Lao Can youji, 1904-1907 (serial; The Travels of Lao Ts'an, 1952, revised 1990)
Lao Can youji erji, 1907 (serial; A Nun of Taishan, 1936)
Tieyun shicun, 1980
Tieyun canggui, 1903
Tieyun cangtao, 1904
Tieyun cang fenghi, 1904
Liu E (lee-EW ay), also called Liu Tieyun, is best known as the author of The Travels of Lao Ts’an, unquestionably the most widely read and discussed work of fiction produced during the turbulent last decade of dynastic China. Born the son of an official, Liu spent his youth following his father, Liu Chengzhong, to various military and civilian posts. His earliest biographer as well as family members described him as a bright but undisciplined youth who went about with unruly companions, disdaining the narrow course of studies required for the civil service examinations and the niche in officialdom to which they led. His restless ways disappointed his mother and set him in conflict with his brother, a stern, dutiful sort who was his senior by seven years. If he did not spend time mastering the official “eight-legged” essays, however, Liu E did indulge his passion for learning of every sort, at a time when the Chinese intelligentsia were still debating the relative importance of practical knowledge and Confucian philosophical substance. His education took a most decisive turn in 1877, when he returned home to Huai-an with his father to observe the mourning period following his grandmother’s passing. For the next half dozen years, he delved into such fields as river control, astronomy, music, and mathematics, taking full advantage of the many books in his father’s collection. He was later to write, or attempt to write, treatises on all these subjects, as well as to compose poetry, engage in commerce (with a notable lack of success), practice medicine, advise a governor on flood control, map the Yellow River in Shandong Province, and gather some of the most important material evidence for the study of the origins of the Chinese writing system.
These latter endeavors, and indeed all the endeavors of Liu E’s eventful adulthood, were evidently motivated by the so-called Taigu philosophy, which he took up during that same period. In search of an intellectual and spiritual basis for his life, he ventured often to neighboring Yangzhou to study with Li Guangxin, the heir to this quasi-religious school of thought, founded in the 1820’s. Blending Daoist esoterica and Buddhist tolerance into a Confucian foundation of social engagement and service, the philosophy fitted Liu E’s inclinations perfectly and can be seen to inform everything about him, including his ready willingness to use foreign methods and foreign capital to industrialize China, as well as his obsession to be of service to humankind. It explains his eagerness to join such enterprises as the Peking Syndicate (Fu Gongsi) and to cooperate with the British and Italians in opening up China’s mines and building railroads. His work with foreigners aroused the jealousy and disapprobation of his more reactionary countrymen, who branded him a traitor (han-chien) to the Chinese cause. Taigu idealism also accounts for his efforts, in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, to purchase rice confiscated by wheat-eating Russian troops in Peking, to resell at deflated prices to the needy populace. Like many of his other endeavors, this one ended in disappointment: He was accused in 1908 of, among other things, illegally selling government grain. He was sent into exile at the western frontier, where he died, dispirited and alone, the following year. If one takes the writing of The Travels of Lao Ts’an as an escape from a career marked as much by frustration and failure as by achievement, one can see why, late in his life, Liu E took up the writing of fiction.
In spite of some notable defenders and aficionados as well as a number of truly outstanding works, fiction in traditional China was never regarded as serious literature, and the evidence is that Liu E took his own venture into fiction writing rather casually. He dashed off much of The Travels of Lao Ts’an a chapter at a sitting, to be published serially first in a magazine and later in a daily newspaper. He reportedly wrote with little reflection after work each day and never looked over the text until it appeared in print. Initially he had neither plan nor principle and wanted only to produce something to amuse his friends. The enthusiastic reception The Travels of Lao Ts’an quickly enjoyed had never been anticipated. It was to honor his wishes that, for a time after his death, his family ignored erroneous speculation concerning the authorship of The Travels of Lao Ts’an; like other Chinese fiction writers, he had used a pseudonym.
The traditional lack of respect for fiction, an attitude Liu E shared, also explains the close ties to fact in The Travels of Lao Ts’an. The hero is clearly the author’s alter ego: Lao Ts’an’s formal name, T’ieh Ying, is nearly homophonous in Liu E’s southern dialect with T’ieh-yun, the name by which Liu E was usually known. Like Liu E, Lao Ts’an practices medicine and is intent on curing the ills of his society. Lao Ts’an’s expertise on water control parallels Liu E’s, just as the deference paid to Lao Ts’an by those in power can best be understood as reflective of Liu E’s actual status among officials. Lao Ts’an lives and travels in Shandong Province in the late 1880’s, when he is in his thirties, just as Liu E did. Finally, despite an allegorical opening chapter in which China is compared to a foundering ship lost in stormy seas, places referred to correspond closely to actual locales, just as all narrated events, including those within a dream, adhere invariably to chronological order.
The unwillingness to play with time and place is a telling indication of Liu E’s brand of fiction, which, unlike many modern novels, ties itself inextricably to its external context. For this reason, Chinese critics of The Travels of Lao Ts’an, in trying to account for its undeniable appeal, have tended to dwell more on its descriptive brilliance than on any structured artistic vision. Despite his use of fiction as a temporary respite from harsh reality, Liu E was an important precursor of many modern Chinese authors, who continue his penchant for social commentary and follow his lead in exploring the expressive potential of the vernacular Chinese language.