Contemporary Chinese literature can sometimes be a bit of a struggle, whether due to heavy doses of politics or surrealism; the subject might be obscure or the author self-consciously literary. However worthy these works may be, it comes as something of a relief, then, that Su Tong—of Raise the Red Lantern fame—stuck to good, old-fashioned storytelling in Petulia’s Rouge Tin, a novella just out as a Penguin Special.
The story opens in Shanghai soon after the declaration of the People’s Republic. The brothels are to be closed down, the women taken off for reeducation through labor. Su Tong doesn’t waste any time in setting the stage and sketching the main characters:
One morning in May, a truck from the army barracks stopped at the entrance of Emerald Cloud Lane. A bevy of gaudily attired prostitutes flaunting heavy makeup ambled out of the lane and clambered up over the truck’s tailgate… The last prostitutes to emerge were Autumn Grace and Petulia of Red Delight Pavilion. Autumn Grace was wearing a silk brocade Mandarin gown and high-heels. She leant against a doorframe as she bent over to smooth out her stockings below her knees. Petulia, who was following, looked as though she had just woken up; hair unkempt and dark circles under her eyes.
The rest of the novella tells the story how the two close friends, Autumn Grace and Petulia, alternately cope with the “New Society”. Autumn Grace escapes from the common transport and ultimately takes refuge in a nunnery. The aptly-named Petulia petulantly pouts her way through her spell of manual labor, only to latch on to Mr P’u, one of the Red Delight Pavilion’s more dapper erstwhile customers and, in fact, Autumn Grace’s regular.
The three protagonists in this ménage à trois adapt to the new reality, after a fashion, not terribly well, but life goes on. All that remains of the old life in the end is a rouge tin.
Petulia’s Rouge Tin was originally published in Chinese in 1991, making it a relatively early work. Influence from classic Russian literature is not hard to discern in Chinese fiction of this period, and Petulia’s Rouge Tin is no exception: the story focuses on people and situations and, like many Russian stories—or indeed, like life—lacks a clear dénouement or resolution.
In the “New Society”, everything—and yet nothing very much—has changed. Su Tong’s telling is non-judgemental of both prostitutes and cadres; his eye is both humane and wry. One of the best scenes is when Petulia, still wearing the silk stockings from the Emerald Cloud Lane, leaves the cadres at the Women’s Labour Training Institute when she is left bemused by the suggestion that she denounce the brothel owner. They indulge her attempt to find a job doing “anything as long as it’s not too tiring.”
The two women, who really have lost everything, seem to adapt better than the poor Mr P’u, feckless, courageous when pushed, yet completely out of his depth when it comes to dealing with women. Petulia, it must be said, is a real problem, yet Su Tong has evident sympathy for all his characters.
Petulia’s Rouge Tin is brisk; Su Tong has great economy of language, saying a great deal in few words.
This short work is helped immeasurably by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz’s sensitive translation. In rendering the work into eminently readable English while leaving the author his equally eminently Chinese voice, they have come close to the translator’s holy grail.
If one hasn’t yet sampled contemporary Chinese fiction, this novella is more of a substantial hors d’oeuvre than a main course; it appetizes rather than sates.