Lao She (low shuh) is one of the major writers of twentieth century China; moreover, he is a novelist, rare among Chinese writers of his period, whose work has tremendous appeal for international readers. Born in Beijing on February 3, 1899, he was the son of an impoverished Manchu Bannerman; his father was killed in 1900 during the fighting (known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion) between the Yi He Tuan movement and the Western powers. Both his childhood poverty and his minority Manchu ancestry tended to set him apart from the mainstream of Chinese life and literary circles. These aspects of his life are richly evoked in the posthumously published Beneath the Red Banner, his unfinished autobiographical novel dealing with life in Peking at the turn of the century.
As a poor Manchu, Lao She understood early in life that, with China in political and social upheaval after the Manchu abdication and the 1911 Revolution, he would have to study with great diligence in order to have a satisfactory future. Thus he became a brilliant student at Peking Normal School, from which he was graduated in 1917. He continued his studies at the National Higher Normal College and Yenching University, while holding various teaching and administrative posts. A major turning point in his life came in 1924, when he left for England, where he held a lectureship at the School of Oriental Studies (University of London) until 1929. This period marks the apprenticeship of Lao She as a novelist; under the influence of Charles Dickens, he wrote his first three novels. The first, Lao Zhang di zhexue (the philosophy of Lao Chang), is notable for its experimental use of baihua (the vernacular) and humor, features of his writing which he continued to refine throughout his career. While all three London novels are generally regarded as uneven, they were immensely popular, and they engaged the dilemmas of China: the need for a renewed sense of national identity and for strong character in a society floundering between the death of the traditional order and the uncertain birth of a new order.
With his literary reputation in China established, Lao She returned in 1930 and continued to write while he taught in Jinan, at Cheeloo University, a missionary college. (He had converted to Christianity.) Two works stand out in this period: Cat Country, a bitter satirical novel, and Divorce, a study of alienation and a highly successful psychological novel. Cat Country is a devastating exposé of the weaknesses of Chinese society, politics, and character which spares neither the Kuomintang nor the Communist Party, the traditionalists, and the revolutionary youth. This vitriolic novel, set in a cat kingdom on Mars, presents one of the darkest visions of China on record. At times, the acid observations on such matters as the revolutionary students, with their blind faith in “everybodyovskyism” and their mindless genuflection before the Great God Marsky, sound like a terrifying and precise prophecy of the Cultural Revolution in the China of the 1960’s. What drives the savage indignation of the satire, however, is Lao She’s profound love and concern for China, his fundamentally patriotic vision.
By the mid-1930’s, Lao She was teaching at Shandong University in Qingdao, where he wrote his masterpiece, Rickshaw (also translated as Camel Xiangzi and, earlier, Rickshaw Boy). This celebrated novel tells the tragic story of Camel Xiangzi, a Beijing rickshaw puller who exemplifies the pride, honor, and integrity of poor working people. For all of his physical and moral strength, however, Xiangzi is finally broken and morally devastated by the inexorable forces at work in a corrupt society. This powerful tale is justly known as one of the finest works of modern Chinese literature–indeed, as its best-selling translations into many languages confirm, it is a modern classic. The reader must be cautious when selecting a version to read; for example, in the American version of 1945, Rickshaw Boy, the translator meddled with the text, sentimentalized the tragic vision, and provided the novel with a happy ending. Also false to the spirit of the novel is the later “authorized” (published in China) translation into English, Camel Xiangzi, which has many omissions and also alters the conclusion.
Japanese aggression intensified to full-scale war against China, and Lao She, along with millions of other Chinese citizens, fled to the interior. From 1938, he headed the All China Association of Writers and Artists Against Aggression with great skill. The times demanded a rallying of the national spirit; thus, he produced many popular plays, stories, skits, and ballads throughout the war years. Most of this work, perhaps too readily, has been dismissed as merely propagandistic. In 1946, after the war with Japan was over, he lived in New York for three years, working on Sishi dongtang (four generations under one roof), an ambitious trilogy dealing with Chinese life under the Japanese occupation. In 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, Lao She returned to Beijing.
While most observers regard Lao She as apolitical and nonideological, it is clear that he embraced Chairman Mao Zedong’s New China, and for a time in the 1950’s, it seemed as if the Communist Revolution would redeem his long-held vision of renewal for China and liberation for all men and women in a hardworking, dedicated, self-sacrificing society. He held many political positions and wrote prolifically, especially plays, which were more or less true to the Maoist line. Dragon Beard Ditch, for example, was a very popular play which approved the new regime and its successful efforts to clean up a poor neighborhood, provide work for the unemployed, and give the people decent lives. For this work, Lao She was proclaimed Artist of the People. His most successful play, however was Teahouse, which, through skillful characterization and effective dialogue, evoked the sweep of modern Chinese history; although it is anything but optimistic propaganda for Mao’s revolution, it basically affirms the movement toward renewal and liberation. Inevitably, however, it was criticized for lacking the correct political orientation, and in the frequent political campaigns against intellectuals, Lao She’s work came under increasing scrutiny. In spite of the insistent pressure on writers to subordinate literature to politics, he spoke out against political jargon and for artistic freedom. As China slid into the years of chaos in the 1960’s Lao She and most Chinese writers and artists became the vicitims of relentless ideological and physical attack. Among his works which were denounced by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Cat Country figured prominently. In August of 1966, Lao She was interrogated, humiliated, and beaten severely by Red Guards and then driven to “suicide”–according to the official story for some years after his death. The accumulated evidence since his official rehabilitation in 1978 suggests that he was murdered by the Red Guards.
The place of Lao She in Chinese literature is secure, and the greatness of Rickshaw is universally acknowledged; however, balanced assessment is made more difficult by the complexities of Chinese history. This much is clear: Lao She, as man and artist, is a tragic, symbolic figure, both student and victim of the chaotic human condition in the twentieth century. What finally matters most is not his putative identity as “liberal humanist” or “Confucian socialist,” Christian or Communist, but the fact that he was a dedicated and prolific artist whose work moves readers (no matter what nationality) through his profound compassion for the underdog, his genuine love for China, his sense of place, character, and values, and his timeless and universal vision of freedom, responsibility, and human dignity.