Lao She

Lao She (1899-1966), the pen name of the Manchu writer Shu Qingchun, is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of modern Chinese literature. and was considered one of China’s best hopes for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is best known for his 1937 novel Rickshaw Boy and play Teahouse. Rickshaw Boy, the tragic story of a poor rickshaw puller in Beijing, is so popular that there’s a statue of the main character in the main business district of Beijing. Lao She was widely admired as a “people’s artist. Zhou En-lai, China’s first premier, asked him in 1949 to come back to China after he had moved to New York three years earlier. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, June 24, 2016 -]

“Lao She was one of China’s greatest writers of a “new vernacular Chinese, not the old literary style,”novelist Koonchung Chan told the Wall Street Journal. Chen Nan wrote in the China Daily: Lao She is best known for his vivid descriptions of grassroots lives that reflect social reality and for his precise depictions of local culture in Beijing, especially his unique humor and use of the city's dialect. His novels, including Rickshaw Boy and Four Generations Under One Roof, and his plays, such as Long Xu Gou (Dragon Beard Ditch) and Teahouse, have earned him a stellar reputation as a linguistic and literary master worldwide. [Source: Chen Nan, China Daily, March 7, 2019]

“Lao She committed suicide at Taiping Lake in Beijing in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), leaving a wealth of works that have inspired many generations. For decades, his works have been adapted into plays, movies and TV dramas. Sun Dongxing, a director of some his works, said: "The greatness of Lao She lies in his deep understanding and portrayal of human nature as well as traditional Beijing culture. There is always something connected to our lives through his works. "

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC); Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site ; English Translation PDF File ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project

Lao She’s Life

Lao She was born as Shu Qingchun to a Manchu family in Xiaoyangjuan hutong in Beijing in 1899. His father was an imperial guard who died in battle against foreign armies during the Boxer Rebellion period. Lao She was very fond of his hometown. In Missing Beiping (one of the city's former names), written in 1936, when Lao She lived in Qingdao, Shandong Province, and taught at Shandong University. "I truly love Beiping ... this love doesn't come from minor details, but from the history linked to my heart and soul." [Source: Chen Nan, China Daily, March 7, 2019]

Lao She often went by the Chinese name Su Qingchun in private (the Su standing in for the Manchu surname Sumurua), using Lao She as his nom de plume. Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “Lao She struggled with” issues of alienation and foreignness” in his personal life. He was from the Manchu ethnic minority that had run China for the two hundred and fifty years prior to the empire’s collapse in 1911. That made him an outsider in China, one less bound by Han Chinese nationalism than by concern for a country that was jettisoning its traditional moral and cultural guideposts. In 1922, he converted to Christianity at Beijing’s West City New Church (Gangwashi), still one of the city’s most important places of worship. He took the English name Colin C. Shu and taught classes in moral cultivation and music. But he seems to have stopped practicing after he grew frustrated with the lack of indigenous Christian leadership and the resulting sense that it was yet another imported ideology.

Lao She lived in London from 1924 to 1949. Anne Witchard of the University of Westminster in London wrote “Lao She in London,” whish was an account of the writer’s time in London from 1924-29. The novelist Koonchung Chan author of “The Fat Years,” a dystopian novel, published in 2011 and banned in mainland China, said Lao She wrote his best novels after returning to China from the U.K.

In London, Lao She lived near Bloomsbury and read Conrad and Joyce. Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “He wore khakis because he couldn’t afford tweeds. Lao She also lived in America, for more than three years—on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—but he eventually returned to China and became to Beijing what Victor Hugo was to Paris: the city’s quintessential writer. The Party named him a “People’s Artist.” He resented being asked to produce propaganda, but, like many, he was a loyal servant who poured criticism on his fellow-writers when they fell out with the Party. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

From 1950 to 1966, Lao She lived in a tranquil courtyard house near Beijing’s Temple of Confucius with his wife, the artist Hu Jieqing, and their four children from 1950 to 1966. The house a traditional Beijing style upper class dwelling. It occupied 400 square meters and had buildings and is situated in Fengfu hutong near bustling Wangfujing, a popular shopping street in downtown Beijing. In the courtyard house, Lao She wrote 24 plays and two novels, including Teahouse

Lao She and China

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Rickshaw Boy by Lao She
Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “Lao She tried hard to fit into the new society” when he returned to China after the Communist took over in 1949. “. But almost none of his works lauded the new era of Communist rule. He candidly said that he didn’t understand the new society that Mao was building. In an interview shortly before his death, he told two foreign visitors “I am not a Marxist and, therefore, I cannot feel and think as a Beijing student in May 1966 who sees the situation in a Marxist way.” [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, August 26, 2013]

“Unlike his great contemporary, Lu Xun, Lao She doesn’t put much hope in young people, believing them to be more hopeless than the older generation. As Young Scorpion tells our hero, “In Cat Country we don’t have any young people! We only have different age groupings…. Some of the ‘young’ people among us are even more antique in their thinking than my grandfather.”

“But his criticism of China applied not only to the early twentieth century; many points ring true today. Our narrator is angered by the custom of pulling strings to get ahead — akin to the debilitating practice of guanxi that continues to hobble Chinese society. “If you had an influential friend at court, then you could rocket to the top immediately, no matter what you had studied in college,” Young Scorpion tells him.

“Lao She’s era was defined by the destruction of the imperial order, as well as unrelenting attacks on traditional culture and religion. In some ways, Lao She himself participated in this; he eschewed classical Chinese for the vernacular and his writings indicate he was a strong advocate of reforming education and politics. But he also sensed the danger in these radical changes; and indeed if the country of cats is anything, it’s one morally unmoored. This rootlessness, as Young Scorpion says, “prods our people into taking a backward leap of tens of thousands of years, back to the cannibalism of antiquity.”

Lao She’s Works

Lao She has had several books translated into English, most notably “Cat City” and “The Rickshaw Boy”. The later is a novel written in the 1930s and set in the 1920s about a young Beijing rickshaw driver, whose encounters with injustice turn him into a “degenerate, selfish, hapless product of a sick society.” The novel was praised for its engaging and realistic portrayal of everyday life and a film based on it won a major cinematic award.

Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “Lao She’s best-known works are the novel Rickshaw Boy and the play Teahouse, both of which describe the challenges faced by ordinary people in China’s turbulent twentieth century. A champion of vernacular Chinese, he was one of the first to capture how people really spoke, especially the dialect of his beloved Beijing. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, August 26, 2013]

Lao She's novel The Story of Niu Tianci was published in 1934. Compared with his other works i is little-known but his daughter Shu Ji likes it very much and says it's a pity to ignore such a great novel. “Fang Xu, a Beijing native, is a director, scriptwriter and actor known for adapting Lao She's works into plays, told the China Daily, "The story is about a young man's struggle against his social environment. I am sure that audiences will find the story interesting and connect to it. I am very excited about the play.

“Teahouse”, Lao She’s best-known drama, premiered at the Beijing People's Art Theatre in 1958. Chen Nan wrote in the China Daily: “In 1980, the theater took Teahouse to several European countries, including France, Germany and Switzerland, making it the first Chinese play to tour overseas The three-act production, set in the Yutai Teahouse, a typical, old Beijing establishment, follows the lives of the owner and his customers through three different periods in modern Chinese history, from around 1898 to 1948. It brings a cast of more than 50 to the teahouse to reflect the changes taking place in society during this chaotic time. The Beijing People's Art Theatre, founded in 1952, has staged the play more than 700 times. A recent run ended in 2019 and the performances were so popular that a long line formed early each day to buy tickets. "It's said that Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Chinese actors, especially those with the Beijing People's Art Theatre, are dying to play the role of Wang Lifa, owner of the Yutai Teahouse," said Liang Guanhua, a veteran performer with the theater, who played Wang 20 years ago. [Source: Chen Nan, China Daily, March 7, 2019]

Lao She's genius is not limited to his plays and novels. He also made a significant contribution to Quju Opera, a traditional art form believed to be the only local opera in Beijing. In 1952, Lao She wrote the play The Willow Well, and later called it Quju. Since the founding of the Beijing Quju Opera Troupe in 1959, nearly 10 of Lao She's works have been adapted for the art form, including Rickshaw Boy, Teahouse and Four Generations Under One Roof. “Beneath the Red Banner, written in 1961 and 1962, is the author's unfinished autobiographical novel. In it, he tells of his childhood and family, including portrayals of his father, a soldier who served as a guard with a poor salary, who was killed during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and his mother, who supported the entire family.

“The Drum Singers: (Gushu yiren) is one of Lao She’s lesser known works. Kyle Shernuk wrote: “ Lao She wrote the manuscript for Gushu yiren between 1946 and 1948 while living in America, and then assisted Helena Kuo with her translation of the novel into English, which was published as The Drum Singers in 1952. Disenchanted with American society, however, Lao She decided to return to the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, taking the only known Chinese-language manuscript of the novel with him. Although he intended to publish the novel upon his return to China, the political demands of the new regime made him weary of the apolitical works he had written during his time abroad. These politically incorrect texts vanished in the years following Lao She’s return to China but were used to justify Lao She’s persecution at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, which ultimately lead to his untimely death in 1966.[Source: Kyle Shernuk, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Council on East Asian Studies, Yale University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, June 2021; Book: “A Rethinking the Modern Chinese Canon: Refractions Across the Transpacific” by Clara Iwasaki (Cambria Press, 2020)]

Cat Country

Lao She’s “Cat Country” is considered by some to be the first Chinese science-fiction novel. Debra Bruno wrote: An imaginary country of cats where no one yields the right of way, where foreigners are both feared and treated with an undeserved amount of respect, and where the food is toxic – this could be a modern fable, but it is a novel published in 1932 by Lao She. “Cat Country” is a dystopian story that reads like a hybrid of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” a thinly veiled condemnation of Chinese society that predicts a world of corruption, violence and xenophobia. “Cat Country” is a “very bleak view on the China of his time,” novelist Koonchung Chan told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s on people’s cowardice, betraying each other, and trying to indulge themselves in a kind of hallucinatory world and finding peace with that.” [Source: Debra Bruno, China Real Report, Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2013]

Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “It’s in Cat Country that Lao She stretches himself the furthest, producing one of the most remarkable, perplexing, and prophetic novels of modern China. On one level it is a work of science fiction — a visit to a country of cat-like people on Mars — that lampoons 1930s China. On a deeper level, the work predicts the terror and violence of the early Communist era and the chaos and brutality that led to Lao She’s death, Cat Country is often called a dystopian novel, but when Lao She took his own life, it was an uncannily accurate portrait of the reality around him. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, August 26, 2013]

“The novel tells the story of a Chinese man who crash-lands on Mars. His two companions are killed and he is soon captured by a group of Cat People who run one of the planet’s many countries. After realizing that they lack rudimentary military technology, he frees himself from their clutches by using his pistol to scare them off. He is then befriended by one of Cat Country’s richest and most powerful men, Scorpion, who has a plantation of “reverie” trees, which produce addictive leaves that the Cat People eat. Scorpion takes the narrator under his wing, protecting him from further attacks but also using him as a mercenary to guard his valuable crop.

“Eventually, the two go to Cat City, where the narrator learns about Cat Country’s plight. As he puts it upon entering the city, “As soon as I set eyes on Cat City, for some reason or other, a sentence took form in my mind: this civilization will soon perish!” What follows is a detailed exploration of Cat Country, which can be seen as a direct commentary on 1930s China. “Mr Earth,” as our narrator is called, views the Cat People with a mixture of pity and disgust. The locals are dirty and chaotic, the local food poisonous and unsafe, while modern education and foreign travel have only led to superficial knowledge and alienation from traditions. The narrator’s informant is Scorpion’s son, Young Scorpion, who shows the disorderly state of museums and libraries, which have been pillaged by corrupt officials. Worse are the schools, where nothing is taught and everyone immediately handed a university diploma. In one particularly chilling scene, students dissect their teachers alive.

“Some of Lao She’s sharpest scenes pillory young Cat People who go abroad to study and come back speaking gibberish — a sort of mock Russian that even they can’t understand. The ruling ideology is “Everybody Shareskyism,” whose leader killed the cat-emperor and installed himself at the top. One of its deities is an Uncle Karl and students in one scene cry out, “Long live Uncle Karlskyism! Long live Everybody Shareskyism! Long live Pinsky-pansky Pospos!”

“When Cat Country came out, it was roundly criticized. Some of the criticism seems to reflect a lack of familiarity with satire and its inherent limitations — some wrote that the characters weren’t developed enough or that the plot was somewhat flat. Perhaps more importantly, it was at variance with the critical realism that would eventually come to smother Chinese literature. A few years earlier in 1930, the League of Left-Wing Writers had been formed, a hugely influential group that put pressure on authors to be political. But Cat Country was different. It was a blast of anger and revulsion at all sectors of society, not just the government or landlords, but also students and revolutionaries.

“And yet appreciating Cat Country means shedding some of these labels. When Lao She describes how the emperor is replaced by the head of Everybody Shareskyism, multiple interpretations are possible — not just the role that Chiang Kai-shek was assuming for himself in the 1930s, but the fate of many revolutions, from the French to the Chinese. Equally fascinating is that in 1932, the same yearCat Country was serialized, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World and imagined a product he called “soma” that numbed his dystopian inhabitants into accepting their fate. Like “soma,” Lao She’s “reverie leaves” reflect a concern about the modern state that goes beyond the travails of 1930s China. All of this makes Cat Country an anomaly in Chinese fiction. Lao She was deeply rooted in China, but as a Manchu he was enough of an outsider to go for the jugular when looking at his native land and to eschew the naïve belief, for example, of his great contemporary Lu Xun, that all would be well if China just trusted its youth. Lao She had a clearer view of what could beset a country when the old markers are gone, and in Cat Country he gives us a brutal look at a China we continue to see today.

Mr. Ma and Son and Prejudice Towards Chinese People

"“Mr. Ma and Son” is a a semi-autobiographical novel about the lives of Chinese immigrants in a racist and sinophobic London. Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote: Lao She’s Mr. Ma and Son combines elements from several genres and shifts between tones, mixing melodramatic depictions of romances (that end badly) between star-crossed lovers of different nationalities, with farcical passages describing amusing misunderstandings and cultural clashes between a middle aged British landlord and her daughter, and between the two of them and the Chinese father and son who rent a room in their house. One key element throughout the book, though, is a sustained effort to satirize and debunk the stereotypical views of Chinese people that many Britons held early in the 1900s. Lao She knew these well, having encountered many kinds of bias during the period he spent living and teaching in England while in his 20s (a sojourn insightfully detailed in Anne Witchard’s Lao She in London). [Source: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Asian American Writers' Workshop, February 4, 2014]

“One fascinating thing about Mr. Ma and Son, as Julia Lovell makes clear in her brief, astute “Introduction” to the Penguin edition, is this concern with undermining and correcting misconceptions about China and the Chinese that proliferated in early 20th century British — and more broadly, Western — popular culture. Often, Lao She uses humor to make his points, like when the British landlady in the novel is about to meet potential Chinese renters and puts a copy of a book about opium on the table so that her visitors will see that she knows about their part of the world. That said, the book also has its share of passages that describe, via polemical statements rather than comic twists, how angered Lao She was by the Yellow Peril prejudices of the time (he writes at one point that London’s residents attribute “every crime under the sun” to “the community of hard-working Chinese” living in their midst, “who are simply seeking their living in a strange and foreign land”).

“This brings us to a final contrast between the man of fiction and the man of flesh: Lao She was an eloquent critic of anti-Chinese prejudice, but he was no xenophobe. His feelings about the West were complex and ambiguous. While aggravated by the extent of anti-Chinese sentiment in England, he developed strong friendships with individual Britons he met in London, and despite being infuriated by the racism he encountered, he looked back fondly on his time abroad. Lao She once claimed that he “didn’t need to hear stories about evil ogres eating children and so forth; the foreign devils my mother told me about were more barbaric and cruel than any fairy tale ogre” — and the tales she told, he noted, were “100 percent factual, and they directly affected our whole family.” And yet, just months before he was hounded into committing suicide, as Lovell notes in her introduction to Mr. Ma and Son, he was waxing nostalgically to a visiting British couple about the “great kindness” he encountered in England and the beauty of London in springtime.

Death Of Lao She During the Cultural Revolution

On August 23, 1966, as the Cultural Revolution gained momentum, Lao She and 20 other writers were transported to Beijing’s Temple of Confucius, where a mob of 150 teenage girls beat them with bamboo sticks and theater props in a brutal struggle session. Later that night, after the writers were taken to the city’s Culture Bureau offices, Lao She was beaten for hours without end after he refused to wear a placard that said he was a counterrevolutionary. Finally, around midnight, the mob stopped and Lao She was allowed to go home. The next day he left his house in the morning. Later his body was found in a lake. Some say the humiliation Lao She suffered during his struggle session drove him to kill himself. His wife Hu Jieqing believed that he was murdered. The exact circumstances surrounding Lao She’s struggle session are still not clear. It’s uncertain who organized the session and whether Lao She attended voluntarily or against his will. It has been suggested the whole event was set up three younger writers who disliked him.

Lao wrote about working class people and met with Mao on a few occasions but even so he was an early victim of Cultural Revolution violence. He was a target because he was intellectual, and even worse he had lived in England and later in America. That he had returned from the US when Mao took power in 1949 and produced works in line with Communist norms didn’t spare him. [Source: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Asian American Writers' Workshop, February 4, 2014]

Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “ As the Cultural Revolution unfolded that spring and summer, Lao She’s sort of non-conformity became dangerous. Already sixty-seven, he was ill with bronchitis and had been hospitalized earlier. China’s canny premier, Zhou Enlai, reportedly advised him to stay put to avoid the turmoil outside, but Lao She was curious and on August 23 had himself discharged. That same day, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, issued an infamous editorial applauding the Red Guards’ “revolutionary spirit” and thus spurring new violence. Lao She was called out of his office at the Beijing Writers’ Union and immediately set upon by the fanatical mob. He was taken to the Confucian temple where religious relics were being burned in a bonfire. He and twenty-eight others were forced to kneel down in front of it for three hours — dubbed a “baptism by fire.” Their heads were shaved, black ink was poured on them and they were beaten. Lao She was singled out for abuse and accused of being an American agent. Accounts say he was beaten with a copper-studded leather belt until he fainted. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, August 26, 2013]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “On August 23, 1966, during the opening weeks of the Cultural Revolution, the order to “Smash the Four Olds” had devolved into a chaotic assault on authority of all kinds. That afternoon, a group of Red Guards summoned” Lao She to the front gate of the Confucius Temple near his home. Lao She had grown up not far from the temple, in poverty. “A group of Red Guards — mostly schoolgirls of fifteen and sixteen—pushed him through the gates of the temple and forced him to kneel on the flagstones beside a bonfire, among other writers and artists. His accusers denounced him for his ties to America and for amassing dollars, a common accusation at the time. They shouted “Down with the anti-Party elements!” and used leather belts with heavy brass buckles to whip the old men and women. Lao She was bleeding from the head, but he remained conscious. Three hours later, he was taken to a police station, where his wife retrieved him. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

Johnson wrote: Lao She was “told to report to work the next day wearing the placard. When he got home, he found that his house had been ransacked, manuscripts burned and his prized collection of art strewn across the courtyard. The next day, instead of going to work, he walked to the Lake of Great Peace. Osnos wrote: Lao She rose early and walked northwest to the Lake of Great Peace. He read poetry and wrote until the sun set. Then he took off his shirt and draped it over a tree branch, loaded his pockets with stones, and walked into the lake.

The next day his body was found floating in the waters, several of Mao’s poems scattered about. Lao She’s death came during “Red August,” a particularly bloody period during the Cultural Revolution. That month in Beijing, 1,772 people were killed or committed suicide, calling to mind some of the chilling lines from Cat Country: “You see, adherents of Everybody Shareskyism will kill a man without thinking twice about it.And thus now it is a very common occurrence to see students butchering teachers, professors, chancellors, and principals.”

After Lao She’s Death During the Cultural Revolution

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: ““When the body was discovered the next day, his son, Shu Yi, was summoned to collect it. The police had found his father’s clothes, his cane, his glasses, and his pen, as well as a sheaf of papers that he had left behind. The official ruling on his death declared that Lao She had “isolated himself from the people.” He was a “counter-revolutionary” and was barred from receiving a proper burial. The body was cremated without ceremony. His widow and children put his spectacles and his pen into a casket and buried it. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

I wondered about the son, Shu Yi. He would be in his seventies now, older than his father was when he died. I asked around and discovered that he lived only a few minutes’ walk from my house. He invited me over. Shu Yi had white hair and a heavy, kind face, and his apartment was cluttered with books and scrolls and paintings. As we talked, a soft breeze blew in the window from a nearby canal. I asked if he had ever learned more about his father’s suicide. “It’s hard to know exactly, but I think his death was his final act of struggle,” Shu Yi said. “Many years later, I came upon an article called ‘Poets,’ which he had written in 1941”—a quarter century before he died. “He wrote, ‘Poets are a strange crowd. When everyone else is happy, the poets can say things that are discouraging. When everyone else is sorrowful, the poets can laugh and dance. But when the nation is in danger they must drown themselves and let their deaths be a warning in the name of truth.’ ”

“This sacrifice was a tradition in China, dating to the third century B.C., when the poet Qu Yuan drowned himself in protest against corruption. Shu Yi told me, “By doing so, they are fighting back, telling others what the truth really is.” His father, he said, “would rather break than bend.” After I talked to Shu Yi, I went back to see Wu Zhiyou, the head of the temple, and asked him about the story of Lao She’s final night. He gave a short sigh and said, “It’s true. During the Cultural Revolution, there were struggle sessions here. Afterward, Lao She went home and threw himself in the lake. This can be described as a historical fact.”

“Why had the temple’s written history made no mention of it? Wu struggled to find an answer, and I braced myself for a dose of propaganda. But then he said, “It’s too sad. It makes people too sad. I think it’s best not to include this in books. It’s factual, it’s history, but it was not because of the temple. It was because of the time. It doesn’t belong in the records of the Confucius Temple.” I understood his point, but the explanation felt incomplete. Lao She was beaten in the temple because it was a place of learning, of ideas, of history; the permission to attack one of China’s most famous novelists was, like so much of the Cultural Revolution, the permission to attack what it meant to be Chinese, and in the decades since then the Party and the people had never reconciled all that they lost in those moments. Even if someone wanted to mark the site where Beijing’s greatest chronicler ended his life, it would be difficult; the Lake of Great Peace was filled in decades ago, during an extension of the subway system. I have often marvelled at how much people in China have managed to put behind them: revolution, war, poverty, and the upheavals of the present. My neighbor Huang lived with his mother, who was eighty-eight. When I once asked her if she had photos of her family, she said, “They were burned during the Cultural Revolution.” And then she laughed—the particular hollow laugh that the Chinese reserve for awful things."

Lao She’s Legacy

Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “ “After the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, Lao She was rehabilitated. It was during this era that Cat Country was finally republished in mainland China. The author’s death is still a sensitive topic. In 2013 “a play based on Cat Country was performed to enthusiastic audiences in several Chinese cities, but the novel continues to occupy an uncomfortable place in modern Chinese literature. While it can be seen as part of the long tradition in Chinese writing of fantastical encounters with strange peoples, its Martian setting also makes it an early work of Chinese science fiction, a genre the Communist Party has long viewed with suspicion. (In the early Eighties, science fiction was deemed to be “spiritual pollution” and most science fiction magazines closed.) [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, August 26, 2013]

Debra Bruno wrote: Whether Lao She’s books will find a wide readership is open for debate. An article in the People’s Daily proclaimed that HarperCollins’ $60,000 payment for the English version of Xiao Bai’s novel “Zu Jie” is a “part of a trend signaling increased interest in Chinese literature” from the West. But some are skeptical Lao She will be one to lead that trend. “I can’t imagine it will sell a whole lot,” says Eric Abrahamsen, editor of Pathlight magazine, which publishes Chinese literature in English translation. “There’s awareness of Lao She in academia, but among readers, I don’t think there’s much awareness at all.” [Source: Debra Bruno, China Real Report, Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2013]

“Then there’s the problem of the writing. Journalist Ian Johnson, says there’s “no way to sugarcoat” the truth that “Cat Country” is not a great novel. Nevertheless, he says he “found it disturbingly compelling as a dissection of China’s problems and as a prophecy for China’s future direction. Lao She couldn’t have intended it to be so, but the book is eerie in how almost everything that is shown comes true in the coming decades.”

The courtyard house near Beijing’s Temple of Confucius that Lao She lived in opened to the public in 1998 as the Lao She Memorial Hall. Chen Nan wrote in the China Daily: "I am a nobody in literary and art circles. For decades, I have been conscientiously writing at my table. I am proud of my diligence. ... I hope that the day I am buried, someone will put up an engraved monument, saying, 'The nobody of literary and art circles, who has fulfilled his duty, sleeps here.'" These words, from Lao She, hang on a gray wall outside the Lao She Memorial Hall. A black-and-white photo of the smiling author hangs next to his words. He Ting, from the memorial hall, said, "It has become a popular tourist site, as the writer is one of the symbols of the city", adding that a large number of valuable books, manuscripts, Lao She's possessions and photos are displayed at the venue, providing snapshots of his life. [Source: Chen Nan, China Daily, March 7, 2019]

Staging Lao She’s Dramas

Fang Xu, a Beijing native, is a director, scriptwriter and actor known for adapting Lao She's works into plays. Chen Nan wrote in the China Daily: “Standing in the courtyard at the memorial hall and looking at the two persimmon trees planted by the writer and his wife in the spring of 1953, Fang said: "Lao She was a great writer because he was sensitive and observational. He was a great man because he loved life." Fang, 53 in 2019, who graduated from the directing department at the Central Academy of Drama, started adapting Lao She's works in 2011. His first attempt, a one-man show based on the writer's novel The Life of Mine, tells the sad story of a lowly-ranked policeman in Beijing in the early 20th century. It was a big success when it premiered at the academy. "I still clearly remember that after the first performance, a cleaner at the theater came up to me and said that she had enjoyed watching the play. She told me that she saw herself in the production," Fang said. "That really touched me. It made me realize the magic of Lao She's language, which transcends time and space."[Source: Chen Nan, China Daily, March 7, 2019]

Since then, Fang has adapted Lao She's novels Divorce and Cat Country into plays. In 2012, he also performed in one of acclaimed director Lin Zhaohua's plays, Five Acts of Life, a combination of five short stories by Lao She depicting the tragedy and comedy in ordinary people's lives in Beijing in the early 1900s. Like Lao She, Fang grew up in a courtyard in a populated hutong in Beijing, which makes him feel connected to the writer's work. "The characters in his works remind me of my neighbors in the hutong when I was a child. They are so ordinary, vivid and real, which is fascinating to me," he said.

“In 2016, Fang directed another stage production, Mr Ma and Son, based on the novel of the same title, which draws largely on Lao She's experience when he taught Mandarin at the University of London from 1924 to 1929. The novel gives a unique view of what life was like for Chinese in 1920s London by telling the story of Ma Zeren and his son Ma Wei, who run an antiques shop near St Paul's Cathedral. Mr Ma and Son was adapted as a TV drama in 1999, starring actors Chen Daoming and Liang Guanhua. It was published in English by Penguin Classics in 2013.

“Shu Ji, 86, Lao She's eldest daughter, said her father wrote more than 50 short stories, and those being adapted for Fang's play were authored while he was teaching at Cheeloo and Shandong universities in Jinan, capital of Shandong province. "His language is simple but sharp. The characters he wrote decades ago are still relevant in contemporary society," Shu said. She is supportive of Fang's adaptations of her father's works, and under her recommendation he is working on a version of Lao She's novel The Story of Niu Tianci, which was published in 1934.

“Fang's latest production is the play Lao She's Six Stories, based on six short stories. Written in 1934 and 1935, they look at the lives and struggles of ordinary people, such as a young couple who live a hand-to-mouth existence. The stories also examine the relationships between neighbors. For the anniversary celebrations of Lao She’s 120th birthday, the Beijing Quju Opera Troupe presented performances adapted from Lao She's works.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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