Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beijing, 2012: In Memory of Lao She, 1899-1966

Alone in his joy, an older man uses water on dust to write his favorite text, and as the strokes create meaning, the cold air takes back the words, leaving the paving stones bare. On the grounds of the Summer Palace
For the first few days of our journey in Beijing, the skies were low and gray, the cloud of pollution we had seen from the plane hanging low over the city on the plain. A vast meeting was taking place of the CPPCC, people's delegates from all over China meeting in the People's Hall to present their concerns to the CP leaders. Every time we entered our hotel, the second one of our stay, we went through security machines and were patted down by women security guards.
Political artifacts for sale.On the gray stones of Panjiayuan Folk Culture Market, memories of old China, moments of domestic life, shards of the past, were spread at our feet.

Like the wet characters of the old man, the present seemed to be turning into the past and the present into the future before our eyes. And the past spoke of broken hearts and massive dreams of a people's hope.

On International Women's Day, we secured tickets to a special performance of the famous 1970 ballet, the first in the new China, about the involvement of women in the Revolution, in the Red Guard. The ungrand theater filled first with school children, their teachers, their parents and then older people, some "grannies" like myself, many young couples. When the chorus sang, so did the audience, the old hope thick in their voices and when the young woman who is at the heart of the ballet, seen as little more then a slave before she joins the Women's Regiment, pulls the folds of the Communist flag to her heart, I wept with the people around me, so palpable was the presence of their country's dreaming.

On our first day, we left our hutong courtyard hotel--the hutongs are the old alleyways of Beijing where people have lived for hundreds of years, they too are disappearing in Beijing's modernizing rush--to walk to  one of the walls of the Forbidden Palace but when I looked at the map, I saw a marking for the Lao She Museum, Lao She, a Manchurian- Chinese writer it said in our small guide book and a little more. My first day in this vast city, trying to make sense of things or to accept not understanding what I was seeing and just look into faces and down streets, dodging traffic of all kinds. We walked and walked, and then as if his hand or the hand of his wife or supporters, had reached out and turned our footsteps into their history, we found ourselves at the entrance of Fuqiang Lane with a small blue sign, "Lao She Memorial Museum" barely visible on the worn wall. A little way down the alley, was the entrance to what had been the home of this Brecht -like writer, a courtyard home, where separate buildings fulfilled the different needs of the family--now all the rooms sites of Lao She's creative, personal and national life with one room dedicated to the work of his wife, Hu Jieqing, who became a recognized painter later in her life and outlived her husband by many years.

Lao She, I had read in another book, had lived in hope of all the good that would come from the success of the establishment of the People's Republic of China. He had organized Chinese writers in 1937 into the "Anti-Japanese Association of National and Literary Art Circles of China," leaving behind his wife and children to bring hope to writers and their readers throughout the 8 years of occupation. This information and the following comes from a 32 page booklet we bought at the doorway of one of the old rooms--where an elderly man looked up from his thermos of tea and thanked us over and over not for buying the Chinese-English booklet, I think, but for our interest in this great modern Chinese writer who is seldom talked about in public because his death is to hard to fit into the present Chinese take on its own history. We read that in 1924, after being a teacher for many years, Lao She was hired by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to teach Chinese. Immediately I thought of the five months Di had spent teaching in those same halls last year and again felt the push of meeting that had to be. We entered the old courtyard with the blooming persimmon tree that Hu Jieqing had painted so many times and a middle aged woman, dressed in a white smock, like a doctor's coat, came to nod, Ni Hao. She helped me over tall lintels that protected so many of the old rooms whether in palaces or ally ways from flooding and I am back in an archives. Carefully preserved are the desks, brushes, letters, books, translations, photographs, pipes, international editions of his most famous works, the novel "Camel Xiangzi," (The Rickshaw Boy),1936, and the play, "The Tea House," (1957). Nothing fancy here, no modern archival techniques but the touch of love is felt, the refusal to accept silence about this man, this writer who like his beloved Dickens, feared for the survival of the everyday person under the pressure of the vast historical challenges that swept through China in the 20th century. The rooms were low ceilinged, the gray of the out side penetrating the spaces; old wooden cabinets housed the writer's relics but in my heart I keep thinking of Lao She's fate--"The 'Cultural Revolution' broke out in 1966. A sick Lao She was beaten and humiliated in public  on August 23. On the morning of the next day, he left home and spent the last day of his life by the Taiping Lake in the northwest of Beijing. When the night befell, he threw himself into the lake..."(p.20, Lao She Memorial Booklet)  All his creative life had been in the service of the motherland, in the best way he knew--to be honest about the degradations of the human spirit brought about by political and economic corruption, he had been a devoted believer in the Revolution and the need for change, over 9 million words poured from his pen into all literary forms, words that took on history and in the end, this writer like so many others in other parts of the world was not allowed to live. Yes, we saw the Forbidden City and the Great Wall but all for me through the eyes of this small bespectacled man and the gatherings of everyday people in the parks, in the squares, on long lines, finding joy under an often leaden sky.

Moments of Lao She, from "Camel Xiangzi," 1936

"Though hardly twenty, he was tall and robust. Time had  not yet molded his body into any set form but he already looked like a full-grown man--a man with an ingenious face and a hint of mischief about him.Watching those high-class pullers, he planned how to tighten his belt to show off his sturdy chest and straight back to better advantage. He craned his neck to look at his shoulders; how impressively broad they were! His slender waist, baggy white trousers and ankles bound with thin black bands would set off his 'outsize' feet. Yes, he was surely going to be the most outstanding rickshaw puller in town. In his simplicity, he chuckled to himself..."

A lifetime and wars later:
The sudden warmth seemed to awaken the city [Beijing] from its spring drowsiness, people roused themselves to seek amusement, their enjoyment blossoming in the warmth in step with the flowers, grasses and trees. The young green willow branches and sprouting reeds of of the Nanhai and Beihai Lakes attracted youths playing mouth organs, couples rowed small boats into the shade of the weeping willows, or drifted among the young lotus plants , humming love songs, their eyes kissing. In the parks, the peonies were in full glory, inviting would-be poets and scholars waving expensive paper fans to stroll among them; when they tired they rested under the green pines by the red walls, sipping green tea, thinking idle, melancholy thoughts, and furtively eyeing the courtesans and the daughters of rich families going about their business. Even formerly quiet places now drew visitors, attracted like butterflies by the soft breezes and bright sunshine. People came with their parasols to admire the peonies of Chongxiao Temple, the emerald water reeds of Taoranting, the mulberry woods and paddy fields of the Museum of Natural History. ....Fun, bustle, color and clamor everywhere. The sudden warmth of early summer seemed to bewitch the ancient city, death, disaster and poverty receded, its many inhabitants mesmerized into dreamily singing its praises. Dirty,beautiful, dilapidated, bustling, chaotic, easy-going and charming, this was the great city of Beiping in the early summer." 

"By autumn, he was already too sick to pull a rickshaw, and anyway, his credit was gone so he could not even rent one. He took on the job of watchman for a little store, and was paid two coppers a night for sleeping on the premises. During the day, he did odd jobs that were just enough to to buy porridge. Begging on the streets was out of the question, since no one would take pity on such a big fellow... He only knew how to work to feed himself, without any other help or support. Struggling only for himself, he was also killing only himself...Xiangzi, so decent, willing, fond of day-dreaming, self serving, solitary, strong and admirable, had been attendant at countless funerals, but has no idea when and where he will be buried himself, where his despairing ghost, product of a sick society, degenerate, selfish, unfortunate and individualistic will finally be laid to rest."  Translated by Shi Xiaojing, Chinese-English Bilingual Edition, The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2005

From "The Tea House" --Its three acts set in 1898, the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, 1917, the failure of the Republican Revolution and 1945, the downfall of the Nationalist Government portrayed through a set cast of character meeting in the enduring teahouse 

Act 3, 1945: Wang Lifa, owner of the Tea House: "Gentlemen, since when did a strike become a rebellion?"
                      "Talk about irony, We haven't had any peanuts for God knows how long, and now we haven't got any teeth."

Epilogue (After Mr Wang, the generous proprietor of this gathering place, kills himself in despair at the take over of the Tea House by the corrupt officials of the Nationalist Government

Sweet young lady, dry your eyes;
It's a dark night, but the sun will rise.
Sweet young lady, don't you mope;
From the Western  Hills flows a bright new hope.
A hope to wash away our grief,
and fill our hearts with  new belief. \
In a land where neither you nor I
Nor our children shall know slavery.
translated by John Howard-Gibbon, 2004, Chinese University of Hong Kong

          The Western Hills was the home of the People's Revolutionary Army

For all the writers who live and die by their dreams made real, whose words take on worlds of unjust power, words that defeat imposed silence.         

(all photographs by Joan Nestle and Dianne Otto)   


  1. Joan we saw the same Beijing 14 years apart on the streets and byways -you bring it all back and something new the names of Lao She and Hu Jieqing. I will find out more about them and remember them.

    1. Dear Paula--you know how precious your touching of my words is! I hope you are enjoying your time in the Catskills and give all my love

  2. Hello Sweetheart,
    Recently I saw the theatrical representation of the book, Wild Swans, at A.R.T. in Cambridge. Three generations of women live through the tumult and oppresssion of Chinese governments from warlords to the present. Your picture of Mao's "Little Red Book" as artifact is worth hanging in my reading room. Did you too possess the LRB? I did. Much love. Mary Ann (PS. Maruska is one of many names Shelley called me).

    1. Thank you, Mary Ann--how wonderful that you are in touch with me--love, Joan