In the early twentieth century China was slowly awakening to the modern changes happening in other Asian nations. The youth of China desired reform and access to technology that those in power did not care to adopt. However, despite the wish of some to become a more progressive civilization, cultural traditions and practices were still strong influences over their lives. Pa Chin’s book, Family, described the struggle between contemporary society and classical values firmly rooted in Chinese culture. For the three Kao brothers, Confucian ideals would continue to play governing roles in their lives despite the changing times and culture. Although they are conflicted by many of the traditions and find themselves at odds with the new and old, they abide by many of the ancestral rules and practices that their family values highly.
Family exemplified the hierarchical system that presided over Chinese families and illustrated how it prolonged the practice of Confucian values. The elders of the family, which stand to gain the benefits of status and wealth, did not wish to see their way of life change. The grandfather, Yeh-yeh, was a strict enforcer of Confucian values and none of the brothers wanted to stand up to him. He passed out “On Filial Piety and the Shunning of Lewdness” to Chueh-hui, the most revolutionary of the brothers, and worked hard to instill those morals and maintain common practices, such as arranged marriage. Yeh-yeh, or Master Kao, was also a large influence on the eldest brother, Chueh-hsin. Chueh-hsin was put in charge of his two younger brothers but the book showed how limited his abilities were because of his choice to abide by traditional values and the demands of his elders. Although Chueh-hsin had to make many painful sacrifices in order to do so, he maintained his loyalty to his ancestors by practicing filial piety, a tenet of Confucianism, and never arguing or defying his grandfather or stepping outside his position. He practiced being agreeable and respectful, never willing to distress the family or their values. Chueh-hsin is conservative and much like his elders is very superstitious, which leads to a good deal of tragedy in the book, including the deaths of Jui-chuech and Cousin Mei. Still, Chueh-hsin remained loyal to his family’s traditions, despite his own misery and the criticism from his brothers.
Family also showed many of the societal controversies that made it difficult for the Kao brothers and others to advance the cause of modernity and reform. When civil war reached Chengtu it was apparent that revolution would not draw closer without bloodshed and conflict. The Kao family had to lock themselves away in their complex, hoping that the armies would not come to assault them. The fear of being put to death or putting their family in harm’s way was not something any of the brothers wanted. Although the brothers found their family difficult and did not like some of the antiquated traditions, they were still loyal for the sake of their safety and honor. Knowing that revolution and reform would be a difficult transition likely hindered the aspiration for a more modern way of life and might explain why characters like Chueh-min is more moderate and complacent in the beginning although he does not support some of his family’s actions.
Though Pa Chin’s book showed that the currents of modern thought and change were infiltrating China, there were still many traditions and values that the characters could not give up, even if they admitted not agreeing with them. The Kao family kept concubines, arranged marriages, and practiced ancestor worship as a matter of tradition and heritage that represented their status and nobility. While the younger members of the Kao family are clearly more progressive, their loyalties more often lay with their elders and traditions. Chin, the female cousin of the three Kao brothers, was a good example of how Chinese youth were caught between the new and old culture. As part of a family that could provide an upper-class lifestyle, Chin attended a co-ed school and wrote articles about cutting her hair that were published. However, she had the revelation that she was actually not very brave because she couldn’t bring herself to cut her hair in reality. She stated, “I love my future, but I love my mother, too (197).” Chin wanted her “future sisters” to feel free to make their own choices but she realized that she wasn’t willing to disappoint her family by breaking with tradition. Protecting and living by these values does not hurt Chin, in fact it showed the import of solidarity amongst her family as well as her love for her mother. At the same time it illustrated the conflict of ideas between contemporary society and the traditions governing the Chinese family.
Pa Chin’s book did show that many modern beliefs had blossomed in the minds of China’s youth by the 1930s but the central importance of the family unit overwhelmed their desires for change. Many of the characters expressed contradicting feelings about their situations, desiring social change but not at the expense of their family’s happiness or honor. This led to the restriction of their desires and beliefs and caused them to attempt to carry on many of the traditions that had been passed down, even as they professed being dissatisfied with them. In order to support the well-being and happiness of their families they sacrificed many of their modern wants and ideals. The story illustrated how families were transmitters of cultural values and beliefs, and how social change caused distress between the old and new generations. Pa Chin’s book suggested that the youth were more accepting of contemporary ideas but that they did not want to give up all of their traditions and cultural heritage.