Its author reveals that the land of his forebears is hardly the pacifistic little enclave solely inhabited by devout Buddhists that many Westerners have imagined. It is, rather, a far more complex and therefore intriguing land, where tradition collides with progress and individuals exhibit a range of universal character traits from virtuous to venal. Alai introduces the powerful Maiqi family—its imperious patriarch, his Han Chinese wife, his first son and heir, and his second, so-called idiot son, the tale's narrator and unlikely hero. Set largely in the 1930s, before the Chinese occupies Tibet, this prize-winning novel pits the Maiqis against a neighboring chieftain. When an emissary of the Chinese Nationalists offers aid in the form of modern warfare, the head of the Maiqi clan strikes a Faustian bargain: in return for this assistance, he agrees to plant red poppies, the source of heroin, instead of grain on the arid plains surrounding his stone fortress. As these vivid blossoms flourish, so do the enmity and risks faced by a privileged and seemingly invincible family. Epic in its sweep and high drama, Alai's novel suggests the work of Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner's revelatory fiction about the American South. Censored for several years because its sensitive political content, Red Poppies was finally published in 1998 by a prestigious Chinese firm, and two years later won that nation's top literary prize.
Sylvia Li-chun Lin, Ping Wu