I recently finished reading a new edition of Lao She’s 1920s novel Mr Ma and Son, a copy of which was very kindly sent to me by Penguin China. I enjoyed the book immensely as both a researcher of twentieth century representations of the Chinese in Britain, but also as a reader of fiction and I intend to seek out Lao She’s other books in translation (N.B. it looks as though these new editions are only available in the UK in eBook format at present). I had intended to write a full review of the book, but I find I left my copy (and notes) in Leicester, while I’m currently in Suffolk and then remembered that I’m rubbish at the critical analysis of literature! I refer readers to Anne Witchard’s concise and very readable volume Lao She in London for an in-depth look at Lao She’s themes and motivations.
Having said that, several key aspects have really stayed with me, most brilliantly Lao She’s incisive observations of British stereotypes of the Chinese, largely formed – so he relates – from the type of films consumed by Mary Wedderburn and latterly featuring Mr Ma. But he turns his eye equally to Chinese ideas about the British and captures with cutting satire the hypocrisies of British society. Mr Ma represents an idea of the Old China – weak and ineffectual, in his son Ma Wei’s assessment, whereas Wei seems to represent New China (that promoted by the intellectuals of the age), or perhaps more accurately that is embodied by the antique shop manager,* with his canny understanding of business in the British market and determination to receive a Western-style education, against the odds. The only really empathic characters are Ma Wei and Reverend Ely’s daughter,* the latter – a thoroughly modern young woman – whose ‘feel’ for China reaches beyond the lazy racism of her mother and the missionary concerns of her father. The book is comic, yet poignant and unsentimentally describes the feelings of dislocation and cultural ‘outsideness’ felt by both Mr Ma and his son in different and complimentary ways.
I wholeheartedly recommend Mr Ma and Son as ‘a good read’.
*I’ve forgotten their names and can’t locate them online. See? I’m a terrible reviewer!