Originally published on Rue89-4/09/2009.
A Christian and Manchu writer:
In August 1900, European armies stormed the Forbidden City in Beijing, among the victims, a Manchu guard, the father of a baby, 18 months old, who will become known as Lao She. A family of eight children who survived the difficulties with house cleaning and loundry jobs by an illiterate mother. An uncle, who became a monk, will finance his education continued at the Ecole Normale. Nineteen years old, he became a graduated teacher.
He is a Manchu and a Beijinger. At that time, Beijing is populated for one third by Manchus who survive with difficulty the fall of the Manchu Qing dynasty and the cancelation of their privileges in 1907. The little Manchu people, policemen, prostitutes, rickshaw pullers, live with difficulty and suffer the hostility of the Han.
Much later, after 1949, Lao She will represent the Manchus in the People’s Assembly. He married a Manchu teacher and during his entire life enjoyed many of the small passions of Beijing inhabitants: chrysanthemums in the yard of his house, love for cats and children, games and jokes with friends in teahouses. Beijing is the main character of his novels.
In 1922, he was baptized and even lived in a church where he was teaching religion courses . Religious faith is a personal matter for him. Not attracted by Christian institutions, he wants a church run by the Chinese and not by Western missionaries.
An English teacher in Beijing recommended him for a position at the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London; he left Beijing in the summer of 1924.
A novelist open to the world:
Unlike many writers of today, the opening to the world, travel, foreign languages, all this was, for this generation, part of the profession of novelist.
As reported by his biographer Britt Towery, he lived in London with an English flatmate, admires the legalism and the sense of responsibility of the British but hates their arrogance, the climate and the food. An experience that he used for a good novel ” The Ma, father and son”(P. Picquier, 2000).
The English novel and Charles Dickens influenced his first book “The Philosophy of Lao Zhang”, serialized in 1926 in a Shanghai magazine.
“Without modesty, I named my book” Philosophy … “now I know better, if I am excellent in something, it is certainly not in the realm of thought. My emotions dictate to my mind constantly.
An area where he is outstanding is humor, and in the description of characters and grotesque situations.
Lao Zhang is an unscrupulous loan shark capable of selling opium next to the school he heads. By strangling his debtors, he seeks to find, for a partner and himself, two young concubines of whom an innocent and an idealist are in love.
Apart from the pleasure of his reading, this book carries most of the topics developed by Lao She, whether it is the situation of the poor, women beaten or sold or the importance of education for the country’s future. He suffers the contempt of foreigners for his countrymen. The corruption of officials is for him a matter of scandal:
“Lao Zhang, you must be part of public administration. If one has the money without holding power, it is like a buffalo with three legs, it does not hold without falling.
He criticizes the intellectuals, idealists like Li Ying, a member of the Salvation Army, but who cannot face the problems of his life and leaves his beloved. Only the rickshaw puller, Zhao Si , a Manchu probably, tries above all to help others; he is a model.
Lao She will judge harshly his first novels.The construction is indeed loose and the constraints of the episodes can be felt. Sometimes the story is overloaded and dialogues are too long but humor redeems everything . We are grateful to the translator Claude Payen and to the Editions Philippe Picquier for publishing in a few years the translation of three novels and many short stories.
After five years in England, he returned to Beijing via France, Germany and Italy, and especially six months in Singapore as a teacher, where he wrote a lovely piece of theater for children (“The Birthday of Xiao Po “).
Nationalism and politics:
China has changed significantly, the confrontation with the Japanese is coming The warlords, the struggles between Nationalists and Communists weaken the country. Lao She then published a very strong satire “City of the Cats,” his only novel directly political.
He is Professor in Shandong and marries a University graduate. His teacher’s job does not suit him, he tries to find in Shanghai a life as a full time writer. But Shanghai is a city too international and the situation of publishing unsettled; he prefers to return to teach in Shandong. He published then successfully a large number of short stories (two collections “The Man who never lies”, P. Picquier 2003 and “People of Beijing” ; Gallimard).
In 1936, the release of “Rickshaw boy” allows him to devote himself to his writing. This serious novel with a strict construction, is a book against feudalism. To survive, we must unite. This is true for the hero of the book but also for the country invaded by the Japanese, who will, specially in Nanjing, slaughter hundred of thousands of civilians.
Lao She launched the magazine “Resist” which uses popular literature as anti Japanese propaganda. He followed the Nationalist government in Chongqing, Sichuan, where he will stay eight years separated from his family. President of the Association of Resistant Writers and Artists, he wrote seven plays (some of which have been translated, Editions You Feng, 2005). He tries to adapt the techniques of european spoken drama .This is new in China and Lao She himself emphasizes the lack of energy of his theater and his limited experience.
The New China:
In 1946 he was invited to the U.S. for a series of conferences. He stayed three years and will not return until after the Communist victory in October 1949. He works on the third part of his long novel “Four Generations Under One Roof”, a great book on life in Beijing during the Japanese occupation.
He supports the new China finally free from foreign domination and feudalism. He is more a nationalist than a revolutionary, and became an official personnality, MP and vice president of the Federation of Writers and Artists. He no longer write novels apart from the very brilliant first chapters of an autobiography “Child of the New Year” which will only be published after his death.
Some of his plays including “The Tea House” are being challenged because of the lack of political commitment. But he does not criticize the Communist Party and consequently is not classified as a “rightist”. The municipality of Beijing has even nominated him “Artist of the People,” which did not prevent a group of Red Guards to accuse him, to ransack his house. He was found drowned in two feet of water in Lake Taiping and the family could not see the body!
A concluding assessment by JMG Le Clezio, the Nobel prize, in his Foreword to “Four Generations …” in 1996:
“Lao She is a modern writer, the one who has expressed with greater force and sincerity the necessity of the Chinese revolution and of the encounter between East and West. The meeting of romantic fantasy, the profusion of traditional Chinese novels and the realism and psychology invented by the European novel in the nineteenth century. “
► “The Philosophy of Lao Zhang”, translated by Claude Payen; P. Picquier, 2009, 280 pages, 19 €.
Photo: Lao She’s house in Beijing (B. Mialaret)