Beneath the Red Banner is an unfinished autobiographical novel by Lao She (1899–1966), one of the most famous modern Chinese authors. It is also his last work, left unfinished when Lao She committed suicide before he came to develop the main body of this opus. The work describes the Manchu folk customs and Chinese social crisis at the end of 19th century vividly and truthfully.
The novel is narrated from the perspective of a Manchu boy who is born on December 23, 1898, by the lunar calendar. His birth date is regarded a lucky day because that is the opportune day that the God of the Stove left for heaven to report the business of the household he had supervised during the whole year. The book’s narrator is the youngest child of a poor family, and his father is a soldier of the Pure Red Banner.
In the Qing Dynasty, the emperor has instituted an eight-banner system to guard the country. All the banner men are divided into eight groups (Pure Yellow Banner, Band Yellow Banner, Pure White Banner, Band White Banner, Pure Blue Banner, Band Blue Banner, Pure Red Banner, Band Red Banner) and can receive a monthly allowance from the government. The banner men are well regarded for their skill of riding and shooting at the same time. As time goes by, many of these soldiers begin paying more attention to pleasurable activities such as feeding birds, training pigeons, and collecting antiques than they do their military training. The boy’s elder sister marries a low-level military officer, but this man prefers talking about his pigeons to discussing military issues, as does the boy’s father. These military men have no idea how to make a living by themselves and have never thought about the future. All they are interested in is how to idle away their afternoons, though their monthly pay from the government is a paltry amount and does not go far in their households. The boy’s aunt, a widow, also gets money from the government in the name of her dead husband. She lives with the boy’s family but never offers a hand to help her sister-in-law. On the contrary, she asks to be served well.
The boy’s father is a city gate guard. He had two daughters and two sons before the birth of the youngest boy, but since both of the older boys had died due to illness, he cherishes his only remaining son very much. The boy’s mother is a diligent woman and arranges the housework well on very limited budget. Despite their economic predicament, the family manages to hold a decent birth ceremony for their new son, under the help of Fu Hai, the boy’s cousin. The ceremony, called the Third Day washing ceremony, is a very important event in the boy’s life. All the relatives gather in a yard to celebrate the birth of a new baby. They bring gifts and the host treats them to a rich banquet. After that the boy is put in a big copper basin full of warm water boiled with leaves of wormwood. A venerable old lady is invited to bless the boy, and she washes him from head to toe, as a cleansing portion of the ritual, then finally beats him with a scallion. This causes the boy’s cry to reach a high pitch. His father then throws the scallion to the roof of the house. The ceremony is successful, as the boy’s cry implies his fortune.
As the boy grows up, the country’s economic situation becomes worse and worse. The family dwells in the downtown of the capital, which is packed with ordinary citizens of different nationalities. For example, Uncle Jin-si is a Muslim, and Lao Wang is of Han nationality. These two shopkeepers feel it is harder than ever to support their businesses, while the boy’s mother finds it more difficult to pay all the bills on her husband’s meager salary. Lao Wang ascribes it to the foreign goods and foreign religion, and he has a problem related to the foreign churches and their Chinese hangers- on. One day Duo Lao-da, a rascally Banner man, demands a free chicken; Lao Wang refuses him firmly. Although the banner men are used to buying anything on credit, they usually give Lao Wang money the next month. Duo Lao-da stops paying his bill at Lao Wang’s store. Lao Wang is threatened by Duo Lao-da and asks Fu Hai and some other Banner men for help.
Beneath the Red Banner ends before solving this predicament among the characters. As the novel remained incomplete at the author’s death, the book is only a fraction of the novel that Lao She planned to write. He had planned to develop a tragedy of a nation through the history of his own family. We can sense his profound self-examination and consciousness through his reminiscent narration. His vivid descriptions of the Manchu system, etiquette, religion, ceremony, appellation, finery, dietary dialect, and other images create a poignant and visceral sense of folklore.
Guan Ji-xin. The Treasure of Contemporary ManZu Literature, Study on Beneath the Red Banner. Papers Collected on Laoshe Study. Shandong: People’s Press, 1983.
Zhao Yuan. Beijing: The City and the People. Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2002.