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[363] Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas – Su Tong

Translated by Michael S. Duke

” Then she heard Coral talking through the blanket. ‘Cloud has the face of a saint and the heart of a scorpion; she dreams up more schemes in that narrow little mind of hers than anybody. I know I’m no match for her, but maybe you can take her on. I guessed that the first time I saw you.’ ” [44]

The title novella tells the story of Lotus who, at nineteen, is forced to marry a wealthy merchant and becomes a concubine after her father’s suicide. The four wives in a polygamous marriage jockey for what limited power and wealth are available to them within a claustrophobic and patriarchal household. Being the youngest and having yet born a child don’t help Lotus gain the upper hand, let alone weather the insidiousness directed at her.

Between rife domestic quarrels and pandemonium that are inevitable in such household arrangement, where nobody knows what’s on everyone’s mind, the story also takes a surreal turn as Lotus discovers secrets of a well which at first she finds a refuge. The well is execution ground of women caught in adultery in the Chen household.

No one knew that Lotus was terrified by the stories of the abandoned well . . . She discovered that she had already wearied of verbal fighting among the Chen women; she didn’t feel like defending herself, didn’t feel like gaining the upper hand, and didn’t feel like expressing any interest in the trifles they usually disputed. [84]

Subliminally beautifully and disturbing, Raise the Red Lantern offers a view of life within a closed, dictatorial social community. beauty and sexual appeal are secondary attributes in a battle of wits that mandates guile and duplicity. Issues of class, gender, and sexual hierarchies, and question about the role of history versus fate emerge in this tension-filled atmosphere of this marital hothouse, where servants who are keenly aware of rank and status also act to resist and perpetuate the traditions of the Chen household. Crushed by loneliness, despair, and cruel treatment, Lotus plunges into a tragic decline to madness that might nonetheless be a refuge.

Equally disturbing but not living up to Raise the Red Lantern‘s emotional and inter-family nuances are Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes and Opium Family, which are both set in the imaginary Maple Village. Gothic and horrific, but interspersed with comic scenes, Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes is an account of a family struggles during one momentous year. A man leaves behind his wife and six children for a mistress and shady promise in the city. When famine and disease ravish the city, the mistress seeks refuge in the countryside only to be suffering from the man’s wife. Unclear temporal sequences and occasional orphic intrusions abound in this dreamy novella.

Opium Family details the last years of a landowning clan whose demise is brought about by corruption, lust, and treachery. Landlord Liu plants the seed of his own destruction when he married his father’s concubine, who, as Liu instructed, slept with a hired hand of the family. The birth of the bastard son heralds the physical decline and destruction of the house, which is eventually purged by Mao’s liberation troupe. Portrait of women is even more debasing in this last novella, as they are no more than a rubber ball, kicked back and forth been the men in the house. Unified in such themes as misogyny, lust, and corruption, Raise the Red Lantern by far outshines the other two, which are worth wrestling with but not as satisfying.

268 pp. Penguin Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas is a Chinese Literature Challenge read.


2 Responses

  1. So have you seen the movie? It was really eye-opening to the way these poor women lived. I will say that listening to the concubine who sang “opera” was like dragging fingernails down a chalkboard!!!

    • I have to get the movie now, starring Gong Li, along with the one that tells the story of the woman who is in my current read, The Painter of Shanghai. It’s also starring Gong Li. All my friends have been telling me about the beautiful cinematography, especially the scene with the lanterns and the sky. Chinese opera is not my cup of tea, although I had quite a share of that as a boy when I accompanied my grandma.

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