It had become a commonplace for Chinese novels of Liu E’s day to castigate corrupt officials who would do practically anything in return for a bribe. While Liu E acknowledges the harm done by official malfeasance, he focuses on a less obvious but similarly grave betrayal of the public trust: that of the “honest” official who desires fame and promotion rather than mere profit, and whose conscience remains unruffled while he imposes the most Draconian and indiscriminate crackdowns. As one of the most fascinating late nineteenth century scholarly entrepreneurs, whose achievements ranged from shrewd railway investments to the discovery of the Shang Dynasty oracle bone script, Liu E had his share of run-ins with ruthless officials. Yuan Shih-k’ai, for example, used his influence to get the author arrested on trumped-up charges and exiled to Chinese Turkestan. There Liu E died, a victim of official arrogance, in 1909, a short time after completing his novel satirizing the abuse of power.
In Lao Ts’an, Liu E created a protagonist who embodied many of his own values. These included a conviction that traditional Chinese thought contained many insights that one could combine with aspects of Western thought in formulating ways to deal with the crises that China faced in the modern world. Just as Liu E admired the syncretist teachings of the T’ai-ku school, which combined the Three Teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism), Lao Ts’an finds the same ideas, as voiced by a reclusive scholar nicknamed Yellow Dragon, noteworthy. Yellow Dragon promulgates a middle way between the extremes of Europeanized Chinese revolutionaries, who want to sweep away all traditional Chinese ways, and backward-looking traditionalists such as the Boxers, who categorically reject all ideas from the West. Yellow Dragon argues that while the acceptance of certain Western...
(The entire section is 761 words.)