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Letter: Ba Jin’s Correspondence with “Young Friends Searching for Ideals” – Part II

In Part II of this two-part series, we’ll read acclaimed author Ba Jin’s reply to the 10 elementary school students who wrote him a letter asking him for moral guidance in 1987. I’m not a super weepy person, but I legit cried reading this. This is a noble, elevating piece of writing, and reading it, I’m reminded that in all societies, there are those who struggle with the materialism that engulfs us.

In the second and final part of this series, we’ll read acclaimed author Ba Jin‘s reply to the 10 elementary school students who wrote him a letter asking him for moral guidance in 1987. If you haven’t read Part I yet, go check it out. In Part I, I introduce Ba Jin and the context in which this letter was written. Part I is intermediate, likely as it was written by children, but Part II was written by an adult author, and veers well into advanced territory, in length, subject matter and language.

I’m not a super weepy person, but I legit cried reading this. Ba Jin may have been well into his later years when he put pen to paper, but he had lost none of his literary talent. My translation does this no justice at all – I struggled between writing in a way that made the language clearer to understand, and writing for beauty, and the former won out in most cases, so if you want get the feelz from this, you’ll have to look to the original. This is a noble, elevating piece of writing, and reading it, I’m reminded that in all societies, there are those who struggle with the materialism that engulfs us.

Some language stuff

Ideal vs. ideals – One of the beautiful things about this letter is that it illuminates the connection between the definitions of the word “ideal”, or 理想 lì xiǎng. In English, we use the word “ideal” to talk about what we wish would happen: our “ideal life”, our “ideal future”, our “ideal partner”. Quite separately, we use the word “ideals” to describe our values, what we believe to be important. We never really use these things in the same context; the word is the same, but the definitions are divorced.

In Chinese, and specifically in this letter, these definitions are much more connected, and this underscores a deeper truth: the things we find important frame the future we most desire. If we care most about money, then what we most want is lots of money. And if we most value generosity of spirit, then what we most want is a life full of the same. So, you’ll understand this piece better if you understand the word 理想 from both of these perspectives simultaneously – it is both the values we hold dear, and the future we most yearn for. You’ll see that I struggle to choose which English word to use. Sometimes I use “ideal” and sometimes “ideals”, and my choice changes the English meaning significantly, but in the Chinese, it all makes sense.

“向前看” vs. “向钱看” – These two phrases sound similar, and Ba Jin uses this play on words to juxtapose those who “look to the future” and those who only “look towards money”.

起了作用 – This comes up a couple of times, and its meaning is a little amorphous. The characters seem to say “to be of use”, but this definition doesn’t illuminate the phrase’s true meaning. 起了作用 means “to have a hand in”, or “to play a part in”. This can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on context. Negative, as in “to have a hand in his demise”, positive as in “to play a role in his advancement”. This has stuck in my head since one of my Chinese friends, who had recently been divorced and had a new girlfriend, told me that his mother hated his girlfriend because she erroneously believed that his girlfriend “起了作用” in his divorce, in other words, that his girlfriend had a hand in manipulating him to get a divorce from his wife. But in this piece, the positive definition of 起了作用 is used.

定风珠 and 风信鸡 – These are two physical objects that Ba Jin uses to represent bigger concepts. 定风珠 is a mythological pearl that can stop the wind. In this story, he uses it to describe the power to put a stop to negative social trends. 风信鸡 is a weathervane, which can really only reflect the direction that winds (negative social trends, in this case) are blowing.

Source here

《寻找理想的少年朋友》

亲爱的同学们:

你们的信使我感到为难。我是一个有病的老人,最近虽然去北京开过会,可是回到上海就仿佛生了一场大病似的,一点力气也没有,讲话上气不接下气,写字手指不听指挥,因此要“以最快的速度”给你们一个回答,我很难办到。我只能跟在你们背后慢慢地前进,即使远远地落在后面,我还可以努力追赶。但要带着你们朝前飞奔,不是我不愿意,而是力不能及了。这就说明我不但并无“神奇的力量”,而且连你们有的那种朝气我也没有,更不用说什么“神秘钥匙”了。

不过我看你们也不必这样急,“寻求理想”不是一天两天的事。理想是存在的。可是有的人追求了一生只得到幻灭;有的人找到了它一直坚持到生命的最后一息。各人有各人的目标,对理想当然也有不同的理解。我听广播、看报纸,仿佛人们随时随地都在谈论“理想”,仿佛理想在前面等待人,只要你一伸手就可以把它抓住。那么你们为什么还那样着急地向我“呼救”呢?你们不是都有了理想吗?你们在“向钱看”的社会风气中感觉到窒息,不正是说明你们的理想起了作用吗?我不能不问,你们是不是感到了孤独,因此才把自己比做“迷途的羔羊”?可是照我看,你们并没有“迷途”,“迷途”的倒是你们四周的一些人。

我常常想,我们生活在其中的社会有时会是十分古怪,叫人难以理解。人们喜欢说,形势大好,我也这样说过。这种说法不是没有道理,我也有自己的经验:根据我耳闻目睹,舍身救人、一心为公的英雄事迹和一人有难、八方支援的好人好事,每天都在远近发生。从好的方面看,当然一切都好;但要是专找不好的方面看,人就觉得好像被坏的东西包围了。尽管形势大好,总是困难很多;尽管遍地理想,偏偏有人惟利是图。你们说这是“新的现象”,我看风并不是一天两天刮起来的。

面对着这种现象,有人毫不在乎,他们说这是支流,支流敌不过主流,正如邪不胜正。即使出现这样的情况,譬如说钞票变成了发光的“明珠”,大家追求一个目标:发财,人人争当“能赚会花”的英雄;又譬如说从喜欢空话、爱听假话,发展到贩卖假药、推销劣货,发展到以权谋私、见利忘义……也不要紧,因为邪不胜正。还有人说:“你不要看风越刮越厉害,不久就会过去的。我们有定风珠嘛!”同他们交谈,我也感到放心,我也是相信邪不胜正的人,我始终乐观。

同学们,请原谅,我不是在这里讲空话。束手等待是盼不到美好的明天的。我说邪不胜正,因为在任何社会里都存在着是与非、光明与阴暗的斗争。最后的胜利当然属于正义、属于光明。但是在某一个时期甚至在较长的一段时期,是也会败于非,光明也会被阴暗掩盖,支流也会超过主流,在这里斗争双方力量的强弱会起大的作用。在这一场理想与金钱的斗争中我们决不是旁观者,斗争的胜败关系到我们每个人的命运。我们是这个社会的成员,是这个国家的公民,要是我们大家不献出自己的汗水和才智,那么社会的发展和国家的腾飞,也不过是一句空话。我常常想为什么宣传了几十年的崇高理想和大好形势,却无法防止黄金瘟疫的传播?为什么用理想教育人们几十年,那么多的课本,那么多的学习资料,那么多的报刊,那么多的文章!到今天年轻的学生还彷徨无主、四处寻求呢?

小朋友们,不瞒你们说,对着眼前五光十色的景象,就连我有时也感到迷惑不解了。我要问,理想究竟是什么?难道它是虚无缥缈的东西?难道它是没有具体内容的空话?这几十年来我们哪一天中断过关于理想的宣传?那么传播黄金疫的病毒究竟来自何处、哪方?今天到处在揭发有人贩卖霉烂的食品,推销冒牌的假货,办无聊小报,印盗版书,做各种空头生意,为了带头致富,不惜损公肥私、祸国害人。这些人,他们也谈理想,也讲豪言壮语,他们说一套,做另外一套。对他们,理想不过是招牌、是装饰、是工具。他们口里越是讲得天花乱坠,做的事情越是见不得人。“向前看”一下子就变为“向钱看”定风珠也会变成风信鸡。在所谓“不正之风”刮得最厉害、是非难分、真假难辨的时候,我也曾几次疑惑地问自己:理想究竟在什么地方?它是不是已经被狂风巨浪吹打得无踪无影?我仿佛看见支流压倒了主流,它气势汹汹地滚滚向前。然而即使在这个时候我也没有理由灰心绝望,因为理想明明还在我前面闪光。

Show English translation »
Dear students:

Your letter embarrassed me. I’m a sick old man, and though I recently attended a conference in Beijing, when I returned to Shanghai it was as if I had contracted a serious illness, I had not even the slightest bit of energy, it was hard to catch my breath when I spoke, when I wrote my fingers wouldn’t heed my commands, and because of this replying “as quickly as possible” [which the students asked him to do in Part I] was difficult for me to accomplish. I can only slowly forge ahead at your back, and though I lag far behind, I can still diligently pursue you. So as for dashing forward with you, it’s not that I’m not willing, but rather that I don’t have the strength. This only shows that not only do I not have “mystical powers” [which students attributed to him in Part I], but that I don’t even have your dynamism, and even less do I have any “mysterious key” [reference to Part I].

But as I see it you also needn’t be in such a rush, [because] “seeking ideals” is not a matter of a day or two. Ideals exist. But some people seek them all their lives and all they find is disillusionment, some people find them by persevering until their last breath. Everyone has their own goals, and of course everyone has a different understanding of ideals. I listen to broadcasts, read newspapers, and it seems like people are all casually discussing “ideals”, as if an ideal is [always] waiting just ahead, and all you must do is reach out your hand and you can grasp it. So, why do you so anxiously “call for my aid”? Do you not already have ideals? [The fact that] you feel so stifled in a social atmosphere that looks only to money, does that not precisely show your ideals are already playing a role? I can’t not ask, is it [perhaps] that you feel lonely, and because of this compare yourselves to “lost lambs”? But as I see it, you haven’t “lost your way”, on the contrary, those who have “lost their way” are the people all around you.

I often think, our life in society is sometimes so odd, and [can be] hard for us to comprehend. People like to say, “life [literally: circumstances] is pretty good”, I’ve also said this. This isn’t without logic, as I’ve experienced myself: from what I’ve witnessed personally, [acts of] sacrificing one’s life to save others, heroic deeds of wholehearted [dedication] to the public, and when one person is in trouble, good people [appear from] all directions to offer assistance, these things happen near and far every day. From a positive perspective, of course everything looks great; but if you flip it around and look from a negative perspective, you may feel you are surrounded by bad things. Although life is largely good, there are [still] always many troubles; although there are [grand] ideals everywhere, there is also always someone bent solely on profit. You say this is a “new phenomenon”, but as I see it, this wind didn’t blow in over the last couple of days.

Faced with this phenomenon, some people pay it no mind, they say [the people who behave this way] are just a tributary [of the river], and a tributary can’t overwhelm the mainstream, just like evil cannot triumph over good. Although [bad] situations [make frequent] appearances – for example [when] cash becomes [seen as] a shining “treasure”, everyone chasing after one goal: to get rich, and everyone vying to be a hero of “earning and spending”; or for another example, when the love of speaking empty words and listening to falsehoods develops into the selling of fake medicine and poor-quality goods, which develops into using power for personal gain and forgetting what is right as soon as there is profit to be made – [even when this happens,] you still needn’t be anxious, because evil cannot triumph over good. Still others say: “You needn’t pay attention to the wind blowing ever more violently, it will pass in a while. We have a Wind Stopping Pearl!” As they talk, I also feel reassured, I’m also someone who believes evil cannot triumph over good, I’m ever the optimist.

Students, please forgive me, I don’t mean to speak empty words here. [Simply] waiting with our hands tied, we cannot look forward to a beautiful tomorrow. I say evil can’t triumph over good, because in any society there exists a struggle between right and wrong, light and darkness. Final victory of course belongs to justice, belongs to light. But in any age, [perhaps] even for long periods of time, right can lose to wrong, light can also be covered by darkness, the tributary can engulf the mainstream, and in this fight the weakness and strength of both sides will matter greatly. In this struggle between ideals and money we are certainly not spectators, which side wins and which loses the struggle is dependent upon our own destinies. We are the members of this society, we are the citizens of this country, if we do not offer our sweat and wise ability, then “social development” and “national advancement” are nothing but empty words. I often wonder why the noble ideals and general positivity propagandized over the last few decades have not been able to prevent the sickness of gold from spreading? Why is it that we have used ideals to educate people for decades, so many textbooks, so many study materials, so many newspapers, so many articles! And [yet] today’s young students pace about without [moral] guidance, seeking everywhere?

Young friends, I won’t lie to you, facing all the multifarious scenes [that unfold] before my eyes, I also sometimes feel befuddled. I want to ask, what are ideals, really? Could it be that they are illusionary things? Could it be that they are empty words without substance? On what day over the last few decades did we stop propagandizing ideals? And then from which direction, which place, did the spreading plague of gold sickness come? These days, everywhere we uncover people selling rotten food, pushing imitation goods, making boring tabloids, printing pirated books, doing all kinds of phoney business, to be the first to get rich, not hesitating to make personal gain at public expense, bringing calamity on the country and harming the people. These people, they also talk about ideals, they speak in grand language, they say one thing, but they do another. To them, ideals are shop signs, ornaments, tools. The more they speak of flowers cascading from the sky, the more their actions are unfit for the world of men. “Looking ahead” in an instant becomes “looking towards money”, and the Wind Stopping Pearl becomes [nothing but] a weathervane. In all times when the so-called “winds of injustice” blow strongest, when right and wrong are hard to distinguish, when true and false are hard to recognize, I have also doubtfully asked myself: where are [our] ideals? Have they already been blown away without a trace by the violent winds and mighty waves? It’s as if I can see the tributary overwhelming the mainstream, its momentum roaring tumultuously forward. But even in these times I have no reason to despair, because an ideal is still clearly sparkling just ahead of us.

3 replies on “Letter: Ba Jin’s Correspondence with “Young Friends Searching for Ideals” – Part II”

I’ve been trying to pick up Chinese again, and this was immensely helpful so thank you! It was definitely a struggle to get through, but it enjoyed it nonetheless.

Hey, glad it’s been a help. Did you get a chance to read Part I? If so, was that easier for you?

Yes, I think I actually remember part 1 showing up in my Learn Chinese textbook when I was young haha! Part 1 only had 1-2 words I couldn’t read, so it was a much easier read.

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