RAS Book Club

Mr. Ma and Son

Author: Lao She

Author: Lao She, 1929. English translation, William Dolby, 2013

Lao She (b.1899 – d.1966) was the pen name of Shu Qingchun, a noted Chinese novelist and dramatist of Manchu ethnicity. He was one of the most significant figures of 20th century Chinese literature and best known for his novel Rickshaw Boy and the play Teahouse.

From 1924 to 1929 he served as lecturer in the Chinese section of the (then) School of Oriental Studies (now the School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London teaching the Chinese Republic’s New National Language (Mandarin) to classes comprised of green horn missionaries, uninterested housewives, and all too often rowdy young men from London’s banks and business offices (including a young and China-obsessed Graham Greene.)

During this time Fiction Monthly (Xiaoshuo Yuebao) one of China’s most prestigious modern magazines serialized two of his novels: Old Chang’s Philosophy (1926) and Sir Chao Said (1927) that established him as a promising author in the new vernacular style or baihua. Writing the detailed evocations of his native Peking also served to an extent to assuage his homesickness.

Then while still in London he wrote something quite different, Mr. Ma and Son: Two Chinese in London (1929, serialized in Fiction Monthly). Mr. Ma and his son, Ma Wei, run an antiques shop nestled in a quiet street by St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Far from their native Peking, they struggle to navigate the bustling pavements and myriad social conventions of 1920s English society.

In the novel Lao She shows what life is like for Chinese people in the capital city of the nation which, for many decades, has been an anathema to China. It is both an indictment of British imperialist ideology and a Chinese wake-up call. (Lao She in London, by Anne Witchard, RAS China in Shanghai Monograph Series/Hong Kong University Press, 2007.)

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