Rice is Su Tong's second Novel, and, like the first, Raise The Red Lantern, deals with China in the 1930s. A young man named Five Dragons leaves his starving village and journeys to a large city in South China. He finds a shelter of sorts in the rice emporium of Proprietor Feng and his two daughters, Cloud Weave and Cloud Silk. Five Dragons agrees to work for food and is treated little better than a slave.
Five Dragons lives his life at the rice emporium in a constant atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. He learns to hate, and views rice as the one essential: it represents not only wealth, food and security, but also an instrument of sexual sadism and a bed of comfort.
The characters in this novel are entirely despicable. The two daughters are bullying, petty whiners and have no love even for each other. Proprietor Feng focuses entirely on money; as for Five Dragons himself, he is a vulgar bully at best and a bestial, murderous thug at worst. Almost half way through the novel, Cloud Silk asks plaintively, "Is there anyone here who doesn't disgust me?" One has to sympathize with the question.
Su Tong vividly portrays Depression-era China and the characters who populate this novel. His prose is chilling and so graphic that it is often nauseating. This is a tale of naked brutality, unredeemed by any human values or moral purpose. As such, it is ultimately an unsatisfying read. The use of beautiful language to describe garbage does nothing to elevate it to anything more than garbage.