Shu Qingchun Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Lao She (low shuh) is one of the major writers of twentieth century China; moreover, he is a novelist, rare among Chinese writers of his period, whose work has tremendous appeal for international readers. Born in Beijing on February 3, 1899, he was the son of an impoverished Manchu Bannerman; his father was killed in 1900 during the fighting (known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion) between the Yi He Tuan movement and the Western powers. Both his childhood poverty and his minority Manchu ancestry tended to set him apart from the mainstream of Chinese life and literary circles. These aspects of his life are richly evoked in the posthumously published Beneath the Red Banner, his unfinished autobiographical novel dealing with life in Peking at the turn of the century.{$S[A]Ch’ing-ch’un, Shu[Ching chun, Shu];Lao She}{$S[A]Shu Qingchun;Lao She}

As a poor Manchu, Lao She understood early in life that, with China in political and social upheaval after the Manchu abdication and the 1911 Revolution, he would have to study with great diligence in order to have a satisfactory future. Thus he became a brilliant student at Peking Normal School, from which he was graduated in 1917. He continued his studies at the National Higher Normal College and Yenching University, while holding various teaching and administrative posts. A major turning point in his life came in 1924, when he left for England, where he held a lectureship at the School of Oriental Studies (University of London) until 1929. This period marks the apprenticeship of Lao She as a novelist; under the influence of Charles Dickens, he wrote his first three novels. The first, Lao Zhang di zhexue (the philosophy of Lao Chang), is notable for its experimental use of baihua (the vernacular) and humor, features of his writing which he continued to refine throughout his career. While all three London novels are generally regarded as uneven, they were immensely popular, and they engaged the dilemmas of China: the need for a renewed sense of national identity and for strong character in a society floundering between the death of the traditional order and the uncertain birth of a new order.

With his literary reputation in China established, Lao She returned in 1930 and continued to write while he taught in Jinan, at Cheeloo University, a missionary college. (He had converted to Christianity.) Two works stand out in this period: Cat Country, a bitter satirical novel, and Divorce, a study of alienation and a highly successful psychological novel. Cat Country is a devastating exposé of the weaknesses of Chinese society, politics, and character which spares neither the Kuomintang nor the Communist Party, the traditionalists, and the revolutionary youth. This vitriolic novel, set in a cat kingdom on Mars, presents one of the darkest visions of China on record. At times, the acid observations on such matters as the revolutionary students, with their blind faith in “everybodyovskyism” and their mindless genuflection before the Great God Marsky, sound like a terrifying and precise prophecy of the Cultural Revolution in the China of the 1960’s. What drives the savage indignation of the satire, however, is Lao She’s profound love and concern for China, his fundamentally patriotic vision.

By the mid-1930’s, Lao She was teaching at Shandong University in Qingdao, where he wrote his masterpiece, Rickshaw (also translated as Camel Xiangzi and, earlier, Rickshaw Boy ). This celebrated novel tells the tragic story of Camel Xiangzi, a Beijing rickshaw puller who exemplifies the pride, honor, and integrity of poor working people. For all of his physical and moral strength, however, Xiangzi is finally broken and morally devastated by the inexorable forces at work in a corrupt society. This powerful tale is justly known as one of the finest works of modern Chinese literature—indeed, as its best-selling translations into many languages confirm, it is a modern classic. The reader must be cautious when selecting...

(The entire section is 1,271 words.)