Ba Jin. Cold Nights. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978.
Jeremy Murray (2005)
Ba Jin’s novel, Cold Nights, portrays a man’s slow death of tuberculosis in 1944 Chongqing. The consumptive disease seems to have been caused less by bacteria in his lungs, and more by the debilitative generational tension in Republican China. A man is torn between his traditional mother and his modern wife. In the background, air raid alarms blare through the cold winter nights, but in their small apartment, it is the arguments between mother and daughter-in-law that are the most deadly.
The main character, Wang Wenxuan, is a sickly copyeditor in the wartime capital of the Guomindang government. Good-natured, but noncommittal and malleable, Wang constantly tries to reconcile the irreconcilable: the decadent ways of his brazenly unfaithful wife, and the disapproving conservatism of his mother. The reader watches as Wang is stretched impossibly between these two women, caring tenderly for both of them, but, ultimately, literally consumed with the attempt to soothe the discord in the household.
The use of Chongqing in 1944 as a setting is most important in showing the contrast of the decadence of Shusheng, Wang’s wife, and the poverty of Wang and the people we encounter on the dark and dangerous streets. Shusheng dances with American soldiers late into the night and sips coffee in the “Victory Building” and the “International Café,” even while news reports and rumors circulate about the approaching Japanese forces. Meanwhile, homeless children sleep on the doorstep of Wang’s building, and Wang refuses to get proper treatment for the consumption that ends his life, saying that he cannot afford it. The disparity in wealth is attributed to corruption and inflation, but the characters accept these conditions with resignation, and Wang is not the only character to occasionally muse about whether it would be just as good to be dead as alive in such a time and place. Only in the final stages of Wang’s illness and the final moments of the novel do we get a sense of Wang’s frustrations with the wartime conditions, as he proofreads propaganda documents. His sickness causes him to cough spasmodically on the papers, smearing the ink with his phlegm and blood, but he thinks bitterly to himself that the ruined document is nothing but lies anyway. Death finally comes, but only after he is seized with a renewed desperate will to live, and a sense of the injustice of his circumstances.
Sickness and mortality figure centrally in the story. Wang’s sickness sets in shortly after he sees his beautiful wife of fourteen years walking arm-in-arm with another man. Wang is struck by the robustness of this young interloper, and it seems he almost immediately begins to feel ill, though he is only in his thirties, himself. Wang meets twice with an old schoolmate, whose own wife recently died in childbirth. This man is withering away with melancholy, and Wang watches him killed in the street by a speeding truck, and later sits across from his ghost in a restaurant. Illness is not simply curable by medicine or rest. Wang pleads with his feuding wife and mother, exclaiming that he would perhaps be able to regain his health if they would only stop squabbling. Ba Jin is unambiguously expressing his frustration with the inability of Republican China to face its trials with strength, decision, and unity.
It is clear that the worldviews of mother and daughter-in-law will never be peacefully settled, and both women threaten to leave. Shusheng finally leaves with her supervisor, retreating farther from the invading Japanese, leaving her husband, mother-in-law, and son in Chongqing, only to return after Wang’s death. Though in Cold Nights Ba Jin does not clobber his reader with stylized symbols and metaphors, it seems acceptable to suggest that Wang, as an Everyman of Republican China, is torn between two mutually exclusive worldviews of conservatism and cosmopolitan modernity, and any attempt to genuinely combine or reconcile these two notions would not only be impossible, but procrastination in the resolution one way or the other would ultimately prove deadly. In response to urging to take better care of himself, it is Wang who says, resignedly, “Most Chinese are weak and sickly. Sometimes minor illnesses drag on for most of their lives.” (113)
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