Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060596330
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/6/2004
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 679,689
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 10.28 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Su Tong was born in Suzhou in 1963 and graduated from Beijing Normal University with a degree in Chinese literature. He is the author of Raise the Red Lantern, also available from Perennial. Su Tong lives in Nanjing.

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First Chapter

Raise the Red Lantern
Three Novellas

Raise the Red Lantern

When Fourth Mistress, Lotus, was carried into the Chen family garden, she was nineteen; she was carried into the garden through the back gate on the west side at dusk, by four rustic sedan bearers. The servants were washing some old yarn by the side of the well when they saw the sedan chair slip quietly in through the moon gate and a young college girl, dressed in a white blouse and black skirt, step down from it. The servant thought it was the eldest daughter returning from her studies in Beiping; when they rushed forward to welcome her, they realized their mistake: It was a female student, her face covered with dust and looking unbearably exhausted. That year Lotus's hair was cut short, level with her ears, and tied up with a sky-blue silk scarf. Her face was quite round; she wore no makeup; and she looked a little pale. Lotus climbed out of the sedan chair, stood on the grass, and looked blankly all around: a rattan suitcase was placed horizontally beneath her black skirt. In the autumn sunlight, Lotus's slender figure appeared tenuous and delicate; she looked as dull and lifeless as a paper doll. She raised her hand and wiped the sweat off her face; the servants noticed that she wiped the sweat not with a handkerchief but with her sleeve; this minor detail made a deep impression on them.

Lotus walked over to the edge of the well and spoke to Swallow, who was washing yarn. "Let me wash my face. I haven't washed my face in three days."

Swallow drew a pail of water for her and watched her plunge her face into the water; Lotus's arched-over body shook uncontrollably like a waist drum played by some unseen hands. Swallow asked, "Do you want some soap?" Lotus did not speak and Swallow asked again, "The water's too cold, isn't it?" Lotus still did not speak. Swallow made a face in the direction of the other maidservants standing around the well, covered her mouth, and laughed. The maidservants thought this newly arrived guest was one of the Chen family's poor relations. They could tell the status of nearly all the Chen family's guests. Just then Lotus suddenly turned her head back toward them. Her expression was much more wide-awake after washing her face; her eyebrows were very fine and very black, and they gradually knit together. Lotus gave Swallow a sidelong glance and said, "Don't just stand there laughing like a fool; wipe the water off my face!"

Swallow kept on laughing. "Who do you think you are, acting so fierce?"

Lotus pushed Swallow away violently, picked up her rattan suitcase, and walked away from the well; she walked a few paces, turned to face them, and said, "Who am I? You'll all find out, sooner or later."


The following day everyone in the Chen household learned that Old Master Chen Zuoqian had taken Lotus as his Fourth Mistress. Lotus would live in the south wing off the back garden, right beside Third Mistress Coral's room. Chen Zuoqian gave Swallow, who had been living in the servants quarters, to Fourth Mistress as her private bondmaid.

When Swallow went to see Lotus, she was afraid; she lowered her head as she called out, "Fourth Mistress." Lotus had already forgotten Swallow's rudeness, or perhaps she just did not remember who Swallow was. Lotus changed into a pink silk cheongsam and put on a pair of embroidered slippers the color had returned overnight to her face, and she looked much more amiable. She pulled Swallow over in front of her examined her carefully for a minute, and said to Chen Zuoqian, "At least she doesn't look too dreadful." Then she spoke to Swallow. "Squat down; let me look at your hair."

Swallow squatted down and felt Lotus's hands picking through her hair, carefully searching for something; then she heard Lotus say, "You don't have lice, do you? I'm terribly afraid of lice."

Swallow bit her lip and did not speak; she felt Lotus' hands, like the ice-cold blade of a knife, cutting into her hair hurting her slightly. Lotus said, "What's in your hair? Smell terrible; take some perfumed soap and hurry over and wash your hair."

Swallow stood up; she stood there motionless, with her hands hanging down. Chen Zuoqian glared at her. "Didn't you hear what Fourth Mistress said?"

Swallow said, "I just washed my hair yesterday."

Chen Zuoqian yelled at her, "Don't argue about it; if she tells you to go wash, you go wash. Careful I don't beat you."

Swallow poured out a pan of water and washed her hair under the crab apple trees. She felt she'd been horribly wronged; hatred and anger pressed on her heart like an iron weight. The afternoon sun shone down on the two crab apple trees; a clothesline was strung between them, and Fourth Mistress's white blouse and black skirt were waving in the breeze. Swallow looked all around; the back garden was completely quiet, and no one was there. She walked over to the clothesline, spat right on Lotus's white blouse, then turned and spat again on her black skirt.

Raise the Red Lantern
Three Novellas
. Copyright © by Su Tong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

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 simple beauty. Made into an internationally acclaimed film that was nominated for an Academy Award, the title novella 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 in insanity both weapon and 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.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What do we learn about the personalities and character of the women in "Raise the Red Lantern" from their names?

  2. Are you surprised by Coral's affair with the doctor and that Chen Zuoquian has her murdered? Does Lotus's state of mind make you question whether Coral was actually murdered?

  3. Why does Lotus become unbalanced? At what point does her mental state begin to decline? Do suicide and madness seem like viable options in a society with so many strictures?

  4. In "Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes," the narrator says, "I was being followed by my shadow." And later, he says, "If you open your windows, you will see my shadow cast upon this city, fluttering in the wind." Taking into account the narrator's family and China's economic and political history, what is the shadow? Why does he want to find out about the shadow? Does he feel he can escape it?

  5. The narrator's voice is alternately present and subdued in the storytelling. At what places does it switch to third person, and why do you think the author does this?

  6. What role does superstition play in "Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes?" Does it add to its believability or detract? Does it matter if this story the narrator is constructing is believable?

  7. How does Communism specifically the family and the tenant farmers "Opium Family?" Who truly believes the precepts of Communism and who uses it for revenge?

  8. Why isn't Chencao punished for murdering his brother Yanyi? Why is Chencao more important to Liu Laoxia than Liu Suzi?

  9. Chen Mao tells Liu Suzi, "Your family's karma is all used up and no one can save you. I'm your bodhisattva now, understand?" Is the Liu family's karma gone? Is Chen Mao a type of bodhisattva -- a spiritual leader -- for the Liu family as Communism intrudes into their rural life?

  10. Before the Cultural Revolution comes to Maple Village, the grandfathers tell their grandsons, "People are just like crops: Whoever plants them, reaps them, and they reap whatever they sow." Particularly when thinking about the characters Liu Laoxia, Chencao, and Chen Mao, does "Opium Family" uphold this theory? Do they reap what they sowed?

About the Author

Su Tong was born in Suzhow in 1963 and graduated from Beijing Normal University with a degree in Chinese literature. Su Tong now lives in Nanjing.

Translator for Raise the Red Lantern
Michael S. Duke is a professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His books include Worlds of Modern Chinese Fiction and The Iron House: A Memoir of the Chinese Democracy Movement and the Tiananmen Massacre.

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