From the Poet Beans to their Cultivator

Pearl Buck and Lao She

We think you planted us too soon
We’re more than three feet high
There won’t be space in any room
For our vines to twine.
We’re grateful for the fertile womb
Your loving hands provided
But fear that you will have to prune
Before we are outsided.

Li Bai, Tu Fu, Bai Juyi, Li Ho and Wang Wei

Beans I have to remonstrate.
How was I to know your joy at dirt and light
Would awaken you at such a rate
And send you up so high?
I planted you on the very date
I planted all your ancestors.
It’s still quite cold. It still might snow
There’s frost at night and temps are low.
With nature? No debate.


I imagine Pearl Buck is familiar to most people but you might not have heard of Lao She. Here is something I wrote a long time ago. I don’t think I could do it better today. I guess some of the beans this year write fiction.

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.

Note: In recent years, Lao She’s memory has “rehabilitated” (kind of useless). No one is sure HOW he died, only that he was “hounded” during the Cultural Revolution. The darkness of the Cultural Revolution is pretty well known.

19 thoughts on “From the Poet Beans to their Cultivator

  1. The poems are delightful! Almost a Somonka – I can feel the love and affection between the beans and thee! We had snow today – and it is still snowing but not near as hard as earlier. The tulips and daffodils are looking very sad. The word is that the cherry crop is pretty much shot… Best buy cherries (canned while they are still available) now.

    • One of the beans just went to live in Elizabeth’s garden. Elizabeth is Australian, so I named that bean Miles Franklin, the great Aussie writer who wrote My Brilliant Career. ❤

      P.S. I had to look up Somonka. I was actually thinking of some of the poems I’d read in Tale of Genji where two lovers sent poems secretly to each other.

  2. As I understand it, the story of Mulan is one of those stories with deep political content. Disney mutilated it for the cartoon and then totally rewrote everything for the movie so that the Emperor wouldn’t be offended and they could make vast sums of money in China.

    It didn’t work. They remembered that Mulan was really about the cruelty of an emperor towards his most vulnerable. The movie bombed.

    • I don’t know anything about Disney’s Mulan. I know that during Mao’s time she was used to argue for the value of women which Chinese culture has traditionally devalued (to put it mildly). It’s one of those stories that’s changed over and over again to suit someone — emperor, Mao, Disney’s audience, I guess. To me she’s just a token female in a very male dominated world. She’s, “Oh yeah? but Mulan!!!” 😀

  3. The poem is beautiful, Martha. I love how you weave so much history and learning into your posts. Don’t stop being a storyteller. ❤️

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