Preacher's Daughter, Palace Guard's Son

The story of China's first almost Nobel literature laureate

01 August, 2018

THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE will not be awarded this year. This hiatus—the result of allegations of sexual assault against the husband of a member of the Swedish Academy, which confers the award—will deprive us of more than just a winner. We will also miss out on the usual wrangling over who else deserved to, but did not, win. This is an annual, global ritual, and one with a surprisingly long history—seemingly as long as of the prize itself.

Take the case of Rabindranath Tagore. When he became the first Asian literature laureate in 1913, there were certainly many news stories extolling his poetry. Much was also made, though, of Thomas Hardy, the celebrated English novelist of rural life, being passed over. (He would never win.) The writer Gordon Ray Young, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, claimed that “the literature of the day abounds with work of splendid authors,” and provided a long list of poets, many now largely forgotten, who he felt were more worthy of the award.

Another controversial award came 25 years later, when the winner was Pearl Buck, an author who herself had an Asian connection. She was born in West Virginia but grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries, and later gained fame with a novel, The Good Earth, about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese farming family. Articles praised Buck’s skills and highlighted in particular her empathetic treatment of the Chinese protagonists of The Good Earth, then and still by far her most widely read book, which became a bestseller and inspired a hugely successful Hollywood movie. Other articles questioned whether Buck—the first American laureate and also the first winner with deep ties to China—was really a writer of the first rank. Some critics claimed that her work was more melodramatic, more middlebrow, or both, than a Nobel winner’s should be.

There were apparently many in Sweden, from where all the Nobel Prizes (apart from the Peace prize) are given, who thought another, competing author should have become the laureate in 1938: Frans Emil Sillanpää. This was the focus of a wire service report that ran in the New York Times, under the headline “Award Perturbs Swedes.” It referred to some “Swedish authors and critics” issuing “caustic” remarks about the Nobel selection committee, chastising its members for having “again overlooked” Sillanpää, the “long-standing Finnish candidate.” There was apparently less concern among the people of Finland over the decision to award the author of The Good Earth. The article, which carried the subheading, “But Finns Accept Naming of Mrs. Buck for Nobel Prize Calmly,” noted that Buck was “extensively read” in Finland, with 20,000 copies of a translation of The Good Earth in circulation—“an extraordinary record for a book” in Finland. (In any case, all Sillanpää’s fans had to do was wait one more year, as he was given the prize in 1939.)

Thirty years after Buck’s win, when Yasunari Kawabata became the first person born in East Asia to win the award, there were relatively few criticisms of his work, but reports on his win often mentioned various authors, better known in the West, who had been passed over. A Washington Post article, for instance, which ran under the headline “Japan Author Is Awarded Nobel Prize,” began by noting that Kawabata was “almost unknown in the West.” Then, before providing any details about his writing, it described Kawabata as having been selected “over such contenders as Norman Mailer of the United States, Andre Malraux of France, Britain’s Graham Greene and W.H. Auden, Alberto Moravia of Italy, Irish author Samuel Beckett, Rumanian-born Eugene Ionesco and Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler.” This is a lengthy list, but it possibly leaves off one important name—a writer born in Beijing who, at least according to a tale often repeated in China, was the actual favorite of the Nobel selection committee fifty years ago.

The author, the son of a Qing Dynasty palace guard, was born with one surname but soon adopted another: Shu. When he wrote, though, he did so under a nom de plume unrelated to either of these surnames. Made up of a character meaning “old” and a character meaning “house,” it is spelled out as Lao She in today’s standard Pinyin, but in the past was sometimes rendered as “Lao Shaw,” “Lau Sheh” or otherwise.

Some two decades before the 1968 Nobel Prize was announced, the writer rumoured to be a contender for it was in the United States. He was one of two prominent authors from China whom the US Department of State had invited to the country as part of a cultural exchange. While in the United States, Lao She became friends with, among other people, Pearl Buck and her husband, Richard Walsh, an influential publisher. Lao She had been published prolifically in Chinese by that point, making a name for himself with his novels and essays, but his work was only starting to be translated into English, sometimes poorly and without adequate remuneration. One thing he and Buck shared was a concern about securing effective literary representation for him, so that his interests would be protected. Buck wrote a letter to David Lloyd, a New York-based literary agent, on behalf of Lao She, who is today still best known in the West in connection with the one novel she mentioned in it, Rickshaw Boy (although recent English translations and reissues suggest a renewed interest in his other work).

The story about Lao She and the Nobel Prize, which seems to have originated with the author’s son Shu Yi, is that the selection committee had settled on Rickshaw Boy’s author as the 1968 winner. Out of five finalists, he received the most votes. The committee was then stymied by not knowing how to get in touch with the author. They were aware that he had never joined the Communist Party, despite his concern about how previous regimes had misruled China. They also knew that he had returned to the country from the United States soon after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, with Mao Zedong as its paramount leader. China’s contacts with the West had grown much more limited under Mao. Getting across to people in China in the mid-to-late 1960s was even harder than usual, since the country was in a state of turmoil because of the Cultural Revolution. This had started in 1966, with Red Guards—youths fiercely loyal to Mao—creating havoc on campuses, where they attacked all whom they deemed insufficiently true to the recent revolution and its leader. The Nobel selection committee, after failing to locate their first choice, ended up deciding on another candidate. At least according to legend, Lao She’s absence helped Kawabata win, as the committee was keen on giving the prize to an East Asian writer, and the Japanese author was the only one of the remaining four who fit the bill.

Lao She visited the United States in 1948 and became friends with the novelist Pearl S Buck. As this letter to the literary agent David Lloyd shows, Buck was concerned about securing literary representation for the Chinese visitor. ALL LETTERS COURTESY RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

This story of the 1968 Nobel Prize may be a mix of fact and fiction, but two things are clear. One is that it is not far-fetched to imagine that Lao She would have been considered for the award, for he was highly regarded within Chinese literary circles and was well known outside China from the 1940s on. The other is that there is no way he could have won the award 50 years ago. It can only go to a living author, and, unbeknown to the Nobel Prize selection committee, Lao She had drowned two years earlier, after being bullied and beaten by groups of Red Guards, presumably committing suicide to escape further persecution.

I HAVE SPENT ABOUT A DECADE working on a book that places in global perspective the anti-Christian killings and international war that convulsed the Qing Empire between 1899 and 1901. I am researching and writing about events that are most commonly, if inaccurately, remembered in the West as comprising the “Boxer Rebellion”—a term that is perfectly fine, as long as you keep in mind two things. First, the members of the militant sect involved, who murdered a large number of Chinese Catholics and Protestants and a few dozen members of missionary families in hopes that doing so would end a devastating drought, did not really “box,” though they did use martial-arts techniques. Second, they did not expressly want to topple the country’s rulers—the Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China since the middle of the seventeenth century—and so were not actually “rebels.” Their driving concern was ridding the realm of what they considered a polluting presence that was causing local gods to withhold rain. During a 55-day siege of Beijing’s diplomatic quarter, which made the Boxers internationally infamous and triggered an invasion of China by a consortium of soldiers marching behind eight different foreign flags, the militants worked with and were backed by the Empress Dowager, the most powerful Qing figure, and other members of the imperial family.

How is this crisis connected to the Nobel Prize? If one thinks only of Chinese writers, then there is a simple answer to this question. The first Nobel literature laureate to be living in China when he received the award was Mo Yan, the 2012 winner. He grew up in Shandong, a hotbed of anti-Christian activity towards the end of the nineteenth century. The action in one of his novels, Sandalwood Death, takes place in that province while the Boxer crisis is underway.

There are also other, more global connections between the Boxers and the Nobel Prize. During the crisis, for example, Mark Twain, who many think should have become a Nobel laureate but never did, expressed his support for the Boxers, calling them “patriots” who simply wanted to regain control of their country. He also expressed his disdain for the brutal campaigns of revenge that foreign armies carried out in China after the lifting of the siege of Beijing and the widespread looting that took place. Twain viewed these and similar attacks that American soldiers were carrying out in the Philippines, as well as the actions of British troops in South Africa during the Boer War, as “pirate raids” that “besmirched” the reputation of Christendom. A famous instance when he voiced his anti-imperialist views was while making introductory remarks for a talk in New York in 1900 by a young British war correspondent who had a very different view of the Boer War (though he does not seem to have gone on record about the Boxers). The Englishman’s name was Winston Churchill, someone who, unlike the man who introduced him, did go on to become a literary laureate.

Lao She wrote this letter to David Lloyd, after he was introduced to the agent by Buck.

Tagore, who was writing as early as in the 1880s that China had been treated badly by foreign powers, also addressed the Boxer crisis. One of his most famous poems, “Sunset of the Century,” written at the end of 1900, refers to “verses of vengeance” filling the air in many places at that time. It was inspired in part by his concern with the punitive expeditions by foreign troops in China. A vignette in the novel My Century by Günter Grass, who won the Nobel Prize in 1999, is set during the Boxer crisis. Grass imagines a soldier hearing the infamous speech that the German Kaiser gave to China-bound soldiers in 1900, telling them that they should show no mercy and make the name of their country as feared as it was in the days of Attila the Hun.

The Boxer crisis had a profound effect on the families of Pearl Buck and Lao She. In her 1954 memoir, My Several Worlds: A Personal Account, which the Kirkus Review characterised at the time as her “most important” and in many ways also her “best” book, Buck describes how Boxer violence brought an idyllic period in her life to an end. She writes of her missionary father risking his life by preaching the gospel in a strife-torn area, after sending his wife and children to safety in Shanghai. She also brought the Boxers into some of her fiction, including a novel titled God’s Men, whose lead characters are two sons of missionaries, and another novel called Imperial Woman, which tells the life story of the powerful Empress Dowager.

Pearl Buck gained worldwide fame with The Good Earth, a novel about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese farming family. PETER STACKPOLE/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

As for Lao She, his father was killed during the foreign invasion of Beijing, when the author was an infant. He, too, would later engage with the Boxer crisis in his fiction. It was my knowledge of Pearl Buck and Lao She’s connections with the crisis and a desire to know about their links to one another, that led to me to a Columbia University archive and a folder labelled “Shu, Ch’ing-ch’un, 1898-1966, New York, April-July 1948, To David Lloyd, 11 a.l.s. (with copies of 11 related letters).”

PEARL BUCK REMAINS a globally familiar figure because of the enduring popularity of The Good Earth, which was recently reworked by Nick Bertozzi into a graphic novel of the same name. As well known as Rickshaw Boy and Lao She were in the 1940s, though, many people living outside of China and with only a casual interest in Chinese literature may know little or nothing about him.

He was a person and author of many parts, whose career and life had several quite distinctive phases—something that a passing acquaintance with him can obscure. Consider, for example, what is either left out or misleading in a simple sketch of him gleaned from a few quick online searches. Such a sketch would likely say that he wrote realistic works of fiction set in Beijing, the capital city he was born in, died in, loved and knew intimately. It would also say that, in the People’s Republic of China, he is celebrated as a patriotic author, whose many works include a play extolling the Boxers and novels containing empathetic portrayals of the poor. In the West, meanwhile, he is best remembered for Rickshaw Boy, a novel that, when translated into English in 1945, became a bestseller and earned positive reviews, with one rare critic of it being Pearl Buck, who suggested that the book’s author knew less about the lives of China’s poor than she did.

Lao She did live in Beijing and set most of his fiction there, but it was not the capital of China when much of the action in Rickshaw Boy—and some of that in the play “Teahouse,” in which the Boxers get a passing mention—take place. Nor was it even called “Beijing”—which literally means “Northern Capital.” From the late 1920s through late 1940s, it was known as “Beiping”—Northern Plain— while the country’s seat of government was in either Nanjing—Southern Capital—or, during the final years of the Second World War, the farwestern city of Chongqing. There is no question, though, that he loved the city, whatever its name. “The only friend he had was this ancient city,” Lao She writes in Rickshaw Boy of the eponymous protagonist (in Jean M James’s translation). “This city gave him everything. Even starving here was better than starving in the country. There were things to look at, sounds to listen to, color and voices everywhere.”

A 55-day siege of Beijing’s diplomatic quarter during the Boxer Rebellion triggered an invasion of China by a consortium of soldiers marching behind eight different foreign flags. PHOTO12/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

Was Lao She a “Chinese” writer? He certainly wrote in that language, but the descriptor could imply that he belonged to the country’s Han ethnic majority, and he did not. He was a Manchu, born with the surname “Sumuru,” though he later went by the Mandarin surname of “Shu,” which is also the surname of his children, such as his son Shu Yi, and his daughters, one of whom, Shu Ji, served as the editor of his collected works. One reason that he found it easy to praise the Boxers in Shen Quan—literally, Spirit Fists—the four-act play about them he wrote around the time of the sixtieth anniversary of their uprising, was that his mother had told him stories when he was very young about his Palace Guard father being killed by foreign soldiers.

To say that Lao She wrote realist works of fiction set in Beijing would be akin to describing Mark Twain as someone who wrote about boys growing up by a river. Lao She wrote many things very different in style and tone from the melodramatic and far from humorous Rickshaw Boy. He was a gifted humorist (one reason that some called him “China’s Mark Twain”). He published, in 1933, a satiric science-fiction novel set on Mars, titled Cat Country, which reveals the influence of Jonathan Swift as well as Dickens. He even, after travelling to England as a young man in the 1920s, tried his hand at a tale of cross-cultural romance and cultural misunderstanding, with Mr Ma and Son. This novel includes a scathing critique of the fears surrounding the Yellow Peril, popularised in works such as the early twentieth-century British writer Sax Rohmer’s “Fu Manchu” stories, which featured a consistently villainous Chinese doctor of that name. Set in England, it drew on the author’s experiences teaching Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies in London (known as SOAS today), a period of his life that has been discussed extensively in a lively recent book by Anne Witchard, titled Lao She in London.

It is true that Lao She is now revered in his native land. In 1999, an official prize in his name was established, which the Beijing Literature and Art Association awards every two or three years to an author in that city deemed to be particularly worthy. This places him in very select company, for only two other leading Chinese literary figures active during the pre-1949 era have similar awards named for them: Lu Xun, who is widely considered the greatest of all modern Chinese writers, and Mao Dun, who is not rated as highly by many critics but is considered to have had the most impeccable political credentials, being one of the earliest members of the Chinese Communist Party. Lao She has not, however, always been viewed positively in China. He enjoyed a high degree of respect when he made the decision to return to the country in 1949, but later, like many other cosmopolitan intellectuals, he was vilified as a counter-revolutionary. His conversion to Christianity in the 1920s was something easy to hold against him during the Cultural Revolution, and the fact that the State Department hosted him in the United States was a black mark at a time when that country and China were at odds. His death by drowning, usually described as an act of suicide, likely was a desperate move by someone being persistently hounded. According to Father’s Last Two Days, a 1985 memoir published by his son Shu Yi, what “tormented” Lao She at the end was not just his “physical pains and mental humiliations,” but the fact that “he wasn’t understood” in the homeland he had chosen to return to when he could have stayed away.

One person who did understand Lao She and his writing was his friend Pearl Buck—though you would not know this from works that refer to the two authors and only mention the American one’s criticism of Rickshaw Boy. Buck told a friend that she thought that book was flawed, but to let that stand as the sole connection between the two is deeply misleading. Her generous patronage of him should not be forgotten. A 1946 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune referred to Pearl Buck introducing Lao She and another Chinese writer “to New York editors at a luncheon at the Gotham.” Two years after this meeting, the American author was helping Lao She find a better agent. This was not all Pearl Buck did for Lao She: the materials held at Columbia also make clear that she assisted him in connecting with Ida Pruitt, the skilful translator with whom he worked on the English-language editions of some of his later novels. There is, further, a letter held at Columbia from Pearl Buck to David Lloyd, written after Lao She had returned to China, in which she praises The Yellow Storm, one of those later novels, for the way it portrays life in wartime “skillfully, humorously, tragically.”

Rickshaw Boy was first “translated” into English by Evan King, who changed many important features of it. King’s version, published in 1946, closes with the hero, a rickshaw puller nicknamed “Camel” (a nod to the beast-of-burden nature of his job and the prevalence of those humpbacked animals in Beiping at the time), carrying the love of his life through the “mild coolness of summer evening,” with her “nestling” close. Its last sentences are: “He was alive. They were free.” In Shi Xiaoqing’s translation, which was published in 1981 under the title Camel Xiangzi and is much truer to the original Chinese version, the book ends instead with the protagonist’s tears falling “thick and fast” as he walks through a graveyard. He thinks back on how, despite him trying “his best” and his beloved doing so as well, she had given up and hanged herself. It then says that all “hope” was “gone,” and he merely endured. Its last line reads, “As long as he managed to stay alive, why think of anything else?”

Evan King did not exactly translate Rickshaw Boy; it might be more apt to say he wrote a book in English that was loosely inspired by a Lao She novel. Hua Hsu, a New Yorker staff writer, notes in A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific—whose only discussion of Pearl Buck and Lao She’s connection is a reference to the former’s criticism of the latter’s best-known novel—that it is quite possible that the version that Buck read and found to be wanting was King’s bowdlerisation. (Indeed, in one of her letters to David Lloyd, held at Columbia, Buck expresses dismay at how King had treated Lao She and his work.)

THERE IS SOMETHING SWEET about the fragmented story that the letters held at Columbia and other materials allow us to piece together of the connection between Pearl Buck and Lao She, a man who was never a laureate but might well have become one had history taken a different course, or had he simply decided, to stay on in the United States. There is no direct exchange of letters between the two authors, as I thought there might be when I went to New York. We do find evidence in their letters to Lloyd that the two writers—one with a father who was almost killed by Boxers in 1900, and the other with a father who was a casualty of the international invasion of that year—were on good terms.

We will never know if Lao She and Buck talked about the different ways that the Boxer crisis affected their respective families, though someone ready to veer into the realm of historical fiction, as I am not, could doubtless have fun imagining a conversation between the two of them 70 years ago, one that touches upon the events that convulsed China back when the American writer was a seven-year-old girl and Lao She an infant boy.

Lao She indicated a desire to both serve China after his return and stay connected to the international world of letters.

Pieces of a very bitter story begin to emerge, though, when one examines other materials in the David Lloyd file, which relate to Lao She’s life after he returned to China. A letter regarding membership in an American organisation, which speak to Lao She’s desire to both serve the “New China” controlled by the Communist Party and stay connected to the international world of letters, is not the only thing in the file that post-dates 1949. There are also letters that show how hard it soon became for Lao She to maintain ties to the world he had left behind by going back to China. For example, there are missives that refer to Lloyd trying to figure out how to get royalties payments to Lao She, fretting about long periods passing without a response from his client and worrying that passing on clippings about Lao She’s work to the Western press might be dangerous for the writer.

There are no letters in the file from the 1960s. Those interested in the question of whether indeed the Nobel committee wanted to give Lao She its award half a century ago will find nothing there to support or contradict the story that a writer in China, rather than one in Japan, was slated to be the first in East Asia to be named a laureate. Nor will those interested in his suicide find anything in the file directly relevant to it. The materials from the 1950s do, though, make for poignant reading, if one looks at them knowing that in 1966 the author’s life would end, much like his father’s, with a tragic death in Beijing during a time of chaos, and that, like the protagonist in the original Rickshaw Boy, his final days in the city he loved would be distressing ones.

All the letters referred to and pictured are held in Shu, Ch’ing-ch’un papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the city of New York.