Red Poppies

Sara Canby
23 April 2007

A Review of Red Poppies

Red Poppies, a novel by Alai, a Tibetan who lives in China, recounts the decline of the Maichi family and the decline of the ruling chieftains in general upon the Communist victory in 1959. The work is narrated by the Idiot, one of two sons of the Maichi chieftain; life in the Sichuan province is presented as feudal in nature and punctuated only by feuds among the chieftains. The work represents a deliberate attempt to describe old Tibet in realistic, concrete terms; under the pretense of conveying an idiot's musings, Alai lucidly describes the brutality as well as the beauty inherent in the old society. Alai is not guided blindly by nationalistic thought. Rather, he describes the chieftains' pragmatic ties to the Han Chinese, from whom they receive power.

The novel begins when the Idiot is still an adolescent. The child flatly describes the old society, where one's family background matters more than one's merit; he states, "within the vast area of our estate, there wasn't a single person who didn't know me. That's because I was the chieftain's son. If you don't believe me, become a slave or a brilliant son of a commoner and see if people know who you are" (5). Life on the Maichi estate varies depending on one's status. The protagonist enjoys control over the servant's children, whom his parents call his "livestock" (9) "never to be treated like humans" (13), and spends his days sleeping with his nurse-maid and pelting birds with rocks. He is surrounded by beautiful, exotic goods and free from the burdens of work or even personal hygiene. Although he is the son of the chieftain's second, Han Chinese wife, and not expected to become a chieftain, he knows that his status is endowed with great power and follows "the hard and fast rules of a ruler" (12). He presents a realistic overview of the old society, describing its hierarchy; the Chieftain presides over the headmen who supervise the serfs. It is not a place characterized by social mobility, but people "mostly went down" and became slaves. The chieftains often compete with each other but in their areas hold absolute power, following their own rules rather than written ones (16). Geographic location determines the loyalties of the chieftain; being "east under the noonday sun" in Sichuan province "determined that we would have more contact than the Han emperor to the east than with our political leader, the Dalai Lama" (21).

Life begins to change when Special Emissary Huang, a Han Chinese, encourages the Maichi chieftain to begin growing red poppies in order to produce opium. Huang describes the high profitability of the plant, and, desirous of silver, the Chieftain agrees. Eventually, word of the Maichi's growing fortune spreads to other chieftains. Eager to join in this profitable pursuit, the chieftains send ambassadors who demand "the magical seeds that had made the Maichi family rich overnight" or "to marry their sisters or daughters to Chieftain Maichi's sons...they too wanted our magical seeds" (112).

That rival chieftains are willing to exchange their daughters for wealth is reflective of the status of women at this time; the men of Red Poppies are able to obtain sex from any woman, as long as she is inferior in status. The men are fairly open about this, even though they are often married. In any case, the chieftain refuses, which the Idiot recognizes as a foolish act; the other chieftains respond by sending serfs to steal the seeds and fighting among the chieftains occurs. The serfs are punished for obeying their masters when they are discovered, often with brutal executions. Overall, the world the Idiot describes seems timeless and cyclical, punctuated only by chieftain's rivalries.

However, the outside world- other areas of Tibet and even the West- occasionally enters the work, either through a new technology that the family receives and flaunts for status or through a new visitor. One such visitor, Wangpo Yeshi, asks for the permission to spread the teaching of his Buddhist sect. He insults the Chieftain and is punished harshly; his tongue is cut out of his mouth, and he is imprisoned in a dungeon. He understands that this action was conventional by the standards of old society, however, and does not hold a grudge against the family. Instead, he asks for the position as Maichi historian "for that way Chieftain Maichi would be remembered as the most powerful Maichi in history" (167). The monk has a sense (an accurate one) that old Tibetan society is about to come to a close and "it won't be long before chieftains disappear from the land" (167). The sense of impending doom is constantly constructed in the work and adds a sense of suspense.

In addition to the generalized threat of the decline of chieftain society, the Maichi men must constantly be wary of the sons of an innkeeper killed on the chieftain's command early in the work. The wife of the dead man returns to the Maichi estate and, in accordance to the norms of the society, declares that her children will one day avenge their father's death by killing the chieftain and his children. The threat of these avenging sons is not initially threatening, however.

In any case, the other chieftains eventually gain access to the poppy seeds and greedily dedicate all their land to the cultivation of opium. The Maichi family, however, wonders whether they should also grow grain alongside the poppies; a monk predicts a famine in the next year. The debate as to what to plant divides the Chieftain's two sons, with the Idiot advising him to grow both. This advice proves wise when famine indeed hits the area; other chieftains' constituents are starving, while the Maichi family has to build storehouses for all of their surplus grain.

The Maichi chieftain holds his first son responsible for the building of 2 fortresses, one in the north and one in the south. He then sends his sons to protect the grain for the purpose of selling it at a huge profit to rival chieftains; in a sense, the brothers compete as to who can more effectively govern their areas and thus, who can be a better chieftain later. The Idiot notes that his brother is very skilled at shooting and fighting, skills that the Old chieftains used to gain power; the fortresses built by the brother are old-fashioned and traditional. However, the Idiot realizes that they are inappropriate in the age of the Chieftains' decline, where guile defeats brute strength. The Idiot thus uses crafty maneuvering and compassion in his dealings with the other chieftains, effectively making them indebted to him. In doing so, the Idiot gains the hand of the female Chieftain of Rongong's daughter, Tharna. A town and bustling market economy develops around his fortress, effectively gaining the respect of his father. The marriage is essentially one of convenience, with Tharna engaging in multiple extramarital affairs. The Idiot realizes that he wants to be Maichi Chieftain, but comforts himself with the idea that he will be chieftain of Rongong when his mother-in-law dies. He still recognizes the end of the Chieftains' age, however; he refuses to produce an heir because he knows that it is a futile effort.

The sons are asked to visit home by their parents, and the two obey. At this point, the Idiot is openly competing with his brother for the role of Maichi chieftain. Their father seems to have aged extremely rapidly and eventually declares that he will one day step down and declare the eldest the new Chieftain. Before this can happen, however, the innkeeper's brother comes to the house and murders the future Chieftain. He does so in a very logical, cold fashion, stating that he did not kill the Chieftain first because he would probably die soon anyway. The killer states that he will kill the Idiot when he becomes chieftain due to his mother's promise of destroying the Maichis.

The promise is quickly fogotten, due to more pressing concerns; word has spread that the Chinese communists are likely to win in the Civil War against the Kuomindang. The chieftains differ with regards to which side they support. Communist soldiers eventually occupy the Maichi estate, conveying the gravity of the situation. The Idiot describes the cultural gulf between the Chinese and the Tibetans, claiming that the Chinese consider the Tibetans to be barbarians. The Chinese are fighting with the assumption that "the poor had finally gotten an army of their own" but the Tibetans are comfortable with the way society has been; "the slaves opened wide their foolish mouths to cry for their masters" (428). Knowing that his rule will eventually end, the Idiot is surprised that the innkeeper has come to kill him; the work concludes with the Idiot's plea that "if our souls can really be reincarnated, please send me back to this place...I love this beautiful place" (433). This quotation reflects the religious doubt held by the Idiot and the small role religion played in many Tibetans lives in general. The Idiot dies shortly afterward.

Thus, this work is a poignant description of Old Tibetan society and its fall following the invasion of the Chinese Communists. Its value is limited in that it is a work of historical fiction; the events and characters are not strictly drawn from reality. However, Alai seems to be willing to convey his homeland in truthful terms; Old Tibet is brutally unfair, a place with little social mobility and yet, it is all the Tibetans know and thus, it is comforting. He seems to draw on his memories of the Old Tibet in his writing, which reveals much about the material realities of being a chieftain in the old society; they eat "entire goats...ear-shaped pastries" to welcome the Chinese emissary, for example (26). The descriptions of codified violence and chieftain rivalries was entertaining as well as informative. Although many works by Tibetans outside of Tibet revolve around the premise that Old Tibet was idyllic and that the Chinese were entirely evil and unwelcome, this author gives more believable descriptions of the time period. The Han Chinese are pragmatically accepted, even favored over the Dalai Lama- because they are closer to the Chieftains geographically and more importantly, are the source of the Chieftains' power. The Communists' entrance into Tibet is not entirely condemned, rather it is viewed as simply bewildering from the view of the Tibetans; it represents a complete break from the old society. Tibetan Buddhists are not revered, and the Tibetans are not characterized as hyper-spiritual, peace-loving people, which is a refreshing aspect of the work; Alai's fictional characters seem more human and real than those described in many Tibetan memoirs.

The work is valuable due to its descriptions of life in Sichuan province, demonstrating the Sino-Tibetan hybridity that was so integral to the area. Furthermore, the work reflects the real diversity present throughout Tibet, depicting the different regions as unique, even disconnected.
Red Poppies represents an attempt to convey one's love of Tibet without excessive idealization. People act pragmatically, as individuals in accordance to the rules of the old society. At the same time, one must remember that Alai lives in China and that this work was originally written and published there for a popular audience; if he wanted to craft a portrait of Tibet, it would have to portray the Chinese neutrally or favorably.

In conclusion,
Red Poppies is a fascinating work of historical fiction regarding the downfall of Old Tibetan society. Through the surprisingly intelligent voice of the Idiot, one is introduced to the simultaneously violent, hierarchical, and beautiful Sichuan province. The general sense of doom associated with the Communist entrance into Tibet is supplemented by the Idiot's personal story. The lives of the Maichi chieftains- lives full of political maneuvering, tragedy, and extramarital sex- are convincingly and vividly portrayed. Alai never condemns Tibetans, however, or resorts to demeaning caricature of Tibetan savages; violence is simply part of the rules in everyone's minds. Thus, violence is implemented carefully, with the ultimate act of violence representing the break from the cycle of old Tibet; the innkeeper's murder of the chieftain, society's head, represents the end of the old hierarchies in general.

Book reviewed:
Alai, trans. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.
Red Poppies .New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.