Chinese Language Learning – I have just finished reading 猫城记 by 老舍

For those unfamiliar, 猫城记 is a prominent novel written in the 1930s, widely regarded as China’s first important work of science fiction, which satirizes contemporary Chinese society at the time of writing. I read the book in the original Chinese. It was intellectually interesting — and I’m glad I read it — but I’m not sure I’d call it “fun”. Anyway, here’s the introduction to the English version my friend is reading. I found it quite informative and figured some of you might like to read it (minor spoilers follow):

*IN THE northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture of the destruction of old Beijing, the Lake of Great Peace was just another loss – one of the countless cuts that have destroyed the old city and remade it in the borrowed image of socialism: modern, efficient and rootless. But its demise is especially poignant because it was here in 1966 that the greatest chronicler of Beijing’s urban life, Lao She, committed suicide after bein tortured and brutalised by Mao Zedong’s Red Guards.*

*Lao She’s best-known works are the novel Rickshaw Boy and the play Teahouse, both of which describe the challenges faced by ordinary people in China’s turbulent twentieth century. A champion of vernacular Chinese, he was one of the first to fully capture how people really spoke, especially the dialect of his beloved Beijing. But it’s in Cat Country that Lao She stretches himself the furthest, producing one of the most remarkable, perplexing and prophetic novels of modern China. On one level it is a work of science fiction – a visit to a country of cat-like people on Mars – that lampoons 1930s China. On a deeper level, the work also predicts the terror and violence of the early Communist era and the chaos and brutality that led to Lao She’s death at the Lake of Great Peace. Cat Country is often called a dystopian novel, but when Lao She took his own life, it was an uncannily accurate portrait of the reality around him.*

*The novel hasn’t always been seen in such terms. After it was serialised in 1932, it was roundly criticised as too pessimistic. Although it was a popular book, Chinese and foreign critics had a hard time placing it in Lao She’s oeuvre. Some have seen its value mainly as a way of understanding his views on China. But Cat Country’s stature has grown over time, after the detritus of a turbulent era has settled, the shrill polemics have faded, and the book is seen not only in the context of Chinese history but as a reaction to a time when many societies, both Eastern and Western, were degenerating into a violent, animalistic state.*

*Lao She himself was ambivalent about Cat Country, and saw it as a detour from his roots as a humorist in the Beijing storytelling tradition. He was born there in 1899 as Shu Qingchun, or Sumuru, in his native Manchu tongue. His people were the one-time nomads who had conquered China in the midseventeenth century and had been ruling it since then under the Sinicised name of the Qing dynasty. His father was a soldier who died defending the Forbidden City in 1900 against Western troops in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers had vowed to expel foreigners from China, and the Manchu court had made the ill-fated error of backing them – one of the final blows that caused the Qing to fall in 1912 and be replaced by a weak republic.*

*Lao She grew up impoverished: his mother had a tiny widow’s pension and the boy often lacked overcoats in the winter. But he was tough and one of his friends, the linguist Luo Changpei, wrote in an essay that ‘even when he was beaten with the rattan pointer until tears filled his eyes, he wouldn’t shed a drop or ask to be spared.’Academically gifted, he went to a teaching school and was immediately given a job in the educational bureaucracy. But he resigned in disgust at the corruption and lack of reforms – themes he would take up with gusto in Cat Country.*

*He went to London in 1924 to teach Chinese at the University of London’s School of Oriental Studies (the precursor of today’s School of Oriental and African Studies), and he read English novels in earnest. Homesick for Beijing, he began to write, partly imitating Dickens. His first novel, The Philosophy of Lao Chang, was well received because he had brought to the fore something that modern Chinese literature had previously neglected: humour. Two more novels followed and then he moved back to China, stopping first for half a year to teach in Singapore, where he wrote a children’s novel.*

*Assigned to teach in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan, Lao She wrote a novel that looked at how a Japanese attack on the city in 1928 played out against a family’s life. But that work was lost when he sent it to be published in Shanghai and the publisher’s offices were destroyed during a Japanese attack in 1932.*

*Cat Country was his response to these events, and a part of Lao She’s growing politicisation. He felt that he had to help China by writing more critically but it also betrayed his unease and distance from the country itself, perhaps a reflection of his position as a Manchu. Many of his kinsmen had been killed in pogroms after the fall of the Qing, and had been widely blamed for China’s troubles.*

*The novel tells the story of a Chinese man who crash-lands on Mars. His two companions are killed and he is soon captured by a group of Cat People who run one of the planet’s many countries. He frees himself from their clutches after realising that they lack rudimentary military technology, allowing him to use his pistol to scare them off. He is befriended by one of Cat Country’s richest and most powerful men, Scorpion, who has a plantation of ‘reverie’ trees, which produce addictive leaves that the Cat People eat.*

*Scorpion takes the narrator under his wing, protecting him from further attacks, but also using him as a mercenary to guard his valuable crop. Eventually, the two go to Cat City, where the narrator learns about Cat Country’s plight. As he puts it upon entering the city, ‘As soon as I set eyes on Cat City, for some reason or other, a sentence took form in my mind: this civilisation will soon perish!’*

*What follows is a detailed exploration of Cat Country, which can be seen as a direct commentary on 1930s China and indeed this may have been how Lao She intended it to be read. ‘Mr Earth’, as our narrator is called, views the Cat People with a mixture of pity and disgust. The locals are dirty and chaotic, the local food poisonous and unsafe, while modern education and foreign travel have only led to superficial knowledge and alienation from traditions.*

*The narrator’s informant is Scorpion’s son, Young Scorpion, who shows the disorderly state of museums and libraries, which have been pillaged by corrupt officials. Worse are the schools, where nothing is taught and everyone immediately handed a university diploma. In one particularly chilling scene, students dissect their teachers alive.*

*Unlike his great contemporary, Lu Xun, Lao She doesn’t put much hope in young people, believing them to be more hopeless than the older generation. As Young Scorpion tells our hero, ‘In Cat Country we don’t have any young people! We only have different age groupings . . . Some of the “young” people among us are even more antique in their thinking than my grandfather.’*

*But his criticism of China goes beyond the early twentieth century and many points ring true today. Our narrator is angered by the custom of pulling strings to get ahead – akin to the debilitating practice of guanxi that continues to hobble Chinese society. ‘If you had an influential friend at court, then you could rocket to the top immediately, no matter what you had studied in college,’ Young Scorpion tells him.*

*At the heart of these problems is another issue that echoes in contemporary China: a lack of moral guideposts. Lao She’s era was defined by the destruction of the imperial order, as well as unrelenting attacks on traditional culture and religion. In some ways, Lao She himself participated in this; he eschewed classical Chinese for the vernacular and his writings indicate he was a strong advocate of reforming education and politics. But he also sensed the danger in these radical changes; and indeed if the country of cats is anything, it’s one morally unmoored. This rootlessness, as Young Scorpion says, ‘prods our people into taking a backward leap of tens of thousands of years, back to the cannibalism of antiquity.’*

*Lao She struggled with these issues in his personal life. In 1922, he converted to Christianity at Beijing’s West City New Church (Gangwashi), still one of the city’s most important places of worship. He took the English name Colin C. Shu and taught classes in moral cultivation and music. But he seemed to have stopped practising after he grew frustrated with the lack of indigenous Christian leadership and the resulting sense that it was yet another imported ideology.*

*Unlike many writers and artists of his era, Lao She didn’t turn to leftist ideology as an ersatz belief system. Some of his sharpest scenes pillory young Cat People who go abroad to study and come back speaking gibberish – a sort of mock Russian that they can’t understand. The ruling ideology is ‘Everybody Shareskyism’, whose leader killed the cat-emperor and installed himself at the top. One of its deities is an Uncle Karl and students in one scene cry out, ‘Long live Uncle Karlskyism! Long live Everybody Shareskyism! Long live Pinskypansky Pospos!’*

*When Cat Country came out, it was roundly criticised as less successful than Lao She’s previous three novels. Some of the criticism seems to reflect a lack of familiarity with satire and its inherent limitations – some wrote that the characters weren’t developed enough or that the plot was somewhat flat. Perhaps more importantly, it was at variance with the critical realism that would eventually come to smother Chinese literature. A few years earlier in 1930, the League of Left-Wing Writers was formed, a hugely influential group that put pressure on authors to be political. But Cat Country was different. It was a blast of anger and revulsion at all sectors of society, not just the government or landlords, but also students and revolutionaries.*

*A few years later, Lao She published a collection of essays that reflected on his first few novels. In it, he declared Cat Country a flop, saying it was ‘like a bird fallen onto the ground with broken wings.’ Its key failure, he said, was that it had too much satire and too little humour. Perhaps as a result, Lao She later tried his hand at works of critical realism, which the People’s Republic declared to be his masterpieces. Yet Cat Country was popular when it appeared and went through numerous printings until the founding of the Republic in 1949.*

*Lao She tried hard to fit into the new society. He had been living in the United States, but returned home to participate in the creation of the new society. He wrote plays about the bad old days of pre-Communist rule, and in 1951 was honoured with the title of ‘People’s Artist’. But almost none of Lao She’s works lauded the new era of Communist rule. He candidly said that he didn’t understand the new society that Mao was building. In an interview shortly before his death, he told two foreign visitors ‘I am not a Marxist and, therefore, I cannot feel and think as a Beijing student in May 1966 who sees the situation in a Marxist way.’*

*That was an understatement. As the Cultural Revolution unfolded that spring and summer, Lao She’s sort of non-conformity became dangerous. Already 67, he was ill with bronchitis and had been hospitalised earlier. China’s canny premier, Zhou Enlai, reportedly advised him to stay put to avoid the turmoil outside, but Lao She was curious and on 23 August had himself discharged*

*It was incredibly unlucky timing. That same day, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, issued an infamous editorial applauding the Red Guards’ ‘revolutionary spirit’ and thus spurring new violence. Lao She was called out of his office at the Beijing Writers’ Union and immediately set upon by the fanatical mob. He was taken to the Confucian temple where religious relics were being burned in a bonfire. He and twenty-eight others were forced to kneel down in front of it for three hours – dubbed a ‘baptism by fire’. Their heads were shaved, black ink was poured on them and they were beaten. Lao She was singled out for abuse and accused of being an American agent. Accounts say he was beaten with a copper-studded leather belt until he fainted.*

*But like the stubborn boy of his youth, Lao She refused to bend. He rejected the accusations and wouldn’t wear a placard around his neck admitting his guilt. Incensed, the Red Guards took him to the local police station and declared him to be an ‘active counter-revolutionary’. He was released that evening and told to report to work the next day wearing the placard. When he got home, he found that his house had been ransacked, manuscripts burned and his prized collection of art strewn across the courtyard. The next day, instead of going to work, he walked to the Lake of Great Peace and sat on its shore for the day, as witnesses say. The next day his body was found floating in the waters, several of Mao’s poems scattered about*

*Lao She’s death came during ‘Red August’, a particularly bloody period during the Cultural Revolution. That month in Beijing, 1772 people were killed or committed suicide, calling to mind some of the chilling lines from Cat Country.*

*‘You see, adherents of Everybody Shareskyism will kill a man without thinking twice about it’; ‘And thus now it is a very common occurrence to see students butchering teachers, professors, chancellors, and principals.’*

*Another link between his fate and Cat Country came when this translation by William A. Lyell was initially published in 1970. Soon after, the Beijing magazine Chinese Literature published a screed attacking the translation indirectly, writing that ‘not long ago, the social-imperialists evoked the ghost of this shameless rogue and published a full translation.’ The article hinted at why this book in particular, angered the Maoists so much, ‘From start to finish the novel is a vicious attack on the guiding ideology of the party – MarxismLeninism-Mao Tsetung Thought.’*

*After the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, Lao She was rehabilitated. It was during this era that Cat Country was finally republished in mainland China. The author’s death is still a sensitive topic – a memorial on the site was never permitted to be erected – but a play based on Cat Country was performed to enthusiastic audiences in several Chinese cities in 2013.*

*The novel also occupies an uncomfortable place in modern Chinese literature. It can be seen in the Chinese tradition of fantastical encounters with strange peoples, but its Martian setting also makes it an early work of Chinese science fiction. The Communist Party, however, has long viewed this genre with suspicion. An early wave of science fiction died in the twenties when leftistinspired critical realism took hold. Another was killed in the early eighties when it was deemed to be ‘spiritual pollution’ and most science fiction magazines closed.*

*And yet appreciating Cat Country means shedding some of these labels and didactic explanations. When Lao She describes how the emperor is replaced by the head of Everybody Shareskyism, multiple interpretations are possible – not just the role that Chiang Kai-shek was assuming for himself in the 1930s, but the fate of many revolutions, from the French to the Chinese.*

*Likewise, the novel’s reverie leaves do immediately bring to mind opium, but equally fascinating is that in 1932, the same year Cat Country was serialised, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World and imagined a product he called ‘soma’ that numbed his dystopian inhabitants into accepting their fate. In this sense, Cat Country is part of a broad trend in world literature, reacting to efforts to dumb down and control people.*

*All of this makes Cat Country an anomaly in Chinese fiction, one that grew out of Lao She’s unique biography. Unlike his great contemporaries, Lu Xun and Shen Congwen, Lao She had directly experienced western culture. He was deeply rooted in China, but as a Manchu he was enough of an outsider to go for the jugular when looking at his native land and to eschew the naïve belief, for example, of Lu Xun, that all would be well if China just trusted its youth. Lao She had a clearer view of what could beset a country when the old markers are gone, and in Cat Country he gives us a brutal look at a China that resonates today.*

— Ian Johnson



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4 Comments

  1. oGsBumder August 14, 2022
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