The Travels of Lao Ts'an Summary

Liu E


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

To describe The Travels of Lao Ts’an as a picaresque novel would be altogether accurate except for the nature of its hero. The true picaro is a rascal of low birth, and this characterization does not fit the aristocratic Lao Ts’an. Also, Lao Ts’an does not perform menial tasks or engage in near-criminal acts, as might the picaro. Instead, Lao Ts’an, who is eminently respectable, only pretends to be something of a rascal in his role as itinerant healer. Otherwise, this classic Chinese work adheres to the dictates of the picaresque form long popular in Western literature.

Following the central character’s life so closely that he rarely disappears from the action, most picaresque novels unfold through the first person. The Travels of Lao Ts’an takes an informal third-person voice, whose great charm survives even in translation. The narrator conveys such a personal tone that he appears to be speaking directly to his reader, using techniques such as the one with which he closes chapters: “If you don’t know what happened afterwards, then hear the next chapter tell.” When Lao Ts’an marries, the narrator ends the wedding account with a coy comment: “Then of course the newlyweds were escorted to their bedchamber, and we don’t need to say anything further.”

The novel presents a series of episodes that find their unity for the most part in the central figure’s presence. Lao Ts’an, for reasons not altogether clear, leaves his home and wanders about the countryside, where he visits places of interest, meets and makes friends with all classes of people, entangles himself in local problems, and often proves to be the savior of those falsely accused or mistreated. Ostensibly, he earns his way by healing the sick, a skill he always practices successfully whenever anyone calls on him to use the knowledge he has...

(The entire section is 761 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Lao Ts’an is an erudite and impoverished scholar who uses his skills in traditional Chinese medicine to earn a modest living in his native homeland of Shandong. Although he is only about thirty years old, his fame begins to grow as more and more people hear about his successful treatment of Huang Jui-ho’s running sores, which had long defied the ministrations of many other doctors. After Lao Ts’an adeptly cures a serious throat condition afflicting the concubine of an official named Kao, the official introduces the young man to his colleagues, including the governor of Shandong Province.

Lao Ts’an’s conversation with the governor and other officials quickly turns from medicine to current events and politics. Two topics that arise during this conversation are the prosecutorial overzealousness of especially ambitious officials such as Yü Hsien and Kang Pi, who would rather err on the side of punishing many innocent citizens than let a single criminal go unpunished, and the ineffective policies intended to control the Yellow River’s flooding. The governor is so impressed by Lao Ts’an’s sensible views on these problems that he offers the young man an official post. Lao Ts’an politely declines, insisting that he prefers to offer advice in an informal capacity. Privately, Lao Ts’an realizes that his fondness for frankly expressing his views on controversial topics would be difficult to maintain if he were to become an official. Also, he is not interested in the wealth and power, not to mention the restrictions on his independent way of life, that an official career would bring.

Through various inquiries, Lao Ts’an determines that Yü Hsien’s harsh crackdown on banditry in...

(The entire section is 702 words.)