The packaging of this collection of novellas capitalizes on the current popularity of Zhang Yimou’s powerful film, RAISE THE RED LANTERN. Su Tong’s novella was originally titled “Wives and Concubines,” but in translation the publishers changed the title to exploit the interest in the film. However, Yimou is the superior artist, transforming Tong’s rather bland story of the power struggles between four oppressed women into a stunning film. Raising the red lanterns nightly in front of the room of the favored mistress is the most striking action in the film—the visual symbol of the absolute domination of the master. This powerful symbolic action is not in Tong’s story but is Yimou’s brilliant invention.
The irony of RAISE THE RED LANTERN is that Tong’s best story is not the one renamed for the film, but “Opium Family,” which provides a fascinating glimpse into the hierarchical Chinese rural society destroyed by the coming of the Communist Revolution in 1949. Tong traces this massive social transformation via a chronicle of Liu Laoxia’s family, its rise to power through opium production, and its extinction by the end of 1950 through the workers’ revolution.
This translation of Su Tong’s novellas not only gives Westerners the intriguing text underlying Zhang Yimou’s great film RAISE THE RED LANTERN but also, and more important, provides the opportunity to encounter subtle insights into that mysterious world of China before the Great Revolution.