Petulia’s Rouge Tin by Su Tong

Translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz

2018, Penguin Specials

Publisher’s blurb

Who would have anticipated that Petulia, stripped of her silk gowns, would be forced to denounce the Red Delight Pavilion?

Or believed that Autumn Grace would cry in desperation as nuns shave off her locks? After years working side-by-side, their sudden goodbye was the first sign of a changing society. Still, the scent of rouge filling their memories keeps them close, despite the twists and turns that life throws at them. Until one day, the promise of love and stability becomes a temptation neither can deny . . .

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Andy Thomas, 8/3/19

In this novella, author Su Tong writes about prostitution in China in a way that does not portray the male gender well. The author is said to be male, and if so, betrays his gender. As the chief female whore character, Autumn Grace remarks “I just can’t believe that men don’t want to visit brothels”.

As author, in translation he doesn’t shy away from the “c-” word, and writes with a panting hot sauce about whores’ underwear, of stockings and of a pair of panties flying as a flag. A voyeur would see that the eponymous shiny tin of rouge powder is here too.

As you might expect from a man, he defends a Mr P’u, a client of manifest inadequacy on the emotional side, and Feng, a hunchback who marries the whore who might have loved Mr P’u, if he had not been taken by another whore, she who was more devious or more loving. Feng married with a heart of gold, or perhaps out of convenience.

It’s not surprising that, as background to the story, the Communist Revolution closed the organised brothels in 1950 and sent the women to be re-educated and re-formed, working first in institutions and later in menial factory jobs where everybody knew of the lowly status they still held. The same thing had happened in the Soviet Union, although there the reform was still in full swing in 1931, 15 years after the Revolution. We are told here that just three years later in China the Houses of Reform had closed.

Su Tong seems to mock the woman cadres who interviewed the whore Petulia for their short hair. Petulia showed neither regret nor redemption when her “class sisters” tried to lead her to renounce her profession, finding, condescendingly, pity in her background, beseeching her to speak out to other women, and failing. She is proud to be a whore. She chose it when she was a child with no other form of support, but it is her emphasis that it was her choice. She became Mr P’u’s wife.

Translators Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz convey Su Tong’s prose to the reader well, with various Chinese similes and legends included, such as red eggs and white flowers on appropriate occasions. References are also made to legend that might exist, but might not, including metaphorical stepping stones of silver ingots. Hair is also a motif, from the classless short hair of the cadres to the falling shaven curls of Autumn Grace as apprentice nun. Using Wade-Giles as they do does not seem inappropriate.

But I am not convinced that Su Tong expresses a woman’s view of prostituting herself, nor the best intentions of the Revolutionary Government to create a society without prostitution. It is an amusing, even titillating, but in the end an uncomprehending story that we read here. Nor does the story really end. Rather it falters with an abandoned boy child, switching mothers, as one whore passed him to another, abandoning him for the new husband of the uncultured North. In all, this is a sorry tale with Chinese characteristics, but unfinished.

Reviewed by Andy Thomas

Reviewed by Catherine Shipley, 8/8/18

I liked the concept of ‘Penguin Specials’; just short enough to read during a train journey, on a leisurely evening or, in my case, during my baby’s naptime. Petulia’s Rouge Tin, is no less powerful or thought-provoking for being so quick to read. A fascinating time of transition in Chinese society, the beginning of Communist rule, is illustrated through the experiences of two prostitutes and one of their customers. One may ask how the impact of this era, in all its complexity, can be communicated through a short story consisting of three main characters?

Su Tong masterfully shines a light on the lives of these individuals to remind us that the momentous changes occurring on a national level affected normal people in unexpected ways. Everyone, from despised prostitutes, to respectable wealthy gentlemen, was thrown into a new life – returning to the old one was out of the question.

Petulia’s Rouge Tin, shows us the ease and extravagance of the old times, to which the characters cling nostalgically. We wonder whether those times were actually better or whether it is the brutality of sudden, enforced, change that left the characters floundering, struggling in the new society.

Autumn Grace and Petulia, the aforementioned prostitutes, find themselves kicked out of the ‘Red Delight Pavilion.’ The owners of the business and those working in the mini-economy it generated appear to be left untouched, whilst all the working girls are taken to re-education camps. The aim is to rid them of their bad ways and allow them to reintegrate
into society by taking up a decent, socially acceptable job. We soon learn how such idealistic government initiatives implemented in crude ways negatively impacts the lives of those they are intended to help. With little control over their fate, Autumn Grace, Petulia and Mr P’u (the wealthy gentleman) do what they can to make a life for themselves.

Relations between the three characters  are shaken up by the changes in their circumstances. Strong-headed Autumn Grace, needy Petulia and, arguably, kind Mr P’u struggle along the new paths they have chosen for themselves. Try as they might to forget the past, it lingers nonetheless, creating a sense of unfinished business. The bitter feelings
caused by the changes inflicted upon them transform into resentment that they hold against each other.

In the new China, much changes but nothing is quite as it appears to be. Society has been improved, prostitutes have been set free, educated and given a second chance in life. As new and reformed individuals they can merge back into society to be treated as equals by their peers. Wealth has been shared amongst the masses so that everyone is
treated fairly. Yet the protagonists do not encounter the fruits of this utopian society they are working towards creating. Even the nuns that Autumn Grace approaches for help are not as benevolent as their image would suggest.

Su Tong has intelligently and creatively produced a story that allows the reader to gain an insight into a politically turbulent time, and has used a unique approach to do so.

Reviewed by Catherine Shipley

Reviewed by Henry Yunwei Wang, 7/8/18

The Chinese writer Su Tong, one of the most critically acclaimed novelists in the eyes of the general public, earned his international recognition and reputation since the success of the film “Raise the Red Lantern”(1991) by Zhang Yimou, adapted from his work Wives and Concubines.

Su was born in Suzhou, some years before the start of the Cultural Revolution. Those childhood memories of naturally avoiding value judgements and political discussion, uniquely qualify Su as a skillful storyteller of the new China, with his close portraits of human nature, family ethics, and female identity attracting broad criticism. Slogans, political control, brutality and abuse occur in many of Su’s depiction of historical episodes after 1949, however, the heavy doses of politics and surrealism has never been his emphasis. The ordinary people live in their own way no matter how the surroundings may change inside and outside the literary world.

This brisk style of writing and exquisite command of language are well reflected in Su’s novella Petulia’s Rouge Tin, and shine through well in Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz’s brilliant English equivalent, eminently rendering the translated work with their original voices and with cultural specifics. Not wasting any time in setting the background and sketching the main characters, Su Tong opens this ménage à trois in Shanghai in the early 1950s soon after the declaration of the PRC and the shutting down of all brothels. The story depicts the twisting and turning faith among three protagonists: two friends, prostitutes Autumn Grace and Petulia, Autumn Grace’s regular and Petulia’s husband Mr. Pu. Like life always lacking a clear denouement or resolution, the narrative span finally fills in an empty rouge tin with old memories, sudden goodbyes and the first sign.

In Su Tong’s humane telling, when coping with the new society, the two close friends choose distinctively different trajectories. Autumn Grace unyieldingly escapes from the armed truck and ultimately takes refuge in a Buddhist nunnery; Petulia eagerly latches on to Mr. Pu as soon as she is allowed to leave the Women’s Labour Training Camp. Still wearing silk stockings from Emerald Cloud Lane when rehabilitated by three-year manual labour, she has a petulant wish about her future job — “doing anything as long as it’s not too tiring.”

Mr. Pu is a character of tragedy. When it comes to dealing with women, he is feckless, courageous when pushed, and blindly out of his remnant depth. In traditional patriarchal society, women, giving up most of their freedom, are appendages of men, and men, in return, take the charge of women’s wellbeing. Wealth is the absolute core of this unhealthy mode. As consequence, when the old money’s property is taken by revolutionary proletariat, the bond between keepers and mistresses becomes extremely fragile. On the one hand, prodigals like Mr. Pu, have to look for any way to raise money in order to continue their luxurious lifestyle. On the other hand, misfits like Petulia, have to restlessly seize all fortune in exchange to maintain their parasitic relationship. It is Petulia’s selfishness that leads Mr. Pu to death penalty.

This scene reminds me of a video of how a horsehair worm brainwashes a mantis to commit suicide. As a parasitoid animal which could grow up to two meters, adult horsehair worms are free living in water, but the larvae are parasitic on arthropods. What is horrific is that horsehair worms do not only colonize the belly of their host, but also infect their brains. The larvae has rings of cuticular hooks and terminal stylets that are believed to be used to enter the host. Absorbing nutrients directly through skin, once inside the host, taking weeks or months, larvae grows in size and will control host insect to seek water and drown itself, thus returning to water before finally eating the host. Horsehair worm to mantis, Petulia to Mr. Pu, and all utilization in relationship horripilate me at the same level.

If you may feel pessimistic as I do now after reading this novella, I recommend next Su Tong’s work 城北地带, where you will find how life will go on of female workers in the bottle workshop, like Petulia, and many other ordinary people in Su’s nostalgia.

(As reference, there is a film and drama series of the same name 红粉 based on the original novel, which is available by searching on Youtube.)

Reviewed by Henry Yunwei Wang