The Best Story Tellers — Lao She and Pearl S. Buck

Daily Prompt Spinning Yarns What makes a good storyteller, in your opinion? Are your favorite storytellers people you know or writers you admire?

The best storyteller is the person who tells a good story well. The story has to be good and the teller has to be skillful at getting and keeping the attention of the audience.

In the early 20th century a little boy lived in Beijing and he loved — more than anything — to go listen to a story teller. Traveling story tellers in old China captivated everyone with ghost stories, history stories, adventure stories, and love stories. The stories were long — serialized — and the children and adults would come every night to listen until the story was over. Some of the stories were hundreds of years old. The story teller punctuated his story with the sound of bamboo sticks — special equipment for story tellers — clapping together. He used his voice, too, exaggerating the already highly inflected tones of whatever Chinese dialect he was speaking — for little Lao She, it would have been Mandarin.

Sometimes the stories concealed (well or not) social and political messages. If the story teller wanted to keep his life, he probably did a good job hiding the messages so only his listeners — those with ears to hear — could get their subtle drift. Certain old Chinese stories are, in their very nature, political messages. For example, the very popular tales from The Water Margin tell of a rebellion that ended a corrupt dynasty. The rebellion itself is a quiet thread running through one great wild story after another throughout the long episodic tale.

When Lao She grew up, he wanted ONLY to be a story teller. He reached manhood in perilous times. Non-Chinese culture was making inroads into the ancient customs of Beijing, and while much of the change was — even in the eyes of Lao She — for the good, he could see that his world would NEVER be the same. He began to write the stories of a world that was vanishing. He followed the practice of the old story tellers he admired, hiding bits of political comment in the conversations between characters. With poverty and hardship all around him, he created a different kind of protagonist — as in the character of “Camel” who pulled a rickshaw and struggled to make a life in old Beijing.

Lao She recreated his childhood and the life in the courtyard “hutongs” where he’d grown up — ordinary people, old teachers, a tired old man with a pipe, a screaming Amah, a cheap, flashy, greedy woman who steals the soul of a good man, a little girl who becomes a prostitute so her family has food, even a work of science fiction that openly criticized Communism. When the Japanese invaded his city, Lao She wrote passionately against them (and against Chinese collaborators) through the actions of characters in his novel Four Generations Under One Roof. It is a vivid picture of the Japanese occupation and reveals all of the sinister stragedies (including opium laced cigarettes) used by the Japanese to conquer the Chinese, body and soul.

Another great storyteller — Pearl S. Buck — grew up in a similar China — the same era, a different geographical location; south China — Hangzhou and Nanking. Her attitude toward writing was similar to that of Lao She. She, too, had learned from the story tellers. At the end of WW II, she invited Lao She to come to America to which she had returned in the thirties, fleeing the Japanese. Lao She came to the US on a State Department Cultural Grant, thinking he might live here, but it didn’t work. He could not be happy outside of China, and so he returned to Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, he was hounded and punished by the Red Guard. The humiliation he suffered led him to kill himself — a dignified action according to old Chinese values.

One of the most amazing stories I have ever heard was Lao She’s play, Teahouse. It came wandering through San Diego sometime in the 80s and I got to see it at a local art theater. In the play is a story teller. I wish so much I could find that film again.

12 thoughts on “The Best Story Tellers — Lao She and Pearl S. Buck

  1. Story telling has always been the way — as a people — we tell our own stories. Our myths and legends, our personal history. Beautifully told. I did not know that story, but I am glad to learn it. I have always been a fan of Pearl Buck … and China fascinates me. The one place I always wanted to travel but never did. Thanks for a good one.

    • You are welcome! I love Pearl Buck — I wrote a book about her (not published, will never be published) as a writer in the Chinese literary tradition. It was so fun to write — I went to her house in Pennsylvania and that was a very touching experience. Her writing desk faces a garden that she designed to look like China. I think she was homesick as long as she lived and she was never allowed to return, even though she tried several times, most hopefully the year before she died which was the year Nixon visited China. She was something great, I think.

      • I read all her books when I was a kid and recently started to reread them, starting with Imperial Woman. My mother was also a big fan. My mother DID get to China and walked the Great Wall and all that. It’s the one thing I wish I had done that is never going to happen … but Pennsylvania, now THAT might happen.

        • It’s a wonderful journey to see her house and barn — for me especially, you might have guessed, was her garden which looks JUST like a garden in Hangzhou. 🙂 If you go, you’ll go to China in a very real way.

  2. What a brilliant post, Martha! You did a fantastic job telling a wonderful story about a story teller! I never learned much about China, but you pulled me in perfectly, and now I want more! Bravo! Hope you are well and happy, dear friend! ♥♥♥;^)

    • Thank you! If you have the chance to read The Good Earth I think you will enjoy it. I’m doing very well — I’m SO happy I moved to Colorado!

  3. I am not so much into Chinese literature and must admit I have never read Pearl S Buck, although know her reputation. I believe the chinese way of story telling is linked very much to their history. I thought once about learning chinese, but decided on arabic which also only lasted a year.

    • Yeah, and now the Chinese have “rehabilitated” him — good. He’s one of the best.

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