* Indicates that a listing has been compiled from secondary sources believed to be reliable, but has not been personally verified for this edition by the author sketched.
PERSONAL: Born 1959; son of Yang Zhong and Ruoer Macuo; married Zeng Pingfeng (a teacher), 1984; children: Yang Yu. Ethnicity: Tibetan. Education: Attended Maerkang Normal School, 1980. Religion: Tibetan Buddhist. Hobbies and other interests: Music, travel, riding, football.
ADDRESSES: Home—Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Office—Science Fiction World, 11, Section 4, South People's Road, Chengdu, Sichuan 610041, People's Republic of China. Agent—c/o Houghton, Mifflin, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Science Fiction Journal, China, president and editor-in-chief.
MEMBER: China Writers' Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Mao Dun prize (China), 2000, for Red Poppies.
Chen ai lou ding, People's Literature Publishing House (China), 1998, translation by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin published as Red Poppies, Houghton, Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Yue guang li de yin jiang, (title means "The Silversmith in the Moonlight"), Changjiang Literature and Arts Publishing House (Wuhan, China), 1999.
Da di de jie ti (title means "The Ladder of the Land"), Ren min wen xue chu ban she (Beijing, China), 2001.
Anthology of Alai, People's Literature Publishing House (Beijing, China), 2001.
Jiu zhe yang ri yi feng ying, (title means "Being Opulent from Day to Day"), PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House (Beijing, China), 2002.
ADAPTATIONS: Red Poppies was adapted for audio cassette and CD by High Bridge Audio. Chen ai luo ding was adapted as a television series by Sichuan Tianyin Company Ltd. and was also optioned for a movie.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Second and third books in the "Red Poppies" trilogy.
SIDELIGHTS: Alai, an ethnic Tibetan who lives in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, is the author of several short-story collections and winner of China's highest literary award, the Mao Dun prize, for his first novel. The book—translated from the Chinese and published in English as Red Poppies—evolved from a short story Alai wrote in the 1980s about Tibetan sage Agu Dunba, who hid behind a false mask of stupidity. Helen Mitsios reviewed the novel for the Philadelphia Inquirer online, saying that it "captures the demise of the autocratic and decadent rule of the feudal chieftains, whose power ended with the occupation of Tibet by the People's Liberation Army."
Red Poppies is set in the eastern Tibetan borderlands during the 1930s. The narrator is the second son—called Second Young Master—of Tibetan chieftain Maiqi, and was conceived of a Chinese Han mother during a drunken coupling. His dysfunctional family, which lives in a one-hundred-foot-high stone fortress, includes his powerful father, his opium-addicted mother, a greedy brother, and his brother's adulterous wife. As a boy, he is regarded as an idiot because of his odd behavior and the company he keeps. He sleeps with his mother's maid, and becomes friendly with the son of his father's executioner, while his older brother, the handsome First Young Master, is groomed to take over his father's empire. Second Young Master makes startling observations and predictions, but when they prove true, his advice is heeded, and he is considered blessed by supernatural powers. The most significant example of his wisdom is his advice to his father to plant grain instead of poppies. The ruler had been gifted by a Han Chinese official with tiny poppy seeds years before, which brought considerable wealth to the single grower of the opium source. When the seeds fell into the hands of other chieftains, they too switched to poppies as their primary agricultural crop, and soon the warehouses were empty of food and grain prices became highly inflated. As they prepare for a spring planting, the son says to plant "grain, nothing but grain," and when the barley crop comes in, his father returns to power, being the only chieftain with food to trade.
Second Young Master's wisdom regarding the poppy crisis and other matters earns him a reputation that causes a division between him and his brother. Their father sends each on a separate mission; the idiot to the north where he establishes a thriving business community, and the brother to the south where he is defeated in a military engagement. Their personal rivalry and their rivalries with other clans accelerate, but political change in China soon renders the brothers' history insignificant. The narrator, noting that "all the chieftains would be gone in the world of the future," feels that he himself is "neither an idiot nor a smart person," but merely "a passer-by who came to this wondrous land when the chieftain system was nearing its end." By the time the Red Chinese arrive in the 1950s the chieftains have lost both their will and their military power.
Michiko Kakutani wrote of Red Poppies in the New York Times that "dreams, omens, and prophecies play a large role in the characters's lives, and Alai has found a distinctive language, which borrows from magic realism and fairy tales alike. … Inhis story, natural disasters and atmospheric events are portents of political fortunes, and simple colors assume a symbolic resonance. Silver is the color of money. Red is the color of poppies, and white the color of the seductive drug they produce. White is also the color of the Nationalist Chinese. And red, of course, is also the color of the Chinese Communists and their revolution."
New Internationalist reviewer Peter Whittaker pointed out that the fact that the book was published in China and its sympathetic depiction of the Communists "certainly raise legitimate questions. However, viewed simply as a novel, it is an elegant and impressive work." The Tibetans of Red Poppies treat their slaves like livestock, publicly mutilate and execute criminals, and are excessive in their pursuit of alcohol, drugs, and women. "Not that China was necessarily right to drag Tibet bloodily into modernity," wrote Ken Champeon for BookPage online. "But the chieftains seem much more Taliban than Dalai Lama (or neither, given their indulgence in opium, liquor, song, whores)."
"The one intellectual who does happen by, and who volunteers to become the chieftain's historian, soon gets his reward: His tongue is cut out," wrote Carolyn See in the Washington Post Book World. "No one, in truth, wants to 'know' what's happening—that their beautiful, savage world is coming to an end and there's nothing any one of them—smart or idiotic—can do about it."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer said the central character is "endowed with enormous heart and humor. His story makes for a murky history lesson, but it succeeds marvelously as a wacky and immensely enjoyable portrait of a thoroughly unusual figure." A Kirkus Reviews writer commented that Alai "eschews conventional chronology and epic sweep in favor of an episodic, lyric, and low-key narrative."
Booklist contributor Donna Seaman dubbed the novel "shrewdly satiric and wonderfully entertaining." In a School Library Journal review, Sheila Shoup called it "quite a tale. Red Poppies has a seamless, folksy quality that makes it a pleasure to read." Shoup felt the book will appeal to a wide audience, including "those who don't have 'Free Tibet' stickers on their notebooks."
Mitsios called Red Poppies "a magnificent journey to another time and place" and noted that the story "is a scathing observation of power, brutality, and corruption." Barbara Crossette observed in the New York Times Book Review that "there is something disturbing and distracting hanging over this swashbuckling novel set in the dying days of feudal Tibet. Did the author … set out simply to tell a story of a powerful warlord's rise and fall in the first half of the twentieth century? Or is this a parable about the superior civilization of the Communist Han Chinese, who put an end to a brutal Tibetan warlord society wallowing in decadence and living on the backs of abject serfs?"
Alai told CA: "From childhood, a Tibetan is doomed to wander between two languages. For most Tibetan intellectuals of our generation, we speak and write Chinese, and our mother tongue Tibetan is mainly spoken. Chinese has become the town language that commands the vast countryside. The towns with the official language spoken is surrounded by the influx of Tibetan villages. Whenever I walk out of the narrow towns to the vast countryside, I strongly feel that I am wandering between the two languages. I have seen the different soul visions under the two languages. I guess this must be a particular and fantastic experience. And there must be more and more people in the world entering such an experience.
"It is repeated switches between the two languages that cultivated my initial literary sensitivity, which led me to become a Tibetan writer who writes in Chinese. As a Tibetan, I take much nutrition from Tibetan fables, tribal and family legends, and parables. All these contain very strong folk color.
"From these stories and fables, I learned how to grasp time, display space, and how to face the fate and enthusiasm. And then, using Chinese, the non-mother tongue … I can use adeptly, I express what I want. I found, no matter if it is in poems or in novels, the foreign and alienated experiences are … effective in expanding the … works' significance and emotions."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Red Poppies, p. 605.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2002, review of Red Poppies, p. 4.
New Internationalist, September, 2002, Peter Whittaker, review of Red Poppies, p. 32.
New York Times, April 19, 2002, Michiko Kakutani, review of Red Poppies, p. 40.
New York Times Book Review, May 12, 2002, Barbara Crossette, review of Red Poppies, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2001, "Tibetan Epic for HM," p. 18; February 11, 2002, review of Red Poppies, p. 162.
School Library Journal, May, 2002, Sheila Shoup, review of Red Poppies, p. 179.
Times Literary Supplement, April 12, 2002, Julia Lovell, review of Red Poppies.
Washington Post Book World, March 29, 2002, Carolyn See, review of Red Poppies, p. 4.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (March, 2002), Ken Champeon, review of Red Poppies.
Philadelphia Inquirer,http://philly.com/ (May 1, 2002), Helen Mitsios, review of Red Poppies.
Sunday Tribune,http://www.tribuneindia.com/ (July 21, 2002), Jaswant Kaur, review of Red Poppies. ALAI