ne ordinary summer morning half a century ago, 67-year-old Lao She, who was born in Beijing in 1899 as Shu Qingchun, sat motionless beside Taiping Lake in the west of the capital, reading a collection of Chairman Mao Zedong’s poems. He reportedly remained that way for the entire day, but just as the sky began to darken, he stood up, moved to the bank, and apparently drowned himself. China was then amid the upheaval of the often-violent Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when many intellectuals were labeled as capitalist-roaders or counterrevolutionaries, and Lao She, then director of the China Federation of Literature and Arts, had been severely beaten and humiliated by Red Guards the day before his suicide.
Twelve years later, after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution had ended in 1976, Deng Xiaoping became China’s leader in 1978. Lao She was posthumously rehabilitated the same year. The urn containing his ashes was moved to the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing, his tombstone inscribed with an epitaph he wrote for himself, which says “a conscientious nameless literary worker is sleeping here.” It is definitely too modest a self-evaluation, since Lao She’s works have spread far and wide, inspiring generations of people in China and abroad. Although his most famous work is probably Camel Xiangzi, commonly known as Rickshaw Boy in the West, he also authored the million-word novel Four Generations Under One Roof, also named The Yellow Storm when its first English version came out in 1951, and published under the name Lau Shaw, an anglicized version of his name.
Consisting of three volumes, Bewilderment, Ignominy and Famine, the novel recounts the lives of ordinary Beijingers living under Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945, and depicts the huge changes the war wrought on the people. Yet, no one had ever read the full novel as Lao She intended as his manuscripts of the last volume were lost when his family property was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. The final version was never published, and the English version was abridged.
In July 2014, Chinese academic Zhao Wuping, deputy director of the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, discovered a complete English version of the novel in the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University, in the archives of The Yellow Storm’s original translator Ida Pruitt. He immediately set about a reverse translation, and helped get a new version of the novel published in September 2017.
The latest version is over 100,000 words longer, with missing chapters present, as well as many details previously edited out from The Yellow Storm added back. Although literary circles are still in dispute as to whether the new additions can be considered Lao She’s work alone, critics widely believe that they are of great significance to better understand his works and his flow of thoughts about historical moments.
As the leader of the All-China Resistance Association of Writers and Artists (ARAWA), an organization established in 1938 to unite cultural workers against the Japanese invasion, Lao She wanted to write an anti-Japanese novel as early as in 1941, but he had no hook for the novel until 1943, when his wife was able to join him in China’s wartime capital of Chongqing, and told him what life was like in Japanese-occupied Beijing.
He started writing in 1944 and finished the first two volumes the next year. When he turned to the third volume, his name was already spreading in the US, thanks to the English version of Rickshaw Boy, a story of a hardworking, but ill-fated rickshaw puller, set in the 1920s when China was beset by rival gangs of warlords. Although the English version was heavily revised by the translator to make it better conform to US values – the translator even changed the original bad ending to a happy one, it became a best-seller in New York and made Lao She’s name well-known overseas.
In January 1946, Lao She received an invitation from the US State Department for a two-year cultural exchange, and he accepted with pleasure. According to the plan for his visit, which is preserved in the Maryland branch of the National Archives, Lao She was a supporter of US democracy at that time and hoped that China would learn from it. He also hoped to regain his health, as post World-War II China had plunged straight into Civil War (1945-1949) between the ruling Kuomintang and the Mao-led Communists. “I am going to the US to rest and play,” he reportedly joked at the farewell party held by ARAWA, according to a report in the Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News.
Lao She extended his stay in the US after the exchange program, continuing to write as well as cooperating with Pruitt to translate his novel into English. Pruitt had been born in China to missionary parents in 1891, and had supported Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion.
Having served as a Chinese lecturer at the University of London and having helped translate the ancient Chinese novel of manners The Golden Lotus into English, Lao She held an independent understanding of translation, believing that long, translated novels did not cater to American readers. So, when he dictated the novel to Pruitt who only understood spoken Chinese, he deleted many sentences and paragraphs that he believed were unnecessary for the English version.
Lao She felt that a good translation should enable his American readers to better understand what he called China’s “rigid culture” – Asian people’s personal loyalty, farmers’ honesty and sincerity. During the dictation, Lao She reportedly deleted some paragraphs about Chinese customs and descriptions of scenery and his characters’ thoughts, instead provided more details about the people’s fight against the Japanese, to strengthen the values of bravery and justice which he felt were widely acknowledged and respected in the US.
However, despite this first edit, the US publishers of The Yellow Storm, Harcourt and Brace, later cut more from the novel. They excised long descriptions, even endings, of some supporting characters, which obscured a proper understanding of the novel, according to Chinese critics.
After spending four years in the US, Lao She responded to a call from then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to return to his home country after the end of the Civil War and the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, also referred to as New China. He returned with the manuscript of Famine, reportedly disillusioned with US institutions and eager to lead a new life in New China.
His next novel, The Drum Singers, shows his welcome to New China, said critics. “Time makes it inevitable that young men will replace the old just as in the Yangtze River, the waves behind will push those ahead forward,” he wrote at the end of the book.
Supposedly based on such changes, Lao She revised some of his works like Rickshaw Boy. In the author’s preface of a collection of his works, he revealed that the rewriting was due to the strong tragic color of the novel. “Too dark and hopeless,” he wrote, “and I did not give a positive image of revolutionaries [in Rickshaw Boy],” he added.
In fact, many critics had commented that Rickshaw Boy failed to give a hopeful ending by not suggesting how China and the Chinese people could find a way out of the dark days. They also criticized Lao She for holding a “profane” attitude toward revolution by describing a revolutionary character in Rickshaw Boy as “selling his thoughts for money.” In his edited version, Lao She deleted the controversial parts to prove his changed mentality.
This might also be why the serialization of Four Generations Under One Roof was suddenly suspended – since May 1950, Famine had been serialized in the Shanghai-based literary journal Novel, but it was stopped at Chapter 87. In a published letter to two Japanese translators who helped Lao She translate Four Generations Under One Roof into Japanese, Lao She told them that it was not the right time to publish Famine until he had revised all three volumes.
A memorial article by Lao She’s wife Hu Jieqing and their son Shu Yi revealed more of the truth. It indicated that Four Generations Under One Roof had not sufficiently highlighted the positive role that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had played in the fight against the Japanese invasion. “Rewriting was common among writers in the 1950s who sincerely wished to reform themselves to keep up with the new era,” read the article.
In 1950, Lao She published Longxu Gou, (The Dragon Beard Ditch) a drama that praised the CPC and New China by recounting how the residents living in a traditional Beijing courtyard home came out of the darkness of the “old China” to lead a new life following the founding of the PRC. Thanks to the drama, the government awarded Lao She the title of “People’s Artist” in 1951.
The honor, however, did not help Lao She escape being targeted and mistreated during the Cultural Revolution. On August 23, 1966, the day before his suicide, Lao She was beaten up and abused in public in front of the Confucius Temple in Beijing where the Red Guards reportedly burnt a lot of theatrical costumes and novels and ordered those targeted to dance around the fire.
Irritated by the humiliation, Lao She took off the placard that had been hung around his neck and threw it to the ground, causing him to be escorted to a local police station on a charge of being a “counterrevolutionary” and where he was beaten again. The next day, Lao She was found dead in Taiping Lake.
In 1981, three years after Lao She’s rehabilitation, Chinese translator Ma Xiaomi complemented the Chinese version of Four Generations Under One Roof by reverse-translating the missing parts based on The Yellow Storm. Although it was still an abridged version, her translation was highly credited by Lao She’s family, and was later deemed as a canonical version.
Zhao Wuping did not expect that he would find a complete English version of Four Generations Under One Roof until he searched for Ida Pruitt’s files at the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University, where he saw the full translation of the novel printed on translucent paper, accompanied by Lao She’s notes and explanation charts for the characters, as well as the letters between him and Pruitt.
“I was as shocked as if I’d fallen into a rabbit hole,” Zhao said. “All the materials were preserved, sound and intact. Lao She’s sketches and character analysis were kept untouched,” he added, revealing that Lao She actually wrote 103 chapters for the novel, three more than that of The Yellow Storm and 16 more than the serialized Chinese original.
As soon as Zhao had made copies of all of the materials, he started his translation back to Chinese.
To convey both the correct meanings and Lao She’s language style, Zhao defined a workflow for his translation: first translate the English version to Chinese, and then polish his Chinese translation based on the Chinese originals of the previous chapters and Lao She’s other works – he considered even modal particles and punctuation.
“We have to convey the original taste and flavor as much as possible just as if we were repairing and renovating an ancient building,” Zhao told NewsChina. “I worked out a vocabulary list that fit Lao She’s language style and replaced all of the words and terms from it,” he added.
His painstaking work took two years, and when he finally delivered the translation to the well-known literature journal Harvest in 2016 after a recommendation from his friend Zhang Xinying, a professor at the Shanghai-based Fudan University, the journal’s editor-in-chief Cheng Yongxin decided to replace the content with Zhao’s new translation, hoping his Chinese readers could appreciate the lost parts of the novel for the first time.
“It was a big milestone in Chinese literary history,” Sun Jie, deputy director of the Chinese Lao She Institute and lecturer at the Chinese Literature Department at Fudan University, commented.
“Like repairing cultural relics, Zhao discovered the historic materials, sorted them out and rearranged them. Although the translation is not the original, it does guide readers to the original and to parts of history that have been abandoned and might never be remembered,” he added.
Yet, Zhao’s reverse-translation and complementation were not highly publicized as Lao She’s family refused media interviews, claiming that they did not wish to comment before fully studying Zhao’s translation.
“The third volume was done based on Lao She’s dictation and Pruitt’s translation… Strictly speaking, it does not belong to Lao She alone, since it contains Pruitt’s mental labor as well,” Fu Guangming, a researcher from the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature, said in a 2016 interview with the Beijing Daily.
His view was shared by Wang Haibo, a senior editor at the People’s Literature Publishing House who had been chief editor of his publishing house’s version of Four Generations under One Roof. He called on readers and critics to hold an objective attitude toward Zhao’s translation.
“Although Ma Xiaomi’s version was based on the abridged English version, her translation has been widely acknowledged to be in good line with Lao She’s language and writing style. It poses a big challenge for Zhao’s translation,” he told the Beijing Daily.
Some other literary experts and critics, however, argued that the significance of Zhao’s translation lies more in having a better understanding of the novel. In A History of Modern Chinese Fiction by the well-known and authoritative literature reviewer Xia Zhiqing, Four Generations Under One Roof was labeled a “big failure” and criticized as “being parochial.”
Xia commented that the characters in the novel are simply characterized as either good or bad, and it seems a bit childish that all the bad characters received a miserable ending – killed either by the Japanese or by those who were fighting the Japanese. Such comments, according to Zhao, are unfair to Lao She, since Xia did not read the completed version of the novel.
Sun agrees with Zhao. In an article about the new version of Four Generations Under One Roof, he revealed that many of the content deleted from The Yellow Storm are of great significance to convey the theme of the novel and Lao She’s thoughts.
A typical example of the cuts made to The Yellow Storm is the deletion of the patriotic old man Qian Moyin’s letter of “remorse” to the Japanese, which was actually a call to arms and believed to be in Lao She’s own voice.
In a more than 6,000-word letter, Qian clearly explains that it is the war and the abuse and brutality of the Japanese occupiers that forced him, a former poet who enjoyed drinking tea and planting flowers, to fight. In the latter part, Qian slammed the idea of solving problems with wars, labeling it a very backward thought.
According to Sun, the letter is a riposte to Xia’s criticism that it was too romantic for an old poet like Qian to have become such a brave fighter. The anti-war ideas in the letter indicate that Lao She also expressed bigger themes in his works, and did not just stick with the parochial.
More proof is that some descriptions of the US’s atomic bomb attacks on Japan in 1945 had been cut from The Yellow Storm, in which Lao She clearly shows his strong opposition to nuclear weapons.
Similarly, Sun believes that the deletion of many psychological descriptions has misled readers into believing that the characters in the novel are simple and flat.
“The details and delicate descriptions are the cornerstone of the literature and literature studies… The reverse-translation of the missing parts of Four Generations Under One Roof is not the original as it is a repeated translation between English and Chinese and has spanned seven decades, but as the original is beyond reach, it is the best way to get close to Lao She’s thoughts at the time he wrote the novel,” Sun wrote in his article.
“Maybe one day the missing manuscripts will come back, but it is better to cherish the materials we already found than simply wait for an uncertain, far-off return,” he added.