Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

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Published originally in the pages of Le Monde, this collection of linked short stories by Qiu Xiaolong has already been a major bestseller in France (Cite de la Poussiere Rouge) and Germany (Das Tor zur Roten Gasse), where it and the author was the subject of a major television documentary. The stories in Years of Red Dust trace the changes in modern China over fifty years―from the early days of the Communist revolution in 1949 to the modernization movement of the late nineties―all from the perspective of one small street in Shanghai, Red Dust Lane. From the early optimism at the end of the Chinese Civil War, through the brutality and upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, to the death of Mao, the pro-democracy movement and the riots in Tiananmen Square―history, on both an epic and personal scale, unfolds through the bulletins posted and the lives lived in this one lane, this one corner of Shanghai.

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About the Author:

QIU XIAOLONG is a poet, professor and author of five previous novels featuring Inspector Chen. Born and raised in Shanghai, where he was a renowned poet and translator, Qiu lives with his family in St. Louis, Missouri.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Welcome to Red Dust Lane
Now, as your would-be landlord—to be exact, your second landlord, nifangdong—I’ve lived in this lane for twenty years by the end of 1949. For a new college student not yet familiar with Shanghai, looking for a place characteristic of the city, a place that is convenient, that is decent, and yet inexpensive, Red Dust is the best choice for you. For the real Shanghai life, I mean.
Red Dust Lane—what a fantastic name! According to a feng shui master, there is a lot of profound learning in the choice of a name. No point in selecting insignificant words, but none in pompous words, either. The evil spirit might get envious of something too grand or good. We’re all made of dust, which is common yet essential, and the epithet red lends a world of difference to it. All of the connotations of the color: human passion, revolution, sacrifice, vanity ...
You are an honest, hardworking young man, I know, so I hope you will become one of my subtenants here. Let’s take a walk along the lane, so you can really see for yourself.
The first record of the lane is from the late Qing dynasty. Look at this impressive street sign written in the magnificent calligraphy of a Qing dynasty Juren—a successful civil service examination candidate at the provincial level. After that, it was developed as part of the French concession, though not as a central part of it. Indeed, so many changes, like the white clouds in the sky—one moment, a gray dog; the next moment, a black weasel ... Of course, now things are changing again. The Communists are advancing with flying colors and the Nationalists retreating helter-skelter. But the one thing under the sun that will never change, I assure you: this is a most marvelous lane.
Think about the location—at the very center of Shanghai. To the south, the City God Temple Market, no more than fifteen minutes’ walk, where you can enjoy an amazing variety of Shanghai snacks. To the north, you can stroll along to Nanjing Road, the street-long shopping center of Shanghai. If you prefer the fancier stores on Huaihai Road, it takes no more than fifteen minutes to get there. On a summer night, you may occasionally smell the characteristic twang from the Huangpu River. Strolling around those foreign buildings lined up along the Bund, like the Hong Kong Bank or the Cathay Hotel, you may feel as if the river were flowing through you, and the heart of the city beating along with you.
Our lane is medium-sized with several sublanes. Another plus, I will say. The front entrance opens onto Jinling Road. There, just a block ahead, you can see the Zhonghui Mansion—the high-rise owned by Big Brother Shen of the notorious Blue Triad, now down and out in Hong Kong. Karma. As for the back entrance of the lane, it leads into the Ninghai Food Market. In case of an unexpected visitor, you can run out in your slippers and come back with a live carp still gasping for air. In addition, there are two side entrances on Fujian Road, with a cluster of small shops and stalls. And peddlers too. Nothing can beat the location here.
This lane, or longtang, of Red Dust, may in itself tell you something of Shanghai history. After the Opium War, the city was forced open to the Western powers as a treaty port with areas selected as foreign concessions. The expatriates were then unable to tap the immense potential of the city, so some Chinese were allowed to move in. Soon the concession authorities had collective dwellings built for them in the designated lots. To make them convenient to manage, the houses were designed in the same architectural style, then arranged in lines like barracks, row after row, accessible to the main lane from sublanes. As in other lanes, most of the buildings in Red Dust belong to the shikumen style, the typical Shanghai two-storied house with a stone doorframe and a small courtyard. In the early concession days, a shikumen house was designed for one family, with rooms for different purposes—wings, hall, front room, dining room, corner room, back room, attic, dark room, and tingzijian, a cubicle above the kitchen. As a result of the city housing shortage, some of the rooms were leased. Then individually subleased, with the rooms further partitioned or subdivided, so now a “room” is practically the space for a family. You may have heard of a comedy called 72 Families in a House, which is about such an overcrowded housing situation. Red Dust is not like that. There are no more than fifteen families in our shikumen, you have my word on it.
In Red Dust, people of differing social or financial status are mixed together. Small-business owners or executives take the wing or a floor, while ordinary workers choose the back room or the attic. As for the tingzijian, it usually goes to those struggling men of letters—the tingzijian writers. They are really fantastic places for creative souls, with constant inspiration coming from the lane.
Indeed, your life is incredibly enriched with all the activity and interaction of the lane. You become part of the lane, and the lane, a part of you. Through the open black-painted door, you see this first-floor hall, don’t you? It was turned into a common kitchen area long ago, with the coal stoves of a dozen or more families all squeezed in, along with pots and pans, coal briquettes, and pigeon-house-like cabinets hung on the walls. Squeezed, but not necessarily so bad. Cooking in here, you may learn the recipes of provincial cuisines from your neighbors. Coming back soaked one rainy night, you don’t have to worry about catching a cold: a pot of ginger tea is being brewed for you on your neighbor Uncle Zhao’s stove, and Elder Sister Wu will add a spoonful of brown sugar into the steaming hot drink. Nor will you find it monotonous scrubbing your clothes on a washboard in the courtyard, where Granny Liu or Auntie Chen will keep you informed of all the latest news of the lane. Some say Shanghainese are born wheelers and dealers. That’s not true, but there may be something of that which comes out of the way people in Shanghai have always lived in a kind of miniature society, constantly handling relationships among close neighbors.
People get together a lot not only in the shikumen, but in the lane too. Their rooms being so crowded, people need to find space elsewhere. All day long, the lane is vibrant with life—informal, relaxing, and spontaneous. In the early gray light, women will come out in their pajamas, first carrying chamber pots, then later hurrying to the food market, returning with full bamboo baskets and preparing food in the common sinks of the lane while spreading the gossip heard overnight. Men will stretch out, practicing Tai Chi outside, brewing the first pot of Dragon Well tea, singing snatches of Beijing opera, and exchanging a few words about the weather or the political weather. For lunchtime, those people at home will step out again, holding rice bowls, chatting, laughing, or exchanging a slice of fried pork for a nugget of steamed belt fish. In the evening, Red Dust gets even more exciting—men playing chess or cards or mahjong under the lane lamp, women chatting or knitting or washing. In summer, it is so hot inside that some will take out bamboo recliners or mats. And a few even choose to sleep out in the lane—
Let’s take a turn here. Watch out for the droplets from the laundry on these bamboo poles across the sky of the lane. An American journalist once said that the colorful clothing festooned on a network of bamboo poles presents an Impressionist scene. But according to a folk belief, walking under women’s underwear may bring bad luck. Whether you believe it or not, it can’t hurt to take a detour. And that’s another convenience of those sublanes. You can move through the lane a number of different ways. Here we are, coming to the front entrance of the lane.
Oh, look at those people gathered here, sitting on bamboo chairs, wooden stools, and holding teas, cigarettes, and paper fans. This is another special thing about the lane. The evening talk of Red Dust Lane—Red Dust talk.
You may well find chess and card games and talk among neighbors in other lanes of the city. But what is going on here is truly one of a kind. Some people have moved away but still come back to Red Dust for the evening talk. It is a time-honored tradition here. Except in bad weather, a group of people always turns out for the evening conversation of the lane and about the lane.
Now what’s special, you may say, about neighbors talking? Well, what makes it unique is the way they make a story out of everything, a way of seeing the world in a grain of sand. Of course, the lane residents don’t invent stories with real heroes or heroines—certainly not the type of “the talented scholar and beautiful girl” or “un-rivaled kung fu master.” Nor stories with conflicts or climaxes as in books. Still, our storytellers try all kinds of experiments, traditional or avant-garde, flashing back and forth, showing but not telling, sometimes narrating from a special point of view, and sometimes from all points of view.
Since the characters are real people, the evening talk is enhanced through its interaction with the real Red Dust life. While listening to a story, we offer interpretations from our own perspectives, and contributions too, if we happen to know something the narrator knows not. After all, a narrator is not always that reliable, what with their told or untold reasons for making an omission or alteration. The audience knows better and is capable of pulling a story to pieces and retelling it in different ways.
A written story inevitably comes to an end at the last page of a book, whether happily ever after or not. Nothing is like that in real life. You can put an end to your narrative one intoxicated evening, but in a few years, there will be some new development or unexpected twist. A comedy turns into a tragedy, or vice versa, which changes the m...

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