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|Lao Shê (1899-1966) - also Lao She - pseudonym of Shu Sheyou, original name Shu Qingchun|
Chinese playwright and author of humorous, satiric novels and short stories. Lao Shê is perhaps best known for his story Lo-t'o Hsiang Tzu (1936, Rickshaw Boy), a twentieth-century classic. An unauthorized and bowdlerized English translation, Rickshaw Boy, with a happy ending, appeared in 1945 and became a U.S. bestseller.
"The person we want to introduce is Hsing Tzu, not Camel Hsiang Tzu, because "Camel is only a nickname. We'll just say Hsiang Tzu for now, having indicated that there is a connection between Camel and Hsiang Tzu." (from Rickshaw)
Shu Qingchun (Lao Shê) was born Shu She-yü of Manchu descent in Beijing. His father, who was a guard soldier for the Quing emperor, died in a street battle during the 1900 Boxer uprising. To support her family and Lao Shê's private tutoring, his mother did laundry. "During my childhood," Lao Shê has later said, "I 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 with a huge mouth and great fangs. And fairy tales are only fairy tales, whereas my mother's stories were 100 percent factual, and they directly affected our whole family." (Lao Shê in Modern Chinese Writers, edited by Helmut Martin and Jeffrey Kinkley, 1992)
Fatherless since early childhood, Lao Shê worked his way through Beijing Teacher's College. After graduation he supported himself and his mother through a series of teaching and administrative posts. He served as a principal of an elementary school at the age of 17, and later he was a district supervisor. Lao Shê spent the years from 1924 to 1929 in London, where he taught Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He also assisted Clement Egerton to thanslate the Chinese classis Chin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus). By reading amongst other things the novels of Charles Dickens, Lao Shê improved his English, and decided to start his first novel. Before leaving England, Lao Shê finished the novel Erh Ma (1929, Ma and Son), which addressed the issue of national prejudices: "But pastor!" she took out a small handkerchief from her purse and wiped her mouth, although there was no need to do so at all, "you think that I can allow two Chinese to cook and eat rats in my house?" The central characters are Mr. Ma and his son Ma Wei, who come to London to take over a curio shop.
In 1930 Lao Shê returned to China and continued to write and teach Chinese at Qilu and Shadong Universities. While in Singapore he planned to write a Conran-like story. "Conrad sometimes depicts the Eastern Archipelago (Nan-yang) as poison for the white men, who cannot make nature submit to them and are swallowed by it," he explained. "I wanted to write exactly the opposite of this. . . ." The manuscript of Ta-ming hu (1931, Lake Ta-ming), about was lost in a fire when a Japanese bomb destroyed the printing press of publishing house, the Commercial Press in Shanghai in January 1932. Lao Shê abandoned the idea of rewriting the novel but in a short novel, Yueyaer (1949, Cresent Moon), he returned to an incident used in the work.
Mao-ch'eng chi (1933, Cat Country) was a bitter satire about Chinese society. Written in first person, the narrator tells of his adventures in Mars, where he is captured by the lazy inhabitants, the Cat people. He discovers that the national food is made of "narcotic leaves" and sees the different sides of the society: crowded cities, the desperate position of concubines, the failures of educational programmes and the corruption of the political system. After the country is invaded he returns to China in the plane of a French explorer. Liu Hun (1933, The Quest for Love of Lao Lee) told of a dreamer and lover of books, who is married to a simple village girl and who sees in the attractive Mrs. Ma the woman of his life. Since 1949 the novel has been published several times. In a revised version certain passages have been omitted and the "Communist Party" had been replaced by "Disorder Party" of "Revolutionary Party."
In Niu T'ien-tz'u chuan (1934, Heavensent), partly modelled on Fielding's Tom Jones, Lao Shê turned again to humor. He reversed his early individualist theme and stressed the futility of the individual's struggle against society as a whole. In Rickshaw Boy Lao Shê traces the degradation and ruin of an industrious Peking rickshaw puller, Camel Xiangzi, a young peasant drawn to the city. To earn his living, he pulls a rented rickshaw from dawn till dark, and enjoys briefly the status of owner-operator. After his wife dies in childbirth, Xiangzi gives up his ambitions and finally dies on a snowy night. Evan King's translation published in 1945 invented new characters and changed the ending. The novel was first serialized in a magazine edited by Lin Yutang.
The outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) radically altered Lao Shê's views. Between the years 1937 and 1945 he wrote a number of plays, worked as a propagandist, and headed the All-China Anti-Japanese Writers Federation. After World War II Lao Shê published a gigantic novel in three parts, Sishi tong tang (abridged translation The Yellow Storm). It dealt with life in Beijing during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. The story focuses mainly on two families: the Qis, a traditional joint family, while the Guans are ambitious, but the plans of Mrs Guan, called Big Red Pumpkin eventually collapse. Among the other characters is a poet, who becomes a leader of the underground movement against the puppet government. Lao Shê himself lived in Chongqing, not in Beijing, during the war.
Between the years 1946 and 1949 Lao She lived in the United States on a cultural grant at the invitation of the Department of State. When the People's Republic was established in 1949, Lao Shê returned to China.
Among Lao Shê's most famous stories is 'Crescent Moon', written in the early stage of his creative life. It depicts the miserable life of a mother and daughter and their deterioration into prostitution. "I used to picture an ideal life, and it would be like a dream," the daughter thinks. "But then, as cruel reality again closed in on me, the dream would quickly pass, and I would feel worse than ever. This world is no dream – it's a living hell." (from 'Crescent Moon')
Lao Shê was a member of the Cultural and Educational Committee in the Government Administration Council, a deputy to the National People's Congress, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, vice-chairman of the All-China Federation of Literature and Art and vice-chairman of the Union of Chinese Writers as well as chairman of the Beijing Federation of Literature and Art. He was named a 'People's Artist' and a 'Great Master of Language'. His plays, such as Lung hsü kou (1951, Dragon Beard Ditch), became ideologically didactic, and did not reach the level of his former work.
Shen Yuan written in 1960, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Boxer uprising, was a four-act play about the Boxers. Lao Shê emphasized the anti-imperialistic zeal of the Boxers and the burning and killing carried out by the allied powers. During the Cultural Revolution, Lao Shê was publicly denounced and criticized as an active counterrevolutionary, and like a number of other writers and intellectuals, he was subjected to physical torture. At a struggle meeting, he was brutally beaten.
On October 24, 1966, Lao Shê was murdered or driven to suicide; he was found drowned in a Taiping Lake. When his body was cremated, his family was not allowed to retain his ashes. In the empty container, his family placed small items that had belonged to him – a pair of glasses, a pen, a brush and also some jasmine tea-leaves. Lao She's last work, the unfinished autobiographical sketch The Drum Singers, was first published in English in the United States.
Since the fall of Chiang Ch'ing in 1971, a guiding hand of the Cultural Revolution, Lao Shê's works have been republished. He was posthumously "rehabilitated" in 1979 by the Communist Party. Lao Shê's son, the writer and curator of Beijing Modern Art Museum Shu Yi, has written several books on his father.
Throughout decades, Lao Shê's stories have inspired filmmakers, including This Life of Mine (1950, dir. by Shi Hui), Dragon Beard Ditch (1952, dir. by Xian Qun), Rickshaw Boy (1982, dir. by Zifeng Ling), The Teahouse (1982, dir. by Xie Tian), The Crescent Moon (1986, dir. by Huo Zhuang), The Drum Singers (1987, dir. by Tian Zhuangzhuang), and The Divorce. Tian Zhuangzhuang's film version of The Drum Singers (1987) was mostly shot on location in Sichuan.
Lao Shê's most frequently performed plays is Cha Guan (Teahouse), which was written in 1957. The events are set in the Beijing teahouse of Wang Lifa during three different periods: 1898 under the empire, the 1910s under the warlords and around 1945 after WW II. "In the teahouses one could hear the most absurd stories," Lao Shê writes of the scene set in 1898, "such as how a in a certain place a huge spider had turned into a demon and was then struck by lightning. One could also come in contact with the strangest of views; for example, that foreign troops could be prevented from landing by building a Great Wall along the sea coast." Lao Shê follows the lives of Wang and his customers. Ambivalently Wang and his friends demonstate the failure of their lives towards the end by a mock funeral, welcoming the new society. The teahouse is requisitioned as a club and Wang is offered a job as doorman – however, he has already hanged himself. Although the first performance was received with mixed criticism, it it now considered Lao Shê's best play. The Beijing People's Art Theatre performed it in 1980 in West Germany and France during the three-hundredth anniversary of the Comédie-Française.
For further reading: 'A Cultural Critique in the Age of Darkness: Reinterpreting Lao She’s Allegorical Novel Cat Country' by A. Sheng, in Neohelicon, Vol. 37, Number 2 (2010); Cosmopolitanism and Its Discontents: The Dialectic between the Global and the Local in Lao She's Fiction by A.C.Y. Huang, in Modern Language Quaterly, Vol. 69, Number 1 (2008); Lao She, China's Master Storyteller by Britt Towery, et al. (1999); 'Who is Ruan Ming? A Political Mystery in Lao She's Camel Xiangzi' by Zhao Q, in China Information, Vol. 12, Number 3 (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (1995); Fictional Realism in Twentieth Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen by T. Wang (1992); Chinesen in London: Lao She's Roman 'Er Ma' by Petra Grossholtforth (1985); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, ed. by Stanley Hochman (1984); 'Two Writers and the Cultural Revolution: Lao She and Chen Jo-hsi by George Kao,' in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 54, No. 1, Spring (1981); Lao She and the Chinese Revolution by R. Vohra (1974); The Evolution of a Modern Chinese Writer: An Analysis of Lao She's Fiction, with Biographical and Bibliographical Appendices by Z. Slupski (1966)