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The Drink and Dream Teahouse    by Justin Hill order for
Drink and Dream Teahouse
by Justin Hill
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Drink and Dream Teahouse gives a rare glimpse into contemporary rural China and the tangle of relationships within the small town of Shaoyang. The story starts dramatically with the suicide of Party Secretary Li, after 'two weeks of exploding firecrackers', the end of the Lantern Festival, and the closure of Shaoyang's Number Two Space Rocket Factory. The author first introduces us to some of the older members of the community, and then to their children, with tendrils back to the traumatic events in the past that shaped them all.

Aside from some last words reviling party officials, hung from the window as a series of banners, the reader is not given much insight into why Li hung himself, but as the tale progresses his motivations are illuminated. The writing is beautiful - 'Unseen in the empty room of Party Secretary Li's last lines, the water dripped that long night to pieces'. The characters are varied and eccentric, from the elderly Madame Fan who serenades the world with Beijing Opera as she searches for a husband for her daughter Peach, to the amorous young peasant Sun An who lusts for Peach and is subjected to her careless cruelty in return.

After the author introduces us to the old people, he moves the younger generation onto the stage - the young lovers Peach and Sun An, the rich prodigal Da Shan and the prostitute Liu Bei who share a common history. He gradually reveals some of what happened in the past to both old and young, as events unfold. Their lives were all affected by political turmoil, including the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square in 1989. The latter resulted in the imprisonment of both Da Shan and Liu Bei, ending their relationship and leaving the educated Liu Bei to bear a child alone and to a life of prostitution.

It all centers on the Rocket Factory, once a symbol of progress and a better future, now closed down and soon to be completely demolished. There is also the Teahouse itself, now a brothel where ex-teacher Liu Bei works as 'Pale Orchid' to support her small son, Little Dragon. It is ironic that though old Zhu and Party Secretary Li's youthful idealism involved them in the re-education of prostitutes, Liu Bei has been forced into the same role from which her mother was rescued. Another disturbing symmetry lies in Madame Fan's denunciation of her daughter's lover, though she regrets the forced denunciation of her own lover with the same false accusation during the Cultural Revolution.

Though there are frequent brief comic interludes in the novel, its tone is generally grim, with the common thread of early idealism turned to cynicism later in life. The funniest moments lie in the fumbling romance between Sun An and Peach, during which Peach imagines his hands on her at the same time as her mother is busy trying to encourage her interest in Da Shan. The Drink and Dream Teahouse is certainly not a light read, but it is a deep and intriguing one, and a book that I was keen to re-read in light of the information gleaned the first time around.

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