Rice- a book review

by Ernie Yap, Dec 2, 2007 | Destinations: China

Title: Rice

Author: Su Tong

Translator: Howard Goldblatt


            Although first published in 1995, this book is one of those that transcend time and trend. I was introduced to Su Tong’s work quite belatedly in ‘My Life As Emperor,’ which carried his characteristic dark portrait but involving the upper echelons of medieval China (Xia dynasty).


            Su Tong is also the acclaimed writer of ‘Wives and Concubines”, (later translated by Zhang Yimou into the award-winning movie ‘Raise the Red Lantern’). In Rice, he once again demonstrated his penchant for turning the darkness of human nature into art form.


            The setting of Rice is circa late 19th century China; when an impoverished young man named Five Dragons fled to an unnamed city from his famine-stricken village; only to experience the extreme debauchery of human society. After being manhandled and humiliated by a gang of bandits, he came to the employment of Proprietor Feng and his two daughters Cloud Silk and Cloud Weave, at the rice warehouse. Proprietor Feng turned out to be a conniving scrooge who took advantage of Five Dragons in any way he could.


Kudos to Howard Goldblatt whose impeccable translation did much justice to the flow of the tale. The nymphomania of the manipulative Cloud Weave and the histrionics of the matriarchal Cloud Silk were skillfully and adequately conveyed.


            After a series of schemes and turn of dramatic if not sordid events, Five Dragons managed to usurp power at the rice emporium. The tale then crept from twilight to darkness. The reader follows the evolution of a man verging from the edge of episodic psychosis to full-blown madness. Five Dragon’s psychopathic tendencies spilled onto his children when his eldest son murdered his daughter… at the age of ten!


Aside from being a page-turner, Rice is a graphical perspective on the psyche of cruelty. We soon realize that Five Dragons carried a twisted psychological burden to begin with; clued in by the constant reminiscence of his home village. And Proprietor Feng’s two daughters’ somewhat perplexing conducts lie deep within the perverted construct of the family and society at large. 


As mentioned, Su Tong is a master at bringing out extreme egocentricism in his characters. In Rice, his tool was sexuality, manifested in the most intriguing fashion.  


To describe Rice as abstract would be inadequate. It actually subscribed quite neatly to Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. All the characters were skillfully crafted to illustrate the unspeakable; and yet make perfect sense. Unlike a western story, here there is no reprieve, no justice and no individual triumph. At the end, the reader is just left exhausted; as having gone on a journey through a dank tunnel of despair and wickedness…only to perversely yearn for more.