The Travels of Lao Ts'an

by Liu E

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Critical Evaluation

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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 ideas entails the rejection of negative aspects of traditional Chinese thought, China still needs to base its adaptation to global realities on the foundation of the most workable features of its traditional civilization.

As an example of a negative aspect of traditional Chinese civilization that should be rejected in favor of a Western approach, Lao Ts’an points to a friend’s Chinese opium lamp. He does not do so to make the point that Chinese should not let themselves become addicted to drugs such as opium, although he quietly warns his friend of opium’s addictive nature and refuses to smoke it whenever some is offered to him; Lao Ts’an instead marvels at the fine workmanship of the opium lamp and laments that China’s lack of patent law means that excellent craftsmanship goes mostly unrewarded in China, in contrast to the situation in the West. In his view, China’s technological backwardness in comparison with the West is, in considerable part, caused by neglect of the need to reward invention and innovation.

Traditional Chinese thought also holds, in the novel, many answers to China’s problems. For example, Lao Ts’an uses his knowledge of the ancient Han Dynasty tracts on flood prevention to persuade key officials to discard the failed river-management policy of widening the Yellow River’s channel, which leads to rapid silt buildup on the riverbed, swollen riverbanks, and the subsequent bursting of dikes. He convinces the officials to adopt instead the wise approach of deepening the river channel through dredging, thereby increasing the speed of water flow and decreasing the amount of silt deposited on the river bed.

Perhaps the most striking aesthetic feature of The Travels of Lao Ts’an is its density of allegorical motifs. The name of the first patient Lao Ts’an cures, Huang Jui-ho, contains the two Chinese characters used for the “Yellow River,” huang and

(This entire section contains 761 words.)

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andho. The sores breaking out all over Huang Jui-ho’s body are an allegory for the breaching of the dikes and flooding of the Yellow River valley. The successful healing of the sores is a reference to the decrease of flooding that occurs once the officials take Lao Ts’an’s advice to dredge the middle of the Yellow River’s channel so as to increase the speed of the water flow. Similarly, a dream that Lao Ts’an has about a huge leaking sailboat on which puzzled helmsmen and a tumultuous crowd are milling about is an allegory for the state of confusion that overcame China in the last years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The passengers’ violent rejection of Lao Ts’an’s well-meant advice reflects the despair that Liu E sometimes felt about the possibilities of reform in China—a sadly accurate presentiment.


Critical Context