By Brian Bernards
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 26, no. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 1-40
Lao She (1899-1966) enjoys high stature in modern Chinese literary history, especially for his 1936 novel of Beijing, Rickshaw Boy (Luotuo xiangxi). In the decade leading up to this landmark work, Lao She experimented in various literary genres and in different settings, including the cities of London and Singapore where the author lived and worked before returning to China. This essay explores Lao She’s imaginative children’s novella Little Po’s Birthday (Xiao Po de shengri, 1931)—much of which was written while the author worked as a teacher at a Singaporean middle school in 1929—as a critical departure from the author’s original plan to write a more serious and laudatory historical narrative of the “Overseas Chinese in the South Seas” (Nanyang Huaqiao).
Examining the discrepancy between the author’s original intent and his resulting work, as well as between critical appraisals of the novella’s content (as a firsthand observation of the world of Singaporean schoolchildren) and form (as an important contribution to vernacular children’s fiction in China’s New Literature Movement), I argue that Little Po’s Birthday represents an ideological shift from diasporic nationalism (organized around an ethnic, racial, or “blood” consciousness) to a transcolonial consciousness organized around a shared commitment to one’s place of inhabitance. Lao She uses the “naïve” children’s logic of Little Po, his younger sister, and his multiethnic cast of friends to construct a playful, irreverent satire of how diasporic Chinese ethnocentrism actually reinforces the racialized division of labor structuring British imperialism in colonial Singapore. Beyond the surveillance of the colony’s authorities, teachers, and parents—in the more untamed “green” spaces of child’s play—the Singaporean schoolchildren unwittingly defy and deconstruct imperial racial logic as well as the ethnolinguistic prejudices of their immigrant parents. Evoking the familiar May Fourth refrain that hope lies with children (yet without its characteristic didacticism), the innocent wisdom of Little Po’s Birthday reflects a transcolonial desire (situated between colonial Singapore and postimperial China) to formulate a more pluralistic, less Han-centric vision of modern nationhood, a desire underscored by Lao She’s own personal reconciliation with his Manchu upbringing during China’s national revolution.