Mandarin Teacher as Author: Language and Ethnicity in Lao She's 1931 Xiaopo de Shengri

Beijing author Lao She (1898-1966) is renowned for his Beijing-accented Mandarin-language novels. But much of his early career was spent abroad—first in London for five years, and afterwards in Singapore. There he worked at a Mandarin-language school for overseas Chinese, spending his spare time writing a novel featuring a young boy and his multiethnic friends, known as Little Po’s Birthday (1931). Its second chapter, entitled zhongzu wenti (“The Race Question”), depicts the young protagonist’s confused interpretation of his variously skin-toned friends. In the same chapter, the narrator informs the reader that despite the friends all being different ethnicities (including Malay, Indian, and Cantonese), they were united in their use of the Malay language. This project examines the authorial positionality of Lao She as a bilingual Mandarin and English speaker who does not speak Malay, arguing that in this case, the author’s Beijing-style Mandarin essentially translates his characters’ dialogue from a Malay original that does not exist. Indeed, unable to speak their language, the real-life Lao She would have had no means of knowing what children like Little Po would have been saying. This language barrier reinforces Lao She’s position as an outsider in Singapore, a place he lives for a mere six months. Speaking Malay, his characters are Singaporean. Speaking Mandarin, he remains Chinese. Additionally, as I venture to complete the novel’s first English translation, what are the political implications of translating the novel into another language its protagonist would not have been able to read?

Track: 

  • East Asian Studies