Chinese writer Lao She (1899-1966) began his literary career in London while teaching Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies. The influences of Dickens and Conrad on his early works are well-known, but critics have overlooked how the four years he spent in this city—from 1924 to 1929— impacted his development as a writer. Anne Witchard's Lao She in London examines his London experiences through an analysis of his novel Er Ma (Two Mas, 1929).
The study begins with an account of Lao She's family background, which influenced the kind of writer that he would become. As a Manchu whose father was killed in the Boxer rebellion when he was only one year old, Lao She grew up with a strong sense of patriotism but also felt alienated from the Chinese mainstream. Perhaps for this reason, he did not participate in the May-fourth new culture movement, which sought to modernize the country through literary reform. Eschewing the "total westernization" advocated by some May-fourth leaders, Lao She found spiritual nourishment in the folk traditions of his native Beijing. As Witchard points out, "Lao She's refusal to jettison all aspects of traditional Chinese culture would distinguish him from his May-Fourth peers. His modernism would be formulated in its own Chinese terms rather than those of Western mimicry" (6). At the same time, she also points out that Lao She turned to Christianity for solutions to China's problems: he was baptized, joined a Chinese Christian church, and got to know foreign missionaries working in Beijing. On the recommendation of one of them, he obtained his teaching position at the School of Oriental Studies.
Witchard discusses the modernism that Lao She encountered in London, and in so doing she dispels the misconception that modernism was entirely of western making. The Chinese, too, held "modernist" views: May-fourth intellectuals wanted to reform Chinese literature in accordance with western theories, and they replaced classical Chinese with a Europeanized, modern vernacular. Witchard demonstrates that China also played a role in the development of modernism in England, especially in the fields of art and poetry. A huge amount of art objects looted from China ended up in British museums, and they enabled British art historian Laurence Binyon to formulate a new language to describe the non-mimetic art of the east, which is the opposite of the realistic, imitative western art. Witchard also notes that Ezra Pound's formulation of imagism, based on his understanding (or misunderstanding) of the conventions of classical Chinese poetry, made China a constituent part of English modernism.
This fascination with things Chinese in the 1910s changed drastically a decade later when the social climate in London became hostile toward the Chinese. Newspapers, novels, and plays portrayed the Chinese as gamblers, opium smokers, murderers, the evil-incarnate Dr. Fu Manchu. Witchard blames British fear of cheap Chinese labor as the cause of this sinophobia, but it must be acknowledged that the small number of Chinese immigrants and students hardly posed a threat to the British empire. Of course, Great Britain was not the only western country [End Page 411] that discriminated against the Chinese; the United States even passed a Chinese Exclusion Act to keep them out. Racial prejudice, combined with China's weakness, made the Chinese the object of scorn in the western world. Lao She noted that the Japanese, on the other hand, were treated much better because they had shipping companies, banks, and other large businesses, but the Chinese had nothing.1 For Witchard, Lao She's novel is a Chinese writer's critique of British racism.
Lao She mentioned in one of his essays that this novel arose from his desire to compare the British and the Chinese. Almost all the characters are meant to represent something, and what interested him the most were the national characteristics they embodied.2 Witchard agrees that "characterization forms the core of the novel," and "the characters are each representative of a social type" (117). Mr. Ma, who is a...