First published in 1947, Cold Nights is set in Chungking in 1944, at the end of World War II. It portrays a Chinese Everyman’s slow death by tuberculosis; his consumption apparently caused less by bacteria in his lungs, and more by the debilitative generational tensions of Republican China. The protagonist is torn between his traditional mother and his modern wife. With air raid alarms sounding through the cold winter nights, it is the arguments between mother and daughter-in-law in their small apartment, that are the most corrosive and frustrating as relationships deteriorate in the social depression and ennui that pervade 1940s China.


The main character, Wang Wen-hsüan, is a sickly copy editor in the wartime capital of the Guomindang government. Good-natured, but dysfunctionally noncommittal and malleable, Wang constantly tries to reconcile the irreconcilable: the cosmopolitan ways of his brazenly unfaithful wife, and the disapproving conservatism of his mother. The reader watches as Wang is stretched impossibly between these two women, caring tenderly for both of them, but, ultimately, literally consumed in his attempts to soothe the discord in the household. Ba Jin doesn’t labour the point with stylized symbols and metaphors, but it is acceptable to suggest that Wang is torn between two mutually exclusive worldviews of conservatism and cosmopolitan modernity, and any attempt to genuinely combine or reconcile these two notions would not only be impossible, but procrastination in the resolution, one way or the other, would ultimately prove deadly. In response to urging to take better care of himself, it is Wang who says, resignedly, “Most Chinese are weak and sickly. Sometimes minor illnesses drag on for most of their lives.”