RENOWNED Chinese writer Ba Jin (1904-2005) lived half of his life in a gray-toned garden villa at 113 Wukang Road built in 1923.
“That happened to be the year when Ba, then named Li Yaotang, left
his family in Sichuan Province for Shanghai,” says Zhou Limin, deputy
director of the Former Residence of Ba Jin and a researcher on Ba’s life
“It was a meaningful year as this young master bid farewell to his
past. He came from a traditional feudal family but chose to become ‘a
new young man of the May 4th (1919) Movement’,” Zhou adds. “It seems
that this house on Wukang Road had been waiting for him to move in.”
Before moving into the villa in 1955, Ba had lived on the top two
floors of a building at 927 Huaihai Road. That home was too small to
house his growing family that included his wife, two children, a nanny,
along with his stepmother and younger sister from Sichuan. Space was so
limited that “their bed was sandwiched between book shelves,” according
to Li Xiaolin, Ba’s daughter.
Covering an area of 1,400 square meters, the Wukang Road villa
comprises a three-story main building, two auxiliary buildings and a
400-square-meter garden. It opened to the public as a Ba Jin memorial
museum in December 2011, six years after the writer’s death in Shanghai.
Tongji University professor and co-author of the book “Shanghai
Wukang Road” Qian Zonghao says for the most part the villa has few
“The building is only graced by an arch and a flip-top with very deep
eaves, which somewhat mirror the prairie-style houses designed by
renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright,” Qian says. “Traditional
British or Baroque houses have shallow eaves while Spanish and modern
houses even have no eaves at all.”
Zhou says that Ba’s wife, famous translator Xiao Shan, wrote to her
husband, who traveled frequently for meetings, several times in the
early 1950s about moving to a bigger house.
“The letters showed Ba wanted a house with a garden where he could
finally concentrate on writing after suffering through the war period
before 1949. He didn’t like apartments,” Zhou says.
At last, they found the garden villa on Wukang Road, where the
commercial office of the former Soviet Union in China was located,
according to the 1947 Shanghai Hong List.
While sorting out the writer’s collection of books, documents and
personal belongings in the house before opening to the public, Zhou and
his team found three rental receipts from 1955 and 1956.
The receipts revealed the original owner of the house was Briton Maud
Pauline Hay, who had returned to the UK and passed away. Pauline’s wife
had commissioned an agent named A. Springborg to sign the rental
contract with Ba. The monthly rent was 144.2 yuan (US$23.3), a steep
price compared with the average monthly salary of 38 yuan to 68 yuan at
According to “Shanghai Wukang Road,” Ba’s family was happy to move
into the garden villa and they even bought some new furniture. The
ground floor featured a sitting room, where the writer hosted his guests
and did interviews.
The bedrooms and study were on the upper floors.
“He was the only writer who received no salary from any institutions
and lived only on payments for his books. He had paid the expensive rent
without asking for a subsidy from the government. Living here seemed to
have a positive impact on his writing as he wrote many famous articles
and novels in this house,” professor Qian adds.
An article written by Ba shortly after he moved in may well describe his life in this home.
“I was telling stories to my five-year-old boy, sitting on the edge
of his bed. Lying in his quilt with eyes wide open, he was quietly
listening while his mother walked by and glanced at his black,
glistening eyes, smiling,” Ba wrote. “His 10-year-old sister went
upstairs after practicing piano and warmly called ‘Mom.’ Her mother then
went to look after her daughter, taking her to the bathroom. Downstairs
lingered happy songs of a young couple passing by ... I walked to the
neighboring study, sat down before my table and held my pen ... I felt
overwhelmed by a happy feeling ... We wish people in every country a
His family’s happy life lasted more than a decade until the “cultural
revolution” (1966-76) broke out. The writer was persecuted as a
“counter-revolutionary.” His wife Xiao Shan was forced to sweep the
streets near their home and died in 1972 of cancer after being denied
medical care until it was too late. Her death had a profound impact on
Ba, who kept Xiao’s urn on the cabinet beside his bed.
After the “cultural revolution,” Ba was elected chairman of the
Chinese Writers’ Association and created the most significant works of
his later years including “Random Thoughts,” a painfully honest
reflection on the turbulent 10 years.
After Ba died in 2005, his family moved out of the house but left
most of the furniture and his personal belongings so they could be
displayed to the public.
“Ba was a careful man who kept everything, including his clothes from
the 1950s until his death, more than 10 radios, almost every reader’s
letter and nearly 80,000 books. It took a lot of work to classify his
collection,” Zhou says, adding they have moved two-thirds of Ba’s book
collection to a nearby storeroom.
Since opening in 2011, the museum has received more than 280,000 visitors, partially due to the appeal of Wukang Road.
Zhou recommends visitors start their tour of the house in the sitting
room on the ground floor, which was where Ba received guests, then move
on to the sun room where the author had written on a window-wide sewing
machine. This floor also features an exhibition room showcasing the
writer’s life. Then go to the second floor to see his bedroom and study.
Visitors can conclude their tour by passing through the old kitchen
to wander in the garden. The original plants in the garden are still
alive and thriving.
“Ba’s garden was very famous in his circle of friends and is
mentioned by some other famous writers including Shen Congwen,” Zhou
According to his research, the magnolia tree was planted by Ba in
1955. He wrote about cherry blossom trees in one of his books and
another famous writer wrote about picking branches of wintersweet
flowers from this garden.
“Ba is often called a great writer. But from checking out his former
home and studying his archives, I discovered he was a very common, but
charismatic, affectionate man,” Zhou says.
“He treated everyone equally and insisted on seeing off every guest
to the iron gate of his garden, whether old or young, in a high or low
social position. He proposed to ‘be honest’ during the period when lies
rolled off tongues all too easily,” the deputy director adds. “He had
always been an independent man, thinking independently, which should be
remembered by modern society, when people easily become slaves for power
Yesterday: House of Maud Pauline Hay and commercial office of the former Soviet Union in the late 1940s
Today: Ba Jin’s Former Residence
Architectural Style: Modern
Address: 113 Wukang Rd
Tips: The house remains largely the same as when Ba Jin lived here,
even including the small vase and small decorations on the cabinet.
(Open from 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Sunday, website www.bjxg.cn)