The Chinese novelist and playwright Lao She (pen name of Shu Qingchun) was born on this day in 1899. Lao She is regarded as one of the most important twentieth-century Chinese writers and was one of the first to gain popular fame in America, where his novel Rickshaw Boy (1936) became a bestseller and a Book-of-the-Month Club hit in the 1940s.
Lao She spent time as a student in England, where he was influenced by the social novels of Fielding and Dickens. Rickshaw Boy is set in “filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable” Beijing, the novel’s poor, rickshaw-pulling hero scrambling to avoid sliding further down the economic ladder. Through hard work and a willingness to sacrifice all for his entrepreneurial principles, he finds a degree of temporary prosperity, but at the highest moral and social cost. By the end of the story he is spiraling downward, reduced to making a few pennies as a banner holder at funerals. Lao She’s final sentence attempts to drive home his argument that China needs a social conscience and collective action, not the runaway rickshaw of a free-market economy:
Respectable, ambitious, idealistic, self-serving, individualistic, robust, and mighty Xiangzi took part in untold numbers of burial processions but could not predict when he would bury himself, when he would lay his degenerate, selfish, hapless product of a sick society, this miserable ghost of individualism, to rest.
The bleak anti-individualism of Lao She’s ending did not suit the publishers of the 1940s American edition, and the story was given an unauthorized, Hollywood makeover in which the rickshaw puller gets back the woman he loves and escapes to rural freedom. Lao She himself got caught in the twists and turns of the Chinese political makeover. He was such a leading writer and cultural bureaucrat in the 1960s that he met Mao and received his endorsement; then he was deemed counterrevolutionary by the Gang of Four. Some believe that humiliation and harassment led to his suicide in 1966; others say that he was murdered by the authorities. Now, as China experiments with its new version of capitalism, he has returned to official favor, with a museum and literary award bearing his name.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.