The Travels of Lao Ts'an

by Liu E

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Characters Discussed

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T’ieh Pu-ts’an

T’ieh Pu-ts’an, known as Lao Ts’an (low sahn), a man who wanders through the North China province of Shandong as an itinerant physician. The nickname Lao Ts’an means “Old Vagabond” and fits his unconventional style of life. In his travels, he savors the special character of each place while encountering old friends and making new ones. He is regularly drawn into some human problem and finds wise, just solutions. Lao Ts’an, a vigorous, healthy man of about fifty, has no home but resides in plain inns; he is a person of modest means but disdains money. He has few possessions beyond simple cotton clothes, a few books, his medicine chest, and a string of bells used by Chinese itinerant healers to attract patients. Lao Ts’an’s humble existence hides administrative insight, considerable learning, a cultivated aesthetic sense, and a noble character. In addition to curing his patients, he helps control Yellow River flooding, exposes a ruthless official, shows a new magistrate how to suppress banditry, and prevents a miscarriage of justice. His sagacity leads others to treat him with the highest respect. Once his solutions are set in motion, Lao Ts’an leaves before he is fully thanked, to continue his wandering care for humanity.

Kao Shao-yen

Kao Shao-yen, a secretary to the governor of Shandong, who seeks Lao Ts’an’s treatment for his sick concubine. Through him, Lao Ts’an is brought to the attention of the governor.

Governor Chuang

Governor Chuang, the highest official in Shandong, who shows great favor to the apparently common medical practitioner Lao Ts’an by seeking advice and accepting his recommendations. This character is modeled on Chang Yao, a governor of Shandong in the 1880’s and a mentor to the author.

Yü Tso-ch’en

Yü Tso-ch’en, also known as Yü Hsien (yew syehn), a notorious Manchu official from history who appears under his own name. In the novel, Yü Hsien is pilloried for the harsh justice he meted out as a prefect in Shandong. On his own initiative, Lao Ts’an travels to Yü Hsien’s prefecture, where he confirms the reports of Yü Hsien’s cruelty and enlightens the governor about Yü Hsien’s deficiencies. In real life, Yü Hsien (who died in 1901) was executed for promoting antiforeign attacks during the Boxer uprising of 1900. The author and the historical Yü Hsien were enemies.

Shen Tung-tsao

Shen Tung-tsao, a cautious newly appointed magistrate whom Lao Ts’an encounters. Lao Ts’an advises him on how to suppress banditry without resorting to the cruel and unwise policies of Yü Hsien.

Shen Tzu-p’ing

Shen Tzu-p’ing, a nephew of Magistrate Shen Tung-tsao who is sent into the mountains to locate a man whom Lao Ts’an has recommended to his uncle. During this search, the young man encounters a beautiful maiden and a middle-aged recluse who calls himself “Yellow Dragon.” In a long fantasy sequence, these two figures introduce the philosophical ideas of the T’ai-chou school, a nineteenth century Chinese syncretic philosophy (combining Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) favored by the author.

Huang Ying-t’u

Huang Ying-t’u, also called Huang Jen-jui, an educated man from a family of high officials who had come to Shandong to offer advice on river control. Huang Jen-jui is about thirty years old and is pleasant but dissolute. Lao Ts’an encounters Huang Jen-jui while traveling and, through him, meets the courtesan Ts’ui-huan and learns of a tangled and unsolved multiple murder case.


Ts’ui-huan, a young courtesan whose name means “Green Bracelet.” With a companion, she is invited to entertain Huang Jen-jui and Lao Ts’an. Ts’ui-huan relates how she fell into prostitution. Moved by her story, Lao Ts’an devises a means to...

(This entire section contains 705 words.)

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free her from bondage. She later becomes his concubine.

Kang Pi

Kang Pi, a narrow, arrogant judicial official, brought into a multiple murder case. His inhuman use of torture produces a miscarriage of justice. Lao Ts’an, however, intervenes and saves the wrongly convicted widow and exposes the real murderer, a callow nephew. Kang Pi represents another Manchu official, Kang I, who, like Yü Hsien, was a real enemy of the author.

The Characters

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The picaresque novel does not focus on character development or such subtleties as motivation and alteration of character. In this respect, The Travels of Lao Ts’an follows the tradition faithfully.

Lao Ts’an is a wanderer throughout this chronicle of his travels. Although he has encountered all kinds of people, some good and some evil, they have not changed him—nor have his experiences. Throughout the narrative, he lives by exercising a code based on nobility, kindness, and consideration; this idealized personality is rounded out with intelligence, sensitivity, and artistic appreciation.

Those he meets during his travels develop only as characters with whom he shares a meal, a lodging, a conversation, or an adventure. With nothing happening to change them during the encounters, they pass out of the picture and others take their place. For example, one of the people with whom Lao Ts’an spends the most time is Jen-jui, a government official with a sense of humor and a taste for opium. It is he who arranges the marriage, almost as a practical joke, between Lao Ts’an and Huan-ts’ui, the prostitute they had agreed to rescue. Huan-ts’ui plays the helpless girl in distress, often in tears, but once married, she fades into the background. Mrs. Chia Wei, falsely accused of murder, provides the focus for one of the fuller adventures, but as a character she does not surpass her original status as a wronged woman. Villains such as Prefect Yu also do not reform.




Critical Essays