Friday, May 20, 2011

Lao She's Yellow Storm Staged in Beijing

The month of June, 2011, the Preforming Arts Company presents Lao She's novel "Four Generations" ( "Yellow Storm" in English). This classic of a Beijing family coping with the Japanese invasion of their city in the 1930s is one of Lao She's most moving novels. He based much of it on his own family's experiences.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chapter One


The Storyteller's Art

The old man shifted his long pipe from one hand to the other, pointed it to the sky and with a flourish of his arm held the on-lookers in awe. The dramatic end to another episode held the crowd speechless. His story had been of days long gone, heroes of another time, but to the listeners the events literally transpired before their very eyes.

The pinshujia -- storytelling man -- had once again brought alive the thrilling exploits of generals and emperors of the glory days of the Chinese people. The writer who came to be known as Lao She was always ready to listen to the storyteller as long as possible and as often as he could. He enjoyed the stories told by the professionals on the street corners but also those he heard from family, neighbors and friends. Stories were everywhere and he enjoyed them as much as any young man could. As he grew older his favorite pastime was listening to the pinshujia in the teahouses and neighborhoods of his native Peking.

Oral literature in China came on the scene long before the written variety. The storyteller in ancient China led a precarious life. The stories had to have broad appeal. Most stories were taken from history. As writing and printing developed books, histories and literature were written in wenli, classical Chinese, which only the scholars could read. As far back as the seventh century, there were a number of tales from books, which were quite well known to people in general. The storyteller continued to be the master of the street scene. There the masses learned about other Chinese cultures and customs while being highly entertained by the traveling storyteller.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279) the streets and lanes of the cities and villages always had professional storytellers in abundance. The street corner storytellers came into their own even more in the twelfth century of the Southern Song. Their stories were told with a dramatic quality that held the wide-eyed audience hanging on every word. Often the story would close with a cliff-hanger experience that bought the hearers back the following day. Often, too, they would pause at the most telling and interesting part and pass the hat for those who wanted him to continue the story.

The Storytellers of old made glad or made sad the hearts of their hearers. Some could even make the crowd sing and dance as a writer of the late Ming dynasty era recorded. Cyril Birch in Stories from a Ming Collection tells of one storyteller who “‘in one breath’ could produce seven distinct sounds to represent in realistic fashion the screams of a pig in the successive states of its slaughter.” In his introduction, Birch lists the various categories of storytellers: “The storytellers formed societies, such as the Hsiung-pien-hui [Xiongbian Hui] or ‘Society for Eloquence;’ but each man was in fact a specialist in one or other of the main fields: historical romances, expounding the Buddhist scriptures, or fiction proper, which included stories of love and of crime.”

Several things kept the storyteller working long after literature began to appear in printed form. For one thing, most of the common people could read only a few Chinese characters and make nothing of wenli. Another reason was the stories were usually based on actual historical characters or events, and there was an interest in such things. So many of the common people learned history from the storyteller. Also, it was good theater on market days and special occasions.

Lao She, one of the best loved and most highly respected writers of twentieth century China, spent his lifetime telling stories on paper much like the pinshujia in the marketplace and teahouses. He said he was not a novelist though his novel Camel Xiangzi (Luotuo Xiangzi or Rickshaw Boy) proves him wrong. He stoutly refused to be called a dramatist, though his play Teahouse (Chaguan) refutes this. He said more than once he was merely a “storyteller.” Lao She was right in that statement, for he was first and foremost a teller of tales. He brought the smallest matter, person or event into sharp focus with his natural humor and compassionate insight. The everyday things of the average person's experience took on new life with his pen. He was first and last a shuo pingshu ren, a teller of tales -- a storyteller -- a master storyteller.

From his first writings to his last he ridiculed the traditional approaches to life, the pseudo scholarship of those seeking only position and status. He felt a great deal of China's backwardness was a result of tradition, superstition, and a total lack of national pride. As a storyteller he revealed these challenges to those that would read. He was one of a handful of writers in mid-twentieth century China that helped to mold a writing style that spoke to all kinds of people.

He was blessed from an early age with the concept that love was far more important in human relations than was generally practiced. Such a view of life made it a very natural thing for Lao She, at the age of twenty-three, to become a Christian and receive baptism in the Gangwashi Church in Peking. He was gifted with the ability to relate the longings, love and inner hurts of the human creature. He studied and taught in Britain and in the United States as well as in China. Devoted to his hometown of Peking, he wrote about the city and its people more vividly than any other writer.

Lao She early on admired the work of writers like Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. His subtle, understated humor reminds Western readers of Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Dr. Peter Li of Rutgers University calls Lao She “the Charles Dickens of China.” Lao She believed strongly in justice and the importance of tolerance, yet in the end, he received neither from the harassing Red Guards who saw him only through hate-tinted glasses as an “enemy of the people.” Throughout the long history of China no group has consistently been as mistreated, misunderstood, and feared as have the intellectuals. The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang had 460 scholars murdered and their books burned. The heritage of the intellectuals is an honored but tragic one. As China enters the twenty-first century intellectuals (in general terms those who can read and write or have finished high school or college) are still a persecuted and often misunderstood group.

On August 24, 1966, out of a frenzy of fear, life was again taken from one of China's greatest intellectuals. Lao She, who rose from the poorest part of Peking to be acclaimed “the People's Artist,” was suddenly guilty of being sane in an increasingly insane Peking. He who loved his country and longed to see it stand tall with self-respect was not respected by the ignorant, youthful Red Guards and hounded to his death. He was but one of many whose only crime was being human among power-hungry inhumane cliques within the government and the Communist Party. He was an early victim of what came to be know as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was neither cultural nor revolutionary. It was great only in its massive destructive power.

A Manchu Childhood
Lao She was born into a poor Manchu family in Peking February 3, 1899 (the 23rd day of the 12th month of the 24th year of the Guangxu Qing dynasty reign). It was what is called in the lunar calendar xiao nian, or an off year, when the last month of the year has only 29 days, similar to leap year in the Western calendar. On that last day of the lunar year every household in Peking would gather up their posters of the Kitchen God, or Hearth God, and burn them so the gods of the household could return in the smoke to heaven. The Kitchen God was important to almost every household. He looked after the family all year. At the end of each year he returned to heaven to report on the family; so on this day the poster Kitchen God's lips were smeared with sweets, and he was sent off to heaven. The application of the candy or taffy assured his saying only sweet things about the family. In the posters or woodblock prints of the Kitchen God there was usually a servant boy seated nearby. In those days it was said that the servant lad, once he tasted the sweets, usually chose not to go to heaven with the Kitchen God, but chose rather to remain with the family.

For Lao She to be born on the day of the Kitchen God’s departure was taken by his superstitious aunt as a good omen. Lao She possibly expresses this aunt's feeling in his unfinished "autobiographical" novel, Beneath the Red Banner when he wrote: “This little one has some great destiny before him! Maybe that little servant boy there next to the God of the Hearth was so busy eating his candy that he couldn't get to Heaven in time, so now he's going to stay here with us.”

The end of the nineteenth century was a troubled time for north China. Lao She's father, Shu Yongshou, was a Manchu bannerman. When the Manchus first came to China in the seventeenth century and founded the Qing dynasty the troops and families were divided into eight different groups, each with its own flag or banner. Each group of bannermen, as the units were called, were distinguished by the color of the banner. Lao She's father had served in the Imperial Palace as long as anyone could remember. Shu Yongshou's ancestors were from dongbei and had conquered China in 1644. Bannerman Shu Yongshou was known for his bravery and love of country. He was a Manchu of the Manchus. His was not a spirit that endeared Manchu rule to the Chinese. Through the centuries they worked at the art of “learning to live with one another.” To the average Chinese Manchus were foreigners. The Manchus were wise enough to take a Chinese name for their dynasty, the Qing, and to rule as Chinese for the most part.

The Boxer Rebellion
Nearly a year before Lao She was born a group calling themselves the Yihetuan, Righteous Fists United, and known in the West as the Boxers, began demonstrations against the foreign element in China. They aimed their vicious attacks at the growing imperialist expansion and the foreigner's power in China. From Shandong province to Shanxi province they wreaked havoc with any and all foreigners in their path. They mixed ancient secret society oaths with an ample supply of the martial arts causing many to believe they were invincible. Stories about the Boxers snowballed across north China as mighty heroes who could defeat any enemy and ward off sword or bullet without harm.

Much of the unrest among the peasant Boxers was encouraged by Yehenara (Henaladi) or Cixi (Tse-shee, 1835-1908) known in the West as “the empress dowager.” She held de facto power over the Qing government and emperors for forty-eight years. Cixi was the daughter of a Manchu Bannerman stationed in Wuhu, Anhui province. She became the concubine to Emperor Xianfeng (1831-1861); mother of Emperor Tongzhi (1856-1875) and person behind the scenes for Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908) and the last Qing Emperor, Pu Yi (1905-1967). She had just crushed the Hundred Days’ Reforms promoted by intellectuals Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929). Kang, a southerner from Guangdong province, felt that economic and political modernization could easily take the place of the Confucian political and moral framework and produce a strong China. He convinced Emperor Guangxu to support the reforms. Things were looking good until the real power behind the throne, Cixi, learned from her Shandong general, Yuan Shikai, of a possible coup and immediately crushed the reformers and put the emperor in prison.

Everything in China needed reform. Cixi was said to have squandered naval funds to build herself a concrete boat that can still be seen at the Summer Palace outside Peking. More recent research has proven this, and many evil deeds ascribed to her as false. She was a clever woman and had a great say in China’s continued downward spiral during the last half of the 19th century. Cixi, like most emperors and those removed from the people, could not understand the people's desires for change. She was completely unaware of the power of the West. Many of Kang Youwei's reforms came from what he learned about the West. Cixi saw this as merely an excuse to undermine the Qing dynasty. This was the China into which Lao She was born. A government led by an insecure empress dowager, an imprisoned emperor, conservative advisors to the emperor and a crushed reform movement. Add to that unbelievable famines, and the rising tide of racial hatred for foreigners as embodied in the Boxers.

The Boxers, with Cixi's semi-official blessing, brought holy terror to the foreigners and anyone with any relationship to foreigners in commerce or missionary work. Hundreds of Christian missionaries were killed and thousands of Chinese believers suffered death or were made homeless by the Boxers' attacks. By the time Lao She was eighteen months old the ultra-conservative power-block in Guangxu’s court allowed the Boxers to put fear in the foreign community. They looked the other way as Boxers laid siege to the Western diplomatic legations in Peking and threatened the lives of all foreigners in the capital.

A foreign expeditionary force of soldiers from eight nations was mounted to lift the siege of the foreign legations. The Boxers were long gone when the soldiers arrived but this did not stop the foreign troops from causing havoc throughout the city. It was during this attack of the foreign soldiers that Lao She's father was killed. Apparently Shu Yongshou was off duty near the palace area when the confusion of the invading armies broke on Peking. Shu Yongshou was carrying ammunition along Nanchang jie when he was struck and killed. Madam Lao She, Hu Jieqing, said Lao She often spoke of writing a novel about the Boxers because of the death of his father. She wrote about this in a piece entitled “About Beneath the Red Banner:”

His father died in a grain shop on the Southern Long Avenue, when the allied army of the imperialist powers entered Beijing. It was his cousin, also a Manchu soldier, who witnessed it. Actually this was the versatile Cousin Fuhai of Beneath the Red Banner. Defeated in battle, [his cousin] went past the grain shop. As he walked in to look for some water to drink, he happened to see Lao She's father lying there dying. His body had received extensive burns when the gunpowder he was carrying was hit by an incendiary bomb and exploded. Fatally injured, he had crawled into the grain shop to await his death.

Bannerman Shu Yongshou and hundreds of others were killed trying to protect Cixi and the Emperor who, unknown to them, were already safely out of of the city and on their way to Xi'an in west China. Lao She's father should have been considered a hero, along with others killed during the foreign invasion, but all his widow got was a small pension that stopped a few years later when the Qing dynasty finally collapsed.

Lao She's widowed mother made do with the pension money but it was small compensation for their loss. With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911-1912 the Manchu minority, that had ruled China for 267 years, was the first to feel the drastic change of government. In the mid-seventeenth century, when the Ming dynasty fell and the foreign Manchus set up the Qing dynasty, Ming loyalists formed secret societies attempting to retake the throne and bring the Mings back to power. The same sentiments were still in evidence in the twentieth century. The Chinese hated the Manchus and took every opportunity to target them with their hate by bitter attacks. Even an intellectual liberal like Liang Qichao, who was against violence, voiced his disfavor of the Manchus and let it be known he would take revenge on the Manchus whenever possible.

Lao She, with his widowed mother and relatives, lived in the Western District, near the Bao guo si (Protect the Nation Temple) on a small lane called the Small Sheepfold Hutong. It was one of the smallest hutongs in Peking. Even though many of the poorest people lived there they still felt the wrath of the invading Western army.

The foreign soldiers not only routed the Boxers but went street by street looting and sacking the entire city. Just as some of the soldiers reached the Small Sheepfold Hutong, with the people scattering right and left, a basket-like empty trunk was thrown or fell (accounts differ regarding his cover or how it covered him) over the sleeping baby Lao She. He slept through the rampage without even a whimper. Had he roused or cried out he would not have lived to see the sun set. Many years later Lao She would recall what his mother told him about those days of horror. He wrote that her stories about those dreadful days were “engraved deeply in my heart.” He recalls his mother was by no means weak or cowardly. She sat against the wall with his brother and third sister, with the door ajar, waiting for the “foreign devils” to come. Come they did, and bayonetted the family's old yellow dog and ransacked the house, not once, but twice. In a piece on his mother Lao She wrote from his heart what he felt for his mother:

. . . For mother, there were no fears, even though the emperor had taken off, her husband was dead, the foreign invaders were all over the place, and the whole city was engulfed in blood and fire. She was determined to protect her children even under the threat of bayonets and in the midst of a famine.

Growing Up in Old Peking
By the time Lao She was thirteen he had seen enough turmoil to last a lifetime. Cixi was dead and the Qing dynasty had fallen with its infant emperor (the Last Emperor, Asisin-Gioro Pu Yi). The new Republican government had little idea how to run the country. Individual warlords were claiming sections of China as their own domain. The foreigners were continuing their control of commerce and trade. Peking streets were filled with a much-feared military presence. All kinds of revolutionaries were coming out of the closets. Stress and turmoil were the order of the day. Once a fireball, shot from who knows where, landed in their hutong. Amid all this chaos, Lao She recalled years later there was much more good than evil because he had a caring and comforting mother. He wrote often of the calming effect of his mother who

neither panicked nor cried; . . .
she shed her tears deep down inside!

Unfortunately the turmoil did not end when the Qing dynasty breathed its last, and the republican era began. Lao She began his teen years in much the same way his country entered the twentieth century--seeking peace and stability yet finding none.

In his longest novel, Si shi tong tang (Four Generations Under One Roof), Lao She uses his childhood home in the Small Sheepfold Hutong as the setting for a story of Japanese-occupied China. He lived at the Small Sheepfold Hutong address until he was about fourteen. He wrote Four Generations Under One Roof some thirty years later, but his memory did not fail him in his description of the area, the people and their particular customs and life-style. He describes the hutong as being long east and west and very narrow north and south. The north and south gates were not in line as were most Peking streets. Two Chinese date trees grew straight and majestically tall. Beside the south wall stood an apricot tree. At the beginning of summer, when the flowers began to appear on the trees, fragrance filled the courtyard. The apricot tree was not tall, and he could not remember whether or not it bore fruit.

Often in his writings Lao She describes his joy of foliage, trees and their fruit. In Lao She zai Beijing de zuchi it is evident that Lao She had a special relationship to the Small Sheepfold Hutong. Throughout his life he definitely had a special feeling for his old home place. It was more than just where he once lived and first learned of life and love. It was his very beginning--the place of his birth. His roots were in the Small Sheepfold Hutong. He had no intention of leaving or forgetting his roots. He was proud to be from Peking and to be a Manchu. In Xiao renwu zishu Lao She wrote about the Small Sheepfold Hutong as if it were a painting that would never lose its vibrant color:

There was no specific purpose in my memories of the Small Sheepfold Hutong. It was not difficult to write about the people and happenings there as those experiences live in my heart in a very normal way and will forever be as clear and fresh as the days I lived there!

In Four Generations Lao She describes the Little Sheepfold Hutong. Unique for its shape:

It was shaped like a thin-waisted gourd. The neck of the gourd opened into the west main street of the city and was, moreover, very long, very narrow, and very dirty. The entrance was so small that if a person did not look carefully or make inquiry of the postman he could easily miss it. ... And although it was a humble alley, it was not inconvenient for shopping. On the west it opened into a main street; and behind it, was the Temple of National Protection in the courts of which a fair was held six days a month.

Lao She recalls, how as a child, he had no toys, but when his mother washed their cotton-padded jackets he would get a small piece of cotton, and with a raw noodle, make all sorts of imaginary fish or birds with which to play. Though he lacked fancy toys, he enjoyed creating something from nothing. He and his little sister played together more than with his older brother. They liked rainy days because they could play in the mud around the gate of the courtyard. To Lao She's own recollection his brother never played with him. Lao She loved to read and when he was old enough he never hesitated, along with his sisters, to help his mother with her work. She took in laundry, and many a day was spent picking up and delivering clothes. Washing and drying the clothes, especially in winter, was hard on the children, but they did their part. Lao She had nothing but love for his hard-working mother and showed it by helping every way he could.

From Dynasty to Republic
After many failed attempts, the final days of the Qing dynasty began to unfold on October 10, 1911 in the central city of Wuchang. Reform-minded Chinese were hopeful and the now vanquished Manchu minority fearful. In many Manchu-dominated areas there were mass killings by the Han Chinese. Many Manchus took Chinese names to escape detection, and thousands fled Peking, hoping for a new start somewhere else. It did not take long for the republican era to fall victim to the selfish aspirations of naïve and sometimes misguided leaders. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China, had the will to bring China out of feudlism but had too few followers of like vision. In 1912 Sun Yat-sen gave the reins of government to the Shandong general Yuan Shikai. Yuan promptly set about trying to establish his own dynasty and build an empire from the ruins of the Manchus he had served. Fortunately Yuan died in 1916 before he could make all the changes he wanted, but his approach to government led China into nearly two decades of warlordism. From all corners came generals and bandits with their armies to try to gain as much territory as they could. These men, known as warlords, controlled different areas of China at different times. They were from varied backgrounds and held control in a variety of ways. Some were talented military men while others were mere bandits who harassed towns and villages for money and supplies until the people were devastated.

Early Learning Years
Though Lao She had some schooling in a private primary school. His formal school days did not begin until he entered the Peking Number Two Primary School on Xizhimen Street. He was placed in the third grade. His last year in primary school was 1912, the same year the school became a girl's school. So his last year of primary school was in the Nancaochang school in Xizhimen.

School fees delayed Lao She's entrance into school. His widowed mother found it very difficult to raise eight children on a Manchu bannerman's pension. As was often the case in those days, only the physically strongest children survived. Mother Shu, whose family name was Ma, took in washing and mended clothes in order to hold the family together. She came from a small village outside Peking. Lao She remembered it this way:

My mother came from a small village outside the old ramparts of Peking, on the main road from Deshengmen to Dazhong Temple. That village had four or five households, all with the family name of Ma. They all farmed a bit of not very fertile land, but among the villagers of my generation there were also soldiers, carpenters, and constables. Though they were farmers, they could not afford oxen or horses; when they were shorthanded, the women folk had to labor in the fields, too.

That was all I knew about my mother's side of the family. I had no idea what my maternal grandfather or grandmother were like, as they were long dead. Still less did I know anything about the more distant lineage and family history. The poor can only concern themselves with immediate necessities, they have no time to talk about any past glories. I never even heard the word "family tree" in my childhood.

That mother came from a peasant household accounted for her diligence, frugality, honesty and good health. This was a fact of utmost importance, for without a mother of this kind, I would have been a much lesser person than I presently am.

My mother probably married at an early age, because my eldest sister is now an old woman in her sixties, and my eldest niece is one year older than I! I had three brothers and four sisters, but only my first, second and third sisters, my third brother and myself managed to survive to adulthood. I was the youngest son, born when mother was forty-one, by which time my first and second sisters were already married.

Judging from the backgrounds of my brothers-in-law, my family can't have been too badly off before I was born. In those days, marriages were made with strict regard to matching economic and social status. The husband of my eldest sister was a junior official, and my second sister's husband had once owned a tavern; both of them were men of respectable position.

But alas, poor me, I brought misfortune on the family. Mother swooned as soon as I was delivered and did not open her eyes and see her youngest son until the middle of the night. If it had not been for my eldest sister , who snuggled me to her breast, I would have frozen to death.

... I was taught by at least a few dozen teachers, some of whom had great influence on me, some none, but my real teacher who shaped my personality was my mother. She was illiterate, but the education she gave me was one of life.

“Good man” Liu, a close friend of the family -- so close he was called “uncle” by Lao She -- made money and lived very comfortably. The money meant little to him, and when he was eventually defrauded of his wealth, he became a Buddhist monk. One day while Uncle Liu was visiting the Shu home he saw the young Lao She playing in the yard and asked why he was not in school. That was the first time he had realized his nephew had no money to go to school. Lao She helped his mother with her work, but there was not enough money for him to go to the school. Uncle Liu promptly took charge of the situation, paid the school fees and textbook expenses and walked with Lao She to his first day of school. Some twenty-five years later Lao She describes the school as though it were only yesterday:

[The school] was located in a Daoist temple about a quarter of a mile from my home. The temple was not too big but was filled with all kinds of smells--first the smell of opium upon crossing the threshold, then the smell of saccharin (for a sugar mill was located there); further inside, there was the smell of the lavatory and other foul smells. The school was in the main hall. In the small rooms on both sides of the hall there lived the Daoist priests and their families. The hall was dark and cold, and the statues of the gods were covered with yellow cloths. On the altar was placed a memorial tablet of Confucius. All of the students, over thirty of them, sat facing west. A blackboard was hung on the west wall--for this was a reformed private school. The teacher, surnamed Li, was an extremely rigid and extremely kind-hearted middle-aged man. Uncle Liu and my teacher Li “bellowed” for a while, then I was told to bow before the sage and my teacher. My teacher gave me two books, Geography Rhymes and Three Character Classic. There I was, turned into a student.

Uncle Liu made a very deep impression on Lao She. He wrote that “without him, I might never have gone to school. Without him, I might never have discovered any pleasure or meaning in helping other people. . . . I benefited from him both spiritually and materially.” As a Buddhist monk “Good man” Liu was better than ever. His desire to be a real monk outweighed his earthly desires. He was expelled as an abbot of a large temple because he gave away the temple's assets to the poor and needy. But he continued to feed the poor and to read the scriptures free without charge for those who came to his small temple. When he died he was cremated and gem-like bone residue was found among his ashes. In the Buddhist faith such residue is left only by Buddhist saints. Later in a story called “Master Zongyue,” (Zongyue dashi) Lao She wrote that Uncle Liu was “Master Zongyue.”
Xiao Boqing (Lao She’s best man at his 1931 wedding to Hu Jieqing) read Lao She’s story about his Uncle Liu being “Master Zongyue.” After reading the piece, he said the same of Lao She: Lao She “was Master Zongyue.” The Chinese word dashi, translated as “master” is a courtesy title used when addressing a Buddhist monk of exceptional abilities -- a great and saintly man. Lao She exemplified all that was good and kind in the best of Buddhist monks. From his loving, caring mother to his dedicated uncle Liu and later to the Protestant seminarian Bao Leshan (also known as Bao Guanglin) and the Christian writer, Xu Dishan, Lao She was always drawn to people of high moral character; people who made life worth living. He gathered around him people that had the ability to nurture and strengthen his soul. In all of these people there was the exalted spirit of sacrifice.

In 1913 Lao She passed the examination to enter the Peking Number Three Middle School. He only studied there for six months as finances made it impossible for him to continue. He felt if he could get into the Peking Normal School he would be able to get a job and help support his mother in a much better way. There were no tuition fees at the Normal School where uniforms, meals, books and lodging were also free. His only expense was a ten dollar entrance fee. For this his mother worked half a month to raise the ten dollars.

Since he had no money for further study, he took the entrance examination at the Normal School without telling anyone. On one hand he was torn within, feeling he should get a job and help his mother, but his desire to learn continued to hound him.

At the Peking Normal School Lao She gained a foundation in the Chinese language and literature that was to hold him in such good stead in the years to come. Fang Huan and Zong Ziwei were his teachers in classical literature. From them he learned to write poetry and prose in the traditional style. He graduated from Peking Normal School in June of 1918. Almost immediately after graduation he secured a teaching job. The Peking Education Bureau appointed him principal of the Peking Number 17 Public Primary School. Today, the school still exists as the Beijing Fangjia Hutong Primary School.

The situation at home was no easier but at least he could help with the expenses more than before. His third sister got married and his aunt died, leaving his mother alone. In the already noted piece,Wode muqin (My Mother), Lao She tells of his mother's lonely situation:

[Mother] still had to labor from morning till night, but now there was no one to talk to. When Chinese New Year came around, the government was promoting the use of the Gregorian calendar and cancelled the normal Chinese New Year holiday. On New Year's Eve, I got two hours' leave and made my way through the commotion of the crowded streets to my cold and lonely home. Mother smiled. But when she heard that I had to rush back to school, she was stunned. A good long while elapsed before she heaved a sigh. When it was time for me to go, she handed me some peanuts. "Off you go, son," she said. The street was a hive of activity, but I saw nothing through the tears that blurred my eyes. Today, my eyes mist again as memory takes me back to my loving mother on that miserable New Year's Eve.

Leaving his hard-working mother was never easy for Lao She. He was parted from her later when he went to England and again during the Japanese War of Aggression. Neither time was it easy to leave her and his beloved Peking. He was in Chongqing during the war with Japan when he learned of his mother's death. The news of her passing had taken a year to reach him. His feelings at the time are a good indication of what she meant to him:
Life was given to me by mother. That I could reach adulthood was made possible by mother's blood and sweat; that I was not a very bad person was because of mother's positive influence. My character and habits were inherited from mother. She had never enjoyed one single day of comfort; even as death approached, she was still living on coarse grain. Oh, what else can I say, what heartache! What heartache!

The Inner Man Develops
To Lao She the only meaningful religion was one with sacrifice at its heart. He saw sacrifice as central to both the Buddhist and the Christian faith. He had a keen sense of appreciation for all religious faith. Religious labels did not mean a great deal to him. In his home he learned early the meaning of sacrifice. He wrote often of the self-sacrificing toil of his widowed mother. Religion can only be experienced personally, issuing from the heart it expresses itself in simple kindness and helpfulness. He wrote about the broken and downtrodden people because he grew up with them as neighbors. He himself was often in dire financial straits. Out of such experiences, not as a observer only but also as participant, he could reveal the human spirit at its worst and at its best. Lao She's life was his religion and his religion was his life. He expressed it in a natural way that did not offend the old culture nor the emerging China.

When he was nineteen, the same year he and three other Primary School principals were sent by the Education Bureau to Jiangsu province to inspect the school situations there, he gave himself a new name. It was customary in old China that when a boy or girl reached the age of twenty they take a “style name,” usually of their own choosing. He took the family name “Shu” and divided the character into its two parts and created the name “She Yu,” meaning to “sacrifice oneself.” Creating a name with such meaning at such an early age reveals a depth of compassion and service few more mature people ever understand or experience. From his style-name, “She Yu,” he developed his well-known penname of Lao She. Lao, means “old,” and “honorable.” She, means “to give up, to sacrifice;” which is what he ultimately did. The new name, Shu Sheyu, was the name he used as his official name. When Lao She's widow, Hu Jieqing, was notified of her husband's death the official document had his name as Shu She Yu. He also took, but seldom used, the English name Colin C. Shu, or C. C. Shu.
It is evident Lao She considered “sacrifice” and “love” as being at the heart of his life and experience. It is also quite evident he was aware of the intellectual ferment going on in Peking from 1915-1920. Articles by Chen Duxiu, an early Chinese Marxist, were being read by most university students. In 1915 Chen founded the journal Xin qingnian (New Youth). In one article Chen asked “What kind of character and spirit does Jesus teach?” His answer was: “An exalted spirit of sacrifice: ‘For whosever wishes to save his life shall lose it, and whoever, for my sake, loses his life, shall find it.’” (Matthew 16:25)

Chen went on to add that the spirit and character of Jesus was one of forgiveness, of love and brotherly-kindness. In the closing paragraph of this article Chen summed up what many intellectuals felt about original Christianity and much of what they saw in the foreign mission movement and existing Chinese churches:

Our greatest fear is that politicians today are trying to make use of Christianity for their own purposes. To oppose a neighboring country, they raise such catch-phrases as “Christianity to save the country.” They have forgotten that Jesus came not to save a country, but to save the entire human race for eternal life. They have forgotten that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. They have forgotten Jesus’ command to love our enemies, and to pray for our persecutors. They attack communism as “the greatest evil of the future” and “the doctrine of chaos.” They have forgotten that Christianity is the Good News of the poor and Jesus is the friend of the poor.

There were Chinese intellectuals who recognized the Jesus of the gospels as the incarnation of universal love and hope. At the same time many were unable to see Christ's incarnation and universal love in the established, foreign churches. Sometimes China’s intellectual Christians are referred to as “Cultural Christians” as opposed to the church-centered believer-type. But this terminology is not widely used nor liked by most intellectuals (Christian or non-Christian) in China today.

It was more than two years after Chen’s article that Lao She became a baptized Christian. There is no evidence Lao She ever read this article or was in any way influenced by it. But it reflects his thinking in those years. They were years filled with publications expressing all kinds of reform and revolution. Change was coming to China’s society and government, even in the Christian communities. Lao She's experience in the local Peking church never reached the proportions of Chen Duxiu, Wu Yaozong and Zhao Zichen. Lao She was a careful observer of religious practices and visited churches in China, England and America. He was more drawn to the culture and love found in Christianity than the institutions of Christianity. His Christian faith played a large part in the difficult years before going abroad and sustained him when he was away from his family and loved ones. His faith was a very personal matter as it is with most Chinese. It was not Western Christianity, but Chinese.

Luo Changpei and Other Influences
Luo Changpei, a Manchu and a Christian who later gained fame as a philologist, being a friend of Lao She's from primary school days, was to influence him in many positive ways. During his earliest school days Lao She lived with the Luo family at number 31 Qian Yuan En Si. According to Luo Changpei, Lao She loved nothing better than to go with him after school to teahouses and listen to the storytellers or the traveling musicians and singers of popular folk tunes. Luo Changpei paid for these outings and later noted that Lao She never seemed to have any money. It was evident to most who were with the young Lao She that he was a serious man, who at the same time learned early the importance of humor and the lighter side of life.

Liang Qichao founded The New Fiction Magazine in 1902 and greatly influenced modern Chinese fiction. In the first issue of the journal his article “On the Relationship between Fiction and Public Order” made a profound impression on many, especially the beginning writer Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren, 1881-1936), who came to be known as the father of modern Chinese fiction. Liang Qichao's thesis was that fiction had a great power to influence the masses by presenting models with whom readers can vicariously identify.

The universities and schools around Peking for the ten years from about 1912 to 1922 were filled with teachers and students who had an impact on the literary and social scene in twentieth century China. Lu Xun came to Peking in 1913 and taught at both the Peking Normal University (Shifan daxue) and Peking University. Lu Xun's younger brother, Zhou Zuoren, began teaching at Peking University and Yanjing University in 1917. Hu Shi, with a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, earned a doctorate from Columbia University in New York and headed the Philosophy Department of Peking University in 1917. He was later China's Ambassador to America from 1938 to 1946.

Hu Yepin, a poet from Fujian, was in Peking in 1920. He later married the writer Ding Ling. Hu was arrested and executed by the Nationalist in 1931. Liang Shiqiu, of Zhejiang, graduated from Qinghua University in Peking and after a Harvard degree became China's leading translator of Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. Such was the literary climate that was fermenting in Peking during Lao She's late teens.

The May Fourth Movement
While Lao She was still a student, the First World War ended in Europe with the defeat of the Germans. The Chinese had participated on the side of the Allies, and in Peking they were elated about the victory. The students and workers took the opportunity to destroy the memorial that the Qing had been forced to raise in honor of the Germans killed in the Boxer Rebellion. But their joy was short-lived as news came from the framers of the Treaty of Versailles in France that Japan would be granted Germany's China territories. Such a slap in the face of the Chinese was more than the students of Peking University could take. They took to the streets on May 4, 1919, opposing their government’s weakness in giving to Japan the German territory in Shandong province. They felt that with Germany's defeat in the war all of Shandong should be returned to China proper. Demonstrations against any Western power’s presence in China followed quickly in other major cities. Anti-foreign and Anti-Christian groups sprang up on many of China's campuses in the 1920s.

These student demonstrations were the beginning of the May Fourth Movement. It was a true turning point for the Chinese nation. The Chinese students were disappointed with the democracy of the West. They felt the West could no longer be trusted and if the Chinese were to get a fair deal in world affairs, or at home, they were going to have to stand up to Japan and the West in a much more determined way. The May Fourth Movement, as it developed, had as much influence, if not more, on 20th century China than the 1911 xinhai republican revolution of Sun Yat-sen. It was a changing of the guard. Educated, enlightened young people were taking to the streets and were being heard. Boycotts of Japanese goods got the attention of the commercial and intellectual world. Chinese students had had their fill of the ruling Nationalist Party's inability to conquer the warlords and Chiang Kai-shek's continued kowtowing to the West.

Lao She was twenty in 1919. He was headmaster of one of the Peking elementary schools. Though he did not take part in the Peking University demonstrations on May 4th, it had a tremendous effect upon his life. It ushered in, among other things, the kind of writing that Lao She, Hu Shi, Lu Xun and countless others had been pushing -- the use of baihua, the spoken vernacular that everyone understood.

When the May Fourth Movement exploded on campuses throughout China the students turned more than ever to the use of baihua for propaganda purposes. Hu Shi and others had been trying to popularize the use of baihua, the vernacular or common tongue, so more people could read and understand books, magazines and newspapers. China's literature scene changed forever. The use of baihua appealed to Lao She. It was more like the way people talked. His gift of story-telling had to be told in the language of the people. Lao She had studied using the classical, standard forms of composition. His love of the local Peking dialect, on which modern standard Chinese is based, was easily adapted to the vernacular. It was putting on paper the way people actually talked. Without the movement to write in a freer, clearer style everyone could easily read, Lao She might never have written a single story, nor made the rich heritage of the Peking dialect known beyond the northern capital. The spoken Chinese language of China, including Taiwan, is based on the Peking dialect. His writings have preserved the essence of that dialect.

The May Fourth Movement gradually gave Lao She “a new spirit” (xinling) and “a new pair of eyes” with which to view the world around him. He recognized with horror what the Western imperialist had done to China and would continue to do unless the country awoke from sleep and stood on its own. The Chinese, he felt, must never again let themselves be treated as slaves of the foreigners.

Although Lao She was in Peking when the May Fourth Movement began he confesses to not being in the heat of that original confrontation the Peking students had with the Japanese officials and the Chinese government security forces. As the movement grew he did not become an active participant though he identified with the needs for change. He was in England during the 1920s when the May Fourth incident became the May Fourth Movement and reached deeper into the soul of China’s young generation of intellectuals. Years later he wrote a piece on what the May Fourth Movement meant to him. In part, he wrote:

After my graduation from school ... I was the principal of a small school in Peking when the May Fourth incident occurred. I was not highly educated and there was no way I could become a writer under the circumstances. Hence I have much appreciation for what came to be called the May Fourth Movement.

If there had been no May Fourth Movement I would probably have been the kind of person who is in charge of a small school, carefully taking care of my old mother, and according to custom married and had children, and so on. I definitely would never have had a literary career. May Fourth created the opportunity for me to be a writer.

First of all, traditional thought patterns changed with this Movement for it was anti-feudal. Anti-feudalism made me appreciate the dignity of human life.

Second, May Fourth was anti-imperialistic. I became aware of our national shame. Until then I had no idea how such shame had come upon China. May Fourth showed me what patriotism was. It showed me a way to save my country. Anti-imperialism made me appreciate the dignity of being a Chinese. The Chinese people should not be the slaves of Westerners. These two ideas (anti-feudalism and anti-imperialism) made up the very foundation of my thought and emotions as I began to write.

Finally, May Fourth was a literary movement. Spoken Chinese had become the tool of expression. This broke the manacles that had been put on intellectuals--the manacles of classical Chinese. Nonetheless, using spoken Chinese can't solve the problem. Without new ideas, new feelings, literature is still outdated and stale even if framed in spoken Chinese. People can create new content and form of literature only with the tools of a new spirit, and new expressions. May Fourth gave me a new spirit, and gave me a literary language. Thanks to May Fourth I became a writer, even if not an outstanding one.

As he viewed the changing scene and the need for drastic changes in China's society and government he scorned the slogans and banners that the youth bantered about so carelessly. A cry for change could not be summed up with just words on a banner. He knew the changes had to come from something deeper and more practical than simple mottos that echoed empty hopes. What was needed was a change in the hearts of the people. This could not come about until the masses recognized their real situation and saw the need to make changes.

The Changing Literary Scene
Between 1922 and 1925 hundreds of literary societies organized. Most were begun by students in major cities and led by college professors like Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, Li Dazhao and Liu Fu. In November 1920 Mao Dun (Shen Yanping) was appointed editor of the Short Story Monthly (Xiaoshuo yuebao). Much of the works they published were translations of Tolstoy, Tagore, Byron, Hans Christian Anderson and the literature of oppressed peoples like Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. Even some of the works of Dante and Virgil were included. An Association for literary studies was formed in Peking January 4, 1921 with 21 members including Zhou Zuoren, Mao Dun, and Xu Dishan. Guo Moruo, and others like playwright Tian Han, organized the Creation Society (chuangzao she) in Shanghai. The Society shifted to the left when Guo converted to communism. After ten years the Guomindang closed the society and its publications.

Peking's Gangwashi Church
The Bureau of Education liked Lao She's work, and he was promoted and made supervisor of the Northern Educational Section in Peking. He also taught Chinese at the Number One Middle School. He was later to remark that as a Manchu he taught Chinese strictly for the money. It enabled him to take extension courses at Yanjing University. Bao Leshan (also known as Bao Guanglin -- the name he used when he signed Lao She and Hu Jieqing’s wedding certificate) had recently returned from seminary studies in England. Bao Leshan in addition to nurturing Lao She in the Christian faith introduced him to the advanced study programs at Yanjing. Bao Leshan directed an English night school as well as being an evangelist at the Gangwashi Church. Bao immediately took Lao She under his wing. In addition to his church work and his night school Bao Leshan had some revolutionary ideas of his own. These ideas in the beginning related only to the missionary church with which he worked. He had come to the conviction that for the Protestant church in China to really succeed needed to be directed and financed wholly by the Chinese members. This was not an original thought with Bao, but it was one that was fueled by the times. China's young people felt continued reliance upon the West would only keep China weak. Bao evidently shared these thoughts with Lao She and other young converts. Lao She wanted for his church what he wanted for his country -- self respect and self government. He opposed feudalism and imperialism, and in his search for meaning he found it in universal love and brotherhood (boai zhuyi). A decade later he would write about such an inner struggle in the short story Heibai Li (Black and White Li).

Good Influences: Xu Dishan and Bao Leshan
Another leading factor in Lao She's growing Christian belief was the friendship he developed with Xu Dishan. When they met, Xu Dishan was finishing up a degree in theology at the Yen Ch’ing (Yanjing) School of Religion in Peking. Xu Dishan was born in Taiwan and grew up in Fujian and Guangdong. His father was a Qing government official and traveled and lived abroad many years. Xu Dishan traveled and lived with his family in India, Burma, and Malaysia. He was older than most of this group of aspiring young writers. Xu later played a leading role in the concept and formulation of a revamped Short Story Magazine.

Lao She, Luo Changpei, Xu Dishan and others often shared ideas and dreams over a steaming bowl of jiaozi, the northerners favorite meal of a little minced pork and vegetable shaped into dumplings. During these informal times, Xu Dishan did most of the talking and Lao She did most of the listening. It is likely they discussed everything from politics to religion. Forgiveness and reconciliation were important to Xu Dishan as evidenced from his first published story, Vain Labors of a Spider (“a spider toils in weaving its web”). Forgiveness and reconciliation are a major part of that story. From such discussions Lao She's world was enlarged. It is evident Xu, a devoted Christian, had a great influence upon Lao She's taking the public step of accepting Christ as his personal savior.

Lao She's Christian Experience
In 1922 Lao She received baptism and joined the membership of the Gangwashi Church in the Western District of Peking. He regularly assisted Bao Leshan in the translation of church materials. While doing this work and teaching Sunday school classes on Sunday, he lived at the church. The church was on the back of the lot away from Xisi South Road. The Sunday school rooms and some living quarters were along the side of the entrance to the church property. The following July Lao She wrote an article for the church entitled “Beijing Gangwashi Chinese Christian Church’s Current Situation.” The content of this early piece of his writing is unknown.

Lao She translated a piece by Bao Leshan on “the universal brotherhood of the Christian church” that was printed in the church paper Shengming (Life), number four, volume 3, 1922. It stressed the need for equality in the home of husband and wife, and between men and women in general. It expressed the belief that love for others could create a new world, and that there is a great over riding harmony in Christianity. Bao, seeing the talent Lao She had for writing and translation, introduced him to British lecturer Ai Wenshi (the Chinese name of Professor Evans) at Yanjing University. After Lao She audited Professor Evans’ English classes, the professor recommended him to a post as assistant lecturer in Chinese at the London University School of Oriental Studies. It would be the summer of 1924 before Lao She would be able to take up this post.

In May 1924 the Zhonghua Christian Church Almanac (number seven) printed Lao She's article, “Notes on the Process of Changing the Peking Gangwashi London Church into a Chinese Church.” He signed this piece with the name Shu Sheyu. The fact this approach to China Christianity was not well received is evident in the reactions of foreign mission boards throughout the first half of the twentieth century. There were few missionaries who made it their life's work to foster a Chinese-led church. Most all missionaries wanted it, but few were willing to pay the price in time and effort. Such a dream could only come about from the soil and sweat of the people themselves. And many of them were not ready for such a drastic change in 1922.

Later Bao Leshan became more involved in the revolutionary movement and left the public ministry but did not leave his faith. His views that the Chinese church needed to be directed by the Chinese people was not as widely received as he had hoped. This was not the only reason for his leaving pastoral work, but it was evidently a factor. Zhang Zuolin, the famous northern warlord, was instrumental in keeping the newly founded Republic of China from having any influence in Peking. Bao Leshan headed a group against war of any kind called The No War Party (wei ai hui) and because of such activities once had to flee Peking. Zhang Zuolin, until his death by the Japanese, persecuted both Nationalists and Communist alike. After the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949 Bao Leshan became a full-time English teacher.

The Christian message had been preached in Peking for centuries. The Italian missionary Matteo Ricci planted the faith firmly in the capital before his death there in 1610. In Lao She's day Protestant missionaries had been in Peking for more than fifty years. Christians were fewer in number than on China's southeast coast, and the growth was slower but lively. During the 1920s Zhao Zhichen, Wu Yaozong and others were advocating a stronger Chinese presence in China Christianity. Those with a view to the future knew the time had come for the foreign missionary to move from a directing position into more of a supportive role that would allow the church to develop with more Chinese color and flavor.

Lao She regarded highly the views and insights of Bao Leshan and Xu Dishan; otherwise he might never have become interested in Christianity. Chinese youth were looking for something that would fill the longing they felt personally and for their country. Lao She was not as active a participant in Chinese Christianity following the years with the Gangwashi Church and the Congregational Church (Gongli hui) at Dengshikou in northeast Peking. How much the refusal of the Gangwashi Church to move toward an indigenous ministry had to do with his lack of public Christian activity is not known. It is evident from Lao She's writing and attitude that he never turned away from his personal faith.

Most early 20th century Chinese writers and poets were well informed about the Bible. To many of them it was just good literature. To others it held a spiritual message of loving one's neighbor, and treating people as you would like to be treated. Xu Dishan was a student in Peking University when the May Fourth Movement exploded on the scene. Later his writings revealed a concern with problems greater than those on the immediate horizon. As a Christian he dealt in his stories with the universal problem of sin in human nature to a greater degree than any of his contemporaries. Five hundred years before Christ, Confucius was reputed to have urged the Golden Rule on his hearers. Though many intellectuals of the 1920s were not active in church services and activities they were, in the main, sympathetic to the Christian message. There was a distinction made between the gospel story and the missionary movement and the Chinese church establishment. Most church members were poor, and few had ever heard of “self support” or the blessings of giving and growing into fully independent churches. Such was often viewed as a far-off goal that might one day be reached.

Bao Leshan organized what he called a Shuai zhen hui, for those interested in a sincere and forthright study of the Christian faith and matters of interest to young people. The Shuai zhen hui that Lao She attended averaged about 19 young people at the meetings. Except for Bao and some professional religious church workers, all the members were young intellectuals. Some of them were believers and some were not; some were university graduates and some still college or middle school students. There were also those like Lao She who had completed their formal study and were working. When they met they discussed topics ranging from society and education to culture and religious matters. There were heated discussions about how to build a better society and be of better service to their fellowman and society as a whole.

One Christmas night Bao and Lao She and others met at the church and then walked through the streets and hutongs singing Christmas carols. The group ended up at Bao Leshan's home. The Christmas season was then celebrated with a party and good eats like nian'gao (cakes made of glutenous millet) or xiao'r bing (deep fried vegetable and meat patties). They held contests to see who could tell the best humorous story or joke. As in most Chinese Christmas parties there was a more serious side. They would relate to each other what they had learned recently in life or in their studies. The fellowship they enjoyed was rare and would be treasured by each of them in the turbulent days ahead.

About this time Lao She shared some personal matters from his heart with Luo Changpei. Luo relates it this way in Zhongguo ren yu Zhongguo wen (Chinese people and Chinese culture): One winter Lao She told him, in tears, about selling his winter coat in order to provide his mother with food and clothes. Luo offered to help him with some money but he refused saying the cold winds would make his bones stronger. Lao She went on to say if life for him and his mother became unbearable he hoped Luo Changpei could help him.

It was also about this time that Lao She experienced his first “love from afar” experience. He apparently fell in love and Luo Changpei was willing to act as meiren, or go between. The experience was short-lived and never to be. It seems the girl planned to become a nun. Many years later Lao She ventured to share this most private ordeal in his story Wei Shen (Vision). The story is a good example of love experiences in old China. It was a time when the sexes were segregated. Even in church there were curtains, and sometimes walls, right down the middle of the church auditorium. The women sat on one side and the men on the other. Some churches even had separate side gates for women to enter the grounds and the worship center.

While his life was wrapped around the youth activities of the church his friendship with Xu Dishan grew. Most of Lao She's time was either at the church (where he lived for six months before taking up a teaching position in Tianjin) and the study of English. Xu encouraged Lao She not just to write but to write from his heart. Xu evidently saw the young man's concern for and interest in people as a plus. It was natural for Lao She to write from his heart and go with his emotions. It was not something he had to manufacture. After Xu's untimely death in Hong Kong in 1941, Lao She wrote that Xu was his shi, teacher, but also his very good friend.

Nankai Middle School, Tianjin
In September of 1922 Lao She took up a teaching position at the prestigious Nankai Middle School in Tianjin. It was here he made a life-long friend of a strong Christian gentleman, professor Zhang Bolin. Zhang had been an inspiration to the future Prime Minister of China, Zhou Enlai, when he studied at Nankai. Lao She's first short story, "Xiao Ling'r," was published in the January 1923 Nankai Quarterly. In the story a student is expelled from school for taking part in a demonstration against foreign imperialist encroachments in China. From this simple beginning to the end of his writing career, Lao She stood with the down-and-outers, the common people, rather than the yang cun bai xue, the white-as-snow-always-springtime-privileged-upper-class.

In 1936 Lao She, in his self-deprecating way, wrote about this first bit of “published” writing:

I did contribute a short story to the school publication; but I was just being drafted to fill some space. They said, “an instructor in Chinese should be able to write something,” but I did not feel I even measured up to that remark.

True, I have always been fond of literature, otherwise I would not have become an instructor in Chinese. But to be perfectly honest, I took my teaching job merely as a rice bowl, or as a stepping stone to something. My ambition was to do things, to be a man of action -- at that time I had a certain degree of confidence in myself as a doer. When opportunities came my way perhaps I could be Prime Minister, or something. I was fond of literature, in the same way that I liked my pet dog and pet cat; there was no special effort, nor did I aspire to be an expert in it. If I had continued teaching Chinese I might have been dismissed by the school in a couple of years. That would not have broken my heart but it would have been somewhat inconvenient in the event the Prime Ministership was not immediately available to me. At any rate, up to my twenty-seventh year I had never dreamed that I could write something for publication. That is why today I still do not consider myself a “writer;” I still want to be a doer, and I would be satisfied, to start with, to take over the portfolio of some Ministry in the Cabinet.

He became a master at humorous storytelling because he knew how to laugh at himself first. In his third novel, Er Ma (The Two Mas) he wrote more than once that it was “important to laugh at oneself.” With a less than grand view of himself it was natural for him to bring those he met and heard about into his humorous fold. His bigger-than-life colorful portrayals of human foibles and quirks was not something he had to invent. Zbigniew Slupski said it best in a speech in 1974:

It appears that it was his [Lao She's] talent as a humorist that significantly determined his early work, his sense of the comical, humorous, burlesque and grotesque. . . . Characteristic of Lao She, too, is the other side of this sense of humor -- the tendency to take a tragic view of life.

After Lao She began his teaching at the Nankai Middle School in Tianjin he no longer had any relationship with the Gangwashi Church. He became very close with two pastors of the Congregational Church (Gongli hui) at Dengshikou. The two pastors, Peng Jinzhang and Quan Shaowu, were more open to the changing times. They were in close contact with the laobaixing and the conditions under which the common people lived. They better understood Lao She's and Bao Leshan's desires to have churches with more of a Chinese flavor. Bao's outspoken views made him very unpopular with the north China warlord Zhang Zuolin. Once, when Bao Leshan was in trouble with the warlord (who executed anyone who got in his way, communist or nationalist) his men arrested pastors Peng and Quan because they knew Bao Leshan was often at their church. Primarily Zhang's men suspected them of underground activities because they allowed a Marxist study group, led by Meng Yongqian, to meet in the church from time to time. When no fault could be found with them they were released. By this time Bao Leshan had shaved his head and in disguise fled to Tianjin where he caught a ship for Shanghai. He stayed with church friends there until it was safe for him to return to Peking. These were some of the friends that one day would surface under other circumstances and other names in the writings of Lao She.

In the early 1920s it was almost impossible to tell which way the winds of political power were blowing. The Nationalist government of the Republic of China had few provinces to claim as their own. The warlords were threatening to divide China little by little, some with the help of Western powers. The Communist were just beginning to get the Marxist message out as students sought something that would build a better China than the one they saw before them. Lao She, as he did most of his life, stayed at arm's length from political power brokers, but never lost sight of nor accepted the humiliation his country was going through.

Nearly a decade later when Lao She and Hu Jieqing were planning their wedding Miss Hu wanted an outstanding and influential person perform the cermony. This was the custom of the times. The more famous the master of ceremonies the greater the wedding. She wanted the well-known university professor, Li Mianxi, to perform the ceremony for them. In their lengthy discussions on the matter Lao She said he would rather have one of the laobaixing, a more ordinary person, do the honors. He chose, and his bride agreed, to have Bao Leshan perform (“witness”) the wedding. Many years later at Bao Leshan's funeral Lao She met and visited at length with Pastor Peng Jinzhang. They had not had any contact in almost forty years but both enjoyed a time of remembering those early “revolutionary” times.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

INTRODUCTION to my Lao She book


In my more than forty years of studying and reading Chinese no writer has captured my imagination as has Lao She. His insight, wit and clarity of vision for a better China is as needed today as when he was alive.

He was one of a handful of pioneer visionaries who saw the value of writing about the common people for the common people. He never wanted to do anything but write. He was not a “banner waving” revolutionary, but a man of high principles and ideals for all Chinese and China.

Lao She never joined a political party and took every occasion to point out the foibles of those in authority who abused the power of their position.

He was never in the military but he went where the troops were as the nation fought off the Japanese invaders. His poems, plays and short pieces of that period are not his best but they did help encourage the overthrow of the enemy.

One hundred years ago this year he was born. His work is appreciated today more than at anytime this century. To date Lao She is known only in the Chinese and Asian Study Programs of America’s large universities. It is long overdue for the English-speaking world to get to know him and his world -- A China that in some ways no longer exists.

Purpose: A desire to help in as Christian a way as possible to bring better understanding between the peoples of China and America. To make the Westerner more aware of the many things we hold in common with the Chinese. My 1978 founding of the Tao Foundation was dedicated to using this common ground for building better East-West relationships in the century ahead.

Britt Towery (
Waco, Texas USA
May 6, 1999

Added Appreciation

During the eight years of preparing this book there are many colleagues and friends to whom I owe much. Many Chinese professors of literature in Nanjing, Beijing and the province of Shandong, as well as just plain “lovers” of the writings of Lao She, who have been most helpful.

I am grateful most to Lao She’s son, Shu Yi, and daughter, Shu Ji, both renowned writers in their own right, for writing the Preface. And for Nan Wang Wilson, Shu Ji’s daughter, for helping translate her mother’s and uncle’s words. The whole family have given me an insight into Lao She I could have found no where else.

Madame Lao She, Hu Jieqing, now in her mid-nineties continues to inspire the art world of Beijing. Her gracious gift of books and paintings ha
s helped make the Towery-Lao She Collection the largest outside of China and Japan. The Collection was begun to help students in modern Chinese literature and history in my classes at Baylor University.

In 1998 I donated the Lao She Collection to the Special Collections of the DeGolyer Library of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. The official opening of the Collection will be held in October, 1999, during an International Symposium on Lao She at Southern Methodist University. Professor Lisa Chang Ahnert, director of the Asian Studies Program, and Dr. Jasper Neel, dean of Dedman College, are sponsors of the symposium.

I cannot name all who have helped and encouraged through the years but I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr. and Mrs. Charles Ku, LaVerne and James W. Whitaker, and my lovely and patient wife, Jody, who for 50 years has been most understanding of me and my malady for the purchase of books (and all kinds of strange ideas). Erasmus said, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Jody’s patience, love and encouragement is without price.

Hands on help and encouragement have come from Peter Li of Rutgers University and William A. Lyell of Stanford University. I am thankful for Princeton University’s Perry Link for his kind words about the manuscript. My ever-patient editor, the late Joe B. Swan taught me “writing skills” as only he could do, humor and all.

I am grateful for the opportunity, after our years in Asia, to have taught at Baylor University. Such was made possible by men like former Baylor University President and Chancellor, the late Herbert H. Reynolds; retired Provost and the first director of International Education, John D. Belew; China-born Political Science professor, the late L. Gerald Fielder; Director of American Studies and English professor, James LeMaster; John Jonsson and Loyal Gould among others. Their appreciation of “things Chinese” made my six years at Baylor University a rich experience.

Any mistakes, oversights or errors in this book are mine. As I have said this book is not an indepth study, merely an introduction to the world of modern Chinese literature and especially the fiction of Lao She. Eventually I will post the entire book here.

Waco, Texas

Lao She, China's Master Storyteller

LAO SHE, China’s Master Storyteller
By Britt Towery




In Appreciation, Shu Yi and Shu Ji, children if Lao She

One -- Threshold of a New Era, 1899-1923
The Manchu Years
The Early Years
The Church Years

Two -- Chinese Stories from England, 1924-1930
The Philosophy of Lao Zhang
Zhao Ziyue
The Two Mr. Mas

Three -- Becoming a Writer, 1930-1937
Three books of short stories
City of Cats and Divorce
Camel Xiangzi

Four -- The War Years, 1937-1945
The Japanese Invasion
Patriotic dramas
Four Generations

Five -- The America Experience, 1946-1949
Cultural Exchange
The Yellow Storm
China Through American Eyes
Six -- Hope Abounds, 1950-1960 The New China
Stagecraft: Dragon Beard Ditch
and Teahouse

Seven -- The Human Comedy
Humor is a frame of mind
Humor, Chinese Style
Humorous Selections

Eight -- The Human Tragedy, 1961-1966
The Cultural Revolution
The Beginning of the End
The Death of Lao She: August 24, 1966

1. Ba Jin’s 1999 tribute to Lao She
2. “The Hidden Manchu Literature in Lao She’s
Writing” by Shu Yi
3. Translated story: “A Dog’s Morning”
4. Titles of Lao She’s Major Works
5. References

"Four Generations"

As the Japanese enter war-torn Peking (Beijing), Lao She is in Chongqing with the many refugees from all over China. He began writing what many consider his best work, a story of life under the Japanese. His book, "Four Generations Under One Roof," recounts a family's reaction and results. It is three books in one in English translated well by Ida Pruitt' 1952 under the title "Yellow Storm." She was Lao She's favorite translator and they worked on parts of it when he was in New York City at the invitation of the U.S. government. One of Ida Pruitt's best books is still in print, Stanford University Press.

Ida Pruitt was the only daughter of Southern Baptist Missionary C.W. Pruitt of Yan'tai, Shandong province, north China. C.W. was a contemporary with the more famous Lottie Moon. Ida was born in China in 1888 and knew the languages and customs as few foreigners. She worked for a time in social work of the most modern Beijing Hospital. The one John D. Rockefeller gave to China.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Humor of Lao She

A View of the Humor of Lao She (1899-1966)
by Britt Towery

Lao She (Shu Qingcun, Lau Shaw), one of the best loved and most highly respected writers of twentieth century China, spent his lifetime telling stories on paper much like the pinshujia in the marketplace and teahouses. He said he was not a novelist though his novel Camel Xiangzi (Luotuo Xiangzi or Rickshaw Boy) proves him wrong. He stoutly refused to be called a dramatist, though his play Teahouse (Chaguan) refutes this. He said more than once he was merely a “storyteller.” Lao She was right in that statement, for he was first and foremost a teller of tales. He brought the smallest matter, person or event into sharp focus with his natural humor and compassionate insight. The everyday things of the average person's experience took on new life with his pen. He was first and last a shuo pingshu ren, a teller of tales -- a storyteller -- a master storyteller.

From his first writings to his last he ridiculed the traditional approaches to life, the pseudo scholarship of those seeking only position and status. He felt a great deal of China's backwardness was a result of tradition, superstition, and a total lack of national pride. As a storyteller he revealed these challenges to those that would read. He was one of a handful of writers in mid-twentieth century China that helped to mold a writing style that spoke to all kinds of people.

He was blessed from an early age with the concept that love was far more important in human relations than was generally practiced. Such a view of life made it a very natural thing for Lao She, at the age of twenty-three, to become a Christian and receive baptism in the Gangwashi Church in Peking. He was gifted with the ability to relate the longings, love and inner hurts of the human creature. He studied and taught in Britain and in the United States as well as in China. Devoted to his hometown of Peking, he wrote about the city and its people more vividly than any other writer.

Chinese Classic Comedy
Lao She's humor was a reflection of who and what he was. He was the constant observer of human actions and reactions. He saw humor in the most common of people and events. He made those who gained wealth and position through foreign connections a favorite target. In the three decades of the 1920s, 30s and 40s young people and students in particular observed that there was wealth and power attached to the foreigner in China. Shining examples for the youth were in their President Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Song Meiling. They and their close associates became independently wealthy with their careful use of American foreign aid. Lao She's pointed humor toward those that looked Westward for fame and wealth is especially evident in his two most famous works: Camel Xiangzi and Teahouse.

One of the classical novels, The Scholars (Rulin waishi), thought to have been written by Wu Jingzi (1701-1754) is the first work of satiric realism in Chinese literature. The characters of the novel depend upon their success, fame, riches and rank to build themselves up and lord it over others, considering themselves to be far above the common people. The common folk in the story see through these inflated egos and ridicule them. Hence there is a strong flavor of humor throughout the book.

Journey to the West (Xi you ji) by Wu Cheng’en (ca. 1506-1582), a writer who was born in Huai’an, the same Grand Canal city where Zhou Enlai was born, introduced to the world China’s most famous “cartoon” character: the Monkey King. He was hatched from a stone egg and was a mischievous spirit that brought humor and chaos while helping the monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang) in the fictionalized story of how the Buddhist scriptures were brought from India to China in the mid-seventeenth century. In many ways the story is a satiric fantasy that reminds Westerners of the story of Don Quixote.

Lao She, though sharp with his barbs of satire, never lost sympathy with his characters. Lao She “considered himself,” according to William A. Lyell, Jr., “primarily a humorist (as distinguished from satirist) by character as well as by profession.” Lao She once described the humorist in this way:

Above all, humor is a frame of mind. We all know people who are overly sensitive and always approach things with a surcharge of emotion, never willing to make allowances for others... A person with a sense of humor is not at all like this... he sees the flaws in mankind and wants to point them out to others; however, he does not stop at merely spotting these flaws, but goes on to positively accept them. And thus everyone has something funny about him, the humorist himself being no exception; if we take this to an even higher plane, then the fact that man is limited to a hundred years of life at most and yet would like to live forever, is in and of itself an extremely funny contradiction given in the very nature of human existence. Thus our laughter carries with it an element of sympathy, and at this point humor ceases being merely funny and enters the realm of profundity.

You mo: Humor, Chinese Style
In a book that no longer exists, The Forest of Jokes, Chinese humorous literature began to appear. Twentieth century Chinese humor, like all of life, has come a long way.
You mo, is the Chinese transliteration for “humor.” The words were coined in Chinese after the English word “humor.” The literal meaning of the two words, you mo, is “charming in seclusion” and “silent.” They have practically nothing to do with humor but when pronounced almost sound like the English word humor. New words that are brought into Chinese this way are not supposed to have a meaning. The sound of the English word is transliterated into Chinese. It is not meant to be taken literally, but as a phonetic equivalent of the word or name for the Chinese reader.

You mo as a Chinese equivalent to the English word “humor” was coined by Lin Yutang in 1923. Lin Yutang’s approach to humor did not earn him any respect from the Nationalist government nor the love of the Communist and left-wing writers.

The more a people’s manners and social background are understood, the more easily it is to appreciate their humor. Often, as George Kao writes, what appears funniest to the Chinese is oftentimes (1) outside the realm of writing, (2) untranslatable even if in writing, and (3) unfunny to the Westerner even if translated. Much Chinese humor is a play on words that often defies translation.

Humor was a way for Lao She to get through his difficult days. Humor to Lao She was the gate leading to reality. His mental capacity to discover the ludicrous and absurdly incongruous ways of people, regardless of race, is unmatched by any modern Chinese writer. He could not only appreciate the suffering that people brought on themselves but could express it first by laughing at himself and then laughing at and with others. The times in which he lived were filled with so many kinds of ludicrous events that to stay sane one had to be able to laugh them off.

The humor of Lao She or any Chinese writer is better appreciated and enjoyed according to the reader's knowledge and understanding of the Chinese people's language, manners, social situation and literary heritage.

Lin Yutang, the master humorist, who did much of his later work in the English language, writes:

Thoughtful humor is based on the perception of human errors, incongruities, cant, and hypocrisy, which admittedly are shared by all of us. The comic spirit is that human understanding which, being higher than academic intelligence, rises above the confusion and self-deception of our common notions, and points its finger at life’s sham, futility, and follies. The true comic genius is really a higher, subtler, form of intelligence because it sees what the others do not see, and under the cloak of fun exercises the criticism of man's ideas.

And on a more serious note, Zbigniew Slupski writes:

As we know from Lao niu poche (The Rickety Ox Cart), Lao She was proud of his ability to make his readers laugh; nevertheless there are several remarks in Lao niu poche which reveal that he was not sure that he regarded laughter as his main goal. Lao She's humor, and especially the elements of burlesque in his work, had aroused criticism to which Lao niu poche supplies the indirect reaction of the author. In some passages he defends his humorous writing, while in others he agrees with the condemnation of ‘forced laughter,’ laughter at all cost.

Lin Yutang is right on target when he defines humor as being born of realism. Lin wrote, “Humor is born of realism; and the Chinese are an unusually realistic people. Humor is born of common sense, and the Chinese have an overdose of common sense.” Lin Yutang, born in Fujian province in 1895, graduated from St. John's University in Shanghai in 1916 and was teaching at Qinghua University in Peking when Lao She was completing his studies at the Normal University. Lin Yutang, the master of humor, founded the humorous fortnightly Lu yu (The Analects) in Shanghai in 1932. Lin might even have been thinking of Lao She when he wrote that “A humorist is often a defeatist, and delights in recounting his own failures and embarrassments.” Lin Yutang and Lao She both were humorists that proves the truth of this statement.

According to George Kao one of the minor American myths about China is that the Chinese people possess a sense of humor somewhat akin to American humor. Kao goes on to say the difficult thing about this myth is that it is at once so true and so hard to prove. Kao goes on to say that the basic difference of Chinese and American humor has been best summarized by Judge John C. H. Wu, that “whereas Westerners are seriously humorous, the Chinese are humorously serious.” The Chinese are a more irrepressible people than many and that may be what makes their humor seem like the American humor.

As has been noted, fellow writers urged Lao She to leave off his humor back in the early 1930s. He tried it with Great Ming Lake and City of Cats and learned he could not write without humor. It was not something he created but was part of his being as much as eating and breathing.

His next novel, Divorce, was humorous. He wrote about the novel Divorce in Lao niu poche: “I decidedly hope that I am capable of arousing storms of laughter and making people really happy...”

According to George Kao Charlie Chaplin found a ready response in Chinese audiences. “Chinese humor, to a greater degree than that of any other people, sees the ludicrous in the pathos of life. It is the result of a philosophical reaction to adversity coupled with innate optimism about the future.”

Dave Barry, columnist for the Miami Herald, feels that humor is born out of the ordinary. He said, “I think humor comes from noticing that the world is already strange and weird and scary, and laughter is a mechanism for dealing with it.” Lao She's humor was not in jokes or ‘funny stories.’ He found value in being able to laugh when all around him appeared to be falling apart. He had an uncanny ability with language to reveal the warts and quirks of overly pretentious humans and their often weird activities.

After City of Cats, Lao She learned the importance of humor in his writing. He returned to what was more natural and real to him: humor. As Paul Bady says, Lao She's work “re-took its natural course: Divorce marked a return to Peking and to humor, but to a humor more mature; a humor which confined itself frequently to irony.”

Lao She's time in England was a rich experience in humor for him. There he discovered the English essayists and humorists, especially writers like Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift. These men had a natural humor that fit perfectly with that of Lao She. The spoken language that American Mark Twain was able to put on paper became a challenge to Lao She. Local color-humor was a hallmark of Mark Twain, and his work was well-known in the China of Lao She's youth.

On the 50th anniversary of the death of Mark Twain the literary circles of Peking had a meeting honoring the writer. Lao She's speech on Mark Twain was later printed in the September 6, 1960 Renmin Ribao (The People's Daily). He titled his speech, “Mark Twain, the exposer of the gold dollar empire.”

Humor, in order to be profound, supposes a sympathy within a laugh. As Thackeray says, “The humorous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness, -- your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture, -- your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy.” Paul Bady is of the opinion that Lao She incorporates this definition of humor by Thackeray in his writing.

Life in the real world was never easy for the merry Manchu. His humor highlighted the weaknesses of the wealthy and powerful; likewise through humor he revealed the strength of the honest, poor and the commonplace. Life may not be kind, and usually is not for the less fortunate, but that is no reason to despair. The old Chinese saying puts it best: “The moon is not always round, the flowers do not always bloom, and some may never live happily ever after.” That is the way life is, don’t despair! The ancients knew this. For example they could use humor when someone tried the impossible: yuan mu qiu yu -- “its like climbing a tree to look for a fish.” But the climb may be the relaxing exercise needed!

Sharing Humor through Short Stories
Lao She’s novels have all appeared in English but few of his short stories. Of the many he wrote he particularly liked “Crescent Moon,” “A Vision,” and “This Life of Mine.Hu Jieqing, wrote in 1984, that these and other stories “reveal a few aspects of the crises faced by the Chinese people, the corruption of Chinese society and the tragic side of life in China, besides stimulating thoughts and associations which extend far beyond its limited perspectives.” His unique ability to reveal the tragic event, no matter how small, through humor is one of the outstanding achievements of Lao She.

In “How I Started Writing Short Stories,” Lao She says he wrote his first such story when he was teaching at Nankai High School in Tianjin. He did it merely to satisfy the editors of the school journal. It did not arouse his interest in a literary career. His creative writing began in England with the novel The Philosophy of Lao Zhang.

In 1931 he had continuing requests for more short pieces -- a literary form he regarded “as not worth writing.” But he wrote “Grandpa Carrying His Grandson,” believing “that jokes written at random would make a short story. My plan then was to write some casual jokes and later do novels when I had the time. However, it was never easy to find enough time and requests for contributions were pouring in, so I ceased ‘writing for fun.’ ...I must admit I finished some of them haphazardly in a hurry, for I was unable to find the time for revision. The royalties were miserable low. Therefore, it was advisable to write more. On the other hand, I did not want to offend the friendly editors and for their sake was compelled to finish some stories at a stroke. They decided my writing policy -- perhaps that of other writers as well -- to produce more short stories of poor quality rather than fewer but better ones. It was a bad policy, but it had to be so. I was filled with compunction in doing so, yet money and friends were not to be offended.”
He said had he followed this way of writing: “I would have long died of hunger if I were spared death from exhaustion. It is glorious to work oneself to death, but it would be torture and a shame to starve. ...I wrote stories out of the material in reserve for full-length novels. Needless to say, it was a painful loss to sell by retail rather than by wholesale.”

Quqian, A Simple Daily Activity: Visiting the Bank
A short yet revealing piece by Lao She is Quqian (“cashing a check at the bank” or “withdrawing money”). From his experience with foreign banks in London and his knowledge of clerks in Chinese banks, he uses humor to get his point across. He often said he understood the past much better than the present. He knew what it was like to deal with a government official in old China. Had he tried to ‘correct’ or make changes in the way bank tellers handle customers in China, he would have had no readers. With humor he grabs the Chinese reader's attention because such has been their own experience. Here is a translation of the major portion about a Chinese man visiting an English bank and a Chinese bank:

I went into a foreign bank, an English bank to cash a ten pound note. As soon as I entered the bank I was amazed at the welcome I received. I was all but swamped with a hearty welcome. Everyone greeted me with “good morning,” or a smiling “how are you today?” The clerks are all dressed very neatly, their hair combed, and the desks neat and clean. They are overly willing to help me. The moment I got to the counter there was a clerk to waiting to take my check. I handed it to him and he pointed the place on the back where I should endorse it. The clerk then proceeded to count out ten pounds.

How utterly stupid all this is! None of these clerks behaves in a manner worthy of an official bank clerk. They show none of the official attitude and manner necessary to carry on such an important business. My check is cashed so quickly I feel they want to get rid of me and my business is not important to them!

The story continues as the Chinese gentleman takes us with him to a Chinese bank:

It is summertime and very hot even at eight in the morning. As I enter the bank I realize again how hot it is as all the clerks are fanning themselves. All are having a smoke. It is evident to see these clerks have the right attitude; they have an imperial manner. These are real officials. I am almost embarrassed to walk up to the counter because it is so hot and my presence will cause the clerks to expend energy for me. Regardless, I've come this far. I may as well continue and get my check cashed. I walk over to the counter and lay my check on it.

Naturally no one pays me any mind. I stand there a while and then ever so slightly one clerk glances ever so briefly in my direction. This is a good sign. To get such a glance of the eye on such a hot day is no trifle. Such a thing is not easy. But still there is no help. By about eight-forty a clerk comes over to the counter and looks at me. Then he looks at my check on the counter. I really feel bad giving this clerk so much trouble. The clerk looked at the check and then again at me. This imperial official of a clerk gave no reaction at all. He took my check and walked back to his desk. As he turned away he tossed me a tiny copper token with the number “1” on it.

I took the token and told the clerk (who is already back at his desk) that my check is not important ...There is no hurry ...I can come back tomorrow. Still there is no reaction whatsoever from the clerk. This clerk's stoic attitude makes me proud. I salute him, he is a choice individual. He is a genuine official in the grand tradition of the mandarins.

Turning from the counter I sat on a near-by bench to wait. The heat at the wait had made me sleepy. Without realizing it I dozed off to sleep.

I looked at my watch. I could not believe I slept for fifty minutes! This is really a fine bank. No mosquitoes or cockroaches that usually disturb my sleep. None here. What a good bank this is! I slept almost an hour and no one disturbed me in any way. At ten-thirty the clerk that took my check stood up and stretched, filled his pipe and began chatting with the clerk at the next desk. I do feel bad that on such a hot day as this I am keeping this clerk here to work in this hot place. I have limited his freedom by coming at this time! (Now if I owned a bank on such a hot day I would shoot the first two people that came in!)

At eleven o'clock the clerk rises, puts down his pipe and heads toward the counter but passes it to go out back. Possibly answering nature's call. Thirty minutes later the clerk returns, picks up his pen to write something and I roused myself from the bench and am to the counter in one bound. I tell the clerk not to hurry on my account ...please do not be anxious about my check ...the weather is too hot and your health, sir, is more important than my measly check ...none of this is worth harming your health. Such a fine mandarin clerk. He doesn't have time, I feel, to acknowledge my words.

At twelve noon I feel I should leave and go home. Just as I reached the door my clerk yells out, “Number One.” I’m not willing to answer for my fine clerk has disappointed me. But I go to the counter anyway. He points to the place on the back of the check where I must endorse it. I am taking out my pen to sign it when His Majesty suggests I come back tomorrow. That's just what I wanted to hear. For you see, if I signed the check now I must come back in the afternoon and wait possibly another four hours and by that time it will be closing time before the transaction could be completed. The clerk knows best. It will be far better for me to come back tomorrow. So I put the check in my pocket and start for the door. I realize I should say some kind words to the clerk for all his effort on my behalf. Before I can open my mouth the clerk shouts, “Number Two.” Well, I mustn’t waste the clerk’s time with polite words he will possibly think are only empty flattery. I’ll go home and write him a letter of apology for making his day so difficult.

Granted, something is usually lost in translating humor or poetry from one language to another, but life is much the same everywhere. In poetry generally the beauty is retained or the literal sense but seldom can both be brought over from one language and culture to another. Humor in one language or culture is always best understood in that setting and environment. Just as in the saying, “we are what we eat” in like manner “we are what we grow up with” in language and surroundings.

Lao She's view of people and places was much like that of Mark Twain. They both saw that everything that is human is in a very real sense pathetic. The secret source of Lao She's humor is not joy but sadness. He saw in the reality of life and its sorrows a greater, broader meaning that made it possible for him to smile at his own misfortunes and at the misgivings of others, especially the elite.

From Beneath the Red Banner (Zhenghong qixia)
Unfortunately Beneath the Red Banner, Lao She’s semi-official autobiography (somewhat fictionalized) was never completed. Lao She was writing about what he knew and loved best -- Beijing and his family. The entire story is presented in a light hearted manner that suggests the old people’s artist had lost none of the twinkle in his eye. Serious situations and old customs are displayed with a warm homey humor. Here is cousin Fuhai:

Cousin Fuhai was the most popular of all our relatives. He was short but strong, solid but refined, clever but honest. He had a round face with a light complexion and big eyes with double-fold eyelids. Even before he spoke you could imagine him saying something both witty and intelligent. When he did speak, his eyes sparkled and his face was all smiles. Though he was truly witty, he never hurt people's feelings. Though he had a good brain, he never put on airs. From his forehead up, his skin was very dark. Yet he looked as fresh and healthy as the fat blue-headed babies in New Year's pictures. He wore a large que braided neither tightly nor loosely, which added a sedate and urbane quality to his appearance.

His formal greeting was something to behold. Having looked you straight in the eye, he lowered his head and took two quick steps forward, bringing himself right up in front of you. After placing both his hands on one knee, he bowed, putting one leg forward in a half-kneeling posture. He remained in that position for a few seconds in an attitude of deep reverence. His cordial and intimate salutation followed, “Aunt, how do you do?” He then very swiftly stepped back, straightened up and stood at attention at one side, his hands behind his back. The older women he greeted in this fashion always returned his courtesy with a bow. They said to themselves, “If only my son had such good manners!”

Even today's Chinese young people know little of such greetings. The lighthearted manner in which Lao She wrote of the old times and the Manchu minority reveals a culture that has long since passed. In the writings of Lao She the past can be appreciated effortlessly. Again Lao She uses Cousin Fuhai to express his own love of and background of the Peking dialect:

Fuhai spoke the Beijing dialect so well as to lead people to believe that he was one of the originators of this noble tongue; even if this wasn’t the case, he should at least share the honor of creating “Beijing speech.” For his ancestors had not only introduced certain Manchu phrases into Chinese but had also evolved a crisp and snappy way of speaking which, by his generation, had become so crisp and snappy that sometimes people from other provinces found it hard to understand.

Lao She knew first-hand the foibles and quirks of the foreign missionary in his land. Some critics have taken him to task for his treatment of Reverend Bull (Niu mushi) in Beneath the Red Banner. One writer sees Lao She’s entire commentary on Christianity in a single episode in his early novel of Chinese in London. In Er Ma (The Two Mas) Lao She can be illustrating through the negative example of Reverend and Mrs. Evans, the dehumanizing attitudes of many China missionaries. Actually Lao She seems to be saying more than meets the eye and using humor to get across his point. Lao She used Reverend Evans earlier and here Reverend Bull to express some deeper feelings about Christian foreign missions. Feelings that come from his personal experience.

Lao She knew foreign missionaries that came to China at the turn of the century. He is aware they are not all like his fictitious characters. In writing about Bull’s ignorance of people and customs Lao She is saying, between the lines, there is a better way to “do missions.” Anyone who has not learned to read between the lines has not learned to read Chinese. Far from being an expert I have lived on the edges of Chinese society in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China for over thirty years. I have seen many Reverend Bulls. At times I may have been just like him! Which is not a pleasant thought! I often wished I could hide behind a curtain and hear what the Chinese really thought of my elementary Chinese sermons and conversations. Lao She observed it in his day and through his works gave the world a glimpse of how the Western missionary could do a better job. His humor hurts when it gets close to our faith, but until we know where we hurt we can't be helped or cured.

So Reverend Bull is from another generation, one that thankfully has passed on forever. But his arrogance and ignorance still persists in the zealous hearts of some Western evangelists. Some still have lessons to learn. Lessons that are clearly presented in the Christian’s New Testament.

Reverend Bull was disgusted with those Christians who gradually grew rich by taking advantage of their connections within the church and hooking up with foreign businesses. As soon as their profits started to roll in, their enthusiasm for religion rolled out. Reverend Bull couldn’t blame them though, since they were the same souls who gave him expensive gifts at Christmas time. There were other members of the church who, though not particularly well off, were simple decent good-hearted people. They attended church regularly and made no attempt to ingratiate themselves with Reverend Bull. But when the Reverend found out that these Chinese people differed greatly from the standard established by his uncle, he started aiming his bitterest pronouncements on Hell directly at them: “You Christians who are too proud shall go to Hell! To Hell!” He was fondest of people like Big Duo who met the standard -- the poor and unpretentious folk who smothered him with their attention. In their presence, Reverend Bull felt almost like a little emperor.

Reverend Bull had less than a full head of blond hair and a pair of beady yellow eyes. He felt fortunate in having these features because in China, being too yellow was a definite disadvantage. His laugh was extraordinary: “Kahkahkah,” syllables he squeezed from his throat as if he were choking on a fishbone. Whenever he ran into members of his flock, he would always “kahkah” a few times, the way adults do when they are with children. At times like these, he never really wanted to laugh, but he forced himself to do it anyway.

Neither in the pulpit nor in his everyday life did Reverend Bull have anything profound to say. ...He believed that people owed him respect simply because he was American and thus a natural born object of public veneration--even God had to keep His distance. ...When told that China had produced heroes like Yue Fei and Wen Tianxiang, he could only blink his little eyes because he had no idea who those people were. When he found out who they were he blasted them as lost sinners. ...Big Duo was kind enough never to drop names like Yue Fei or Wen Tianxiang when he came to speak with Reverend Bull.

Every missionary has also met “converts” like Big Duo. They are the ones who are out for anything they can get from the foreigner. They don't seem to care how low they stoop or how much they are walked upon. Lao She saw too much of this attitude in too many Chinese. Here again it is easy to understand why Lao She returned to China after Mao Zedong proclaimed, “The Chinese people have stood up!” It was a traumatic change but one that had to be experienced for China to gain the self-respect so vital to growth as a people and nation.

In an article in the Renmin Ribao (The People's Daily) of October 30, 1962, titled, “A Voice From a Small Hutong,” Lao She stressed again the need for nations to have respect for one another and not interfere in one another's internal affairs. China had experienced almost two centuries of Western imperialism and wanted no more of it.

Hu Jieqing states that the models of Lao She's father, mother, aunt, eldest sister, her husband and parents-in-law and second sister described in this novel can be found among his relatives. Each had a similar social status as their counterpart in the novel. She wrote: “These few points, so far as I know, are authentic. But I would like to repeat that Lao She was writing fiction; he did not confine himself to real people and real events as far as the plot, language and characterization are concerned. Nevertheless, these points have led to much interesting research, one example of which has been the recent discovery of Lao She's birthplace.”

“Occasional Pieces of No Redeeming Value”
There were numerous times when his writing just appeared as fillers in newspapers or magazines. He himself said they had no redeeming qualities. Yet most of these short pieces have a value beyond that of pure literature. They bring a smile to the face and soul. Though a lot is lost in translation and through cultural differences many can make anyone laugh. Such is the case of the piece “Tipsy Talk for the New Year.”

Lao She admonishes his readers that having a few drinks make it possible to do things they might not otherwise be able to accomplish. This is especially true at the New Year's Spring Festival time. But, he adds a strong word of caution: only eight drinks! He uses the ancient poets and artists who when tipsy created some beautiful works of art. After eight drinks the ancients were useless and drunk. So it was not wise to get drunk, while being relaxed and a little light-headed was good for the creative juices.

Being a bit tipsy at the New Year season, a time when all bills come due, it is possible not to hear the person demanding payment. Finally the bill-collector leaves rather than continue trying to talk to what he sees is only a drunk. Also at the New Year with a few drinks you can curse to their face those you hate or dislike. They will not remember it as they consider you drunk. Then for the husband who is always berated by his wife for coming home late -- with a few drinks he can stand up to her.

One thing Lao She cautions is to “never talk politics or about the government” (mo tan guo shi) when you are tipsy. There never has been a good time in China to talk about government policies. Never in public or with people you do not know very well. It has always been best not to say anything to anybody regarding politics.

-----------From “Lao She, China’s Master Storyteller” by Britt Towery
(1999: The Tao Foundation, Waco, Texas

Southwest Texas State University (Now Texas State University), San Marcos, Texas
October 21-23, 1999 ALONG THE WAY articles by Britt Towery