Born in 1899 to a poor Manchu family in Beijing, Lao She became one of the most important figures of 20th century Chinese literature. Both a playwright and novelist, Lao She’s works explore the dark side of the times he lived through, including the Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945). Among the major themes in Lao She’s writings are those of human frailty and cruelty with strong overtones of social and cultural commentary of the times in which they were written.
Lao She’s early childhood was critical in the way that his writings developed, especially thematically. In 1901, at the age of two, Lao She lost his father, who was a guard soldier, to a street fight during the Boxer Rebellion. Growing up, his mother struggled to provide for the family and often regaled Lao She with frightening stories of war and “barbaric foreign devils”, which the writer later recalled as being more terrifying than children’s monster stories.
Despite the family’s financial difficulties, Lao She attended Beijing Normal University and went on to teach in local high schools before moving to London in 1924. It was here, while serving as a lecturer at the School of Oriental [and African] Studies, that Lao She began to read in English. He absorbed a great deal of classical English literature and is said to have been especially influenced by the works of Charles Dickens, whose themes of social inequality and human suffering no doubt resonated with Lao She. The writer eventually went back to China after the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949. During the ensuing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Lao She suffered incredible mistreatment for his beliefs and writings, including public beatings and humiliation. Official record states that Lao She committed suicide in 1966 by drowning himself in Beijing’s Taiping Lake, although some speculation still circulates that Lao She was, in fact, murdered.
Whether by choice or not, the writer’s untimely death rings a sort of irony to his life that is mirrored in Lao She’s works, which strongly feature themes of human suffering and the death of hopes and dreams.
Among Lao She’s most critical works are the novel Rickshaw Boy (骆驼祥子; Luòtuo Xiángzi) and the play Teahouse (茶馆; Cháguǎn). Rickshaw Boy follows the life of a rickshaw driver in 1936 Beijing (Luo She started writing the book that same year). It explores the character’s relationship with his vehicle and the city, which Lao She eloquently describes as “filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable”.
Through Teahouse, which was published in 1957, Lao She explores the themes of social and cultural change. In the 3-act play, the Yu Tai teahouse serves as a center of life for numerous Beijingers over a period of some 40 years from 1898 to 1949, ending on the eve of the Chinese Revolution. Much like the Chinese equivalent of a pub or bar, the teahouse is the setting for slow social change and the mirror against which the changing times are reflected.
Other important works by Lao She include Cat Country (猫城记; Māo Chéngjì), which is considered to be the first Chinese sci-fi novel, Four Generations Under One Roof (四世同堂; Sì Shì Tóng Táng) and The Philosophy of Old Zhang (老张的哲学; Lǎo Zhāng De Zhéxué).