‘Baptism’ by Yang Jiang

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‘[…] he said he wanted to unite as many people as possible, to pool their strength for contributions to the culture of New China, contributions to all mankind. He said, “The intelligentsia will make full use of their special skills to serve the people. The pen and the sword are of equal importance in the struggle, but in the task of spurring all of the people to join hearts and hands, persuading the peoples of the entire world to join hearts and hands, the pen is mightier than the sword”’.

Baptism by Yang Jiang, Pg.24

In Kubrick there is a substantial Chinese literature section and tucked within these you can find the odd English translation. I have been meaning to read more Chinese literature as it’s an area I am completely unfamiliar with. I picked up Yang Jiang’s novel, Baptism, with no previous knowledge of the author or her work. Luckily for me, Jiang’s work is considered one of the few pieces of Chinese literature that is easily accessible (in terms of understanding of the political and cultural aspects of such a huge and varied nation) to both Chinese and Western people.

Purporting to be  free of ‘political baggage’, Baptism is more of a study in characters. From a writer whose life spanned the majority of 20th-century China, this seems to be a refreshing exemption to the majority of Chinese literature of the time (according to the translator’s introduction in my edition). Although set just after the 1949 Revolution that brought communism to widespread prominence and power (of which we still see today), Baptism focuses more on the individual struggles of a group of sheltered intellectuals who are learning to adjust to the new society.

“In other words, we must all follow the viewpoint of the Soviet Union. The Soviet viewpoint drives every single research topic”.

Baptism by Yang Jiang, Pg.91

Amongst intellectual differences, superiority complexes and possible relationship entanglements, Yang Jiang’s novel is surprisingly free of drama. The events that occur in the novel are subtle and beautiful to read. The characters’ emotions are really stripped bare throughout, which parallel’s the psychological and physical ‘washing’ they are required to participate in towards the end of the novel, when the Three-anti Campaign finally direct their gaze on the research institute. This ‘washing’, or ‘baptism’ – as the translator chooses to interpret the title – is symbolic of the break between the old society and new society; the old nationalist principles that governed such a huge country and the new communist ideology. Anyone of note was required to provide scathing self-criticisms of their past behaviours in front of the ‘masses’ in order to show their loyalty to the new political order.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m the one who suffers or is cheated, as long as I haven’t done anything wrong. Then I’m at peace in my heart”.

Baptism by Yang Jiang, Pg.82

Without going into too much depth on the political and historical aspects of the communist take-over, Jiang only seeks to show ‘how people’s reactions to the circumstances of their lives reveal their true quality’ (translator’s note). It is this very personal aspect of the novel that made it not only an accessible read but an enjoyable one too. From the adulterous, self-obsessed Yu Nan to the shy and hesitant Yao Mi – who finds herself caught, unavoidably, in a love triangle with Yancheng and his wife, Lilin, -there are a multiplicity of characters from young to old, experienced to inexperienced, willing and unwilling participants in the new Chinese order.

As each chapter focuses on each individual, Jiang brilliantly captures the subtle, or unsubtle, changes that occur in these character’s psyche’s. Jiang has the brilliant ability to make you question your first impressions of her characters, whilst, at the same time, make you unsurprised by their actions. They are all deeply flawed and human.

‘Self-reform is each individual’s responsibility to society’.

Baptism by Yang Jiang, Pg.212

Not all of these characters are wholly welcoming of the communist take-over, yet they have decided to stay in China for good or for bad. Though we never do find out how their lives turn out after their subsequent self-immersions into the new regime, as Yang Jiang chooses this moment to end her only novel of fiction, there is a certain finality – one that is already nostalgic for the freedom that once came with being an intellectual.

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2 Replies to “‘Baptism’ by Yang Jiang”

  1. Sounds fascinating! Chinese lit is something I know little about (in fact my recent Little Black Classics reading of some Chinese Classics was a first) so I was very interested to hear about this – obviously an author to explore further.

    1. I also don’t know much about Chinese literature but I found this book really accessible and there were a good number of footnotes (not too many) and an informative introduction that really helped to understand the story more.

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