Xiaolong Qiu’s Red Dust is a small lane in Shanghai, and his conceit for this collection of linked short tales is a storyteller with a blackboard who sits near the end of the lane and tells of the days and years of the residents over the years from the Communist Revolution of 1949 through to modern times. Qiu’s structure is simple. He prefaces each story with a piece of governmental propaganda summarizing the glories of the socialist society for the year in question. Each story brings us in touch with the experiences of an individual or family trying to live their lives in the midst of it all.
The stories are packed with historical information, but they never degenerate into polemic. The focus is always on the hearts and minds of the characters.
There’s the tale of the factory worker, a resident of Red Dust Lane, of course, in the early days of the revolution when the moneyed folks were fleeing Shanghai before the communists turned it into the “Oriental Stalingrad” they had promised. He “borrows” an abandoned tricycle (for the uninitiated, these tricycles are still evident all over China. Their wheels are bicycle-sized, and they often have platforms or seats behind the driver’s seat to carry freight for folks. I’ve seen unbelievable loads being transported on wide and fast boulevards.) and starts offering transportation. The vehicle had been used for transporting fish, so it had a distinct aroma. He sees a well-dressed woman, frantically signaling for a ride as packed taxi’s speed by. One of her luggage items is a blackboard on which are written what our guy recognizes as the names of several popular operas. He recognizes the woman as a prestigious singer trying to get to the airport to fly to her sick lover in Hong Kong. The story of their affair is well-known as one wherein he pursued her for years without success. But in his hour of need she is sacrificing everything to get to his bedside.
In thanks for the ride, the singer gives our driver the blackboard, a record of her recent performances. As far as we know, he never sees her again nor knows what became of her once he dropped her off. But amidst the chaos, this touching and human incident, which would never make the news or become useful government propaganda, takes us beyond ideology into the heart of the life of Red Dust Lane.
On the other end of the pain spectrum is the story of the young lady who goes off to the the Korean war as a nurse. The news of her death becomes a cause for both mourning and celebration as she becomes a celebrated martyr to the socialist cause. Then, a year later, she returns. Turns out she had been a prisoner of war. Is she greeted joyfully? Not at all. She’s been in the hands of the Americans and South Koreans. What might they have done to her mind? How might they have poisoned her thoughts against the glorious government? She’s shunned and shamed and withdraws into her small room to live out a horrible life.
Similarly, during the cultural revolution, when young people were shipped off to the countryside to live with and be “educated” by the peasantry, when the slightest taint of capitalism or anti-socialist thought or tendency was cause for calling out and even prison, we see Red Dust neighbors armed with red arm bands and authorized to bang drums and write slogans on peoples’ doors and hang blackboards (Blackboards are a recurrent device in these stories.) around necks labeling enumerating their crimes. Insignificant people suddenly have power over their more prestigious neighbors, and the results are not pretty.
The years roll on, and suddenly a certain amount of capitalism is okay again. Some Red Dust people become “big bucks,” establishing businesses that bring them wealth. Some move out, some stay, but the interaction of money with new and old ideas makes for dramatic stories.
If you’ve read any of Qiu’s novels (see my commentaries on A Loyal Character Dancer, and Death of a Red Heroine) you know he returns often to this theme–how ordinary people pay the price of the mercurial temperaments of their dictators–wars, housing shortages, truncated careers and more. Although the results are often, indeed, tragic and painful, we see how many find ways to not only endure but rejoice in their lives and relationships. The Years of Red Dust is a literary accomplishment of some magnitude. An era of Chinese history with all the scope of War and Peace encapsulated in a few short tales. Kudos.