Pa Chin’s The Family explores the relationships and workings of a family living through the turbulent early 20th century in China. After centuries of rebellions, revolts, and hardships, China was beginning to embrace modernization. For a culture that built everything around an ideal that looked backwards, idolizing the past, this would be anything but easy.
The family the book focuses on is ruled in an authoritarian manner by the head of the household, the grandfather, the Venerable Master Kao. He is of the old regime that has held sway for centuries and believes in the Confucian principles based around filial piety. He expects no less than perfect and immediate obedience.
This causes many heartaches in the family. The reader mostly follows the journeys of the three main grandsons. The eldest wants to modernize, but feels that he cannot, that he must submit to Grandfather Kao. This passive attitude kept him from marrying the woman he loved. Instead, he married the women chosen for him, leading to sorrow from every party in the unhappy triangle. The lover he left behind ends up wasting away and dying.
The middle brother, who falls in love with a girl who is not his intended, decides not to allow this to happen to him. He runs away from home and refuses to return until he is allowed to marry who he wishes. This unheard of action turns the family on its head. The reader can see the family falling apart as, suddenly, nobody is certain what role they play anymore.
The youngest brother is the most fiery reformer of all. He falls in love with a girl completely out of his class, a servant to their family. He knows their union will never be approved and he spends most of the book ranting about the injustice of society. He, in fact, seems to be more in love with the idea of rebellion than with the girl. However, when the servant is sold to an aged, decrepit uncle as a concubine, he becomes frenzied. The servant-girl, who has no high aspirations, kills herself rather than go quietly to that fate.
To say the book is sad is an understatement. However, it is autobiographical and an excellent look at what the Chinese culture during this time period was like. The struggles between those clinging to the old ways and those pushing for modernization tore apart families, villages, and, eventually, the nation. It is not an easy read because it is difficult not to assign American values and reactions to what you are reading. It was very much worth reading, though.