In more than 50 years of studying and reading Chinese no writer has captured my imagination as much as Lao She, the penname of Shu Qingchun. (Lao She is pronounced so the Lao rhymes with “how,” and the She almost like “shuh” in English.) He was born in Beijing in 1889 and a few years ago voted the 20th century’s most beloved writer of China by Chinese people around the world.
Lao She was one of a handful of pioneer visionaries who saw the value of writing about the common people, for the common people. Up until then most writing was done in the classical wenli dialect, which only the highly educated could read. (For many years I had a Chinese New Testament in wenli but could never make sense of it.)
He was not a banner-waving revolutionary, but a man of high principles and ideals for the China he loved. He never joined a political party and took every occasion to point out the foibles of those in authority who abused the power of their position.
Though much has been written about Lao She in academic journals in various languages, my book, Lao She, China’s Master Storyteller, published in 1999, is still the only English biography in print. Others are on the way I am told.
Lao She became a master at humorous storytelling, because he knew how to laugh at himself. In his third novel, The Two Mas, he often noted it was “important to laugh at oneself.” The other side of his sense of humor was the tendency to take the tragic view of life. More humor comes from tragedy than comedy.
An older contemporary of Lao She, Chen Duxiu, an early Chinese Marxist, wrote in a journal he founded an article which asked the question: “What kind of character and spirit does Jesus teach?”
His answer–“An exalted spirit of sacrifice: for whosoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, and whoever, for my sake, loses his life, shall find it” (Mt 16:25).
Chen summed up what many intellectuals felt about original Christianity and much of what they saw in the foreign mission movement in China churches between 1915 and 1920: “Our greatest fear is that politicians today are trying to make use of Christianity for their own purposes. They use catch-phrases as ‘Christianity to save the country.’ They have forgotten that Jesus came not to save a country, but to save the entire human race to eternal life.”
Chen went on to say, “They have forgotten that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love our enemies, and pray for our persecutors.”
Two years after this article, Lao She became a baptized Christian. There is no evidence Lao She had read this article or was in anyway influenced by it. But it reflects his thinking in those early years.
The penname, Lao She, actually means “to sacrifice.” In 1962, a few years before his death, he wrote a piece entitled, “When the roots are firm, the branches flourish.” He could see that power and corruption in national leadership was not good for any country. Power was meant to be in the hands of the many, not the few.
Lao She is known as the Mark Twain of China.
Britt Towery is a retired Baptist missionary who writes for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas.