Su Tong is one of my favourite Chinese authors. Best known for writing the original short story behind the Zhang Yimou film Raise the Red Lantern, he writes short stories and novellas. This book is a collection of three novellas, one of which, as the title suggests, is Raise the Red Lantern. Having previously read his work in Chinese, I am delighted that an attempt has been made to bring Su Tongs work to the attention of an English-speaking audience. However, his work is not particularly easy to read and a certain level of attention is needed in order to follow the story.
The first and most famous is Raise the Red Lantern. This is the story of a rich mans fourth concubine and her relationship with the first three. Lotus is from a fairly wealthy and educated family that unfortunately suffers after the death of her father. She therefore agrees to become the concubine of Chen Zuoqian and at first enjoys her new life, being the apple of her husbands eye. Then the true nature of her life becomes evident when his interest begins to wane.
The second is Nineteen Thirty Four Escapes, which refers to the poverty in the countryside in the year 1934. Chen Baonian is a poor farmer who manages to escape his fate by moving to the city and setting up a business selling implements made from the bamboo of his local village. However, he leaves his wife, known to the reader as Grandmother Jiang, in the countryside with very little money to bring up his children, while he lives in luxury in the city with his new woman.
Finally, there is Opium Family, which describes the life of the Liu family, the head of which is a landlord made rich from selling opium powder. However, as he grows old and the time comes to hand over the family business to his son, he realizes that his son does not have the wherewithal to take over. Yet the villagers all rely on the Liu family for their livelihood.
Considering that the novellas are relatively short in length, the main characters are richly drawn. None of them are particularly likeable, but then the novellas describe life in the period before the Communists came to power and Su Tong, as a good Communist author, had the responsibility to portray the people of this time as a little bit stupid and selfish. There is a definite concentration on the role of women and how they suffered at the hands of men during this time.
Lotus, beautifully played by Gong Li in the film of the same name, becomes Fourth Mistress at the age of 19. Although she is aware of her position, her youthful self-belief leads her to think that her beauty and education will be enough to ensure a strong position in the household. When she realizes that this is not the case, she becomes depressed and finds it hard to cope with life. It is hard to like Lotus; but it is also difficult not to feel deeply sorry for the position she is in. Perhaps because the film comes so vividly to mind as I re-read this novella, her character in particular did leap off the page and I found myself drawn into her. Her relationships with the other concubines are also well portrayed.
Although again she is not a character with whom I felt I had much in common, it was hard not to feel sympathy for Grandmother Jiang. Forced into an arranged and loveless marriage, she is expected to work hard on the land and bring up her children with no financial help from her wealthy husband. Virtually at starvation point at times, her struggle to survive is highly believable.
Liu Chencao, the next in line to the family business, has received a certain level of education and as such, finds the life that he is expected to believe hard to understand. I found his character slightly disappointing compared to the main characters in the first two novellas; I think my interest in the treatment of women had been piqued, but this is not the focus of Opium Family it is rather the stupidity of a family growing poppies for rich peoples pleasure, rather than feeding the poor. I found it hard to find much sympathy for either father or son.
First and foremost, it is necessary to mention the translation. The translator, Michael S Duke, is a professor of modern Chinese literature in the US and clearly knows his Chinese language. As he points out in the introduction, he made a deliberate decision to preserve all of the images and figurative language, all of the linguistic artistry, contained in the original. As he goes on to say, the language that Su Tong uses is complicated and often deliberately vague, all of which adds to the complications of translation. Dukes translation therefore avoids paraphrasing, which at times, makes the book quite difficult to read. In many ways, this attention to detail is laudable; Su Tong had a purpose when he wrote the way he did, so why should it be changed to suit a western audience? Then again, it does mean that the proportion of English speakers who will read this novel is quite likely to be less than if the language was paraphrased. My aim in writing reviews of Chinese novels translated into English is to introduce some of this worlds most fantastic literature to some who may not otherwise read it. However, I think many who read a book that is not translated in a natural way may well be put off, which is a great shame.
Secondly, the book is designed to highlight the poverty and ignorance of life in rural China before the Communists came into power. Thus, a basic understanding of Chinese history, at least that the Communists took over power in 1949 and that during the period Su Tong is describing, many feudal practices still existed, particularly in the countryside, would be useful before reading the book in order for it to make more sense.
I am still going to recommend this set of novellas. Su Tong is a fantastic author and the first story in particular is vividly written and comes to a shocking and surprising conclusion. However, if you have an aversion to reading novels set in a culture that you dont understand, you may prefer the Zhang Yimou film, Raise the Red Lantern, which in many ways is much more understandable than the novella and is exquisitely filmed.
The book is available from play.com for £5.99 (including delivery). Published by Simon and Schuster, it has 267 pages. ISBN: 0684860228
The brutal realities of the dark places Su Tong depicts in this collection of novellas set in 1930s provincial China -- worlds of prostitution, poverty, and drug addiction -- belie his prose of stunning and simplebeauty. The title novella, Raise the Red Lantern, which became a critically acclaimed film, tells the story of Lotus, a young woman whose father's suicide forces her to become the concubine of a wealthy merchant. Crushed by loneliness, despair, and cruel treatment, Lotus finds her descent into insanity both a weapon and a refuge. Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes is an account of a family's struggles during one momentous year; plagued by disease, death, and the shady promise of life in a larger town, the family slowly disintegrates. Finally, Opium Family details the last years of a landowning clan whose demise is brought about by corruption, lust, and treachery -- fruits of the insidious crop they harvest.