LAO SHE, PEN NAME OF SHU QINGCHUN (1899—1966) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

LAO SHE, PEN NAME OF SHU QINGCHUN (1899—1966). Novelist. A Beijing native of Manchu nationality, Lao She lost his father, who fought the Boxers as a garrison soldier in the imperial army. As a child, Lao mingled with rickshaw pullers, peddlers, street singers, and other such lower-class people and learned the language and culture of the street, which would become the center of his writing. Upon graduation from the Beijing Normal School in 1918, Lao She was made principal of a primary school. In the following year, the May Fourth Movement broke out. Not an active participant, Lao She was nevertheless inspired by the ideas promoted by its proponents: democracy, science, and personal emancipation.

In the summer of 1924, Lao She took up a position as a lecturer in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. This trip would prove to be pivotal in his writing career. Inspired by the English novels he had read, particularly those written by Charles Dickens, Lao She tried his hand at writing novels. Adept at telling the stories of the middle and lower classes in Beijing, Lao She depicted in his early works the little people and their struggle for life in the midst of poverty and oppression. The protagonist of Lao Zhang de zhexue (Mr. Zhang’s Philosophy) is a scoundrel whose actions are motivated by greed. While deriding Mr. Zhang’s lack of morality, Lao She treats him as a comic character, giving him a touch of humanity, and thus accentuating the ordinariness of human depravity. The ignorant and incompetent youth in Zhaozi yue (Thus Spake Master Zhao) is another one of Lao She’s flawed characters who idles away his life at mahjong tables and opera houses, seemingly unaffected by the changes brought to China by the May Fourth Movement. Er Ma (Mr. Ma and Son: A Sojourn in London), a novel that reflects the author’s own encounters with the Chinese expatriates in London, chronicles the misfortunes of a man and his son who go to London to run a gift shop. The son is patriotic, proud of being Chinese, but the father worships the West and emulates everything Western. A skilled storyteller and a master of Beijing folklore and dialect, Lao She proves in these novels that he is also a master satirist.

After he returned to China, Lao She published several books including Mao cheng ji (Cat Country: A Satirical Novel of China in the 1930s), a satirical novel focusing on the cat people’s destruction of their educational and political systems out of sheer indifference and their complete abandonment of culture in favor of perpetual revolution. The novel conveys his deep concern for the Chinese society plagued by xenophobia, on the one hand, and the rush to embrace Western culture, on the other. Lihun (Divorce) exposes the injustice of the bureaucratic system through the portrayal of two office clerks, the old-fashioned Big Brother Zhang and the crafty Little Zhao. Lao She is a master storyteller with a great sense of humor and keen moral insights, and nowhere is this talent of his applied more aptly than in the novel Luotuo Xiangzi (Camel Xiangzi), a tragic story of a rickshaw puller. Xiangzi migrates from the countryside to Beijing hoping to make a better life for himself through hard work. His fortune fluctuates, until he is reduced to total disillusionment. Xiangzi’s descent from an ambitious and honest young entrepreneur to a virtual beggar deprived of pride and self-respect represents the physical and moral destruction of the individual at the hands of society’s evils. The vivid characters and the lively language they speak make the novel a uniquely realistic portrayal of city life.

Among Lao She’s works written during the Sino-Japanese War, Si shi tongtang (Four Generations under One Roof) stands out. Inspired by the experience of his family while living in Japanese-occupied Beijing, this monumental novel depicts the hardships, humiliation, and unconquerable spirit of Chinese citizens in their resistance against Japanese aggression. The author’s juxtaposition of the disintegration of a traditional family of four generations under one roof with a beaten nation under foreign occupation highlights the plight of the Chinese people.

After the war, Lao She and the playwright Cao Yu went to America on a lecture tour as guests of the U.S. State Department. When his year-long contract expired, Lao She remained in the United States, where he finished Si shi tongtang, wrote Gushu yiren (The Drum Singers), and assisted Ida Pruitt and Helena Kuo in translating them into English. In December 1949, Lao She returned to Beijing. A much-celebrated writer in Communist China, Lao She assumed a string of largely honorary appointments, including vice president of the Association of Chinese Writers and Artists and vice president of the Chinese Writers’ Association. Despite his busy official schedules, Lao She continued to write, mainly plays, among which Longxu gou (Beard Ditch) and particularly Cha guan (Teahouse: A Play in Three Acts) have received critical acclaim. Lao She’s final work was an unfinished novel entitled Zhenghong qi xia (Beneath the Red Banner), which was published in 1980, 14 years after the author’s death. It chronicles the decline of the bannermen, the original military troops of the Manchu rulers. At the onset of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Lao She became one of the first targets of the Red Guards. He committed suicide by drowning himself in a lake on the outskirts of Beijing, tragically ending a life of literary eminence. See also SPOKEN DRAMA.