The Anxiety of Fiction:
Reexamining Lao She’s Early Novels

By Carles Prado-Fonts

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 26, no.2 (Fall 2014), pp. 177-215

Traditionally categorized as a major writer of modern Chinese realism, Lao She (1899–1966) is mostly known for his depictions of the lower classes and his gradual political engagement in the revolutionary cause, which culminated in his 1936 masterpiece Camel Xiangzi. This essay offers a more nuanced interpretation of Lao She’s early trajectory and examines four of his novels written between 1929 and 1932: The Two Mas, Little Po’s Birthday, Lake Daming (unpublished), and Cat Country. By examining their differences in form, style, and scope, I argue that Lao She’s early works were characterized by an anxious search for an appropriate style, spurred by his Manchu identity and his transnational journey as a young writer living in London, passing through Singapore and returning to China.

The flaws (such as weak turns in plot, shifting narrative voices, or imperfect characterization) in these early novels show not only how Lao She attempted to adjust his complex positionality to the demands of establishing a literary career, but also how politics were always implicitly present in his work, even if not always explicitly related to what would later be established as the narrative of gradual leftist awakening.