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Red Poppies

Book Review
Title:    Red Poppies: An epic saga of old Tibet          Author:  Alai
Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt & Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Publisher: Penguin, 2002
Pages: 416

“Yes, all I wanted was to be a chieftain; I’d never given any serious thought to what I wanted to do.  So I tried hard to imagine what I’d get by becoming a chieftain.  Silver?  Women?  Vast territory?  Numerous servants?  I had all those without even trying.  Power?  Yes, power.  But it wasn’t as if I didn’t have any now.  Besides, power could get me only more silver, more women, vaster territory, and more servants.  Which was to say, being chieftain didn’t mean much to me.  But strangely, I still wanted it.”

One of the biggest paradoxes of human life is that a lot of effort is expended on a lot of enterprises which really don’t make our life any better.  We endure so many struggles and overcome so many hurdles, pull down apparent rivals and prop up convenient collaborators, sustain dreams and aspirations, nurture greed, jealousy and other normal human vices... only to be mocked by the grave in the end?

Alai’s novel, Red Poppies, makes us look at the apparent absurdity of human activities through the eyes of the narrator who is an “idiot” and the second son of Chieftain Maichi.  It is the prerogative of the first son to become the chieftain.  But the idiot who speaks the lines quoted above is a normal human being as far as aspirations are concerned. 

The idiot versus smart people

Smart people, observes the idiot-narrator, are “like marmots up on the mountain, always watchful, always jittery.”  The novel tells the story of some such smart people who lived in Tibet, especially the eastern Tibet bordering China, during the period of 1930-1950.  The story revolves round Chieftain Maichi, his family and his subjects.

The hierarchy followed in this part of Tibet is given by the narrator thus:
            Beneath the chieftain are the headmen.
            The headmen control the serfs.
            Then come the Kabas.... At the bottom are the family slaves.  In addition, there is a class of people who can change their status any time they want.  They are the monks, the artisans, the shamans, and the performers.  The chieftain is more lenient with them...; all they need to avoid is making the chieftain feel that he doesn’t know what to do with them.”

Chieftain Maichi and his sons together conquer more and more wealth, people and land, especially with the help of the money got from the sale of opium.  They also manipulate the entire economy of the region including the neighbourhood chieftains’ because opium has made them filthy rich. 

The major difference between the idiot and the smart people is that the former is aware of the futility of their pursuits while the latter are not.  Another difference is that when the idiot does something smart, the smart people wonder whether he is really an idiot, and when the idiot does something idiotic they merely grin at his idiocy.

Greed and lust

Human vices tend to imitate disasters and come in hordes.  The chieftain and his sons are already renowned for their libido.  They can have any number of women in their bed at any time.  The male offspring are allowed to have a private maid even before they attain sexual maturity.  The maid will initiate them into the sensual delights.   The novel reeks of sperm and wine except when the stench is substituted for a change with the smell of blood shed for ascertaining the hegemony of the chieftain.   Their libido will import syphilis which will be followed by a greater disaster, a political one.

Religion has no place here except for helping the chieftain to ascertain his hegemony.  The monk who comes to teach a higher form of Buddhism has his tongue cut off – not once but twice: once for displeasing the chieftain and the next time for displeasing the chieftain’s son, the future chieftain.  The tongueless chieftain is appointed the historian whose job now is to fabricate a history that will flatter the chieftain and his family.  

History means learning about today and tomorrow from yesterday, tells the tongueless historian.  But the chieftain is not “smart” enough to learn the necessary lesson.  His land and his life itself will soon be claimed by the march of the Red Army from China.

Red Poppies is an eminently readable, brilliant novel, suffused with sparkling wit and humour.  It is not just the tale of the “old” Tibet; it is a metaphor for the rise and fall of any regime or social structure in general.


  1. Haven't picked this up yet.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. Sounds like a worthy read . Jotting the title down . You have reviewed the book highlighting the pulp of the story vividly . Thank you for that :)

    1. It is both story and history. Tibet has always fascinated me. But the Tibet shown by this novel is entirely different from the one I knew earlier.

  3. I'm always wary of buying translated work because you never know how good the translation is. But, having said that, I've been lucky to find some great writings that have been translated. This looks quite interesting and I shall give it a go.

    1. I think this book won't disappoint you. After all there are two translators at work here, one each from each language.


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