By Luciana Leitão

“When Fourth Mistress, Lotus, was carried into the Chen family garden, she was nineteen; she was carried into the garden through the back gate on the west side at dusk, by four rustic sedan bearers.” This is the beginning of Su Tong’s Raise the Red Lantern, one of three novellas that are part of the book — and the one that inspired the name of the book and later a film. These three stories are all set in the 1930s provincial China, and are tales of prostitution, poverty and drug addiction.

I’ll focus on Raise the Red Lantern novella, since this was the one I found the most appealing. It tells the story of Lotus, a young lady who, after her father’s suicide, is forced to become the concubine of a wealthy merchant.

What then follows is a tale of despair and loneliness, trapped in a life she never had dreamed of living. She shares Chen Zuoqian with three other mistresses, and has to face the jealousy and hatred coming from some of the other concubines. As the story evolves, Lotus seems to be sadder, on the verge of facing the harsh reality of the house she lives in. And the rest I’ll keep it a secret.

Su Tong’s vivid style of storytelling illustrates well the feelings of the main character. In the description of the first scene in bed with the merchant, the author writes: “Lotus seemed to fall from a high place into a dark valley where pain and dizziness were accompanied by a feeling of lightness.” The writing is simple, descriptive and very realistic, allowing the readers to quickly grasp the feelings of the character. As the story evolves, Lotus seems to be sadder, on the verge of facing the harsh reality of the house she lives in.

Raise the Red Lantern was adapted to cinema, in a film directed by Zhang Yimou and starred by Gong Li. The book, and later the film, became a success, even though both were censored for a while, in Mainland China.