Red Poppies: A Novel of Tibet Alai
Alai grew up on the borderlands of China and Tibet, and his life has straddled this cultural divide. This is the world he paints in Red Poppies, which one the Mao Dun prize in 2002. I initially picked it up because Howard Goldblatt is one of the translators, and he's my favorite translator, because I'm just that geeky.
This takes place during the first part of the twentieth century, starting with the Chinese Republic years (after the fall of the Qing in 1911) and continuing through the first part of the civil war, WWII, and the continuation of the civil war, from which the Communist government eventually emerges as victorious in 1949.
Our narrator is supposedly an idiot and everyone around him says he is. He uses his idiocy as a shield and a weapon, even though we see all along he's not an idiot and I'm not sure why the other characters don't realize it (even if they are always questioning it.) He is the second son of a chieftan, in the days when the borderland Chieftan's reigns were waning. His family grows opium and becomes rich, and then switches to grain when the other Chieftans start to grow opium. As the other chieftans now have no food, our narrator's family's power and riches grow because they can now sell their excess grain for exorbitant prices.
This is a brutal landscape. The family holds slaves and while our narrator lives in luxury, most of the people do not. Everyone who is not family is a servant or slave, all subject to the whims of the Chieftan and his family. The brothers are played off each other to see who will become the next Chieftan. Family feuds are started and carried out, people starve, people die. Buddhism is present, but no one outside the clergy is religious, and the clergy are subjected to the whims of the rulers.
Mostly, this is a story of changing landscape and changing time. Only our narrator knows that it does not really matter which son will succeed his father as Chieftan, for the time of the chieftans is over. History will roll over them and fold them into something else.
Here is some background on Tibetan History. As the article states, during this time period, the Chinese governments were not exercising control over Tibetan regions, the Dalai Lama was. I will point out that the Chinese governments were not exercising control over large portions of China--since the Nationalist Revolution until Communist takeover, large sections of the country were controlled by warlords or other regional leaders. Red Poppies takes place in a region that is outside control of China and the Dalai Lama, as it falls between the two spheres of influence. The Chieftans never see that eventually, one power, or both, will expand and take them.
Read Gang Yue's Review, which focuses on the opium production and economic aspects of the book (I found these fascinating, because I was reading more from a changing powers perspective.)
Another review, that takes great issue with the book. Written by the son of Tibetan refugees, he takes great issue with the way pre-Communist Tibet is portrayed in the book.