Liu E Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Liu E (lee-EW ay), also called Liu Tieyun, is best known as the author of The Travels of Lao Ts’an, unquestionably the most widely read and discussed work of fiction produced during the turbulent last decade of dynastic China. Born the son of an official, Liu spent his youth following his father, Liu Chengzhong, to various military and civilian posts. His earliest biographer as well as family members described him as a bright but undisciplined youth who went about with unruly companions, disdaining the narrow course of studies required for the civil service examinations and the niche in officialdom to which they led. His restless ways disappointed his mother and set him in conflict with his brother, a stern, dutiful sort who was his senior by seven years. If he did not spend time mastering the official “eight-legged” essays, however, Liu E did indulge his passion for learning of every sort, at a time when the Chinese intelligentsia were still debating the relative importance of practical knowledge and Confucian philosophical substance. His education took a most decisive turn in 1877, when he returned home to Huai-an with his father to observe the mourning period following his grandmother’s passing. For the next half dozen years, he delved into such fields as river control, astronomy, music, and mathematics, taking full advantage of the many books in his father’s collection. He was later to write, or attempt to write, treatises on all these subjects, as well as to compose poetry, engage in commerce (with a notable lack of success), practice medicine, advise a governor on flood control, map the Yellow River in Shandong Province, and gather some of the most important material evidence for the study of the origins of the Chinese writing system.{$S[A]Liu Tieyun;Liu E}

These latter endeavors, and indeed all the endeavors of Liu E’s eventful adulthood, were evidently motivated by the so-called Taigu philosophy, which he took up during that same period. In search of an intellectual and spiritual basis for his life, he ventured often to neighboring Yangzhou to study with Li Guangxin, the heir to this quasi-religious school of thought, founded in the 1820’s. Blending Daoist esoterica and Buddhist tolerance into a Confucian foundation of social engagement and service, the philosophy fitted Liu E’s inclinations perfectly and can be seen to inform everything about him, including his ready willingness to use foreign methods and foreign capital to industrialize China, as well as his obsession to be of service to humankind. It explains his eagerness to join such...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Chaves, Jonathan, trans. The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Includes translations of several of Liu E’s poems; Harold Shadick provides a helpful introduction.

Holoch, Donald. “The Travels of Laocan: Allegorical Narrative.” In The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century, edited by Milena Dolezelova-Velingerova. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1980. A provocative structuralist study.

Kwong, Luke S. K. “Self and Society in China: Liu E (1857-1909) and Laocan Youji.” T’oung Pao 87, nos. 4/5 (2001): 360-392. Offers biographical background on Liu E and its relationship to his novel.

Lang, D. M., and D. R. Dudley, eds. The Penguin Companion to Classical, Oriental, and African Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969. The section on Liu E emphasizes the stylistic advance represented by The Travels of Lao Ts’an in its highly original prose descriptions of landscape and musical performances.

Lu Hsün. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1976. This book’s section on “novels of exposure” of the Ch’ing dynasty contains an analysis of The Travels of Lao Ts’an’s portrayal of the official Kang Pi, whose incorruptibility is offset by his autocratic and ruthless ways.

Shadick, Harold. Introduction to The Travels of Lao Ts’an, by Liu E. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Includes updated introductory material. An excellent starting place.

Shen-fu Lin. “The Last Classic Chinese Novel: Vision and Design in The Travels of Laocan.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 121, no. 2 (2001): 549-564. Focuses on the structure and lyric vision of The Travels of Lao Ts’an, especially on the tension between harsh reality and utopian vision.

Wong, Timothy C. “Notes on the Textual History of the Lao Ts’an yu-chi.” T’oung Pao 69 (1983): 23-32. A summary of facts behind the texts of Liu E’s fiction.