[Review] “Preserving the Unspoken Past: Su Tong’s Petulia’s Rouge Tin” by Ronald Torrance

{Written by Ronald Torrance, this review is part of Issue 42 (December 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Su Tong (author), Jane Weizhen Pan (translator) and Martin Merz (translator), Petulia’s Rouge Tin, Penguin, 2018. 106 pgs.

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In their introduction to their delicate translation of Su Tong’s Petulia’s Rouge Tin, originally published in Chinese as 红粉 (Hóngfēn) in 1991, Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz note that “on the evening of 21 November 1949, over 2400 armed officers raided more than two hundred brothels in Peking in an operation that lasted all night” as part of the newly-anointed Communist government’s campaign “to eliminate prostitution and ‘reform prostitutes’ in an effort to stamp out the vices of the ‘Old Society'” in China, with comparable operations in many cities, including Shanghai.

This short, albeit perfectly formed, novella situates itself shortly thereafter in early 1950’s Shanghai at the birth of “New China.”[i] Su Tong—renowned for his seminal novel Raise the Red Lantern—offers limited clues as to the specific geographical placement of Petulia’s Rouge Tin, the effect of which provides the novella with a figurative ambiguity in which the experiences of its female characters during the closing of brothels in the early 1950s can be viewed as a microcosm of the widespread social transformations changing China during the early tenure of the Communist Party. This effect is further compounded by the perplexing journey which two friends, Petulia and Autumn Grace, forcibly undertake at the opening of the novella as they are transported from Red Delight Pavilion “along the narrow, potholed city streets, racing past all the … hotels, dance halls, opium dens and gambling houses” to a makeshift hospital where venereal diseases are treated and, ultimately, to the Women’s Labour Training Institute: “a labour camp located in a remote valley” which, as Aminda M. Smith notes in Thought Reform and China’s Dangerous Classes, is where “reeducators and propagandists” interred prostitutes who had been involuntarily marginalised or torn from society (and prevented from re-joining it) “to undergo thought reform as the antidote to the pernicious ideological ‘poison’ of the Old Society.”[ii]

Autumn Grace—undoubtedly a character to whom Su Tong imbues more individual agency—escapes from the transport en route to the labour camp, her “body [glancing] off the brick wall of the city gate” and thus, in so doing, manages to escape Petulia’s fate, whereafter she initially takes refuge with Mr P’u—an affable, if intrinsically ineffectual, frequenter of Red Delight Pavilion—before ultimately seeking sanctuary in a priory.

The seismic confluence of the “New” and “Old Society,” aided by what Peter Gordon writing in the Asia Review of Books terms Su Tong’s “economy of language,” is handled with particular dexterity in a novella of this short length. Similarly, Su Tong is to be commended for his positive portrayal of Petulia and Autumn Grace who, despite their flaws are nevertheless fully formed characters—all the more-so in contrast to the novella’s aforementioned, singularly notable male character, Mr P’u, whose haplessness and errant opportunism, as well as his inability to adapt to the “New Society,” conspire to his eventual undoing towards the novella’s dénouement in which Petulia is left to singularly raise their new-born son: the presagingly named Griever.

Although introduced late in the text, Griever acts as a symbolic anchor of both the novella itself and the liminal passing old the “Old” and “New” Societies. Meaningfully named by Mr P’u to reflect that he will “[grow] up with nothing but grief, so much grief there can be no tears,” and subsequently given the Chinese name Feng Hsin-hua (literally “New China”), in the final moments of the novella, Su Tong is at his most cinematic as we see Griever happen upon Petulia’s titular rouge tin. Smuggled from the desecrated ruins of Red Delight Pavilion, the “tiny round tin box” makes its significant, final appearance towards the end of the novella and, as the newly named Feng Hsin-hua is hastened towards the implications of the rouge tin’s history—signified by its “pleasant lingering aroma”—Autumn Grace, aware of the “Old Society” to which the now-antiquated trinket belongs, wills him away, “her face filled with sorrow. ‘It’s a rouge tin. Not something for little boys to play with.'”

Thus, the novella concludes with indefinite resolution, in which neither Autumn Grace’s past, nor the newly named Feng Hsin-hua’s future, are necessarily neatly delineated by China’s “Old” and “New” societies. Locked away and out of sight, Petulia’s rouge tin nevertheless remains, and so too does its associations with the “Old Society” now protected, at least symbolically, by Autumn Grace who is forced to sorrowfully preserve Petulia’s memory, along with those of their previous lives in Red Delight Pavilion, whilst raising the future generation that will become “New China.”

Much like the small, eponymous mirrors often concealed within rouge tins of the novella’s title, Su Tong—an undisputed master of implication among contemporary Chinese writers—invites the reader into a small, but perfectly formed, reflection of the largely unspoken experience of socially marginalised women in early 1950’s China, to be at once admired in the novella’s effective simplicity and equally commended in granting broader narrative agency to its female characters, thus preserving them as the heroines of their own stories, rather than merely serving as the unspoken objects of China’s modern political discourse.

[i] Denoted by Su Tong’s inclusion of the “Ta-lung Machine Factory,” which was established in 1902 and, as Thomas G. Hawski notes in his chapter “The Growth of Producer Industries, 1900–1971,” specialised in machinery repair and later in textile machine manufacture. See Thomas G. Hawski, “The Growth of Producer Industries, 1900–1971,” China’s Modern Economy in Historical Perspective, edited by Dwight H. Perkins, Taipei: Tun Huang Book Company, 1980, pp. 203–235.

[ii] Smith, Aminda M. Thought Reform and China’s Dangerous Classes: Reeducation, Resistance, and the People. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

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Ronald Torrance.pngRonald Torrance is currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His research interests include modernist and postmodernist Chinese literature (especially Lao She, Zhang Ailing and Mo Yan). He is also interested in contemporary Chinese writers such as Ma Jian, Ge Fei and Yan Lianke. He is currently working on a thesis focusing on the textual engagement with history at the end of the twentieth-century by exploring discourses of literary historicity in contemporary Chinese literature. He is published in the Europe-Asia Studies journal and the Journal of the British Association for Chinese Studies. He graduated with a Master of Letters (MLitt Literature, Culture and Place) in 2015 and completed his BA (Hons) in English and Human Resource Management, both from the University of Strathclyde.

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