Translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Reviewed by Gang Yue
MCLC Resource Center Publication (February 2010)
Opium is the poison that consumed the national health of late imperial China—this memory is still very much a part of the nation’s sense of historical humiliation and socio-economic collapse at the hands of Western imperialism. Into this historical remembering enters the 1998 novel Red Poppies by the prize-winning ethnic Tibetan author Alai. This fictional account of the destruction of the local chieftain system through opium production and trade vividly pictures a material history that is at once local and global. It also reveals a historical process for which the world system theory continues to offer explanatory validity. At the same time, however, it presents a world in which notions of the center and the periphery need to be understood as embedded within a layered power structure of national-ethnic hierarchy and cultural nuances.
The hallucinogenic drug has another powerful side effect: the mesmerizing colors of poppies stimulate and are consumed by an ecstatic desire that is at once beautiful and destructive. The “creative destruction” of the world system—the impact of capitalist commodity exchange that displaces the existing “primitive” economy and creates something new in its own image and in a highly “creative” manner—thus generates a parallel aesthetic of opiate-induced bliss and death, inscribed in the novel as a means of examining inner forces of self-destruction. The political economy of opium and the aesthetics of the poppy reinforce a historical totality and cultural homology that refuse to play into the myth of Shangri-La and set the imagination of Tibet squarely in the context of “sino-globalization.”
The material history of opium and the literary imagination of the poppy plant also provide rich fodder for philosophical reflection. Faced with the implacable madness of destruction of the local Tibetan society, Alai has to maintain an almost unattainable level of sanity and distance by speaking through an “idiot,” the protagonist and primary narrator of the novel. Understanding this paradox of idiocy and sanity necessitates a discussion of that which is inexplicable and untranslatable. And through The Dust Settles (Chen’ai luoding)—to invoke the original Chinese title of the novel—we will be able, finally, to look at the dilemmas and the wisdom of a leading Tibetan author and intellectual in today’s China.
Spanning the decade or so before the victory of the communist revolution in 1949, the novel details a fascinating local history set in the borderland along the Sino-Tibetan ethnic corridor, known today as the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. In the beginning of the story, no one uses opium except the Chinese wife of Chief Maichi, the mother of the “idiot” who is the novel’s principal narrator and protagonist. Soon enough, however, opium spreads like wild fire, transforming the local economy from traditional subsistence farming into one of commodity exchange. It is first introduced to the region by a KMT (Guomindang) official, largely through economic and political enticement. Chief Maichi is attracted to the idea of growing the crop because he sees the enormous wealth and power it will generate. He thus strikes a deal with the KMT official: the Han Chinese will provide him with technical know-how and protect his monopoly on the trade. The KMT official will also supply him with modern weaponry and help him guard his territory against his Tibetan neighbors.
A bumper harvest in the first year fills the chief’s coffers and swells his political influence and military might. Fierce competition with neighboring chieftains ensues. His neighbors are determined to break his monopoly and grow this golden new crop, and Chief Maichi smells blood. Uncertain of how to respond to his neighbors, he asks his two sons what crop to grow the following season. The elder son, born of the Chief’s first marriage with a Tibetan woman, has no idea how the market works. For this traditional Tibetan warrior, wealth is worth little unless it is embodied in expanding territory, political prestige, and military might. He dismisses his “bastard” younger brother for the latter’s suggestion that the Maichi family switch back to grain farming when everyone else is growing poppies. The younger brother is indeed an “idiot,” but has an innate understanding of the idiosyncratic rationality of market demand and supply. The father decides to take a gamble with the younger son’s proposal to grow food while watching his competitors plant poppy seeds, without even the slightest idea of what they will eat the following year.
What results is the demise of the local “primitive” or “natural” economy. The Maichi chieftain monopolizes the food supply for the entire region for an entire year. External competition further drives a wedge between the two brothers, though the idiot has no real desire to be the heir of the chieftain. Through an almost magical arrangement, Chief Maichi sends his sons to manage his northern and southern borders, respectively, thus initiating a competition between two types of governance. The elder son continues to adopt a traditional approach to wealth accumulation and territorial expansion by means of military action. The “idiot,” on the northern border, takes advantage of the food shortages of the neighboring chieftains to bring his rivals to their knees, their starving masses into his fold, and merchants of all stripes to his newly-established marketplace. Instead of maintaining the sort of fortress architecturally unique to this Tibetan border region, the idiot turns his stronghold into an open market so as to win over the hearts and the stomachs of the local population.
A small scale market economy seems to be working well in the back waters of Tibet, even though it has been developed through the poisonous gold of opium and attracted all sorts of social ills—including syphilis, which almost destroys all the male chieftains’ reproductive powers. This fledgling free market could foster a social environment in which war and other traditional forms of organized violence become unnecessary. Yet this microcosm of local peace and prosperity is already fatally embedded in the larger world of China and its revolutionary transformation. As internal strife weakens the traditional fabric of the chieftains’ rule, external forces will also come in to wipe out the feudal system.
If opium fulfills its historical function of destructive creation in the political economy, it is also the novel’s central trope for an aesthetics of lust and self-destruction. The narrator’s own sexual awakening is figured in such terms: “the giant red flowers formed a spectacular carpet across much of Chieftain Maichi’s territory”; the plant “captivated us” and the poppies “were flowering in my heart” (46). For the youngster, the explosion of his sexual desire is “fed by the vibrant red blossoms of the summer,” when he makes love in the poppy field with his maid. “Poppies were broken, the milky substance oozing from the injured stalks covering our faces. It was as if they were ejaculating, just like me” (48-49). For the more powerful Father, however, such lusty outbursts result in deadly consequences. Chief Maichi devises the murder of one of his headmen by a servant, so that he can possess his wife. He has the servant executed as a scapegoat to absolve himself. The headsman’s sons later return to avenge their father, killing the Chief’s two sons and leaving no heir to his chieftaincy. In referring to the father’s murderous lust, the novel describes the poppies as “so thrilling that they drew out the madness hidden in the people’s marrow.” The Chief and the wife of the murdered headsman “ fall into each other’s arms before dashing into the crazed poppy field,” and “the berries surged in waves like raging sexual desires” (51).
The killings that involve two generations of the Maichi clan and his headsman thus render the demise of the traditional chieftain system an inevitable event of self-destruction. And herein lies an age-old morality tale that only an age-old priest can tell. The Living Buddha—one who clearly does not belong to the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism headed by the Dalai Lama, and is instead a priest of the older Nyingma sect dominant in Alai’s homeland—is the first to warn the Chief of opium’s “corrupting influence” (64). The theme of “demonic temptation” (96) is of course central to all religious and moral teachings. Alai goes beyond that doctrine to reflect upon the historical inevitability of the demise of the old social system from within and outside, bringing both themes into a historical totality.
In the novel, Alai often speaks through the voice of a priest-turned-historian, who has come from Lhasa to proselytize for the Geluk only to have his tongue cut twice by the Chief. Unable to continue his evangelism, he asks the Chief to allow him to record local events. Asked why he would want to record the history of the Maichi family, his answer is alarmingly prophetic: “Because it won’t be long before chieftains disappear from the land.” From a broad geopolitical perspective, he explains that “neither the eastern nor the western neighbors will tolerate the existence of local overlord,” referring respectively to China and Tibet proper. The historian goes on to point out the Chief’s own role in the demise of his chieftaincy: “of course, you yourselves have already thrown a torch onto drying kindling.” In response to the Chief asking whether or not he should stop opium production, the historian writes: “That won’t be necessary. Everything is predestined. The poppies will only make what must happen arrive sooner” (167-8).
Red Poppies can thus be read as a historical novel of an apocalyptic order about opium and the creative-destructive forces it unleashed in a Tibetan borderland on the eve of the communist victory. But before we allegorize this local history as a story of modern Tibet—as indeed it is tempting to do, given established modes of political interpretation—some basic historical parameters need to be set for heuristic and pedagogical purposes.
As early as 1869, the poppy flower was introduced to Alai’s native land as a cash crop. In the early decades of the twentieth century, repeated efforts to ban opium in China proper steadily drove its production into multi-ethnic peripheral regions and mountainous areas, where government control was nominal at best, and local autonomy prevailed for the most part. Ironically, the establishment of Xikang Province in 1939 furthered the spread of the “illegal” growth of opium in that region. The province encompassed a vast Tibetan and multi-ethnic area to the east of central Tibet (the political Tibet then under the rule of Lhasa that largely overlaps with today’s Tibet Autonomous Region). Liu Wenhui, a western Sichuanese warlord and the governor of Xikang, took advantage of its remote location and pushed for opium production to finance his ill-equipped army and develop what would become a relatively successful education system. As with elsewhere in the modern world, the production of opium is not governed by the principles of the “free” market. Rather, opium becomes extremely profitable through its formal criminalization in the center, and its quasi-“legal” existence in peripheries, a status, of course, sanctioned by the powers-that-be. In Red Poppies, the introduction and spread of opium production largely reflects what happened historically in Xikang under the rule of Liu Wenhui in the decade prior to the 1949 communist victory, when local warlords held the reins of power . The land of the Tibetan chieftains in the novel is described as “part of a joint defense district overseen by an army commander” (178). To set an (old) record straight, it took a unified China, under Mao and the Communist Party, to wipe out the ills and evil of opium that had plagued the Chinese and Tibetans alike.
Equally important is an even longer and broader historical process of multi-ethnic integration in the region. Alai’s native land is located along the two major waterways of western Sichuan, the Min and the Dadu Rivers—which have become famous in modern Chinese history because the legendary Long March of the Red Army followed this historic ethnic corridor in the mid-1930s. This Tibetan region is called Jiarong or Ch’a rong. The ancestry of the Jiarong Tibetans can be traced patrilineally to northeastern Tibet and today’s Ali or Ngari Prefecture. During the Tibetan Empire of the seventh to the ninth centuries, troops began to invade the region, settling in and assimilating the indigenous people to the Tibetan sphere of influence. The indigenous population of the region is not Tibetan, but composed instead of various groups of what were called Qiang or Xiqiang people in Chinese historiography—hence Aba is officially identified as a Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture today. After the collapse of the Tibetan Empire, the region broke up into many small principalities. Later, the Mongols conquered the region briefly in the course of their military expansion to the south. When the Northern Song was established after the Mongols, it is said that Emperor Zhao Kuangyin merely drew a line on the map, ordering his troops to stop at the Dadu River. The last dynasty ruled by Han Chinese, the Ming, took an even more modest approach by simply ordaining local chiefs as a means of bringing them into a nominal political subordination to Beijing. Much as in other peripheries and outlying regions of the empire, it was non-Han rulers, the Manchu in this case, who were able to establish an imperial order in the Jiarong region. Yet it took the Qing military under Qianlong two protracted and bloody wars in the second half of the 18th century to finally conquer the Jiarong Tibetans. And only thereafter did a large number of non-Tibetans, mainly of Han and Muslim Hui extraction, begin to settle in the region.
The Jiarong Tibetans are also distinct in other ways. Linguistically, they speak a dialect unintelligible to speakers of the three major Tibetan regions—the Khams to the west and southwest, Amdo to the north and northwest, and U-Tsang in central Tibet. And in this outpost of ancient Tibetan civilization, Bon, the indigenous religion of pre-Buddhist Tibet, remained a dominant force until the Qianlong conquest. Even though the Qing court favored the Geluk and imposed it upon the local population in the late eightenth century, its ecclesiastic institutions were never fully established there. Since the late 1970s, the locals have been quietly restoring the Nyingma tradition, representing the oldest lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (and one that allows monks to marry) . The belated arrival of the Geluk and the minimal influence of the Dalai Lama in the region are reflected in Red Poppies through the ill-fated character Wangpo Yeshi, a scholar-lama with a geshe degree from Lhasa. His efforts to proselytize Geluk doctrines runs into fierce resistance from the local Nyingma clergy, and, as aforementioned, he is silenced by the Chief, who twice cuts his tongue as retribution for his offensive remarks. Also reflected in the novel is the fact that Jiarong Tibetans are mostly farmers who have settled in river valleys. Their lifestyle is more akin to the Han, the Hui, and the Qiang, rather than the nomads in neighboring Amdo and Khams. Like the Amdo farmers in the multi-ethnic upper Yellow River region, the Jiarong are the most sinified of all Tibetans, due to geographic proximity, agrarian lifestyle, historical migration, and inter-ethnic marriage.
Alai has written extensively about the history of this multi-ethnic region in his essay collection, Upward Steps of the Earth (2000). In Red Poppies, he also explores the geopolitical dilemmas of the region. As a local saying goes, “the Han emperor rules beneath the morning sun, while the Dalai Lama governs beneath the afternoon sun.” Yet because the region is “located slightly to the east under the noonday sun,” its location “determined that we would have more contact with the Han emperor to the east than with our religious leader, the Dalai Lama. Geographical factors have decided our political alliances” (20-21). Geopolitics on the grander scale of modern times, Alai continues, would eventually complicate this historical reality still further: “Someday the western Land of Snows would align itself with England, while the eastern chieftains would surrender to the Han government” (184).
If the spread of opium opened up new material and cultural flows, while providing the socio-economic foundation for the region’s transformation, the ruling elite also bears the brunt of these changes. In the Maichi clan, Uncle, the Chief’s younger brother, is a merchant who travels between India, Tibet, and China. He even donates a warplane to the KMT government during World War II and dies as a martyr in China. Conversely, Sister, the chief’s only daughter, goes to study in England, marries an English nobleman, and returns to her homeland to collect an extravagant dowry, only to find her native land “a barbaric place” (185). Ironically, this “barbaric place” seems to be steeped in a culture of logical clarity, embodied by the “idiot,” who reacts to the Christian missionary Charles describing the scene of Jesus being crucified thus: “But he looks so pitiful . . . How can he help anyone?” (97). Realizing that his mission is impossible, Charles manages to collect mineral samples of the region instead, itself an act of “economic espionage,” as defined by the industrialized world.
The complex history of the Jiarong Tibetans defies any simplistic reading of the Shangri-La myth into the novel. Rejecting that shallow position, one is tempted to characterize the local culture through a familiar theoretical discourse of multiculturalism and hybridity, a discourse that originated from a serious rethinking of modernity, only to become a celebratory posture toward differences. Above all, the “hybrid” would be the easiest way to characterize an obvious point: the protagonist and I-narrator of the novel is the son of a Tibetan father and a Chinese mother. In fact, Alai himself is “hybrid” twice over, of Tibetan and Hui parents, raised in a Tibetan village but formally schooled as a teacher of Chinese and married to a Han teacher of English. His cultural hybridity engenders something different from, if not entirely beyond, the concept of ethnic identity developed in our academic discourse. His is a position of an epistemological order that blends a deep-seated folk wisdom with a distanced position of prophecy and culminates in an aesthetic of historical melancholia. We can only begin to appreciate such a subject position, as inhabited by a modern Tibetan intellectual, by delineating the complex multiple positions of the “bastard,” the “idiot,” the prophet, and, above all, the storyteller in the novel itself.
The protagonist, as the storyteller, has much to do with writing. “One of my ancestors was a dedicated writer,” the narrator reveals of his family history. “He once said that you had to be either the smartest fellow in the world or an idiot if you wanted to be a ruler, a king” (99). Brother, the chief’s elder son, is the heir apparent, yet not smart enough even to protect himself from his eventual murder. As the second son, with a dubious mother, the narrator would expose himself to great harm if he were to appear smart enough to pose a threat to Brother. “An idiot has no strong loves or hates, and can see nothing but basic truths,” the narrator remarks on his own detached position. “That, in turn, keeps his fragile heart relatively safe from harm” (53). Freed from political rivalry with Brother, the “idiot” gradually becomes a prophet of that which external changes will bring forth and, as a result, also the local agent who prepares the chieftain to adapt to these changes. His success in bending these destructive forces to the service of the creation of a local market economy and expanding the chieftain’s power and wealth is so impressive that Father finally comes to praise him as “the smartest idiot in the world.” It is at this point in the narrative that the “idiot” is hailed as “a prophet” for the first time, by the equally detached steward, who echoes the chief’s remark but changes the very terms of his appellation (243). In the end, the Chief must acknowledge to the son: “I’ve got it all figured out. You’re not an idiot, you’re an immortal. Why else did the gods send you down to the human world?” (375).
The narrator himself has got it all figured out on a grander scale. His predestined role is not as the idiot who can take over the chieftainship, as predicted by his writer ancestor. Rather, he must act as the writer, the prophet ancestor, who tells stories of a divine magnitude. This is the mission of the Historian. If the tongueless historian in the novel serves as an alter ego for the narrator, the narrator speaks for the writer Alai: “Before the chieftains, there had been local lords here, but they had disappeared with the arrival of the chieftains. Who would come after the chieftains? I couldn’t see that; what I did see was the chieftains’ estates crumbling to dust, leaving nothing behind after the dust settled. Yes, nothing was left” (373-74).
“The Dust Settles,” the original title of the novel, is an expression that evokes a sense of the end of a historical cycle and the distanced point of view of the historian reflecting upon that history. In the quote above, Alai evokes the novel’s title for the first time (the next time it appears is in the last chapter, when the Chieftain’s “final reckoning” arrives). The position of the detached writer-historian may appear fatalistic to modern believers in the optimistic creed of humanism. But it is a time-honored mode of philosophical retrospection pivoting on the paradox of intellectual humility and wisdom—a paradox that plays out in narrative terms through the narrator’s dual designation as idiot and prophet. In the last chapter of the novel, the narrator comments on his dual role:
I’d been an idiot all my life, but now I knew I was neither an idiot nor a smart person. I was just a passerby who came to this wondrous land when the chieftain system was nearing its end.
Yet heaven had let me see and let me hear, had placed me in the middle of everything while having me remain above it all. It was for this purpose that heaven had made me look like an idiot. (429)
The perspective of a “passerby” may be passive if he merely witnesses the transient passing of time. The storyteller/writer, though, is a sympathetic “observer” amidst the dusty world, and yet remains aloof from the historical drama so as to record and reflect upon it. Alai attributes this position to a legendary man of folk wisdom in the Tibetan oral tradition, Aku Tonpa . He appears only once in the novel, in a story recounted by the “idiot” as a way of situating the latter’s narrative point of view in that folk tradition. Aku Tonpa “came to a sacred place” to “play a trick on a serious monk,” fooling him into much ado about nothing (312). His apparent prank, which was never really a prank at all, reveals everything about human folly and futility. Alai’s emphatic subscription to the folk wisdom and oral tradition of Tibet may dismay those who embrace Tibetan culture as entirely Buddhist—or, worse still, view that culture filtered through new-age fantasies of Tibetan Buddhism. In an age in which the ecclesiastic Buddhism of Tibet has become the darling of Western new-age dreamers and cold-warriors alike, it is refreshing to hear a novelistic echo of the voice of the oral tradition that produced the Gesar, the longest extant epic in the world.
The storyteller as a passerby, embodied in the idiot-prophet to predict the extinction of his own kind, is positioned in a profound sense of melancholia. Alai describes melancholia as a sense of “beauty that hurts,” “a state of personal feeling that is irrelevant to the scheme of things.” As a writer, he finds his duty similar to that of the scientist who studies the panda—one of the oldest animal species in the world, found in his homeland and facing the danger of extinction. Perhaps through a concerted effort of protection “we may postpone the demise of the endangered species,” writes Alai. At the very least, humanity may use that brief window of opportunity to “develop a scientific discipline of panda studies” . As readers, however, our understanding of a history in the process of being written may open up visions for a different future.
The English translation and publication of Red Poppies by a major commercial press is most timely, especially given the global ascension of a global myth of Shangri-La. Professors Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin have made great efforts to introduce to their readers a picture of Tibet that is far richer and more complex, and, indeed, more “authentic” than the Shangri-La lore we are usually offered. Their creation of the English title “Red Poppies” reveals what would otherwise be hidden underneath the “settled dust” of the original—a material history virtually unknown to contemporary readers. The English title also makes the text more readable by highlighting the novel’s thematic focus and aesthetic traits, and, in so doing, eases the reader into otherwise unfamiliar territory.
To speak of “hidden meanings” may sound hackneyed today, yet this translation may have unintentionally re-opened an old yet unsettled question of hermeneutics and phenomenology. Many professional academicians in literary studies depend on the opacity of the text to attain their professional status, not to mention make a living; in this particular case, they may well insist on a legitimate claim to the more opaque or even “untranslatable” narrative point of view of the idiot/prophet. Readability thus does carry a price tag when the highlighted glory of “red poppies” overshadows the author’s intellectual depth and conceals his almost inexplicable melancholia. In a perfectly balanced world, I would retain the original title, As the Dust Settles, but I doubt anyone could sell such a novel to a commercial publisher.
The translators have also gone beyond what normally is required for the romanization of proper nouns in Chinese-English translation. They employed a Tibetan professional to render Tibetan names in a system commonly used in English-language media—one based on the Wade-Giles system that is still used in some official English-language publications in the PRC. This system certainly approximates the pronunciation of Tibetan names more effectively than the standard Chinese Pinyin system (the same can be said of the Pinyin romanization of Chinese names as well). Its effect clearly makes the Tibetan names distinct from the Chinese, a distinction that does exist in the original Chinese text. Perhaps the purist in Tibetology would prefer the use of the Wylie transcription. Such a linguistically purist proposition might even lead to a debate on linguistic politics and cultural authenticity: How “pure” or “authentic” are the Tibetans in the novel—and the author Alai himself? Even in a narrow, technical sense, the original text was written and published in Chinese, not Tibetan. What are the rules, and who sets the rules, when translation traverses at least three distinct linguistic and cultural terrains, and their entrenched geopolitical implications?
The translation of the Chinese term daohua qunfan into “INSTRUCT AND ASSIMILATE BARBARIANS” (p. 42) is a case in point, which is related to, but goes beyond, the kind of geo-cultural questions raised above. This common phrase is inscribed on a plaque bestowed by an unspecified Qing emperor and displayed in a room inside Chief Maichi’s castle. Uninformed readers may well read it as just another salient sign of Chinese cultural imperialism. That might be true in another context, but it is questionable in this particular case. On the narrative surface, it is the Tibetan chief who displays it as an emblem of his political superiority over his Tibetan neighbors. We also know that the Qing court had a special and elevated arrangement with the elite of Tibet, especially the Dalai Lama and the Geluk clergy. It is unimaginable that the Manchu rulers, “barbarians” themselves in the eyes of the anti-Qing elite, would be foolish enough to openly humiliate the Tibetans by calling them “barbarians.” If anything, “barbarians” here does not refer to Tibetans (or any other particular ethnic group within our modern system of racial and ethnic classification). Rather, “barbarians” are those who fall outside the civilizing order of the Manchu empire, irrespective of the ethnicity of the rulers or the ruled, and depending on the fluid and changing relation between the political centers and their peripheries. The Jiarong Tibetans, and in fact eastern Tibetans of non-Geluk affiliation, were mostly “barbarians” to rulers in Beijing and Lhasa alike. For the Manchu rulers, they were uncivilized because they constantly challenged its imperial order—until the Qianlong conquest. For the rulers in Lhasa, embodied in the Geluk lama-turned-historian in the novel, they were equally uncivilized and must be brought into the fold of the Geluk. Yet, as we see from the strategic placement of the plaque, even a regional power-holder such as Chief Maichi can play the same game for political purposes against his local rivals. This fluid and evolving processes of “civilization” defies rigid modern discourses and institutions of race, nationality, and ethnicity. That these subtleties are untranslatable obviously has nothing to do with the translators, whose work here is exemplary. It is, instead, a fundamental problem and unavoidable challenge in any attempt at “translation.”
University of North Carolina
. For a recent study of the history of opium in Western Sichuan, see Liu Jun, “Jindai Sichuan zangqu yapian maoyi jiqi shehui weihai” (Opium Trade and its Social Ills in the Tibetan Regions of Sichuan in Modern China). Zhongguo Zangxue (China Tibetology) 59 (2002.3): 50-58.
. For a local history of the Jiarong region, see Alai, Dadi de jieti (Upward steps of the earth) (Kunming: Yunnan renmin, 2000).
. See Ran Yunfei and Alai, “Tongxiang keneng zhilu: yu Zangzu zuojia Alai tanhua lu” (A path to possibilities: a dialogue with Tibetan author Alai). Xinan minzu xueyuan xuebao–zhexue shehui kexue ban (Journal of the Southwest Institute for Ethnic Studies–philosophy and social sciences edition) 20.2 (Sept. 1999): 9.
. Upward Steps of the Earth, 286.