A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A fitting – if abbreviated – memorial to Lao She

Mention the name Lao She (老舍) to most Europeans or Americans, and I suspect they wouldn’t have a clue whom you were talking about. Yet there surely cannot be a single Chinese who hasn’t at least heard of him – or Shi Qingchun, to give him his real name.

And so it is that your favourite (ignorant) blogger makes his way to the former residence of one of the most significant figures of 20th-century Chinese literature, and best known for his novel Rickshaw Boy and the play Teahouse (oh, THAT guy!) to learn a little more about him.

Lao She's home is preserved as the Lao She Memorial Hall, and was opened to the public as a museum of the writer's life and work in 1999. It was originally purchased in 1950, when it was 10 Fengsheng Hutong, though now it is 19 Fengfu Hutong. Lao She lived here until his death 16 years later.

It’s easy to find, and as you edge ever closer to the entrance, yet more visual clues point you in the right direction.

There’s even a little inscription that reads “Lao She's son Shu Yi uesd to live here. Now this is the meeting room of mermorial” (sic)

I step through the entrance way and am given a free ticket – why one needs one, I have no idea, as no one wants to inspect it.

So that you cannot get “lost”, they have even posted up a map of the 400 sq. m. house (including, I note, the “utility romm”, which I never did get to see).

As you enter, there is a trough full of plastic flowers –

a fitting tribute (???) to the man and his wife who, we are told, loved flowers.

Inside the inner courtyard is a large bowl used by Lao She to keep fish. What he did with them in the winter, we are not told. Maybe he brought the bowl indoors then. Who knows?

The courtyard also contains persimmon trees planted by the writer in 1953. His wife called the house 'Red Persimmon Courtyard'.

There’s even a bust of the guy, though I’m not sure I’d want to be remembered by such a statue…

Three sides of the inner courtyard have rooms that have been turned into sections of the museum dealing with his life and times. As one of the notices tells us “this exhibit presents Lao She’s entire life and creative experience”.

I certainly won’t bother giving you a potted history of the guy – if you are interested, the web is full of such information.

I'm intrigued to learn that Lao She lived in London for three years teaching Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies. There's even an English Heritage 'blue plaque' on the wall of the house where he lived (at 31 St James's Gardens, Notting Hill… not 31 St James Plaza as the official blurb tells you).

The room on the east of the inner courtyard is the living room where Lao She met his guests. The official blurb gushes on about the fact that “He would also arrange all his furniture based on his own preference and had his own collection of gadgets as well as a few paintings hung on the wall and grow flowers”. Gosh!

About Lao She’s death, this memorial site is remarkably silent. “In the morning of August 25th 1966, Lao She walked out alone from the Red Persimmon Courtyard where he lived for 16 years and he spent his last day beside the Taiping Lake, located outside northwest corner of Beijing. He jumped into the lake at night...

What it doesn’t mention is that like many other intellectuals in China, he experienced mistreatment during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s. Red Guards paraded him through the streets and beat him in public. The official line has him committing a poetic suicide in nearby Taiping Hu after enduring a "struggle session" at Kong Miao. According to the official record, this abuse left Lao She greatly humiliated both mentally and physically, and he committed suicide by drowning himself. But it also seems highly possible that he was in fact murdered by the Red Guards.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Lao She was posthumously "rehabilitated" in 1978 and his works were republished.

Take Line 5 to Dengshikou and leave by Exit A. Walk due west along Baishu Hutong for 1km. At the T-junction, turn right and then turn left into Dengshikou West Street. Take second right into Fengfu Hutong.