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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #9 (March 1, 2005), page 16.
A trilogy of enchanted sorrow by a Chinese novelist
Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas
By Dave Johnson
Those who enjoyed filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern will not be disappointed by the novella that inspired the film. Originally entitled "Wives and Concubines," Su Tong’s tale of a young woman’s tragic decline into madness and despair is an intriguing companion to the film.
In the movie, the ornate setting and lively characters of provincial China in the 1930s are presented through visually lush and emotionally intense theatrics. In the novella, Su Tong creates a slow-paced delirium of enchanted sorrow that distinguishes his dazzling narrative.
In this brief fiction that embraces China’s history and traditions like a sing-song girl snuggling with a wine-besotted merchant, nineteen-year-old Lotus arrives at the concubine’s quarters to start her new life as the Fourth Mistress of Old Master Chen.
Happily her youth, beauty, and deft lovemaking earn Lotus a high social position in the rigidly orchestrated Chen household. This swift ascent in the pecking order causes jealousy, vindictiveness, and treachery. The resultant disintegration of Lotus’s psyche, and the solace she finds, is a fever dream played out like a tragedy on the formal stage of a Chinese Opera house.
In "Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes," Su Tong presents human folly and its dire consequence in his account of a family’s struggles to cope with its fair share of sickness, death, and bizarre behavior, all in one momentous year. The setting is Maple Village, an oddball enclave that would have amused William Faulkner, and the narrator is the author himself, who attempts to reclaim his personal history through the concision of poetry:
My old Maple Village home
Has been silent for many years,
Who have escaped here
Are like wandering blackfish
The way back is eternally lost.
But the actual or fictional autobiography (Su Tong is cleverly evasive) shifts into a feverish history centered around 1934 — the year of disaster. During that time Tong calls a "growth ring on an ancient tree," his grandmother Jiang is ogled by the landlord Chen Wenzhi and impregnated by Tong’s grandfather, a shambling fool called Chen Baonian, who flees his new obligations to a dissolute life of drinking, gambling, and whoring without ever returning to Maple Village.
And then there is Dingo, the Chen family’s eldest son, short of stature and apparently of brain matter, whose hobby is gathering dog manure in straw baskets. A third character in this theater of the absurd played out in the rice paddies is lovely Phoenix, a daughter who is cruelly swapped for five acres of farmland by Chen Baonian.
"Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes" is a gothic, horrific, and comedic family history that is the literary equivalent of scratching an itch or a scab, depending on the thickness of each reader’s skin.
The third novella, "Opium Family," presents another clan history in rural China. This time, an extended family of opium farmers suffers an opulent demise due, in part, to the insidious crop that has made them rich.
Similar to the Faulkner’s technique of setting his novels in a fictional county in Mississippi, Su Tong chooses to return to Maple Village for a tale of sound and fury told about an idiot. In this case, the barmy lad is Yanyi, conceived in an open field by landowner Liu Laoxia and Jade Flower, the official concubine of his aging father. The narrative thread that records the inexorable downfall of Laoxia’s family is loosely woven through the adventures of Yanyi, who complains that he is always hungry, insists that he fell out of his mother’s armpit, and reminds everyone that he has wanted to kill somebody since he was a small child.
As well as the saga of this twisted yet strangely cheerful fellow, Su Tong includes the familiar troika of corruption, lust, and betrayal that hovers near every harvest, profit, or gain.
Raise the Red Lantern and the outstanding novel Rice are worthy reads by a remarkable young author — if you have the vicarious fortitude to join him in his exploration of the darkest and strangest pathways of the human spirit.
Su Tong was born in Suzhou in 1963 and graduated from Beijing Normal University with a degree in Chinese literature. He currently lives in Nanking. Translator Michael S. Duke is a professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.