28 April 2022
Chī shuǐ bú wàng wā jǐng rén
When we drink water, we should not forget those who dug the well --- a Chinese idiom
Zhaoxia Pang and Ruth Herd
On UN Chinese language day, we would like to share the story of Shu Qingchun (舒庆春) (1899-1966), also known by his pen name Lao She (老舍). Lao She is one of the most prominent figures in the history of modern Chinese literature. During his lifetime, he was acclaimed a “Master of Language” (yǔyán dàshī 语言大师) and his novels and plays gained world renown.
Between 1924 and 1929, Lao She was employed at what was then the School of Oriental Studies (later to become the School of Oriental and African Studies) to teach classes in colloquial Chinese. Language classes were the mainstay of SOS’s activities in the field of Chinese Studies at that time, and Lao She was the first native Chinese speaker to receive a favourable report as a teacher of Chinese. This led to wider recognition. As the historian Robert Bickers relates, “Shu’s presence at the school threw up other opportunties. He was asked to give a BBC radio talk on the Chinese language…and his was the voice on the gramophone records issued as part of the 1930 Linguaphone Chinese course.”¹
When he was in London, Shu shared a flat with his friend Clement Egerton, translator of the classic Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei （金瓶梅 The Golden Lotus). In his translator’s note, Egerton writes: “Without the untiring and generously given help of Mr. C. C. Shu (Lao She) who, when I made the first draft of this translation, was Lecturer in Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies, I should never have dared to undertake such a task. I shall always be grateful to him.”
Chinese Studies at SOAS continued to grow and develop over the course of the twentieth century, the institution distinguishing itself among the small number of universities offering degree courses in Chinese by virtue of the emphasis it placed on modern standard Mandarin. 1982 saw the publication of the textbook Colloquial Chinese, a classic as yet unsurpassed in many areas, written by two of the Chinese teaching staff at SOAS, P.C. T’ung and D.E. Pollard.
Through the years, other Chinese writers have taught at SOAS, but none has played such an historic role as Lao She. In 2003 a blue plaque was erected by English Heritage at 31 St James’s Gardens, Notting Hill, to commemorate Lao She’s stay in London.
About the authors:
Zhaoxia Pang is Senior Lector in Chinese at the East Asian Languages and Cultures of SOAS University of London.
Ruth Herd, who graduated with a BA in Chinese from SOAS in 1991, is now Coordinator of Mandarin Chinese at Imperial College London.
¹ Robert A. Bickers “New light on Lao She, London, and the London Missionary Society, 1921-1929.” In Modern Chinese Literature, Spring/Fall 1994, Vol. 8, No. 1/2, pp.21-39.