It isn’t enough to translate Chinese literature into English. The translators do as much as they can to find the right words in English to express the ideas the original author put down, but readers have to be prepared for characters, plots, and references that come from a completely different tradition. I know that I’m missing things when I read Chinese literature. I keep trying, however, because I want to learn more about how people live and think in other parts of the world. I thought about the gaps in my knowledge a lot when I read Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan, and again when I read Raise the Red Lantern, a collection of three novellas by Su Tong (translated by Michael S. Duke). Each time I dive into a work of literature from China, I have to remind myself that the author is playing by different rules.
“Raise the Red Lantern”—which inspired the 1991 film of the same name—tells the story of Lotus. Lotus arrives at the Chen family compound after becoming the fourth wife of Chen Zuoqian. She gets along fairly well with her new (though much older) husband. Her relationships with the other wives are a completely different matter. The wives are at war with each other for primacy in the household, each using different methods to gain power over the others. Joy, the first wife, has religion and her position as the first wife. Cloud, the second wife, has her smiling face and outward good humor, as well as her secret witchcraft. Pearl, the third wife, has her talent as an opera singer. At first, Lotus has some sway over her husband because she is the newest and youngest wife. As her dissatisfaction grows, however, she sinks faster and faster in status. The novella’s climax actually destroys her sanity.
“Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes” is an elliptical family history that reminded me strongly of the way Red Sorghum kept circling back to legendary events in family lore. The narrator, who we are emphatically told is not the Su Tong who wrote the stories in this collection, keeps returning to the year 1934, when his father’s family collapsed. It was the year his grandfather and uncle left for the city. It was the year his grandfather tried to take a second wife. It was the year his father was born in a rice field. It was also the year of a plague. This novella was the most bewildering of the three, just because it was so dense and because it plays with timelines so much.
“Opium Family” is another tale of a family collapsing. In this case, the Liu lose everything because of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Liu Laoxia is at the pinnacle of his career as a land owner and opium farmer, until a servant he had mistreated for years comes back at the head of a Communist work group to break up his lands and stir up the population of tenant farmers against him. We get a lot more backstory about the Lius and their various failings as human beings, but the climax is worth waiting for.
From my perspective and my ignorance of Chinese literary techniques, a lot of characters behave in inexplicable ways. Many of them are grotesquely violent to one another. Still, I was interested to see Su Tong at work with these three portraits of family destruction. I rather enjoyed how he played with timelines in “Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes” and satirical confusion of the Revolution in “Opium Family.”