Lao She's "Teahouse" Initiated Coming-Of-Age Moment In NPR Arts Reporter

Jun 6, 2012
Originally published on October 16, 2012 12:32 pm

For its YA-themed 2012 Summer Books series, NPR Books is featuring first-person submissions from acclaimed authors remembering the novels that exposed their young minds to new, provocative themes of adulthood. As a fun parallel (and nostalgic indulgence) we asked NPR staff members to do the same. Last week, Tell Me More host Michel Martin shared how Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls provoked her own poignant – albeit hilarious – revelatory YA moment.

This week, NPR Arts reporter Neda Ulaby remembers her lonely days as a young American transport in China, where boredom initially drove her to pick up Lao She's Teahouse. At the time, Ulaby didn't overtly grasp She's distillation of the sweeping changes in Beijing life; from the Hundred Days of Reform in 1898 to the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949:

"When I was in 5th or 6th grade, my father took a temporary teaching job in China. This was in the early 1980s, nothing like today's China, at least if yours was a visiting American academic family. We had to use a different currency than the Chinese. Wandering about without a 'guide' was forbidden. Aspirin was not easy to come by. Nor were books in English. Forget age-appropriate English language books for the only bored American kid in a village far from any big cities.

"My mother had thought she'd packed enough reading material for the duration of our long stay. But thanks mostly to the complete absence of other entertainment, including television, and our deeply restricted movement, I tore through all our books in about a month. At some point, somehow, I ended up nose deep in one of the few translated books available, a classic work of modern Chinese drama, the play Teahouse by Lao She.

"There's an awful lot going on in Teahouse, and most of it sailed over my head. I wish I could say it left me with a more nuanced understanding of Chinese politics and social history over the course of multiple dynasties. But no, it left me confused and upset. The scene that most impressed me was one where a little girl is led into the tea house by her weeping mother. Straw is in the girl's hair, indicating she is for sale. What follows is a brief, heartrending scene where the girl begs her mother not to sell her, and negotiations ensue.

"I was horrified and still just young enough to be frightened. Mothers could sell their daughters? Someone would want to buy a little girl? Why?

"It's not remotely lost on me that this scene depicting capitalism at its most perverse fell into my hands in a country still rigidly Communist. Still, the play helped me to begin to acknowledge the darkness in this teahouse in China and their equivalent places everywhere else.

"Lao She lost his life, like many other intellectuals, during the blood-drenched era of the Cultural Revolution. The passing scene that so troubled me pales in comparison to other examples of She's work, including his story Crescent Moon. I've yet to return to China, but I hear there's now a Lao She-themed teahouse in Beijing. I'm willing to bet there are no girls with straw in their hair there. I do now know as an adult, those girls live much closer to all of us than many of us are willing to admit. And to have a play be the first vehicle for thinking about this explains in large part why I am an arts reporter today."

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