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ISSUE 118 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/18/2005

'Emperor' eating 'Noodles'

By Andrea Horbinski
Copy Editor

Friday, March 18, 2005

As China’s global importance has grown, the tide of Chinese novels published abroad has risen accordingly, culminating with the Nobel Prize for Literature going to Gao Xingjian in 2000. This month, two very different novels provide two complementary perspectives on life in China, past and present, from inside and outside the People’s Republic.

Although published in 1992, Su Tong’s third novel My Life as Emperor is as fresh as though it were penned yesterday. Su’s previous novels, Rice and Raise the Red Lantern (the title story of which was made into a wonderful film by Zhang Yimou of “Hero” fame), have received wide praise.

Emperor is just as skillful. Su lives in Suzhou in the People’s Republic, near where he sets the capital of the fictional Xie Empire, of which young Fifth Prince Duanbai becomes Emperor at 14.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more unprepared to ascend a throne than Duanbai, and he utterly fails to rise to the occasion. The first two acts of Emperor chronicle Duanbai’s years on the throne; deprived of power by his grandmother Madame Huangfu, the real emperor, he descends into a life of cruelty and debauchery to compensate. Concubines’ tongues are cut out, loyal generals are murdered and doctors are beheaded to satisfy his cruelty.

He has companions in the eunuch Swallow, the concubine, Lady Hui and the monk Juekong, but Duanbai is powerless to prevent them from being punished by palace intrigues, even as he fails to understand them. In particular, Duanbai utterly disregards Juekong’s advice to finish reading Confucius’ Analects, which Su sets up as a symbol of everything Duanbai lacks – perspicacity, morality and compassion.

Su writes in a lush, imagistic style that enables him to sketch characters and scenes acutely in very few strokes. Su also has a keen eye for ironic contrast. While his characters are well-drawn, they are also vague enough that the novel can be taken as a potent allegory of the maxim that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Given how far Duanbai descends into depravity, the real wonder of Emperor is its third act, which offers hope of redemption: When his oldest brother leads a civil war against him, Duanbai is punished with life as a commoner. Duanbai tells his story retrospectively from Bitter Bamboo Mountain, a contemplative retreat where he has at last been studying the Analects. Sometimes, he says, the book makes perfect sense, and sometimes it doesn’t mean anything to him.

In his preface, Su dismisses Emperor as a “scary dream on a rainy night,” but given the stories he has chosen to tell, one cannot help but wonder what he would write were he not living under the Communist regime.

Unwritten stories are the theme of expatriate Ma Jian’s The Noodle Maker. Ma’s novel is the story of Sheng, a professional writer of propaganda novels, and of the stories Sheng would write if he could. These stories spill forth from Sheng over the course of a drunken dinner with his friend Vlazerim, a professional blood donor.

Sheng’s stories are fantastical – an actress who commits suicide by being eaten by a tiger, an artist who quits art school to open a crematorium, a girl whose large breasts ruin her life, a man whose best companion is a talking, philosophical dog – but Ma’s deadpan, sardonic voice is their perfect foundation. His style is spare and direct, almost the exact opposite of Su’s, but Ma’s empathy with his characters’ tribulations is palpable.

It is the Communist regime, of course, that keeps Sheng from telling his stories. Since the stories he tells Vlazerim are woven from the stuff of his neighbors’ lives, the characters in them are looking for ways to escape their lives, or, if they’ve given up on escape, are just trying to get by.

“You’re wrong to think that every story must be connected with death,” Vlazerim says at one point. “The problem is not death, but life, and life is just an act of endurance – you have to grit your teeth and get on with it.”

Indeed, Ma Jian’s subject matter and style recall no one so much as Kafka, who made great art out of portraying nearly nameless individuals’ struggles against a faceless, senseless bureaucracy. Ma accentuates these similarities by referring to Sheng as “the professional writer” and to Vlazerim as “the professional blood donor” – a potent sign of the state’s efforts to efface their individuality. In the end, though, despite their unpublished state, Sheng’s stories save him, his friend and his neighbors by transmuting their dull lives of struggle into art, even as a noodle-maker combines bland ingredients into a delicious meal.

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