It’s still pretty hard to find children’s historical fiction set in China. Rarer still to find books set in the 1970s, in Maoist China. Make that story a historical fantasy, and this may well be the only title to match.
Thirteen-year-old Ming lives in a small village in rural China with his father, the local director of antiquities. Ming’s father is charged with finding ancient artifacts and sending them on to the National Museum. But lately very little has been found, and there have been rumors that the entire department may be shut down, leaving Ming’s father out of a job. Already living in poverty and hunger, Ming suffers from the bullying and ostracism of the rural children who have been taught to reject scholars and intellectuals in favor of the “common man”. One day while his father is out of town, farmers approach Ming with the pieces of an old terra cotta soldier they have uncovered, wanting money for the discovery. To Ming’s surprise, when he brings the pieces inside, the clay head comes to life and starts talking to him. Shi tells the boy that he was a living man back in the time of Emperor Qin, and served in his army. His spirit remains now within the clay body he wears, which can walk and move and talk when he’s put back together. He is one of many such soldiers that guard the Emperor Qin’s tomb and protect it from discovery and theft . Shi promises to tell Ming stories of his own past if the boy will help him.
Shi recounts his life growing up and how he became a soldier, sharing details of his past adventures and his wish to get his father freed from labor on the Great Wall. The clay soldier is astounded by how much things have changed in the world and marvels at technology like the radio. The two young men gradually become friends. When Shi overhears a plot by corrupt officials to ransack the emperor’s tomb and then blow it up, selling the goods on the black market, he needs Ming to help him reach the other soldiers and warn them of the danger.
Ancient tombs, “living” clay soldiers, legends of China’s past intertwine with the realities of Communist China in the 70s. Shi is a sturdy optimist in many ways, a good balance for the more anxious and downtrodden Ming. Both young men are likable and accessible despite their differences and their friendship gives a solid warmth to the entire story. All of Ming’s hopes and dreams have been brutally crushed out of him, but Shi brings them back into flower. He tells Ming stories of his own life–one that while not so much better than Ming’s own, is full of rich history, color and detail. It contrasts starkly with the current bleak world Ming inhabits. The friendship that bonds the two boys is a wonderful thing, and remains throughout the entire adventure.
One of the notable elements of this story is that many of the historical events in this book are based on actual historical fact. A terra cotta soldiers was discovered by a farmer in 1976, and that discovery did lead to uncovering many more–although the tomb of Emperor Qin has never been excavated. There is information at the back of the book about the actual discoveries, and the trip the authors made to China. Historical photographs have been included throughout the book that correspond to the to events in the books: propaganda posters, statues, people and places. This has the effect of solidly placing this story in a place and time and giving it a firm grounding, despite the fantasy of the clay soldier come to life.
Ying Chang Compestine and her son, Vinson. worked on this book together. While it’s Ying Chang’s own memories of Maoist China that create the setting and really place a reader in that time period, it’s quite possible that it’s Vinson’s voice that gives these young men such a warmth and youthful spark. There’s a real freshness to this story that will appeal to readers, even those who aren’t particular fans of historical fiction or fantasy. It’s fun to read, and perhaps that makes all the difference. This writing duo weave a strong story that will keep readers turning pages.
Related nonfiction reading:
Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army by Michael Capek (Twenty-First Century Books, 2008) Hidden Army: Clay Soldiers of Ancient China by Jane O’Conner (Grosset and Dunlap, 2011) Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang (HarperTrophy, c1997)...more