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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Hush, He Was Christian: Remembering Lao She, One of China's Favorite Authors

When my wife and I were in Beijing last year, we visited a small memorial and museum dedicated to one of China's most famous and beloved novelists, Lao She.

Tucked away in the small alleys of old Beijing, the memorial was his former residence starting in 1950. Almost as soon as one departs from the mundane and chaotic world of Beijing's alleys and crosses the threshold into his former habitat, one can sense that this is a sacred place, a place for reverence and remembering. Part of that sense comes from the attitude conveyed by the staff working or volunteering there. One man in particular, the main caretaker I think, had a spirit about him and his work that made this visit unlike any other visit I've made to memorials, residences, temples, and shrines in China. He was not just doing a job there, but somehow serving a mission. He was more like an LDS temple president than a museum worker, and he was delighted to have two people asking golden questions that allowed him to share more.

During the inspiring visit to Lao She's memorial, I resolved to not forget Lao She. Yesterday I completed his most famous novel, Rickshaw Boy. Brilliant, beautiful, and depressing. I finished a recent and excellent English translation. I'm almost halfway through the Chinese, which is too difficult for me but so rewarding, though slow. His language is captivating and so effective, in spite of being a foreigner missing much of the power that is there. My experience with Rickshaw Boy has given me much to ponder and several dreams as well, and moves me to mention Lao She today.

At the memorial and in subsequent reading, we learned that Lao She was a member of a poor family in the Manchu minority which suffered and lost much as the Han majority overthrew Manchu rule in China in the founding of the Republic. As he grew and matured, he was a patriot who spoke out against foreign intrusions in his own land. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), he led an organization of writers in boldly speaking out against their invaders. Later, while in the U.S., he would return to China to add his strength to rebuild China as the Revolution was moving forward. Though loyal to China, in 1966 during the darkest days of the tragic Cultural Revolution, a foreign couple would interview him and quote him as saying something critical of the Party. Hours after the published account was read and reported to authorities, Red Guard soldiers came to his home and beat him. According to some accounts, they destroyed some of his works and promised to return tomorrow to continue their vengeance for his alleged crime. Feeling all was lost and not willing to bring any further shame upon himself and his household, he left and apparently drowned himself in nearby Taiping lake that evening, Aug. 24, 1966. Or perhaps he was "suicided"--helped along in the suicide. It was a terrible time and a painful loss for the world.

Lao She, was actually a Christian, though that seems to be something of a secret over here in atheist China, where millions have read and studied his words probably without knowing of his belief in God and Christ. His connection with Christianity is also a secret in Wikipedia and Britannica, though perhaps that missing fact will be added sometime soon. A good overview of his life recognizing his Christianity is available at the New World Encyclopedia, though that site is not fully reliable. In Ranbir Vohra's 1974 book, Lao She and the Chinese Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College, p. 13), we read a little about his conversion:
Some doubt remains about the exact time of Lao She’s conversion to Christianity but it is certain that he did become a Christian at one time or another. From the facts available it seems more likely that it was before, rather than after, his visit abroad [to London in 1924]. From all that has been said earlier in this chapter, Lao She’s life seems to have been extremely difficult before 1924. He gave up his job and was not able to marry the girl he loved; he was poor and his work was taxing. He could easily have lost faith in the new Republican China, which took away much more than the Manchu pension from his mother. It had taken away Lao She’s identity. He had to search for a new value system; and the self-denying Christian faith, which provided ultimate hope to its followers, may have proved the spar that saved him from drowning.
Frankly, it appears that little is known about his conversion and his private beliefs. It also seems unclear what role Christianity played in his life after his voluntary return to an officially atheist nation. But I'm pleased to count him as a Christian brother, secret or otherwise. Further, I think we also share great hope for the future of China and its peoples. May he be remembered.

Update, Nov. 6, 2013: While Wiki and Britannica are silent on the issue of religion, China's own Baidu.com has a biography of Lao She that acknowledges his belief in Christianity. Kudos!

Other resources:
  • "Lao She," The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, Vol. 1.
  • "Lao She," Britannica.com
  • "Lao She," Baidu.com (in Chinese),

4 comments:

Samuel Rogers said...

I loved Rickshaw! With the help of pop-up translators, I was able to read it in Chinese, and I was constantly struck how deep and beautiful his writing was. It was the first Chinese novel I ever read, and I have since tried to read other, modern authors but have been greatly disappointed by the inferior writing.

I didn't know he was a Christian! Perhaps that explains part of how he was such an insightful writer.

Thanks for this. What other books do you recommend from him or other Chinese authors?

Jeff Lindsay said...

When I bought Rickshaw Boy, the people at the large bookstore on Fuzhou Street in Shanghai also highly recommended Tea House and Four Generations Under One Roof, both of which I bought and hope to read eventually. These are in simplified Chinese. There has been a touch of censorship, perhaps, because some of the profanity in RIckshaw Boy just becomes a mysterious "x x" in place of the original characters.

A modern Chinese novel I purchased and have enjoyed, though am only partway through, is 高层饭局 (I guess it would be Executive Dinner Party), a book about business and the central role of food--I think I like the writing but it strikes me as pretty high level with lots of chengyu.

I'm also partway through the English translation of the Three Kingdoms Romance, which in spite of being so ancient, is a good way to understand some aspects of modern business and strategy in China. If you can tackle that in Chinese, then that's pretty amazing. It's a real pain in English as it is, though it's also fascinating.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Yes, you are quite right. This is beautiful writing. Said to be Lao She's best work and often said to one of the best in Chinese literature, though there is so much great literature in the treasury of Chinese culture. So much....sigh. Chinese culture is one of the reasons we need immortality, so we can have time to catch up on what we've been missing in the West all these generations. I'm just having my first taste.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and informative. Thanks. I enjoy learning about all countries and cultures.