What Lao She left Beijing

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2013-2-3 20:13:01


Sunday was the 114th anniversary of the birthday of Lao She, an important Chinese writer who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Photo: IC
Sunday was the 114th anniversary of the birthday of Lao She, an important Chinese writer who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Photo: IC

The tranquil courtyard of 19 Fengfu Hutong in Dongcheng district is well-preserved in the old Beijing style, with two persimmon trees, a white cat lounging under the trees, classic wooden furniture, and Chinese ink paintings hanging on the wall.

On the desk of the study in the northwest corner lies an old calendar, still showing the page for August 24, 1966.

Time is eternally frozen in this room on the day when the former householder, Lao She, chose to end his own life.

Lao She was the pen name of Shu Qingchun, an important Chinese writer, who was born on February 3, 1899 in Beijing. His famous works include Rickshaw Boy and Teahouse.

In 1966, like millions of others, Lao She was persecuted as the Cultural Revolution(1966-1976) began. One day, after yet more abuse by the Red Guards, he said goodbye to his granddaughter, walked out of his house, and jumped into Taiping Lake near his childhood residence. The lake was filled in 1971.

Sunday was the 114th anniversary of his birthday. In the old courtyard, now the Lao She Museum, scholars, his children, and others gathered.

In memory of Lao She and in celebration of the Spring Festival, the museum will host a series of activities in the coming month, including folk performances, lantern riddles and festive exhibitions.

"Lao She's works transcend time and space," said Fang Xu, a stage play director, screenwriter and actor in Beijing. The reason why his works are still widely enjoyed is that they focus on the people at the bottom of society, their bitterness, and the injustice they suffer. These things haven't changed, Fang said.

Footsteps in Beijing

"Beijinger," "Manchu," "poor," "lived overseas for a decade," "was born in 1899 and died in 1966" - those are the five key phrases that Shu Yi, son of Lao She, writer, and former curator of National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature (NMMCL), has chosen to describe the life of his father.

 Lao She was born in a poor family in a hutong in Xicheng district. He spent his childhood in the hutong, and in the downtown area of Huguosi with teahouses, archways, and temple fairs, which later all became prototypes in his novels.

Lao She went to Beijing Normal School in 1915, and later became principal of an elementary school.

In 1924 he went to teach in the UK and then in Singapore. During his time abroad, he started writing. The novel Ma and Son was based on his own experiences in London.

In the 1930s, he lived in Qingdao and then Ji'nan, Shandong Province, and married artist Hu Jieqing. They had one son and three daughters.

In 1946, Lao She visited the US and lectured. During the period in which he finished the 1-million-character masterpiece Si Shi Tong Tang (Four generations under one roof).

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Lao She became president of Beijing Federation of Literary and Art Circles, and composed a great number of stage plays, including Teahouse, a masterpiece. The eponymous teahouse acts as a microcosm of society, in which people get swallowed up by merciless reality.

On August 23, 1966, Lao She and 30 other intellectuals were seized by the Red Guards. He was made to kneel in front of the crowds with a plate hanging on his neck saying "active counterrevolutionary," and beaten cruelly.

On the early morning of the next day, after sitting by Taiping Lake for hours, he jumped into the water.

 "When father was sitting by the lake, rather than physical pains and mental humiliations, what tormented him was that he wasn't understood," writes Shu Yi in his memoir, Father's Last Two Days, which was published in 1985, "[…] in the morning, some paper was floating on the surface of the lake. On the paper were Chairman Mao's poems, hand-written in father's unique, neat calligraphy."

"Father's death is a tragedy […] It's telling people: you are wrong!" he remarked.

 Living on

In 1978, Lao She was rehabilitated by the Communist Party. His honor of "People's Artist" was resumed, his works were republished, and his plays were re-staged.

Many of his articles have been chosen for school textbooks. Beijing's Spring Festival, Winter in Ji'nan, My Cats, and Missing Beiping (one of Beijing's former names) are favorites among students.

The Lao She Literature Fund was founded in 1988, and has sponsored the Lao She Literary Award since 2000. And Beijing People's Art Theater began to restage Teahouse once more.

Fang has been working on new stage plays adapted from Lao She's novels. Having spent his childhood in Beijing's hutong and courtyards, Fang is one of the hundreds of thousands who feel closely tied to Lao She's works.

"Lao She is everywhere, in writing, in talking, in stage plays performed by a new generation of actors," said Fu.

Beijing style

With their vivid use of Beijing dialect and real place names, Lao She's works are like a calling card for Beijing. As he says in Missing Beiping, "I truly love Beiping […] this love doesn't come from minor details, but from the history linked to my heart and soul."

Zhang Jiayi, 25, from Xicheng district, claims she has been the "staunchest fan" of Lao She, ever since she read his essays in her textbooks at elementary school. Zhang has read almost every one of Lao She's works, and watched every related stage play, movie and TV series.

Lao She's works have had a great impact on Zhang through all aspects of life, including individual tastes, approach to life, and manners. "Lao She portrayed his characters vividly. He wrote about dignities, humanity, all walks of life, joys and sorrows," added Zhang.

"The old capital city's looks and features are preserved in his literature. People born and raised in this city will sympathize with it," said Zhang.

Lang Yong, 32, a writer from Xicheng district, whose pen name is Jing Genr, which means "Beijing roots," is one of the local authors who are following in the footsteps and the down-to-earth style of Lao She.

"His works are like Beijing douzhir (fermented bean drink), tangy, nutritious, with a lingering aftertaste," said Lang.

"He is an old man you know, a neighbor who lives in the hutong, one of the ordinary people in Beijing," said Lang. The Beijing-style community culture is shrinking, as non-locals blending in, said Lang. "And we have to save it."

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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