There is a lot to be liked in this debut novel, set in post-Tiananmen Shanghai, where people still cook in communal kitchens, personal phones (landlin...moreThere is a lot to be liked in this debut novel, set in post-Tiananmen Shanghai, where people still cook in communal kitchens, personal phones (landlines!) are a rare privilege, and private enterprises are just beginning to sprout like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. Qiu Xiaolong, a Shanghai born-and-bred émigré, ably --- and at times evocatively --- captures the sights and sounds of his native city for a foreign audience, while sprinkling his narrative (originally written in English) with just enough tidbits of Tang/Song poetry and allusions to The Dream of The Red Chamber (one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature --- five if you count the much-maligned The Golden Lotus or Jin Pingmei --- and also the one that I never seem to be able to finish) to give authentic cultural touches to what is essentially pulp fiction. In this respect, he is similar to wuxia writers such as Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng who purposely embed nuggets of Chinese culture in their sprawling swordsman epics. As Qiu writes in English, he explains these allusions, but restrains himself so that they don't turn into clunky info dumps that clutter up the police procedural routine of the story. That said, the police procedural aspect is the weakest part of this novel. The mystery is hardly mysterious and Inspector Chen treats it almost like an afterthought, to be indulged in after he is done with his poetic, gastronomic and romantic pursuits. Likewise, Qiu seems to be much more interested in writing a social commentary about, among others, 'educated youths' during the Cultural Revolution, corruption among high-ranking cadres and urban communal housing, than a mystery. The resolution of the tepid murder 'mystery', as well as Inspector Chen's political problems, is extremely abrupt and seems to come from nowhere. Obviously, Qiu is trying to make a political point here, but it seems to be a pretty ham-fisted one.
The main ingredients of this first novel ---Tang poetry, Chinese culture, both traditional and modern, social commentary on contemporary China, mystery, romance --- are interesting and hopefully Qiu will be able to make more of them in subsequent books. (less)
Updated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turn...moreUpdated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turned loud and forceful, with the implication of battles and fights, but the flute play remained elegant and graceful. After a while, the zither play also turned mild and gentle, and both the zither and the flute switched between high notes and low notes back and forth. All of a sudden, the sounds of both the zither and the flute changed completely, as though there were many zithers and many flutes playing together in an orchestra. Although the music had changed into something magnificent with many complex florid notes, each tone and cadence stayed clear and meaningful and the melody remained pleasing and moving. Linghu Chong could feel that his mind had been completed captured by the music, and almost couldn’t help standing up. After a while, the tone of the zither and the flute changed again. This time the flute took over the lead and the zither simply accompanied with soothing chords. Soon, the sound of the flute ascended higher and higher. Out of nowhere, feelings of grief and sadness rose and washed over Linghu Chong’s heart. He turned to look at Yilin, only to find tears rolling down her cheeks like streams. A loud ring echoed suddenly, then the zither and the flute fell silent at the exact same instant. Silence swept across in all directions; all that remained was the moon, shining high and bright in the indigo sky, casting still shadows from the endless trees on the ground."
Xiao Ao Jiang Hu or The Smiling, Proud Wanderer* is one of the last wuxia novels written by Jin Yong and is one of the few that is not explicitly set in a specific historical period, although there are internal clues that point to the Ming Dynasty. In his postscript, Jin Yong explains that this was deliberate, as he "intended to employ the characters within the novel to depict certain universal phenomena from the three thousand years of Chinese political life."
Indeed, the vicious politicking and back-stabbing intrigues among the Five Mountain Sword Schools and their enemy, the Sun Moon Holy Cult (Riyue Shenjiao) that form the meat of the novel can be easily transposed to any political stage. However, considering that the novel was written at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it is not hard to see whom Jin Yong aimed to satirize:
“This time, the Sun Moon Holy Cult had come to Huashan and had planned everything meticulously. Not only had all the masters from the cult came out, they had also gathered all the subordinates from each clan, each stronghold, each cave, and each island to force the five mountains sword schools to submit to them. If the five schools didn't want to submit, then they would immediately be annihilated. Then Ren Woxing and the Sun Moon Holy Cult would control the world. They would continue with Shaolin and Wudang schools, and none from among the orthodox path would be able to resist. The business of long live the chief and unifying the Jianghu was to be settled today on the Peak of Morning Sun at Mount Huashan.
Linghu Chong was hesitating in making a decision. But hearing Shangguan Yun praising him with 'Long live Vice-Chief, your benevolence is endless', even though it was still not as much as what Ren Woxing was accustomed to receive, if he really became the Vice-Chief then this slogan would forever follow him. He felt it was very comical and couldn't help uttering a laugh. This laughter sounded like a ridicule and when they heard it, everyone on the Peak of Morning Sun became quiet all of a sudden.
Another person said, "Sacred Chief illuminates the world making our Sun Moon Holy Cult favored by the common people, also like the rain coming down after a long drought. Everyone's happy and they're giving thanks."
The only thing missing are the Little Red Books.
Those who cross party lines are subjected to "struggle sessions" in which people are forced to denounce each other under the pain of death, such as in the scene at Liu Zhengfeng's hand-washing ceremony at the beginning of the book. Even people like him who attempted to retire from public life and thus remain neutral in the fierce factional fighting cannot escape their fate. The hero's quest turns into a search for peace and human dignity, by the means of principled retreat from the corrupt and merciless jianghu, a metaphor for the political life. The theme of disillusionment with politics and ideologies is embedded in the narrative through layers of truths that gradually reveal the true state of the world to the protagonist. His struggle is not against foreign domination, as in earlier Jin Yong novels, but in keeping himself free of "improper" attachment to the corrupting world of power politics. Ultimately, the story is a cautionary tale against totalitarian brain-washing and mindless conformity.
It is not surprising that this book (and other Jin Yong titles) was banned in China during the Mao era.
"Linghu Chong laughed loudly. “Little nun,” he said, “Do you want me to win or lose?” “Of course I want you to win,” Yilin said, “When you fight while sitting down, you are the second best in the world, you won’t lose to him.” “Good!” Linghu Chong said. “Then please go! The quicker the better, the further the merrier!”"
Expelled from his sword school for consorting with the ideologically unsound and falsely accused of stealing a precious martial art manual, Linghu Chong became a jianghu pariah. He spent a significant part of the novel either being imprisoned or gravely injured. Like Dumas’ Edmond Dantes, while detained at the Cliff of Contemplation atop Mount Hua, he met a venerable master who imparted to him the long lost, incomparable sword art of the Nine Swords of Dugu (Dugu Jiujian). His further wanderings embroiled him in the bloody warfare between the “righteous” and “unrighteous”, during which it was gradually revealed that many of the “righteous” were just as morally bankrupt as the other party --- including his master, that shining paragon of Confucian virtues, the “Gentleman Sword” Yue Buqun. Linghu Chong is a particularly likeable, sympathetic hero --- he's like a funnier Yang Guo from Shendiao Xialu without the abrasive cockiness. In contrast to his seemingly easygoing, wine-loving, raffish persona, Linghu Chong was internally torn by his growing awareness of the fact that everything that he dearly held to be true --- the moral and martial superiority of his "righteous” school, the goodness of the master who raised him, the love of his master’s daughter, and the brotherhood that he had counted upon --- were just as illusory as the ideological distinction between the righteous and unrighteous. His desperate desire to return to the filial fold of his master’s family and regain the love of his beloved xiao shimei (apprentice sister) made him a pitiful figure at times.
"The two swords met with a resounding clang and the points of both swords vibrated. Both of them immediately thrusted forward at the same time towards each other's throat. Their speed was unmatched. Looking at both swords thrusting forward at such speed, it seemed that no one would be able to go up to save them and they would both meet common ruin. The crowd called out in surprise. But the crowd heard a sudden ringing sound and saw that the points of both swords pushed against each other in mid air, generating sparks and then bent together to make an arch."
Fortunately, he was fated to meet Ren Yingying, the Holy Maiden of the Sun Moon Holy Cult, who got him through the various low points of his life and taught him the transcendent art of the qin (zither). The uber-competent, shrewd, occasionally ruthless Yingying is a familiar Jin Yong love interest archetype. Their initially tentative relationship gradually blossomed into a redemptive romance that provides a welcome contrast to the dark tale of betrayal and deceit (their banter, which mainly consists of him making innuendoes to the prim and proper Yingying, who invariably blushed with prudish embarrassment, is amusing, if a bit repetitive --- if you like wuxia heroines who blush a lot, Yingying is your girl).
"Half of the girl’s face could be seen from the reflection in the water. Her eyes were shut tight, and her long eyelashes swayed in the breeze. Even though he could not see very clearly from the reflection in the water, he could still tell that she was a gorgeous-looking girl seventeen or eighteen years of age."
Meanwhile, we are treated to the deliciously convoluted plot, highlighted by thrilling sword fights --- which could be both lyrical and brutal at the same time, murder mysteries and intrigues to obtain a perverse martial art manual that requires its practitioners to castrate themselves (Freudian subtext, anyone?).
"Dongfang Bubai pulled out a green silk handkerchief from his side and gently wiped off the sweat and dirt from Yang Lianting's forehead. Yang Lianting became slightly enraged and berated him, "A grave enemy is right in front of us, why are you still wasting time with these useless pleasantries? Beat them away first and we'll still have time for intimacy later."
Grotesque comedy abounds, provided by the cheeky, smart-mouthed Linghu Chong himself, the Six Peach Valley Immortals, who serve as the court jesters of the story, or the hilariously unreasonable Monk No Comandment (Bujie), his student Monk Cannot Have No Commandment (Buke Bujie), and No Commandment's wife, the "mute" Granny. A gag that runs through the story is the bad luck that befalls Linghu Chong whenever he meets "unlucky" nuns, culminating in him inadvertently becoming the first ever male leader of the Hengshan School --- a school of nuns (Yingying promptly relieved him of the embarrassing fact by coercing various male riffraffs under her command to enter the school). The climax is a gory Machbetian bloodbath in which the ideology of good and evil is finally revealed to be no more than a veil for the naked struggle for power.
"The fifteen masked men slowly approached forward, their thirty eyes shone through the holes on their masks like the eyes of fierce wild animals, filled with cruelty and hostility."
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer showcases Jin Yong’s masterful, mature style, with vividly realized, affecting characters, nearly perfect in its blend of page-turning wuxia action, political satire and romance. Read it because it's just a sheer good story.
* The title has been variously translated into English as Smiling, Proud Wanderer, Laughing in the Wind, State of Divinity and Blood Hot Cold Proud (whoever came up with that title deserves to be shot). It literally means “Laughing Proudly at the Jianghu (the World of Rivers and Lakes, i.e. the martial world)." In the novel, the phrase stands for "to live a carefree life amidst the mundane world of strife."
In the early 2000s, my brother briefly worked as an executive for a Taiwanese-owned manufacturing company in China. It was a company of truly epic pro...moreIn the early 2000s, my brother briefly worked as an executive for a Taiwanese-owned manufacturing company in China. It was a company of truly epic proportions, employing hundreds of thousands in China and abroad, and manufacturing for virtually all the big names in consumer electronics sold all over the world. If you use an IPad or any other Apple product, it would have passed through one of its gargantuan production facilities. Its ‘campus’ in Longhua, an industrial suburb of Shenzhen, was practically a city unto itself with massive dormitories, shops, a sports center and a hospital. Security was tight, discipline militaristic, living condition Spartan and working hours extremely long. Assembly-line pay was miniscule by first world standards, but slightly above average for China. Worker suicides were not unknown*. Once in a blue moon, the big boss, a Taiwanese self-made billionaire who scoffed at business school grads, would drop by to preach the virtues of “hard work” and four hours of sleep a day to stadium-full of employees. On certain auspicious days, everyone had to line up to pay their respect to the Tu Di Gong, the Chinese earth god of wealth, eliciting muffled objections from the Taiwanese Christians and mainlanders brought up as atheists by the Communist state. The Taiwanese executives and managers spoke Taiwanese Hokkien among themselves, a language not understood by most of the mainlanders, and looked down on their workers, migrants from the rural interior who formed the backbone of the company’s operations.
After a while, my brother’s functional Mandarin became good enough to talk directly to the workers. He was impressed by their capacity for hard work and innate intelligence. Considering that these people were probably the first generation ever to leave the farm and were spottily educated in rural schools, it was a revelation to see how quickly they learned how the factory worked and to make hi-tech products according to complex instructions. After working hours, he wandered around the town, an industrial Wild West full of shops selling cheap and/or bootleg goods. You could walk into a hole-in-the-wall electronics shop and buy, say, a ‘Sony’ DVD player for a fraction of the official price. Or, if you liked the design of the Sony but preferred the specs of the Phillips --- mei wenti! No problem. They could assemble one for you. The more reputable shops got their wares from the factories that made these brands, so in a sense they were ‘genuine’ knock-offs. Everyone was ambitious, inured to working conditions that were unthinkable in developed countries, and had no respect whatsoever for intellectual property. The officials expected kickbacks, and practically anything was permissible for the right price. Currency manipulation aside, these attitudes seem to be the real cause behind China’s spectacular economic rise.
This book is a fascinating, occasionally voyeuristic, study of the lives of the assembly-line workers who fueled this rise, specifically a couple of factory girls in Dongguan, another industrial town not far from Shenzhen. Chang, a second-generation Chinese American, followed each of her subjects for years, chronicling their working and private lives, collecting information about their family history and even gaining access to their diaries. Daughters, who are less valued under the Confucian system, became the primary breadwinners of the family under the new values of industrialization (sons are often required to stay in the village to care for their ancestral farms and many factories prefer young women as they are considered more diligent and easier to manage). For the first time in history, unmarried, working-class women call the shots and they are ambitious enough to make the most of this opportunity. A sweatshop job is a stepping-stone to a white-collar job in the same factory. A receptionist with a talent for public speaking can become a successful recruiter for a MLM company. Farm girls who never graduated middle school could own export-oriented SMEs. There is a darker side to all of this, and Chang is never sentimental about her girls; she doesn’t shy away from writing about the sometimes-Machiavellian ethos they employed to get ahead, or about the bogus and criminal enterprises that proliferated to take advantage of ignorant migrant workers.
Between stories of the factory girls, Chang inserted her own family’s history of migration. It is decades and continents apart, for the Changs were an educated, upper middle class family that migrated to America after the Communist victory, but it serves as an interesting contrast to the experiences of today’s rural migrants.
*Long after my brother left the company, these tragic incidents became a PR disaster for the company (and Apple). In response to this problem, the management planned to replace troublesome human workers with automatons. (less)
Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does...more Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does not live up to the promise of its predecessor. Ghosh does a creditable job of telling us about life in the Thirteen Hongs during the interesting period that culminated in the First Opium War, and he chose a protagonist that is well-suited to the task of conveying the subcontinent’s perspective on the whole sordid affair --- but it somehow feels rather mechanical, as if he is merely following the dictates of history instead of creating his own vibrant, utterly believable version of a time long past (surely the test that anyone who dabbles in historical fiction must pass). He has obviously done his research: Pidgin English, the Chinese equivalent of the Anglo-Indian extensively employed in the first book; the Chinnery paintings; the surprising role of the Parsis in the British-led Opium trade; the Tanka boat people who eked out a living around the foreign merchant’s quarter in Canton; nearly verbatim quotes from historical figures who were involved in the war. These are well integrated, informative, and are never allowed to grow into overtly dominant historical voice-overs, yet something is missing from the story --- and it is not the history.(less)
Siapakah sebenarnya sosok yang dikenal dengan nama Cheng Ho (pinyin: Zheng He) ini? Apakah ia seorang manusia sakti yang dipuja keturunan China di Asi...moreSiapakah sebenarnya sosok yang dikenal dengan nama Cheng Ho (pinyin: Zheng He) ini? Apakah ia seorang manusia sakti yang dipuja keturunan China di Asia Tenggara sebagai pelindung mereka? Apakah ia seorang pelaut hebat yang konon berhasil "menemukan" benua Amerika hampir seabad sebelum Columbus? Apakah ia seorang tokoh China muslim sekaligus penyebar agama Islam di nusantara? Apakah misi yang dipimpinnya merupakan misi persahabatan yang damai, atau sebaliknya bersifat imperialis seperti yang dilakukan oleh bangsa-bangsa Barat? Apakah kontak diantara dua peradaban yang berbeda selalu berujung pada konflik dan eksploitasi, atau sebaliknya dapat menimbulkan pertukaran budaya yang bersifat damai?
Buku yang aslinya merupakan tesis doktoral penulisnya ini mencoba menjawab beberapa pertanyaan diatas. Cukup menarik, walaupun penulis tidak mengungkapkan hal-hal baru tentang Cheng Ho dibandingkan dengan buku-buku sebelumnya seperti Admiral Zheng He & Southeast asia. Bagian kedua dari buku ini menyoroti peranan aktif Cheng Ho dalam mengatur dan membina komunitas-komunitas China perantauan di nusantara, dimana masyarakat China pendatang muslim mendapat perlakuan istimewa. Keturunan mereka kemudian berperan besar dalam syiar Islam di pulau Jawa, termasuk tokoh-tokoh yang dikenal dalam sejarah sebagai Wali Sanga.
Tesis penulis mengenai hal ini sepenuhnya didasarkan pada Malay Annals of Semarang and Cirebon (MASC), naskah misterius yang dikutip oleh M.O. Parlindungan dalam bukunya Tuanku Rao. Menurut Parlindungan, MASC tersebut ditemukan oleh Poortman, seorang Belanda yang bertugas di dinas rahasia pemerintah kolonial, di arsip kelenteng Sam Po Kong di Semarang dan kelenteng Talang di Cirebon pada tahun 1928. Karena isinya yang dianggap kontroversial, pemerintah Belanda memutuskan untuk melakukan supresi terhadap MASC (hal yang sama dilakukan oleh pemerintah Orde Baru yang melarang buku Prof. Slametmulyana yang mengutip Parlindungan). Dr. Tan Ta Sen, seperti H.J de Graaf dan Pigeaud, yakin bahwa naskah tersebut (pernah) eksis dan merupakan cerminan memori kolektif masyarakat China perantauan abad XVI dan XVII. Sebaliknya, berberapa ahli sejarah lain meragukan otentisitas MASC karena naskah aslinya tidak pernah ditemukan. Identitas Poortman sendiri sebagai agen rahasia Belanda juga masih diragukan. Selain itu, menilik tata ruang kelenteng Sam Po Kong lama, apakah mungkin arsip sebanyak tiga pedati disimpan di dalamnya? Dan apakah arsip tersebut bisa bertahan selama 400 tahun di tengah-tengah pergolakan sejarah di pantai utara Jawa?
Sungguh suatu misteri sejarah yang sangat menarik. Dan yang seharusnya wajib hukumnya untuk diselidiki lebih lanjut.
Kenang-kenangan ketika mengunjungi Semarang waktu kecil: makan bolang baling dan lumpia di Gang Lombok, dan didongengi orang-orang tua tentang patung naga di atap kelenteng Sam Po Kong, yang konon bisa hidup dan berenang-renang ria kalau Semarang banjir.
A fascinating record of a vanished world replete with details that are made even more poignant by its imminent passing: the elaborate meals, the hand-...moreA fascinating record of a vanished world replete with details that are made even more poignant by its imminent passing: the elaborate meals, the hand-embroidered imperial gowns, the oft-flogged eunuchs who were both lackeys and powers behind the throne, the dizziness-inducing kowtows, formal court ceremonies that were contests of physical endurance, the sickly Emperor and his concubines, all which were soon to be rendered obsolete by the 1912 revolution. Der Ling's account of her two years as a court lady/translator in the Empress Dowager Cixi's court had been dismissed by some, largely because of her own questionable reputation and also because of its divergence from the widely-accepted view of Cixi as the evil witch that brought down the Qing dynasty. Der Ling might have had exaggerated her importance at court, but the little details of her account ring true --- perhaps Cixi was both a monster who poisoned her nephew/Emperor and an old lady who loved gardening and Pekingese dogs. Who knows?
4 stars for the fascinating subject, 3 stars for the somewhat artless writing.(less)
been married off to your first cousin at seventeen?
been thrown out of the house for "mishandling arrangements to obtain a concubine" f...moreHave you ever...
been married off to your first cousin at seventeen?
been thrown out of the house for "mishandling arrangements to obtain a concubine" for your father-in-law?
been obsessed with the idea of finding a concubine for your husband?
tried to purchase an underage singsong girl to be a concubine to both yourself and your husband?
wasted to death because you failed to arrange for a live-in threesome relationship with your husband and his concubine?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions then you might have been a protagonist in this book, one of imperial China's most romantic love story, an 18th century memoir written by Shen Fu about his wife, Yun. The circumstances might seem odd to us, but it’s not difficult to understand why generations of Chinese, repressed by thousands of years of paternalistic culture, consider it to be romantic. Shen, an itinerant scholar who was chronically unemployed for much of his working life, wrote about his conjugal life with an intimate candor that was rare for his times. No, he didn’t write about that kinky threesome with the underage concubine --- it was a scheme that never came through, though I wonder whether Yun really wanted it, since we only see her through her husband’s perspective. Instead, there are scenes of him and Yun whiling away a moonlit night by drinking wine and reciting Tang poetry. Chrysanthemums bloomed around their modest, economy-sized cottage, and the ever resourceful Yun, an orphan who raised herself and her brother by taking in needlework, contrived to make movable screens out of live flowers. Shen himself is an aesthete who could devote pages on the correct way to display flowers (“When putting chrysanthemums in a vase one should select an odd number of flowers…”) and burning incense (“Buddha’s Hands should not be smelled by someone who is drunk, or they will spoil”). These scenes are among the most charming of this occasionally disjointed, rambling memoir, though I also find it rather disturbing that Shen managed to devote so much more pages to these pursuits than to their young children (who, due to their parents’ poverty and outcast status, had to be taken away to be raised by others). Shen and Yun’s lives are tragic, and their idea of marital happiness is at odds with our modern notions, yet ultimately it is their upbringing that is the strangest thing of all. The Chinese were determined that government officials should be scholars first and bureaucrats second. One of the largest empires in the history of the world was administered by a small group of men, who had not the slightest training in administration, and who knew more about the poetry of a thousand years before than they did about tax law. Imagine the government being ran by a bunch of English majors! This idea seems to me both daft and endearing at the same time --- and the real tragedy of Shen’s life (and others like him, and ultimately imperial China itself) is that at the end this is simply just not enough. (less)
"Old longings nomadic leap, Chafing at custom's chain; Again from its brumal sleep Wakens the ferine strain."
The Wolf Totem, like The Call of the Wild, a...more"Old longings nomadic leap, Chafing at custom's chain; Again from its brumal sleep Wakens the ferine strain."
The Wolf Totem, like The Call of the Wild, a book that it is often compared to, calls for a return to unfettered nature, with its individualism and harsh, but utterly logical values. The wolves don’t kill because they are cruel, but because, like all other living creatures, they need to eat to sustain themselves. The beautiful Inner Mongolian grassland which serves as the setting for this novel is not a peaceful Eden; it is a fiercely contested battleground where humans, wolves and other animals have been waging war against each other since time immemorial. Nature has its own system, in which the constant warfare serves as a balancing measure that guarantees the survival of the grassland and all the species that depend on it. The traditional Mongolian herdsmen understand this and strive to maintain the delicate ecological balance on which their livelihoods depend. However, when ignorant outsiders (agriculturalists, mostly Han Chinese, with no regard for sustainable grazing) impose their production quotas and machine-gunned the wolves to virtual extinction, the ecosystem collapses and the grassland slowly turns into desert. An already familiar and distressingly common scenario all over the world, but which is perhaps even more pertinent for China, a nation that has suffered extreme environmental degradation in the name of progress.
But Wolf Totem is not just a stinging, yet well-meaning ecological fable --- it is also a strident call for Chinese nationalism. The Chinese, the author believes, has become a “sheep-like” race, the antithesis of the more dynamic wolf-like nomadic races. The sheep-like characteristics of the Chinese, particularly their lack of assertive individualism, had resulted in China’s humiliation before foreign powers, and allowed atrocities such as the Tiananmen Square massacre to be perpetrated against them. “There’d be hope for China if our national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling onto it. It could be combined with such Confucian traditions as pacifism, an emphasis on education, and devotion to study.” Jiang Rong, an academic who was jailed for his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen student movement, apparently sees no contradiction whatsoever between wolfish qualities and pacifism. He ardently believes that this is China’s way out of its current malaise and constantly preaches it through his characters. It becomes rather tiresome after a while, and one inadvertently begins to think of counter arguments. Didn’t the Chinese eventually assimilate the conquering nomadic races? How come China has endured for almost five millennia as a major power while the proud descendants of Genghis Khan are now merely one of its minorities? Haven’t the Chinese proven themselves to be adept at lupine tactics by becoming an economic juggernaut in less than a generation?
And what is the appeal of this novel, if it is merely an ideological tract disguised as fiction? It is surely not its (debatable) ideological message. Nor is it the human characters, which for the most part are merely mouthpieces for the author’s theories. It is the vivid, cinematic evocation of nature, red in tooth and claw that had me reading into the wee hours. The bone-chilling description of how a wolf pack traps and devours a herd of warhorses. The blood-curling account of an epic wolf hunt under the moonlight, with hundreds of riders with flaming torches and baying dogs. The harsh lives of the nomadic herders and their animals, told with convincing details and understanding that could only come from long familiarity. Oh, and the story of Chen Zhen and the wolf cub, both endearing and tragic. These are the meat of the story and they are substantial enough to outweigh the obvious flaws. For several days, I was transported into the distant Mongolian steppes, riding against the wind with a pack of hounds, scanning the endless horizon for sheep and wolves --- and that should be reason enough to pick this book up. (less)
Note: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are the...moreNote: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are the deer”. For the common people, the subjects of Empire, their role is to be the deer. If the Emperor doesn’t like somebody, he is going to be put in the cauldron and boiled, just like a deer that is caught in a hunt. This is the meaning of the book’s title.
2. “Extreme confinement since infancy for Emperors surely led to many of the hideous excesses perpetrated by tyrants down the ages.” As imperial subjects, you are extremely lucky to get a monarch who is not merely sane but is also intelligent and capable.
3. Death by a Thousand Cut, or Lingering Death, is the worst way to die in Qing Dynasty China. You are not immune from it, even if you are a Jesuit priest. Better whip up that canon-making skills, Father.
4. ‘Losha’, otherwise known as Russia, is a huge empire to the north of China with a pesky habit of creating trouble at the border. It is a primitive country, inhabited by wild Cossacks and boorish foreign devils, but it needs to be placated, as it possesses muskets and cannons.
5. Russian Orthodox priests are equally adept at writing erotic love letters and Letters of State. When the Russian sovereign is also your lover, both types of communication can be conveniently merged in a single letter.
6. Russian women are beautiful, except for their noses, which stand up far too prominently from their faces. The blonde ones also have bodies that are disgustingly covered with yellow down.
7. Indecent assault is a legitimate Kungfu move, especially if you are too lazy to learn proper martial art.
8. “All emperors had sisters who were a bit crazy”. For ‘crazy’ read ‘nymphomaniac’. The great empires of Russia and China both have at least one of them.
9. All languages except Chinese is gobbledygook and every alien script is nothing but squiggly lines. Of course it doesn’t help if your good self is illiterate in any language.
10. “The tendency to insult the virtue of an adversary’s mother is more or less universal”. ‘Tamardy’ is an abuse, and NEVER call a Chinese person ‘turtle’ --- it is a grave insult.
11. Outlandish praises and idiotic slogans (such as ‘Long Live to Our Leader’ and ‘Victory to Our Great Leader’, etc.) are music to tyrants and cult leaders. Run-of-the-mill flattery will do for lesser personages.
12. Simultaneously impersonating a palace eunuch AND a Shaolin monk is surely no fun for a red-blooded teenage male, but it doesn’t matter if you can slip into a whorehouse for some serious romp. Get rid of that monkish habit first, though.
In his last novel Jin Yong (Louis Cha), the undisputed master of wuxia (Chinese martial art fiction) brilliantly subverts the conventions of the genre that he had done so much to popularize with his previous 14 novels. For a start, the protagonist of the story, Wei Xiaobao (‘Trinket’ in this English translation --- huh?!), is nothing like the typical wuxia hero. He is no patriotic Guo Jing who defends Song China from the Mongol hordes, or Yang Guo, the great xia (knight-errant) from The Return of the Condor Heroes (Shen Diao Xia Lu). Nor is he Zhang Wuji, the hero of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, who led a successful rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty. Trinket is a bastard born and bred in a Yangzhou brothel. He is illiterate, foul-mouthed --- and too lazy to learn any kungfu, despite having the opportunity of learning from the best masters. He is also an inveterate gambler, a habitual liar, and a lecher who managed to marry seven (!) beautiful women. In another word, he is a lovable rascal.
Accidentally brought to the Forbidden City at the age of thirteen, Trinket impersonates a palace eunuch and strikes an unlikely friendship with the boy-emperor Kang xi. Aided by his natural cunning, he rapidly rises through the ranks to become Kang xi’s right-hand man, traveling all over China, Manchuria and Russia as His Majesty’s secret agent. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Triads (in its incarnation as an anti-Qing resistance movement), the Mystic Dragon Cult, Mongolian lamas, Jesuit priests and Russian spies. At one point, he is simultaneously a top Qing mandarin, the master of a Triad lodge, the marshall of the Mystic Dragons and a Shaolin monk. Trinket has to use every guile and dirty trick in the book to manage his increasingly complex allegiances. For a while he manages to play his various patrons against each other to his personal advantage, and we are alternately appalled by his misdeeds, laugh out loud at his antics and marvel at his astonishing ability to bullshit his way of (almost) any situation. However, his high-wire act eventually fails and Trinket, a man with multiple, often conflicting identities, is forced to choose sides. Through the choices that he makes, Jin Yong questions the values of patriotism, primordial allegiances and conventional morality.
This novel was written during the height of the Cultural Revolution, and it is not difficult to detect allusions to the political situation in Mainland China at that time. The persecution of the dissident scholars involved in the writing of Ming history at the beginning of the book has an all too familiar ring. The leader of the Mystic Dragon Cult, with his outsized personality cult and fanatical, brainwashed young followers, bears a certain resemblance to Mao and his Red Guards. The story itself can be enjoyed on several different levels: as a rousing martial art romp, hilarious farce, historical fantasy, or cynical satire. Or you can just read it for pure narrative enjoyment. Hundreds of millions of Chinese readers can’t be all wrong. You will not be disappointed.
In 1987, I went to China and visited, among other places, the tomb of the Wanli Emperor near Beijing. It was the only royal tomb open to the public in...moreIn 1987, I went to China and visited, among other places, the tomb of the Wanli Emperor near Beijing. It was the only royal tomb open to the public in the Ming Tombs complex at that time. Our Chinese guide led us down a ramp into a subterranean, vaulted chamber clad in white marble. Inside there were thrones carved with dragons and phoenixes, also of the same white marble, and huge blue-and-white porcelain urns. The chamber led into other chambers, just as massive and cold. One contained numerous lacquered boxes of all sizes containing grave-good treasures. The main chamber held the enormous coffins of the emperor himself and two of his consorts. Our guide stopped in front of the royal coffin and told us that the man whose remains it held was ‘the most venal emperor in Chinese history’ and also that his ‘feudal excesses had bled the Chinese people dry’. No doubt he was parroting the official party line at that time, but he made me curious about the Wanli Emperor.
The interesting thing is that he began his almost five-decade reign (one of the longest in Chinese history) as a conscientious young sovereign. Raised by top Mandarins according to strict Confucian principles, the intelligent and sensitive young man was prepared to devote his life to being a model ruler, guided by grand-secretary Chang Chu Cheng. However, Huang tells us, he gradually grew disillusioned with the hypocritical and impersonal nature of the administration that he was the titular head of. By about halfway through his reign, he stopped attending court functions, letting important posts stay vacant and otherwise engaged in a passive-aggressive war against his own ministers.
China’s vast bureaucracy was infinitely more ancient than the emperor and the dynasty that he represented. It was unique in that it was more or less a meritocracy, and that it governed by moral principle. The latter, according to Huang, is the very factor that ultimately led to its collapse. On the one hand, Confucian principles expected the mandarins to serve the people selflessly, to live simply on subsistence wages. On the other hand, the wages were so ridiculously low that most officials had to supplement their incomes by taking advantage of their position. The opportunity for graft and corruption was virtually endless. Huang argues that the most successful officials were not the most honest ones --- who most often than not created more problems because of their overzealousness --- but the ones who could balance the two opposing directions. Shackled to Confucian moral tenets, the judicial system remained ineffective and arbitrary. The army was not organized according to proper military practices and was helpless against Japanese pirates and nomadic marauders. All of these factors eventually led to the collapse of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Wanli was not the cause of it but he was a part of a dysfunctional system that was tottering towards its demise.
I wonder if other historians are as lenient to the Wanli Emperor.
Ever since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester...moreEver since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester provides us with the biography of the fascinating man behind the book, an eccentric Cambridge Don of prodigious intellect, an uncritical China lover, a playboy who spent most of his life in a menage a trois with his wife and mistress, as well as a comitted Catholic and socialist. The most interesting part of the book is the section describing Needham's adventures in war-torn China, when he undertook dangerous expeditions to Dunhuang and other remote places.
I wish that Winchester had spent some pages discussing criticism of Needham's works on Chinese scientific history, just to bring some balance to an otherwise glowing biography.(less)
'My eyes were shaped like bamboo leaves; my brows were like gentle brushstrokes limned by a calligrapher'.
The notion that 17th century Chinese charact...more'My eyes were shaped like bamboo leaves; my brows were like gentle brushstrokes limned by a calligrapher'.
The notion that 17th century Chinese characters would speak like this for the benefit of 21st century English-speaking readers is preposterous to say the least. It is obvious that the author has conducted extensive research on the history and culture of late Ming/ early Qing dynasty Hangzhou, and the fruits of that research abound in this historical-supernatural novel. However, the anthropological details, more often than not, tend to choke the life out of the characters and sometimes even the narrative itself.
The historical fact behind the story itself is interesting, namely that the cultural renaissance that took place in late Ming dynasty Hangzhou gave aristocratic Chinese women unprecedented access to education, and even enabled them to actively participate in the literary scene. Three of these women, all the wives of Wu Ren, wrote The Three Wives Commentary on the Peony Pavillion, apparently the 'first book of its kind to have been published anywhere in the world to have been written by women', according to the author. However, instead of telling us the story of how these women managed to write such a work, the author chose to wallow in questionable exoticism and new-agey philosophizing. The emphasis on exoticism, some of which seem to be contrived for the benefit of Western audiences, reduces the complexity and richness of Chinese culture into a set of cruel customs and absurd superstitions.
Peony is an insipid 16-year old girl who wilfully starves herself to death after she was betrothed to a stranger, who later turns out to be her paramour, Wu Ren. For some undecipherable reason (morbidity?, stupidity?), she never bothers to inquire about the identity of her fiancee until it is too late. Due to some sort of a shenanigan involving her ancestral tablet, she is condemned to spend her time wandering the afterlife as a hungry ghost. This exploration of the Chinese afterlife is interesting for a while, but it quickly degenerates into a mushy ghost story when Peony decides to stalk her former fiancee. With her ghostly powers, she interferes in his life, including choosing and grooming a three-year old girl for his future wife. The ick factor multiplies when we learn that she also participates (in her ghostly way) in the couple's bedroom activities. Finally, after further trials and tribulations, she is released from her status as a hungry ghost to join her revered ancestors in heaven.
Two stars for the story and writing, an extra star for the research.