THE CHINESE WRITER Lao She didn’t wrap up his stories with tidy endings. You can always run the unwritten sequels in your head. This was one of the many ways he differed from mainstream Chinese writers.
Born in Beijing into a Manchu family in 1899, Lao She grew up apart from the majority Han population. When he was still an infant, his soldier father was killed during the foreign occupation of the city in the aftermath the Boxer Rebellion in 1901. A graduate of Beijing Normal University, he was deeply influenced by the radical upsurge of the May Fourth Movement following China’s disappointments at the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of the Great War. From 1924 to 1929 he lived and worked in London teaching Chinese (his pupils included a young China-besotted Graham Greene) and was greatly influenced by contemporary English literature. He developed a deep appreciation of Dickens, Joyce, and the Bloomsbury Group, among others. Returning to China he chose, against the mainstream once more, to write in the vernacular (baihua) style and make China’s common people his subject.
Set in the first half of the 20th century, his work describes the lives of dispossessed Chinese: Mr Ma and Son, his London novel, describes the experiences of being a Chinese in a Yellow Peril-obsessed Britain of the 1920s; Crescent Moon describes a family’s impoverishment and descent into prostitution; Rickshaw Boy, perhaps his most important and enduring novel, tells the futile and desperate story of a Beijing rickshaw puller; and Teahouse is a sprawling social commentary of one Chinese family from the late 19th century to the cataclysmic year of 1949. Along the way he produced numerous short stories, plays, and even an early Chinese science-fiction novel, Cat Country, which imagined a Chinese astronaut stranded on a Mars populated by debauched and decadent drug-addicted cats. His readers understood his commentaries on contemporary China, but the godfathers of China’s literary establishment didn’t always appreciate his modernist critiques and vernacular style — especially after the revolution, when Lao She fell foul of Mao’s Red Guards.
Like so many other talents — Auden, Borges, Nabokov — Lao She was ultimately overlooked by the Nobel committee in favor of safe mediocrities. It's unlikely the Nobel would have given him any greater intellectual autonomy in Mao's China. Indeed it would probably have merely incited the philistine Red Guards to greater heights of belt-whipping and vitriolic denunciation. And there is the possibility that for Lao She winning prizes wasn’t important. He never, to my knowledge, said he wanted the Nobel. What if high hopes followed by sinking failure and despondency were what really drove the man to write?
You can argue that a Nobel may have allowed Lao She to speak and exposed the plight and hopes of his protagonists to a wider audience. The Nobel might have allowed young Ding from Lao She’s 1935 short story of the same name to gain recognition for his achievements and for those of his country as a newly minted republic. More might have met the hopeful Ma Wei of Mr Ma and Son, the young Chinese protagonist full of hope and belief in the advances of Western society and struggling to make his way in a 1920s London that sees him through a suspicious lens and treats him as a second-class citizen. Lao She’s characters might have been able to shout louder — the prostitute of Crescent Moon dreaming of an ideal life yet mired in inescapable poverty; Camel Xiangzi pulling his rickshaw endlessly around the dusty streets of Peking for pennies in Rickshaw Boy; the few dissidents who resist the slide into drug addiction and refuse to be ruled by the corrupted cats of Mars in Cat Country. These were Chinese voices largely unknown to non-Chinese audiences. This lack of recognition contributed to these figures’ marginalization.
A prize just might have also allowed Lao She to avoid the final controlling gesture he ultimately chose. Surely his suicide by drowning was uncharacteristic of both the writer and his creations, but was characteristic of being on the wrong side of history at a time of madness. None of Lao She's heroes totally give up. They struggle on regardless (but not without some resistance). Sure, they rebel a bit, they have a go, try to change fate, find luck. Ma Wei throws off insult after insult in his attempt to be a successful London businessman and support his father. The rickshaw boy, Camel, aspires to have his own rickshaw someday and perhaps control his own destiny. Corruption seems absolute, but Lao She hints that, perhaps somewhere, there's a cat on Mars that can become a leader. His characters don't all exactly fail, but it's invariably one step forward, two steps back. What else to do but try? What does Ding, Lao She's most overtly modernist of pathetic heroes, proclaim after the winners in the New China of the 1930s repeatedly reject him and declare him a failure? Triumphantly he declares (or rather wheezes, as he's a touch tubercular), "I am China's Apollo," and who's to say he's not? Who’s to say (after a setback or two) Ma Wei can't conquer London, Camel can't pull his own rickshaw, and Ding can’t become a winner? Certainly not Lao She.
Of course we can overcome, at least some of the time. We’re just not always certain when or how. Lao She's life and writing was, I'd argue, all about pushing through the disruptive dramas (eating plenty of that “bitterness” the Chinese are supposed to be so good at munching on) to achieve something. Invariably his characters end up outsiders, like their creator — a member of the once dynastic but now marginalized Manchu minority in China, a Christian in a country that adopted other gods, a Chinese demonized by popular culture in "Yellow Peril" London, and, finally, a resolutely unideological man among ideology junkies in Cultural Revolution China.
At times his purposeful nonpartisanship was beneficial — in observing London and its inhabitants (Mr Ma and Son), in warning of the inherent corruption of political dogma (Cat Country) or, more practicably, and in real life, being able to bridge the divides in the All-China Resistance Federation of Literary Circles in World War II. Elected Chairman of the organization, he alone among China’s notable writers was able to stand above Party politics and ideology and unite the country’s creative community to encourage the fight against Japan with patriotic plays, stories, and operas. But ultimately, his nonpartisanship was his downfall. Ideology itself became national religion and publicly worshipping its icons (the Party, the Little Red Book, Chairman Mao) became mandatory. Opting out was no longer an option — and Lao She’s conspicuous lack of participation drew all the wrong sort of attention.
Even if the Nobel had allowed Lao She’s characters to reach a wider audience and to speak of their suffering and dreams, it’s unlikely it would have made life easier for their creator. The Nobel is and was always a major global media event — it would probably not have allowed either a retreat into solitude or provided a free pass to be nonpartisan in Communist China. Perhaps exile? But for many people, Lao She included I suspect, exile is no kind of life, and where to go? Both the United States and Red China changed the ending of his classic novel Rickshaw Boy. Eventually Mao courted him, asking him to be a voice of the revolution. Lao She showed a rare optimism and opted for the PRC.
His attempt at accommodation with the Communist Party, with its cultural tsars, its ideologically fueled cadres, ended in failure. As Anne Witchard writes in Lao She in London, her study of the author and his time in Europe (that places him at the heart of the international Modernist movement), Rickshaw Boy was about, “the futility of individual struggle in an unfair society.” Consumer capitalist America needed a happy ending to have a bestseller. In the People's Republic in 1954, Lao She was forced to write a "self criticism" as an introduction to the book. He must have seen then that his own plight was futile (the cats were now firmly in control of Cat Country). Surely to excise the final chapter of a book, as the editors of the American Book-of-the-Month Club did in the mid-1940s, and then the cultural commissars of the Chinese Communist Party's censorship apparatus did the following decade, is to hack away at his soul somehow, electroshocking the text, effecting a literary lobotomy.
In Communist China, Lao was schmoozed by Mao’s smiley-faced Zhou Enlai, the chairman’s more internationally presentable and cultured right-hand man, and kept busy with delegations from fraternal friends and nonaligned nations, but essentially neutered. It was all behind him — his time abroad rendering him suspect, his May Fourth influences largely despised, Rickshaw Boy rewritten for him, most of his work out of print. His major post-1949 work, Teahouse, just got him into trouble for lack of revolutionary rhetoric. What was left in China for him?
Lao She knew better than most that we are all part of our times, miniature epics lost in the modern world (remember that while many cite Dickens as his great inspiration, it was Conrad he most admired — no grand finales). He could have won a Nobel Prize, but he didn’t. Instead he faced a Red Guard struggle session on a hot August day in 1966 — "Bloody August" as it became known. Beaten, humiliated, forced to wear a placard saying "Active Counterrevolutionary," his home smashed, his beloved flower beds trampled. That was his prize, courtesy of the Maoist state. And he chose to receive it by rising early the following morning, walking across Peking to Taiping Lake, and drowning himself. The futility of an individual struggle against an unfair society at an end. The Nobel imagined, the reality suicide. Lao She had written, early in his career, in his story Crescent Moon, “This world is no dream — it's a living hell.”
And still Lao She is censored, remade in the image of the Party, the only image allowed in China, then and now. In 2010, CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, screened a 39-episode adaptation of Teahouse with the requisite “official” ending of a joyous “liberation” in 1949 added; in recent theatrical adaptations of Lao She’s final work Beneath the Red Banner, a semi-autobiographical novel of the dying days of the Manchu Dynasty, mention is never officially made of the fact that the book remains unfinished, as the author was instructed by the Red Guards that all art and literature had to describe life since 1949. Still control is denied him, futility forced upon him. At his former home in Beijing his writing desk has been preserved as it was on his final day. The calendar turned to August 24, 1966. Keen, seemingly enthusiastic young student volunteers offer to answer any questions foreign visitors may have about Lao She. So let's begin at the end and ask them what happened on that day? They turn away, embarrassed, giggle nervously, see the person asking the question as a problem, not even attempting a shilly-shally answer. Of course it's no great secret. They know the questioner knows, but they can't (won't) say it. The can of worms is too big, too wriggly.
It'd be the same if there were a Nobel on the desk. Prizes don't force out truth; they don't automatically form neat endings to a literary career. They're just ornaments. They don't make the Red Guards go away. They don't save you. If they did we'd give one to every persecuted writer in the world and then go home. If you want more, if you want hope and redemption, justice and fairness, then get the Chinese edition or the old Book-of-the-Month Club version of Rickshaw Boy. Just don't ask Lao She. He's too smart for that shit.
Paul French is a widely published analyst and commentator on China who has lived and worked in Shanghai for many years.