Humanism echoes through ‘Chronicle of Lake Baiyangdian’

By LIU JIAHUI / 07-15-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Two fishermen fish on Lake Baiyangdian. Photo: CFP

Chronicle of Lake Baiyangdian is a song of the era. It was first published in 1958. This book is a collection of short stories and essays written by the Chinese writer Sun Li (1913–2002) from the time of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression up until the early days of the People’s Republic of China. Reprinted many times in the last five decades, Chronicle of Lake Baiyangdian has been considered a classic of 20th-century Chinese literature. Sun began his literary career during the time of war. He used his pen as his weapon, and created literary works that were intimately connected with the time and the people of his era.

Ordinary people achieving extraordinary things 
When reading Chronicle of Lake Baiyangdian, what impresses readers most may be the people depicted throughout the book. Sun portrayed patriotic soldiers and common people, and their dedication to defending the nation during a war-torn era. 
The story “Lotus Lake” was set around Lake Baiyangdian when the fight against Japanese invaders was critical. A character named Shuisheng led a guerrilla team in Xiaoweizhuang Village. He was the first to sign up for the regional defense team. With him in the lead, several other young people in the village followed suit. As Shuisheng was leaving for combat, his mind was full of concerns. However, he had only a few heartfelt words to comfort his wife—“Now the family burdens fall on you. I’ll come back to thank you after beating back the enemy.” These simple words represent Shuisheng’s deep trust and hope. The front-line soldiers were supported by their family members and other down-to-earth members of the community. All those people comprised the single spark that ignited the fires of resistance.  
The short story, “Parting Advice” is about a brief homecoming. Having been away from his hometown and family for eight years, the Chinese soldier Shuisheng happened to have an opportunity to go back home when his troops were sent to defend the Jizhong Plain [a plain in central Hebei Province]. However, because of the urgent marching schedule, he only had one night to reunite with his family. When reuniting with his long-separated wife, Shuisheng saw her bright eyes, even though she had suffered many hardships. Moreover, he found that his wife “had deep, tremendous fortitude, which saw her through the bad times.” This is a realistic portrayal of the tenacity of ordinary people in the war years, their longing for family reunion, and hope for the rebirth of their motherland.
Sun’s works did not devote much space to directly depicting war scenes. Instead, his concern and sensitivity to common people’s lives recorded another important aspect of the time—common people’s care and support for soldiers. These depictions reflect the deep connection between soldiers and civilians.
In 1939, Sun was assigned to the Jin-Cha-Ji (the abbreviation of the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Anti-Japanese Base Area) News Agency to voice opposition to Japanese invaders. His department was moved to Sanjiangtai, a small mountainous village in Fuping County, Baoding, Hebei Province. Sun used his own experiences of being helped and cared for by the local villagers as a plot in his short story “Xing Lan,” and Sanjiangtai Village was also fictionalized as Xianjiangtai Village. “Xing Lan” is narrated by a person who lived in Xianjiangtai (as his office was located there). The unnamed narrator says in the story, “My job is to carve on waxed paper and make mimeographed copies. I live in a west-facing house located on a high slope.” The bitter winter had come, and a brisk north-west wind was blowing. “As soon as I sit down, before I engrave two lines of words, my hands turn red, swollen, and stiff with cold.” 
Xing Lan, the owner of the house, opened the door and came in to see the narrator. Knowing that the house was cold, he brought firewood and straw to the house every day to make a fire for him, despite the fact that it was a difficult time and everything was very expensive. The owner always left the house silently after making a fire. When Xing crouched on the floor to start a fire, he simply said: “I know it’s uncomfortable to be cold.” His sincere words profoundly touched the narrator and made him feel warm. 
Poetic charm
When reading Chronicle of Lake Baiyangdian, readers are often enamored by its poetic charm. This poetic quality does not fall into the trope of aestheticism, but embodies Sun’s literary interest for society and life. Sun once said, “Literature and art, apart from giving people a beautiful feeling, are both a means of education in human society.” The edification he enshrined in his works is not manifested as a dry and blunt preaching, but rather a silent osmosis through his poetic language and vivid depictions. 
For instance, as Shuisheng’s wife returned her husband to his unit that harsh winter, she displayed great courage as she poled a swiftly moving sled over the frozen waterways:
 “She leaped lightly on to the tail end, like a dragonfly landing on a leaf after rain…Her face was rosy with cold. Hot breath steamed from her mouth. The small sled shot across the ice like an arrow from a bow, its runners throwing up clouds of frosty particles. Ahead was an open rivulet of fast running water. All she said was: ‘Careful.’ Her legs bore down a bit, and the sled raised its head like a startled snake and skimmed across” [translator unknown]. 
Sun’s vivid description brought the characters to life. On the one hand, he highlighted the woman’s ease while travelling through the frozen waterways of Lake Baiyangdian by using metaphors such as dragonfly, startled snake and an arrow from a bow. On the other hand, the stern frozen environment provides a perfect foil for the woman’s vibrant, yet calm inner world, her tender affection for her husband, and full support for the fight against the Japanese invaders. These descriptions are not dispensable. With a few poetic words that blend scenes with emotions, Sun conveyed complex thoughts and great humanity. 
Enduring values
Classic works are handed down through time, constantly providing people in each era with new inspiration. Sun made readers feel the harmony between humanity and nature with his poetic works. The most typical is Sun’s affectionate writing about Lake Baiyangdian, which vividly presents the natural scenery and idyllic flavor of this water town in north China. Lake Baiyangdian not only records shellfire and gunpowder smoke, bearing witness to the heroes’ blood and loyalty, but also generously affords a livelihood to the local people. This harmonious coexistence and interdependence between man and nature is not only reflected by the fertile water and soil of Baiyangdian, but also on the barren mountains around Fuping County. On those black, rocky hills, local farmers cherished every piece of land, and worked hard to adapt to local conditions—they “enclosed [almost every patch in the hills] with stones, covered [them] with soil, planted maize on the pitches and surrounded maize with Chinese date trees.” These local farmers did everything they could to make a living, and harvested with diligence and wisdom. The enthusiasm presented when people are laboring in nature can guide readers to reflect on the sense of alienation between man and nature in modern society, and the destruction of the natural environment caused by industrialization and overdevelopment. It also arouses people’s awareness of the need to cherish and protect the natural environment, and rebuild a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature.
Liu Jiahui is a lecturer from the College of Chinese Language and Literature at Hunan University.