The Travels of Lao Ts'an

by Liu E

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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 learned from folk medicine.

Typical of the picaresque work, this novel is realistic in its depiction of setting and character. The countryside comes to life vividly, the characters’ appearances and clothing are described in minute detail, and the actualities of daily life abound. For example, the narrator even gives the measurements of the rooms in the inns where Lao Ts’an stays. Food, too, plays an important part, and full menus accompany the feasts that the traveler and his friends enjoy. When Lao Ts’an attends a special musical event, he observes both the singers’ renditions and the audience’s reactions so closely that the account captures the joy that he experiences.

Although Lao Ts’an’s travels always provide interest in themselves, they often take a satiric turn to point out the absurd acts of government officials, the pretensions of the aristocratic class, and the oddities of his own people, the Chinese. Although Lao Ts’an frequents government circles and associates with officials, he refuses to take their self-importance seriously; instead, he seizes every opportunity to criticize them and ridicule their inflated opinions of themselves, just as he does with the aristocrats. The blind adherence to tradition and the consequent refusal to make changes, no matter how advantageous, Lao Ts’an observes with a wry smile. Many of his adventures, while appearing ordinary, disguise explorations of particular unjust acts rampant in China during the late nineteenth century.

The typical picaresque hero engages in one peccadillo after another, always emerging unscathed. So does Lao Ts’an. He almost suffers the wrath of a notably cruel ruler, but escapes; rescues a prostitute from bondage,then marries her; and defies an official prosecuting a lady of good family fora multiple murder, then solves the crime. Lao Ts’an also enjoys life and people, meeting old friends and making new...

(This entire section contains 761 words.)

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ones along the way. He receives the hospitality of the great and the humble, who provide him with wine, food, and sometimes lodging. Lao Ts’an extends gracious hospitality as well. At first, several of the episodes seem to depict nothing more than social occasions, but the conversation, which often takes a philosophical turn, makes them substantial.

Published first under a pseudonym as a serial in the newspaper, The Travels of Lao Ts’an may have included sixty chapters instead of the twenty now forming the central text. Although a forty-chapter version appeared in Shanghai in 1919, the second half was proved to be spurious. Other segments have been discovered, authenticated, and published in China—first in 1935, then in 1972. The English translation of 1952 presented the twenty original chapters which are now considered a unified account of Lao Ts’an’s travels.