Wives and Concubines

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Wives and Concubines (妻妾成群 Qīqiè Chéngqún) is a 1990 novel by Su Tong that describes a college girl whose mind is broken by the concubine system in 1930s China. It was made into a film in 1991 by Zhang Yimou. It has since been republished in the United States under the title Raise the Red Lantern in order to capitalize on the success of the film. It was also adapted by the Thai writer Taitao Sucharitkul as "Mong-Kut-Dok-som" (มงกุฎดอกส้ม, TH), which means "the crown with orange flowers."

Plot summary[edit]

Lotus is attending college when her father's tea business goes bankrupt and he commits suicide. She chooses to become a concubine of Chen Zuoqian in the rich Chen household in order to avoid having to work. From the beginning, she does not fit into the household with its three other wives. Initially, the first mistress Joy ignores her, the second mistress Cloud befriends her, and the third mistress Coral acts with outright hostility. Coral goes so far as to interrupt Lotus's wedding night with the lie that she has taken ill. In spite of this, Lotus is favored by Chen.

Shortly after her arrival, Chen's elder son Feipu, who is older than Lotus, comes home. He favors Lotus's company and she begins to fall for him, especially because he plays the flute so well and movingly. Meanwhile, one evening when they are playing mahjong, Lotus notices that Coral is flirting with a doctor.

Swallow, Lotus's special servant, hates her and neglects her duties whenever possible. One day, Lotus accuses Swallow of stealing her flute and searches Swallow's trunk. Instead of finding the flute, she finds a doll with pins stuck in its chest. The doll has "Lotus" written on it, and Lotus demands to know who wrote the word for the illiterate Swallow. It is revealed that Cloud was the one who helped her.

That night, Chen Zuoqian admits that he was the one who stole and destroyed her flute because he was afraid it was a lover's token. Instead of forgiving him, she bursts into tears and he leaves her. Cloud asks Lotus to cut her hair the next morning, and Lotus cuts her ear. Coral is impressed by Lotus's action and warms further to her. Coral reveals that Cloud attempted to poison her and cause a miscarriage when they were both pregnant. Coral nevertheless gives birth to a son, Feilan.

When Chen Zuoqian celebrates his 50th birthday, more domestic strife breaks out. Feilan and Yirong (Cloud's child) knock over a vase and the resulting fight gives Lotus a headache. She goes outside to help it go away and instead she ends up next to an abandoned well in which three concubines of previous husbands had died. She has a hallucination in which a hand reaches out of the well water and a voice tells her to come down.

Shaken, she returns to the party. Chen Zuoqian is extremely angry with her and he barely acknowledges her gift. Unfortunately, her gift is less expensive than the others'. She tries to make up for it by kissing Chen, but he gets angry. She leaves the room weeping.

Feipu arrives with his flute teacher and friend, Young Master Gu, as well as a replacement flute for Lotus. Joy interrupts the flute lesson, however, and Young Master Gu leaves because the mood is destroyed by Feipu's absence. Afterwards, Feipu tells Lotus she is different from other women, who frighten him, and leaves on a business trip.

Chen Zuoqian finally decides to see Lotus. He forgives Lotus for her behavior at his birthday party, but Lotus is unwilling to have sex as she cannot stop thinking about Feipu. Chen eventually leaves her in disgust when she is unable to stop weeping. As a result of Lotus' attitude and the manipulations of Cloud, Lotus loses favor with Chen even more. Later, Cloud claims that Coral hired a boy to beat up her daughter Yirong. Only Lotus and Coral know the truth behind the second mistress' facade, and they slowly become closer friends.

Lotus finds a drawing of her on a piece of soiled toilet paper and confronts Swallow with it. Swallow is afraid at being caught and does not want to be sent away. In a fit of anger, Lotus tells her to eat the toilet paper or be forced out of the Chen household. Swallow catches typhoid and Chen is infuriated with Lotus.

Lotus realizes that her twentieth birthday has gone by and determines to celebrate. When the new servant returns with wine, she announces Swallow has died. Lotus is regretful but says that "dying is better than living." Feipu arrives and a tipsy Lotus reveals how she feels about him. Feipu confesses that he likes her but he is too afraid of women to do anything. After he leaves in shame, Lotus gets very drunk and has a hallucination in which Swallow kills her.

The next morning, Lotus wakes up to see Coral leaving for town. When she comes back, she is escorted by several male servants; Cloud has caught her and the doctor in bed. Coral is locked in her room. That night, Lotus sits up expecting Swallow to return. Instead, she watches the household servants taking Coral from her room and throwing her into the haunted well. Witnessing the murder drives Lotus to insanity.

Characters[edit]

  • Lotus (S:颂莲, T:頌蓮, P: Sònglián), the fourth mistress
  • Coral (S: 梅珊, T: 楳珊, P: Méishān), the third mistress
  • Cloud (S:卓云, T:卓雲, P: Zhuóyún), the second mistress
  • Swallow (S: 燕儿, T: 燕兒, P: Yàn'ér), Songlian's young servant
  • Chen Feipu (S:陳飞浦, T: 陈飛浦, P: Chén Fēipǔ), the master's eldest son - Feipu and Lotus fall in love at first sight. Lu Tonglin, author of Misogyny, Cultural Nihilism & Oppositional Politics: Contemporary Chinese Experimental Fiction, stated that this "perhaps" was due to the fact that within the Chen household Songlian and Feipu were the only two educated people.[1]
    • Lotus tries to attract Feipu, but Feipu is afraid of women, so he is uninterested in the affair. He has a homosexual relationship with young Master Gu. Feipu does so not because he prefers men, but out of his fear of women.[2] Lu Tonglin said that in the Su Tong universe, substitutes are not effective replacements for the originals, and so Feipu's homosexual relationship is not an effective replacement for the heterosexuality he is unable to attain.[2] Lu also said "we have to bear in mind that Su Tong was one of the first contemporary writers in mainland China to explore the subject of homosexuality" and because homosexuality was previously a capital crime in the Mainland, the author's "attempt to explore the topic of homosexuality, however naive and homophobic the experiment may appear (since it is centered on heterosexuality), can be perceived as subversive."[2]
  • Joy (毓如 Yùrú), the first wife
  • Chen Zuoqian (S:陳佐韆, T: 陈佐千, Chén Zuǒqiān), the master of the household

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Lu, Tonglin, 151.
  2. ^ a b c Lu, Tonglin, 152.

Further reading[edit]

  • "Chapter 2: Su Tong and Zhang Yimou: Women's Places in Raise the Red Lantern": Deppman, Hsiu-chuang. Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film. University of Hawaii Press, June 30, 2010. ISBN 0824833732, 9780824833732. p. 32.

External links[edit]