Culture Vulture

Lao She, a writer for the working class

The writer Lao She served the people best through his art, as seen in his epic play, Teahouse

My visits to Beijing have mainly been for work. But during a recent trip there, I did the touristy thing and saw some sights, one of which was the last home of writer Lao She before he died.

It was a lovely courtyard house in Fengfu (Abundant) Hutong, not too far from the Forbidden City. In the courtyard stood two persimmon trees that the writer and his wife had planted.

In the writer's study, on his desk, was a calendar, turned to the date Aug 24, 1966. That was the day he left the house, aged 67, clutching in one hand a sheaf of papers containing hand-copied poems of Mao Zedong, never to return.

Lao She moved into this house in 1950 a few months after returning from the United States. Here, he was reunited with his wife and four children, from whom he had been separated for much of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 and the civil war between Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party that followed.

He was to spend the last 16 years of his life here, in the city of his birth, after decades of a floating existence from 1924 when he left Beijing for London, including a short sojourn in Singapore, teaching at the then Chinese High School (today's Hwa Chong Institution).

It was here in the house he named Red Persimmon Courtyard that he wrote his epic play Teahouse, chronicling the wrenching changes that China went through from the dying days of Qing rule in the late 1800s to the eve of the Communists' triumph over the KMT in 1949, through the comings and goings at the teahouse of proprietor Wang Lifa.

It will be staged in Singapore in March by the Beijing People's Art Theatre.

The play was written in the interstitial period of 1956-1957, when Mao was exhorting the people to express themselves freely in the Hundred Flowers campaign. It was a too-brief period of relative freedom, preceded by a purge of intellectuals accused of being counter- revolutionaries, or those who opposed the Communist revolution, and followed by the anti-rightist movement against - again - intellectuals.

Teahouse premiered on March 29, 1958, but it was not well received by the Party because it was considered not "red enough". It did not reflect the class contradictions of the time and it had too much art and too little politics, said the critics.

The play ended its run in July that year. After revisions to make it more "red", Teahouse was performed again in 1963, but was shelved once more until 1979, well after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the death of Lao She.

I saw the play in Singapore in 1986 and was mesmerised. It was panoramic in scope, but also microcosmic in its portrayal of the sufferings of individuals caught up in the sweeping and often disorienting changes that were sometimes too hard to bear.

But it was not my first encounter with Lao She's works. I had earlier picked up the English translation of another of his better known works, Rickshaw Boy, about the brutal and brutalising life of a rickshaw puller living in the chaotic 1930s.

I don't remember which translation it was, but it was unlikely to be the unauthorised version that Lao She found in the United States, after arrival there in 1946 on a grant from the State Department.

What maddened him was also that the translator had given the novel a different, happier ending to sell more books, according to a recent feature on the writer in the Beijing-based Sanlian Life Week magazine.

This discovery and what he saw during his three-year sojourn in the US left Lao She disappointed with the crass commercialisation of art and the social ills there. It was also during this time that he began to change his view on art.

Lao She was a young schoolteacher when he was inspired by the May Fourth Movement (1915-1921), a cultural and political movement, to pick up the pen and write about the life around him. But he was wary of mixing politics with art and kept out of the activities of the leftist and rightist writers of the time.

In the US, however, he began to speak about how art could serve people and society. In this, he was influenced by Mao's Yanan Talks in 1942, in which he said art should reflect the working class and serve the advancement of socialism.

In 1949, as the Communists closed in on the Nationalists, Lao She decided to go home to China. He rejected an invitation from the KMT to go to Taiwan, instead boarding a boat in San Francisco on Oct 13 for Tianjin via Hong Kong.

Lao She thought he was well placed to write about the working class for the working class. Unlike his contemporaries such as Ba Jin and Bing Xin who came from lettered families, he was born in 1899 to a poor Manchu guard soldier who died in 1901 when he was barely two.

His mother worked as a laundry woman to raise him and a brother and sister. He would not have gone to school had a family friend not paid his fees, he wrote in his memoirs.

Who better to write about the downtrodden?

But what the Communists wanted was not the story of the dispossessed, but their indoctrination of socialism. They were unhappy, for example, when he made one of his characters in the play Dragon Beard Ditch, a policeman in the first act about the old society before 1949, the deputy chief of a police station in the third act about the post-liberation society. How could a counter- revolutionary be given such a position after liberation?

Lao She's son Shu Yi, in an interview with Sanlian magazine, recalled how the revised scripts of one play measured a foot thick, so many there were.

Lao She was, in the words of Mao's wife Jiang Qing, an "unreformed intellectual", and he himself soon realised that as someone who had never taken part in the Communist revolution, he could never write well about it. He also got tired of the propagandistic literature of the time - "we can't just stretch our necks and shout slogans", he once said.

In a conversation in the spring of 1966, he called himself an old man of the capitalist class who, while wanting to see the success of revolution, was unable to keep in step with it.

"Old people like me don't have to apologise for our behaviour anymore, but what we can do is to explain why we are the way we are."

On Aug 23, 1966, Lao She was beaten up badly by the Red Guards, young militants directed by Mao to enforce communist dogma and fight those considered "counter-revolutionary".

The next day, Lao She left home and, in the evening, he was found in a lake in north-west Beijing, presumed to have committed suicide.

Of the 40 plays, two novels and numerous essays and poems that he wrote after 1949, few have stood the test of time. One was Teahouse and another the unfinished autobiographical novel Beneath The Red Banner, both nonconformist.

The leftists did not get it, but Lao She served the people best when he gave them voice through his art.

suinoi@sph.com.sg