But this two-part post isn’t about Ba Jin’s days as a young socialist crusader and novelist. Ba Jin lived to be 100 years old – he passed away in 2005. And though he was ill with Parkinson’s for the last decades of his life, he was still writing well into the 1980s.
The late 80s were a rough time for China ideologically. The country had just flip-flopped from hard-core Cultural Revolution-era Communism to a budding market economy in just 10 years. Social values were turned on their head, and all the things that were so important in the 1970s – the Party, the Motherland, the socialist struggle – were devalued. Suddenly, what mattered most was making enough money to survive.
In 1987, Ba Jin received a letter from 10 elementary school students confused by the mixed messages they felt society was sending them. What’s more important: money or ideals? Their letter, which I translate below, is striking… though I have a hard time imagining a bunch of ten-year-olds deciding to convene a committee to draft a plea for moral guidance, so I’m kind of convinced one kid’s dad wrote this thing and made them all sign it.
Anyway, Ba Jin’s reply, which I’ll translate in a Part II sometime soon, is much longer. Taken together, these two letters form a beautiful cross-general dialogue, the young seeking wisdom from the old, the old pushing the young out of the nest and into the sun. The letters were published in 1987 under the title 《寻找理想的少年朋友》Young Friends Seeking Ideals, to much acclaim.
Some language stuff
“三好” sān hǎo and “品学兼优” pǐn xué jiān yōu – These are the names of well-known awards given to students that excel in several areas. The first, the “Three Goods” award, is for students that are of good character, study well, and excel in sports. The second is a general award for good students of high moral virtue.
三句不离钞票 sān jù bù lí chāo piào – This is a phrase you won’t find in the dictionary. If you dissect it, it’s not too hard to sort out what it means, so let’s do that:
三句 – Three sentences
不 – Not, no
离 – To leave, to separate from
钞票 – Bank notes, cash money
So, you could understand this as “For every three sentences spoken, not one of them diverges from money” or in better English, “to talk about money all the time” or “to be overly-focused on money”.
难道 nán dào – This is in the dictionary, but it’s important vocab, so pay attention to how this is used. It indicates a rhetorical question. Like, “Could it be that… ?”