The Travels of Lao Ts'an

by Liu E

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Places Discussed

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Inns. True to his name, Lao Ts’an moves to a series of inns of varying quality. These lodgings are spartan, but differ in cleanliness and service. Walls surrounding the inns allows animals and carts to be kept inside. Interior buildings include the owners’ residences, kitchen areas, and guest rooms. Rooms are furnished simply with wooden tables, chairs, and benches. Important fixtures are heated brick beds called kangs that are also used for sitting. Travelers bring their own bedding and towels; the inns provide hot water for washing and drinking. Doorways and windows usually have curtains (lientzu) for privacy. In the summer these are light, but in winter they are heavy padded cotton to keep warmth inside. To supplement the modest heat radiating through the kangs, rooms have charcoal braziers. Some inns serve meals, but more often guests have food brought in from outside restaurants. Lao Ts’an’s preference for such lodgings is a marker of his modesty and upright character.

Government offices

Government offices. Lao Ts’an visits a number of different yamen or magistrate’s offices located near centers of walled cities, within their own walled compounds, which contain linked courtyards that are hierarchically arranged. Buildings typically include the officials’ living quarters, courtrooms and halls for business, small garden areas, offices for staff, and siderooms for bailiffs and runners. The grandeur of a yamen reflects the importance of the official who resides there. Some of the novel’s action occurs in the halls where magistrates take evidence in their roles as judges. Lao Ts’an’s skills lead some officials to ask him to reside in the better rooms available at the yamen, but his refusal to accept the offers is another indication of his probity.


*Shantung. Province in North China about the size of Mexico with a population of around thirty-five million people at the time in which this book is set. During the Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty Shantung was arranged in an administrative hierarchy of 6 circuits (tao), 13 prefectures (fu), and 151 districts (hsien), all of which were walled cities. Dozens of Shantung places are mentioned in the novel, including several prefectures, districts, market towns, and villages to which Lao Ts’an pays short visits.


*Tengchoufu (TENG-choh-few). Important prefectural-level city on the north shore of the Shantung peninsula in which the novel opens. Better known as Chefoo or as Yentai, it was a major port for people traveling to Manchuria and had been a treaty port permitting foreign residence since 1863. It had a population of around seventy thousand people at the time. The narrative in the first chapter is intended as political allegory that takes place in well-known seaside locations. Later, this entire sequence is revealed to have been Lao Ts’an’s dream.


*Tsinanfu (TSEEN-ahn-few). Provincial capital of Shantung; a walled city famous for its lakes and springs. Lao Ts’an passes through Tsinanfu as the novel opens and visits the city’s famous sites in chapters 2 through 4.


*Ts’aochoufu (TSOW-choh-few). Southernmost prefecture in Shantung that is the setting for much of chapters 5 through 8. A walled city of some fifty thousand residents, Ts’aochoufu was in a poor region that was often threatened by Yellow River flooding and was the site of early disturbances linked to the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901). Liu Ê’s novel uses the city to satirize a Manchu official who served there as a magistrate.

Peach Blossom Mountain

Peach Blossom Mountain. Imaginary mountain in the real Shantung district of Feicheng, which is the setting of chapters 8 through 12. Liu Ê uses the mountain to introduce his...

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personal interest in a syncretic religio-philosophical doctrine most commonly known as the T’ai-chou school. It is the only completely fictional location in his novel.


*Ch’ihohsien (CHEE-hoh-seen). Small district-level administrative city on the Yellow River that was subject of frequent serious flooding. Liu Ê sets the action in chapters 12 through 18 there. He used Ch’ihohsien because a second Manchu official who was his real-life enemy served there. Like Liu Ê, the fictional protagonist, Lao Ts’an, is an expert in flood control, so the setting provides a site in which he can use his skills.


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Dolezelova-Velingerova, Milena, ed. The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980. The chapter by Donald Holoch analyzes the two allegorical incidents in the novel’s first chapter and claims that the remainder of the novel can be seen as a structural elaboration of these opening allegories.

Hsia, C. T. “The Travels of Lao Ts’an: An Exploration of Its Art and Meaning.” Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies 7, no. 2 (August, 1969). This article combines a thorough analysis of the novel’s key aesthetic features with interesting historical research on the pro-Boxer-Rebellion officials who served as Liu E’s models for Yü Hsien and Kang Pi, who run roughshod over the guilty and the innocent alike in order to garner fame as hanging judges.

Lang, D. M., and D. R. Dudley, eds. The Penguin Companion to Classical, Oriental, and African Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969. The section on Liu E emphasizes the stylistic advance represented by The Travels of Lao Ts’an in its highly original prose descriptions of landscape and musical performances.

Lu Hsün. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976. This book’s section on “novels of exposure” of the Ch’ing dynasty contains an analysis of The Travels of Lao Ts’an’s portrayal of the official Kang Pi, whose incorruptibility is offset by his autocratic and ruthless ways.

Shadick, Harold. Introduction to The Travels of Lao Ts’an, by Liu E. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Includes updated introductory material. An excellent starting place.


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