Pa Chin (Ba Jin) novel entitled “Family” exposed changes that took place in a Chinese family between the 1920s and 1930s. The setting of the story was in the province of Sichuan in a big, southwest city. In the novel, Ba Jin concentrated on three brothers who were from the Gao Family (Shapiro & Wang, 1988). The three brothers, from the eldest to the youngest, were named Chueh-hsin, Chueh-min, and Chueh-hui. They struggled because of the oppressive, autocratic leadership in the family exercised by their traditional grandfather. The family, which was patriarchal, was subjected to the unquestionable rule of their grandfather who was the head of the family. Chueh-hui, the younger brother, was the protagonist and his character was sharply contrasted with Chueh-hsin, the elder brother (Ba & Shapiro, 2001). Because of his weak character, Chueh-hsin gave in to his grandfather’s demand and got entangled with an arranged marriage. Young people in the novel were struggling to reject traditions and embrace modernity, which could allow them to access happiness and satisfaction.
In Junichiro Tanizaki’s “Some Prefer Nettles,” Kaname and Misako were the main characters. The two were a couple whose marriage faced the threat of divorce and separation. The interplay between modernity and tradition was manifest in the novel (Tanizaki, 2011). Although the two were unhappy with their marriage, they feared to divorce because of the underlying consequences. Kaname was aware that his wife, Misako had taken another lover. They both continued to procrastinate about their marital decision. Misako’s father, a traditionalist, tried to inculcate the arts of Japan in a bid to eliminate the perceived negative influence of the West.
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Notably, both Ba Jin and Tanizaki used the same narrative strategy in their novels. Tanizaki used three main characters while Ba Jin used two. Besides, their stories revolved around the influence of Asian traditions on the family. The two authors insinuated that various aspects of the Chinese and Japanese traditions brought great unhappiness in the lives of married people. In the Family, Chueh-hsin was unhappy in his marriage because he was forced to marry someone against his wishes. The Chinese tradition also allowed old men to take young girls as concubines. The incidences brought great pain to the young girls, but they could not do much. For instance, Ming-Feng, a bondmaid in the family, had fallen in love with Chueh-hui against family traditions. However, she was “gifted” to the Feng family and made an old man’s concubine (Ba & Shapiro, 2001). Ming-Feng could not live with that and decided to commit suicide. Tanizaki’s account portrayed the same message. The Japanese traditions appeared to have been causing pain and dissatisfaction to the married couple. According to the Japanese tradition, divorce could bring a great humiliation. Thus, Misako and Kaname continued to hold on despite their disintegrating marriage. They resorted to finding fulfillment and passion in the arms of others (Tanizaki, 2011). In both stories, the traditionalists blamed western traditions for the destruction of marriage. Contrarily, those who were unhappy in their marriages blamed the Chinese and Japanese traditions.
The theme of modernity versus tradition was common in the two novels. All the characters presented either represented modernity or traditions. In Ba Jin’s family, the grandfather was the greatest defender of the Chinese tradition. He was a conservative man whose main goal appeared to have been maintaining a confusion authority in the family. His concubine, Chen, was a superstitious woman. Mr. Feng, the grandfather’s friend, was also a conservative man. Conversely, the three brothers, their cousins, schoolmates, and Ming-Feng embraced modernity (Shapiro & Wang, 1988). The three brothers, especially Chueh-hui, were considered rebellious because they rejected the traditions in favor of modernity. Chueh-hui spoke openly about his love affair with the bondmaid, participated in a student’s movement, and openly expressed his dissent for Chinese traditions. Besides, Chueh-hui together with his brother Chueh-min and other classmates sought to publish a magazine entitled Dawn, which was full of progressive ideas. Their relentless fight for modernity created a great clash with supporters of traditions.
A similar incidence was witnessed in Some Prefer Nettles. The author used the characters to explore the theme of the clash between modernity and tradition. In the story, Kaname, Misako, and uncle Takanatsu supported modernity. On the other hand, Misako’s father and his young lover named O-hisa were defenders of traditions (Tanizaki, 2011). Misako’s father believed that western ideas were responsible for destroying families. He treated both Kaname and Misako to a traditional puppet theater performance in a bid to inculcate Japanese traditions. Although Kaname enjoyed the performance, he was astonished by O-hisa’s traditional attire and deep knowledge of the traditional arts. According to Kaname, O-hisa represented a remnant of the Japanese history in the modern world (Tanizaki & Seidensticker, 1955).
In the two novels, the theme of family was common as they were based on actors within family units. Ba Jin’s account was based on the extended Gao family while Tanazaki’s story reflected the marriage of Kaname and Misako. Almost all the events in the story took place within or close to the family units. The authors sought to highlight how families are affected in the face of traditional and modern ideals. Issues of love, decision-making, communication, interpersonal relationship, and leadership within the family units were highlighted.
The theme of fake morality is also evident in the novels. In the stories, the traditionalists, who were expected to demonstrate moral principles, engaged in open abuses. In Ba Jin’s book, the Venerable Master Kao claimed to be a defender of Confucian traditions (Shapiro & Wang, 1988). However, he loved the company of a young actress. He was quick to forget his faults when he judged his children and grandchildren for behaving rebelliously or immorally. In Tanizaki’s story, Misako’s father also demonstrated a fake morality. He embraced the Japanese traditions because he believed it had the power to maintain a family. However, he was engaged in a love affair with a young girl named O-hisa. O-hisa also portrayed fake morality because she was dressed in the traditional kimono, which represented the purity of womanhood in the Japanese history. However, apart from having a love affair with an old man, towards the end of the story, she made a late-night visit to Kaname’s room.
Despite the numerous similarities, the two stories also had several differences. Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles utilized a small cast of characters, including Kaname, the old man, Misako, O-hisa, Hiroshi, and Takanatsu (Tanizaki & Seidensticker, 1955). Contrarily, the Family had almost fifteen characters. In his story, Tanizaki seemed to concentrate on trivial details about the character’s lives. He strategically used a small cast size so that he could dig deep into their lives and expose bigger issues associated with modernity and traditions. On the other hand, Ban Jin did not give a dramatic account as he highlighted issues from a general perspective.
Notably, the two authors also demonstrated different attitudes towards change. Ban Jin seemed to embrace change because towards the end of his story, the grandfather, a custodian of traditions, died. Consequently, Chueh-hui, the defender of modernity, moved to the city and received support from his father (Ba & Shapiro, 2001). The step was a glimmer of hope to those who embraced modernity. Tanizaki appeared to champion for a fusion of modern and traditional elements. Kaname, who desired modern things, was also fascinated by a traditional performance. Characters in his story appeared to stay between modernity and traditions. At the end of the story, Kaname and his wife were yet to make a decision. The level of procrastination insinuated that the author desired to see both traditions and modernity being reconciled.
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The authors’ backgrounds might have played instrumental roles in construction and dissemination of their thoughts. They might have used the stories to reveal certain aspects of their lives, for example, Ba Jin was born in a large family. In his autobiography, he expressed a detailed expose of the sickness and squalor of his large, tradition-oriented Chinese family. He used the novel to demonstrate the negativities associated with a large, tradition-bound family, which he had firsthand experience. Apart from being an author, Ba Jin was a political activist. He might have formulated the character Chueh-hui to represent his activism. Just like him, Chueh-hui desired to voice his displeasure concerning the state of affairs in their family.
Some Prefer Nettles accurately exposed the life of Tanazaki. He wrote about a broken marriage because he had experienced one. In 1915, Tanazaki married his first wife named Chiyoko with whom he had a daughter. However, their relationship was unhappy. In time, Tanazaki encouraged a relationship between Chiyoko and his fellow writer named Haruo Sato. The same situation was documented in his story about Kaname and Misako. Personal experiences might have influenced the opinions voiced through the story. 74
- Ba, J., & Shapiro, S. (2001). The family. Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific.
- Shapiro, S., & Wang, M. (1988). Selected works of Ba Jin: 2. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
- Tanizaki, J. (2011). Some Prefer Nettles. New York, NY: Tuttle Publishing.
- Tanizaki, J., & Seidensticker, E. G. (1955). Some prefer nettles. New York, NY: Knopf.