The rise and fall of a callow adolescent monarch, in a strange, strained tale from the gifted Chinese author (Raise the Red Lantern, 1993; Rice, 1995).
Originally published in 1992, this is presumably an earlier work than either of those near-masterpieces. The story’s narrated by Duanbai, who ascends to the throne of the Xie Empire (in an unspecified time and place) upon the death of the father to whom he is only “fifth son.” Duanbai’s anointing thus provokes the resentment of his several half-brothers—notably older, more assured Duanwen, who will eventually become Duanbai’s chief rival and nemesis. Su Tong crafts a rapid succession of vivid scenes dramatizing the boy emperor’s proneness to impulsive decision-making and irrational brutality, his immature fixations on the dream of becoming a circus tightrope walker and on the superior freedom and grace exhibited by birds—while focusing on relationships that define and limit him: with power-behind-the-throne maternal grandmother Madame Huangfu, the gentle eunuch (Swallow) who becomes his closest companion, and beautiful concubines Lady Hui, who receives the Emperor’s love and incites the jealousy of his scorned empress, and her sister concubines. Duanbai’s inept rule sparks a peasant rebellion and leads indirectly to his dethronement by the victorious Duanwen. An earlier prophecy of “calamity” is fulfilled. The birds Duanbai has adored are carriers of a devastating plague. Exiled and penniless, he achieves an ironic realization of his boyhood dream, becomes an itinerant circus performer as the Xie Empire crumbles, and ends his days—as had his beloved mentor before him—in a remote monastery, pondering the ungraspable wisdom of Confucius. It’s all rather much, and its crammed, forced dénouement bears an unfortunate resemblance to bad Bergman and Fellini films at their most cloyingly symbolic and fey. Still, it has the energy of white-hot melodrama, and it’s a propulsive read.
Not Su Tong’s best, but he’s always well worth reading.