"Mr Ma was London's first gentleman of leisure. If it rained, he didn't go out. If there was a sharp wind, he didn't go out. If there was a fog, he didn't go out. He smoked his pipe and stoked his fire until it blazed. On the other side of the window was the beauty of the swishing rain, the fog, the wind. A Chinese can recognize beauty anywhere."
- from Mr Ma and Son: Two Chinese in London by Lao Shu, translated by W. Dolby
I had the pleasure last week of being introduced, by Dr. Anne Witchard, to the work of Lao She, a Chinese writer entirely unfamiliar to me, despite all the China reading I've been doing this past 8 years. Anne spoke to the China Culture Study Group to which I belong about her new book, Lao She in London, published for the Royal Asiatic Society's new RAS Shanghai series, edited by writer Paul French.
Lao Shu is one of the group of Chinese writers who in the 1920's began writing stories not in Classical Chinese but in baihua, the spoken vernacular language. He spent some time in London & his Mr Ma in London feels to me here in Shanghai like a bit of a kindred spirit: observing the behavior of the locals & trying to extrapolate an understanding of the culture and one's place in it. Sometimes not going out courtesy of whatever excuse comes to mind.
Anne's wide-ranging lecture explored how Chinese culture appeared in the popular imagination of England at the turn of the century as a projection of erotic fantasies and fears. Her observations made me reflect yet again on the perhaps problematic aspect of my Cabinet: the way in which I might be exoticizing rather than truly knowing. But I hope that at least I'm celebrating the "beauty anywhere."