Lao She (real name Shu Ch’ing-ch’un) was the son of a Manchu palace guard. ‘He was unique among modern writers in that his native home was Peking and he excelled in writing in the colloquial Peking dialect. Not much is known about his childhood, but most likely it was a difficult one, given his father’s relatively lowly status and early death. He did, however, attend a normal school and later Yenching University. He taught high school for several years after graduating from college, then he went to study and teach Chinese in England. Lao She wrote his first novels The Philosophy of Old Chang (Lao Chang te che-hsüeh, 1928), Chao Tzu-yüeh (1928), and The Two Ma’s (Erh Ma, postwar edition 1948) while he was in England. They were published in serial form in the Short Story Monthly (Hsiao-shuo yüeh-pao) in the period 1926-1929. On his way home from England in 1929 Lao She was waylaid for a year in Singapore, where he taught at a high school and wrote the children’s novel Hsiao P’o’s Birthday (Hsiao P’o te sheng-jih, 1934). He arrived home in 1930, married, and taught college briefly in Peking and Tsingtao before being appointed dean of the School of Humanities at Cheloo University in Shangtung. With the outbreak of the war of 1937, Lao She resigned his teaching post to become a professional writer in support of the war effort. He helped to found the All China Writers’ Anti-Aggression Association (Chung-hua ch’üan-kuo wen-i-chieh k’ang-ti hsieh-hui) and headed it throughout the war years, himself producing many ballads and several wartime plays. These works were intended to be disseminated widely to arouse patriotic and antienemy sentiments among the populace. As such, they lack the subtlety and humor of his earlier novels and short stories. In the period 1943-1946, Lao She took to writing novels again, but the products all fell short of the potential he demonstrated earlier. After the war, he came to the United States on a cultural exchange program, along with the playwright Ts’ao Yü. It was during this sojourn that his novel Rickshaw Boy (Lo-t’о Hsiang-tzu, Chinese edition 1938) was translated into English by Evan King (with an ending revised by the translator) and became a bestseller in the United States. A new translation by Jeanne James has rendered the ending faithful to the original (Rickshaw, Honolulu, 1979). With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Lao She returned to China. After making some concessions to the criticisms typically leveled at writers at that time, he regained his former status and served as a vice chairman of China’s Federation of Writers. His post-1949 works, however, are all in the service of the regime. His former style, biting humor, and wit are all hut lost in his work of this period, which consists of several plays, including the vastly popular Dragon Beard Ditch (Lung-hsü kou, 1953). Lao She survived the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957-1958, but with the start of the Cultural Revolution, he was singled out for “struggle” by Red Guards and young members of his own writers’ organization. There are conflicting accounts of his death, but it is almost certain that it was either a suicide under pressure or a murder. He was vindicated after the downfall of the Gang of Four. A volume of his plays has been reissued, and his honor as a “people’s writer” has been publicly restored.
Lao She was one of the most prolific writers of twentieth-century China. His works have been widely translated. “Caterpillar” (Mao-mao-ch’ung), probably written in the 1930s, is drawn from the collection Wei-shen Chi (1947).
ON THIS STREET we all call him the Caterpillar. He’s a pretty snappy dresser in his imported suit, overcoat, leather shoes, all bright and spiffy; but he’s unpleasant to look at, with a pair of large sheep’s eyes in his round gourd-shaped face, always looking down on others it seems. His way of walking is especially peculiar. He doesn’t walk really; he twists and turns to propel his bent body forward. On cold days, he scrunches up his neck, sticks his hands in his coat pockets, and bends his way along the side of the wall, looking all the more like a caterpillar. The neighbors didn’t pay much attention to him because he didn’t pay any attention to anyone; after a while everyone got used to it and thought it quite natural—the Caterpillar really does not talk very much. We don’t bother much about him, but almost all of us know what his home is like, how many chairs there are, where the spittoon is located …; and we know that the Caterpillar doesn’t really eat leaves; his home has a small kitchen with plates and dishes and so forth.
Almost all of us have been to his house. Our opportunity comes at the end of every month, when he receives his salary. As soon as he comes home with his salary, Mrs. Caterpillar faints dead away for at least half an hour or more. We don’t bother with him, but we all go over to rescue Mrs. Caterpillar. She is very easy to revive. As soon as we arrive, we give her a drink of sugar water; she then revives and puts on a crying fit for us. He doesn’t say a word; only rolls his eyes angrily at the wall. Once we see that she is crying vigorously, we all go home together, leaving everything else for the Caterpillar to handle. After a couple of days, Mrs. Caterpillar once again dresses herself up attractively and comes out to show off, walking down the street carrying her little red handbag; knowing that the Caterpillar has taken care of everything, we all feel quite relieved and yet somewhat annoyed that time always passes too slowly, and the end of the month does not arrive quickly enough for us.
It might be said that we should not be so heartless as to look forward to her fainting, but we have our reasons. After we revive her, she doesn’t even thank us; when she runs into us, she doesn’t pay us any notice. She is away from home all day; according to her maid, she is out playing mahjong. The place where she plays is not on our street. On that account we are not too kindly disposed toward her, but then we could hardly not rescue someone threatening death. Furthermore, at the end of every month it’s always she who faints dead and Caterpillar who only looks on angrily; we cannot help favoring her even though she doesn’t play mahjong with us. If she would play mahjong with us, perhaps she wouldn’t need to faint dead away at the end of every month, for we are confident that a way can be found to fix up the Caterpillar.
Then again we are annoyed with her not only because she doesn’t play mahjong with us; she has other unbecoming traits as well. She does not take care of her two children—a boy and a girl, very nice children. Heng! They tag behind the maid all day long like a couple of orphans; as soon as they wake up in the morning, they stand on the street outside their gate eating peanuts with their hair uncombed and their faces never ever washed, like little urchins. That doesn’t go over well with us. Even though we play mahjong too and sometimes also yell at our children because of our mahjong game, still we would not give our children peanuts to eat first thing in the morning. We all know how to feed our children powdered milk. We believe that this street of ours is very civilized. If it wasn’t for the Caterpillar family, we could very well change the street name to “Model Street.” We cannot force them to leave, though, and we’re not their landlord, so we cannot meddle in things that are none of our business. And besides, he’s a college graduate and works in a government office, and she dresses very smartly and has her hair curled in a permanent wave. Having them around certainly beats having some low-class trash move in; our street will not accept low-class trash.
They have lived here now for more than a year, and after some visiting back and forth we have come to understand Caterpillar’s history. We did not really investigate, but when the Caterpillars’ maid blurted everything out we couldn’t very well stop our ears. After we learned their real background, our opinions were not as unanimous as before. At first we were all rather unconcerned about them. He didn’t socialize with us—so what? We were not about to cozy up to him, even if he did wear a fancy imported suit. On the other hand, even though she was unappreciative, whenever she fainted away we couldn’t turn our backs and not perform a charitable act. After all, everyone knows that our street donated the most millet to the Philanthropic Society. When everyone became privy to their story, however, some sympathized with the Caterpillar and some with Mrs. Caterpillar. We even argued about our different opinions. As the saying goes, “Some lean toward the lamp, and some lean toward the flame.” There’s truth in that.
Here is the story as we heard it. The Caterpillar was a college graduate, but he had a country wife with bound feet who still wore her hair up high in a bun; so he wanted nothing more than to take another wife. Our critical comments diverged at this point. Those of us who had graduated from college said the Caterpillar could be forgiven, but the older generation merely snorted. We simply didn’t dare to bring the subject up again while playing mahjong; if this leads to a fight it really wouldn’t be worth it. Anyway, eventually the Caterpillar took this new wife. Having heard this much, most of us called him a dirty cheat. There was still more to the story, however; there was a condition: besides providing her with food and clothing, every month he had to give his new wife forty dollars spending money. This made us go a little easier on the Caterpillar, but in our eyes Mrs. Caterpillar’s status immediately plummeted. After they were married—that maid knew everything—the two of them got along quite well; he was very satisfied and she had forty dollars a month to spend. They both thought it was a good bargain.
After a short, while, however, that bound-footed wife came looking for them. Needless to say, they had a blowup that turned everything topsy-turvy. The Caterpillar had to accept yet another condition: he would give that bound-footed wife fifteen dollars spending money every month, and two month’s money to start off. She took the thirty dollars and returned to the country; as she was leaving she promised to be back some time or other! We were just about to pronounce the Caterpillar most unfortunate indeed, when the story took another twist. He intended to take the fifteen dollars for his bound-footed wife out of his new wife’s forty dollars; he said he could not afford to give them fifty-five dollars in total. ‘If you can’t pay the price, then don’t embrace two brides,” we all said on his new wife’s behalf.
At the end of every month the two of them would have a knock-down, drag-out fight over this. At that time she had not yet invented the idea of fainting away for half an hour. She didn’t often go out to play mahjong then either. Not until the Caterpillar asked her, “Isn’t twenty-five dollars enough? Why do you have to have forty dollars?” did she conceive of the notion of going out to play mahjong. She put it very bluntly: “Give me the full amount and you need not be concerned; otherwise, if I lose you’ll have to pay my debts!” The Caterpillar didn’t say anything then, but at the end of the month he still did not give her the full amount. She wasn’t one to be bested. Sometimes she would stay in bed for two or three days, refusing to get up until she received her money; when she got her money, she would again make herself up, put on an attractive dress, and go out as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “You’re the buyer and I’m the seller; the money and goods are both square,” she seemed to be saying.
A few months later, she was about to have a baby. The Caterpillar hated children; his bound-footed wife already had three with her, and they were a burden as far as he was concerned. He never imagined that his new wife might also have children. He decided on an attitude of laissez faire. If she wanted to have it, then have it; what he didn’t see wouldn’t bother him he figured, so he pretended not to notice her swelling stomach. He didn’t pay much attention to the whole thing, and his bound-footed wife didn’t give it much thought either. When it was just about time for the child to be born, she came hobbling along to take care of the new wife. The Caterpillar thought that was very fine; his new wife was having a baby and his old wife was looking after her, not bad at all. It was only after the child was born that the old wife showed her true intentions. She knew that by striking then she could get back at the new wife who was extremely weak after the delivery. She could practically harass her to death; her opportunity for revenge was at hand. She sat her-self down squarely in front of the new wife, pointed a finger right in her face, and cursed her; she cursed her up and down until she fainted dead away several times and she didn’t even give her a little sugar water to drink. After cursing her for three days, she hobbled away, handing her over to God; she could live or die as she pleased, but the old wife would not have to accept the blame for driving her to her death. The new wife didn’t feel like living either; although she was not driven to death by the bound-footed one, she tried to kill herself by wildly overeating within the first month after giving birth.
By that time the Caterpillar felt things were getting out of hand. If his new wife died, getting another one would surely cost a fortune; so he sent for a doctor. By and by, she recovered. And after she recovered she negotiated with the Caterpillar, making it clear that she was not about to look after the child. The Caterpillar didn’t say anything, and thus neither one of them looked after the child. Mrs. Caterpillar went out to play mahjong just as before; at the end of every month she demanded her forty dollars just as before, and, if the Caterpillar didn’t give it to her, she had by now invented a new weapon—she would faint away for half an hour. That’s how it was with the first child, and the second child was the same. That’s the way their story went.
Once we had heard it all, none of us could draw any conclusions anymore; no matter how we judged the matter, it didn’t seem right. Suppose we say the bound-footed one was wrong; she should not have acted so cruelly, but she herself has to live like a widow. Suppose we say the new wife was wrong; that doesn’t make sense either, because she too has suffered indignities. At most we could only blame her for taking her frustration out on her children; but, when we think about that again, her position seems reasonable too. Why should the Caterpillar be able to hand all the grief and trouble over to her and not have to bear any hardship himself? Since she was really purchased—forty dollars a month spending money is only a euphemistic way of putting it—why should she have to take care of the children, especially since the Caterpillar wasn’t giving her any additional money for it? With all that said, it would seem that the Caterpillar was the one in the wrong; but, as soon as we give more careful thought to his plight, we see that he also has more grief than happiness. His first wife takes his money and hates him, his new wife also takes his money and hates him, and in the end he has to break his neck trying to make money.
After giving their story so much thought, none of us dared bring it up again; for as soon as we did, we’d feel perturbed. Our attitude toward those two children changed somewhat, however; we felt that the two of them were quite pitiful—there were really quite a few kind-hearted people on our street—every time we see those two children playing on the street now, we go over and pat them on the head and sometimes even give them something to eat. Sometimes we feel those two adults are pitiful and sometimes we find them exasperating. No matter how we feel, however, in their lives we have caught a glimpse of something that we had never seen before, something like the meaning contained in a solemn tragedy. It’s as though their problems are not completely of their own такing, but rather like the curse of the age being played out in their lives. Thus at the end of every month now, according to established pattern, she faints dead away for half an hour. More people go over to rescue her than before. Who knows what’s going to become of them?