SU TONG, PEN NAME OF TONG ZHONGGUI (1963— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

SU TONG, PEN NAME OF TONG ZHONGGUI (1963— ). Novelist. Su Tong began writing in the early 1980s while a student in the Chinese Department of Beijing Normal University. Although he had published several experimental works before, it was Yijiusansinian de taowang (The Escapes in 1934) that established his reputation as an avant-garde writer. He is better known for his “neohistorical” fiction. Yingsu zhi jia (The Poppy Growers) is a dark tale about a family whose downfall is brought about by lust and murder, symbolized by the crop they grow. Qiqie chengqun (Raise the Red Lantern) details the fate of women in a traditional household. Mi (Rice) is an engrossing story of a farm boy who amasses a fortune and loses it all through sexual conquest and murder. Hongfen (Rouge), about two former prostitutes and their entangled relationship with a man, portrays the social transformations that take place in the early years of the People’s Republic. Wo de diwang shengya (My Life as Emperor), tells the account of an emperor’s meteoric life in a fictitious dynasty, from supreme ruler to a poor acrobat, making a living on the streets. In these neohistorical dramas, Su Tong gravitates toward the past, taking advantage of the unfamiliarity provided by temporal distance to exercise his fertile imagination. In these texts, Su Tong proposes a new interpretation of history, one that is driven by forces of sexual synergy and mysterious transgressions.

Su Tong’s other preoccupation is his childhood memories, which has resulted in a series of stories centered on a fabricated neighborhood, called Xiangchunshu Street, in a southern city. The brutal realities of this place include illicit sex, dark secrets, insanity, and inexplicable deaths, as presented in such stories as “Shujia xiongdi” (The Shu Brothers), “Nanfang de duoluo” (The Degeneration of the South), “Ciqing shidai” (The Era of Tattoos), “Chengbei didai” (The Northern Part of the Town), and the loosely structured novel, Fengyangshu shange (The Song of Maple and Poplar Trees). In these works, Su keeps the official history of the Cultural Revolution in the background and focuses on creating a personal history of the 1960s, a time of his own coming of age. What is real is the palpable memory of inexplicable violence, the colors and smells of the neighborhood river, the desolation, the loneliness, the poverty, the chaos, and the vague awakening of sexual desire that make up a sad but innocent childhood. In his recent novel She weishenme hui fei (Why Can Snakes Fly), Su examines contemporary life. This allegorical story centers on a local bully hired to collect debts for a company. The tale begins with the mysterious appearances of a young woman and trainloads of snakes that invade the city. Human corpses mingled with snake skeletons are juxtaposed with the fate of the woman, whose dreams of becoming a star end in a life of prostitution.

One of the most creative voices in modern Chinese literature, Su Tong is noted for his profound analysis of human nature and for his memorable portraits of women. The lyricism, sensuality, and allegorical nature of his work are also frequently cited as evidence of his gift as a writer. See also ROOT-SEEKING LITERATURE.