Red Poppies, the first novel of Alai, an ethnic Tibetan, comes garlanded with China’s premier literary award, the Mao Dun prize. The book manifestly delivers on its subtitle’s promise: ‘An Epic Saga of Old Tibet’. It is a thoroughly old-fashioned yarn, full of evil landlords, downtrodden peasants, court machinations and stealthy assignations. The setting is Tibet in the early 20th century which, as described by Alai, is hardly a pastoral idyll. It is instead a feudal world of casual brutality where masters view their servants as livestock and sagely advise each other that ‘you can ride them like horses or beat them like dogs, but you must never treat them like humans’.
Sitting atop this pyramid of misery is the ruling Maichi family, headed by the all-powerful clan chieftain. The story is narrated by the chieftain’s second son, widely regarded as an ‘idiot’ but possessing both wisdom and cunning. Following a border dispute, the Chinese Nationalists provide weaponry and advice to the Maichi family. A heavy price is demanded, however, and soon the Maichi lands are growing not food crops but opium poppies.
It is debatable, to say the least, whether this book presents a rounded view of pre-occupation Tibet. Its sympathetic portrayal of the Communists and its official publication in China certainly raise legitimate questions. However, viewed simply as a novel it is an elegant and impressive work. When the subsequent volumes of the projected trilogy dealing with trade and religion are published, we will be better equipped to judge the author’s political agenda.