The Travels of Lao Can

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The Travels of Lao Can
AuthorLiu E
Original title老殘遊記
CountryLate Qing Dynasty
Original text
老殘遊記 at Chinese Wikisource

The Travels of Lao Can (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: Lǎo Cán Yóu; Wade–Giles: Lao Ts'an yu-chi, or "The Travels of an old wreck") was a novel by Liu E (1857-1909), written in 1903-04[1] and published in 1907. Thinly disguising his own views in those of the physician hero, Liu describes the rise of the Boxers in the countryside, the decay of the Yellow River control system, and the hypocritical incompetence of the bureaucracy. The novel, a social satire[2] that showed the limits of the old elite and officialdom, was an immediate success. The novel serves as an in-depth look into the everyday lives of "peasantry" in the late Qing period.[3]

The first 13 chapters were serialized in the bi-weekly Xiuxiang Xiaoshuo (simplified Chinese: 绣像小说; traditional Chinese: 繡像小說; pinyin: Xiùxiàng Xiǎoshuō; Wade–Giles: Hsiu-hsiang Hsiao-shuo; literally "Illustrated Fiction" or "Fiction Illustrated") from March 1903 to January 1904, in issues 9 through 18. It was later printed in the Tianjin Riri Xinwen Bao (simplified Chinese: 天津日日新闻报; traditional Chinese: 天津日日新聞報; pinyin: Tiānjīn Rìrì Xīnwén Bào; Wade–Giles: T'ien-Chin Jih-Jih Shin-Wen Pao; literally: 'Tientsin Daily News'[4]) in a 20 chapter version with a prologue included.[5]


In the prologue Lao Can (T: 老殘, S: 老残, P: Lǎo Cán, W: Lao Ts'an; "Old Decrepit"), a traveling medical practitioner, dreams of China being a sinking ship. After the dream ends, Lao Can goes on a journey to fix the problems experienced by China. In the story Lao Can attempts to correct injustices, change attitudes towards women, and engage in philosophical discussions about China's future.[5] Within portions of the novel Lao Can acts as a detective in several small crime-related plots.[6] Milena Doleželová-Velingerová, author of "Fiction from the End of the Empire to the Beginning of the Republic (1897-1916)", wrote that the integration of the detective subplots, "entirely dissimilar to its lyrical components," "makes the novel so innovative."[7]


Referring to the use of poetry and symbolism in Travels of Lao Can, Milena Doleželová-Velingerová, author of "Fiction from the End of the Empire to the Beginning of the Republic (1897-1916)", wrote that "What sets this novel apart from the others is just this nonaction discourse, including the famous poetic descriptions of Chinese landscape, which are, however, meant to be understood not merely as images of natural beauty but as metaphorical statements about the condition of society."[7]


Donald Holoch argued in his essay "The Travels of Laocan: Allegorical Narrative", published in The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century, that the entire book and not merely the prologue should be viewed as an allegory, and that if any other approach was used, the novel would lack unity.[8] In particular Holoch believes that the novel's characters and events illustrate a "complex conservatism" that concludes that technology instead of social change is the answer to the problems experienced by China. Cordell D. K. Yee's review of The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century, however, argues that "it is doubtful that all episodes conform" to the allegory concept.[9] Robert E. Hegel, in a review of The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century, argues that Holoch's interpretation is persuasive and "makes a substantial contribution to the studies of the novel".[8]

English translations[edit]

  • Liu T'ieh-yün (1952) [1907]. The Travels of Lao Ts'an. Translated by Harold Shadick. Cornell University Press.
  • Liu E (1983) [1907]. The Travels of Lao Can. Translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Chinese Literature Press. ISBN 9780835110754.



Further reading[edit]