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)