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Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

RED POPPIES, A Novel By Alai, Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, Houghton Mifflin: 434 pp., $25

April 07, 2002|ISABEL HILTON | Isabel Hilton is the author of "The Search for the Panchen Lama" and a staff writer for the New Yorker.

In old Tibet, of course, novels rarely existed. There were poetry and song, there were religious texts and storytellers and narrative in the epic tradition. The novel, though, along with secular history and biography, was all but unknown in the Tibetan language, nor was the written language well adapted to the purpose.

It was not until the 1980s--a relatively enlightened decade in Tibet and China that ended cruelly for both--that Tibetan novels began to appear. Some had been written decades earlier--dreary social-realist works written to demonstrate the cruel nature of the old society and the joy of the masses on their "liberation" by China. Despite their fidelity to official norms, they had to wait for publication, so suspicious was Beijing of any Tibetan voice.By the time they appeared, far more interesting literary movements were afoot that would produce truly realist Tibetan novels. At the same time, many young Chinese writers, disillusioned with the direction of their own culture, found in Tibet an exotic cultural stimulus. Most of the first novels about Tibet to be read in China were written by Chinese.

So where does "Red Poppies," perhaps the first magical realist "Tibetan" novel to reach the Western market, fit? The publishers claim it is a book that does for Tibet what the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez have done for Colombia. But a more direct parallel--and a more illuminating comparison--might be to Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children." "Red Poppies" has neither the stature nor complexity of "Midnight's Children," but is it, as presented, a Tibetan novel, or is it a hybrid? "Midnight's Children" is a post-colonial novel about India written in English. "Red Poppies" is a novel set in a pre-colonized Tibetan district, written in Chinese.

The author, Alai, is an ethnic Tibetan from the eastern borderlands of the old Tibetan province of Kham--a place that, though culturally Tibetan, was always politically ambiguous. It was not under the political or religious control of Lhasa, which lies far to the west. In Kham, the Dalai Lama was seen as a remote figure who represented a school of Buddhism--the Gelugpa--that held little sway locally.

To the east lay China, with its equally distant capital. The degree of control exercised by the Chinese empire depended on the condition of the imperial dynasty of the day. If the empire was weak, it could assert influence only through trade or bribery. If it was strong, the imperial armies could punish. Symbolic tribute and taxes would intermittently find their way to the Chinese capital and, sporadically, imperial gifts would filter down through local officials.

By the 19th century, as the Qing Dynasty began to fail, this was a negotiated borderland where local chieftains slugged it out among themselves, bending the knee to imperial authority when strictly necessary but wielding absolute power within their own backyard. In 1905, at the very end of the Qing dynasty, a Chinese general, Zhao Erfang, occupied eastern Tibet and, in a precursor of Chinese Communist policies, began to eliminate the Buddhist clergy with a view to assimilating the territory and populating it with Chinese peasants. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, this portion of Tibet's borderlands was absorbed into the Chinese province of Sichuan.

"Red Poppies" is set between the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911and the victory of the Communist Party in 1949, when the local chieftains were not greatly troubled by Chinese authority: Between the Japanese occupation and the Chinese civil war, no aspiring power in China had the reach to bring the borderlands into line. The chieftains enjoyed an Indian summer of almost untrammeled local power. It was a world that, nevertheless, was doomed to vanish.

"Red Poppies," Alai's first novel, tells the story of the Maichis, the family of a powerful local chieftain who holds absolute sway over his servants and slaves and expends his energies in the vigorous enjoyment of sex and the local struggle for power with rival clan chiefs. The wider world and its events--the incursion of Western powers, the politics of distant Lhasa, the continuing wars in China, the Japanese invasion--are filtered through the brief appearances of a series of minor characters.

There is Charles, ostensibly a Western missionary, who is bent on collecting mineral samples. A Chinese official called Huang encourages the Maichis to plant the opium poppy. The chieftain's daughter, who has married an Englishman, appears only to demand a vast dowry in silver and leave for London. A Gelugpa monk called Wangpo Yeshi arrives from Lhasa to challenge the shamanistic local monks. The chieftain punishes Wangpo Yeshi twice for speaking his mind too directly: the Maichi family executioner cuts out his tongue and he becomes the family's historian.

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