culture activists were wont to proclaim, much of the evidence from the chapter would seem to buttress the radicals’ original perspective, that liberation from oppressive tradition was indeed needed (though, to be fair, Stapleton admits as much, but suggests here a smaller claim that Ba Jin did not appreciate some small advances already made). In many ways, Fact in Fiction can be regarded as a modest indictment of May Fourth zealotry. Whether or not this indictment is warranted, is worthy of debate, in both undergraduate and graduate classes, and one can hope that Fact in Fiction will spur it on. In an interesting, and rather disheartening note in the Epilogue, Stapleton points out that these days when Family is read in China, it is read primarily for the romance, not for its critique of traditional society. In this there lies a caution: While we should surely question overly didactic literature, and expose the real situations in all their ambiguities, let us be careful not to give way to unquestioning attitudes toward tradition and the easy distractions of romance.