Sunday, April 15, 2018
I'm glad that my favorite author of all times - Jin Yong - is finally getting the attention of American readers with the launch of A Hero Born. This is the first of a 12-volume translation of his popular "Legends of the Condor Heroes Trilogy" ("射鵰英雄傳", "神鵰俠侶", "倚天屠龍記").
This New Yorker's article tells Jin Yong's legend:
I read most of Jin Yong's wuxia novels in my childhood and based on my memory, the ones I liked best were "書劍恩仇錄" (The Book and the Sword) set in Qianlong Emperor's reign, and "天龍八部" (there is no English translation yet, and the tentative English title is "Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils") set in Southern Song dynasty. In the latter novel, the character that I remember most vividly is a prince named 段譽 from the Kingdom of Dali (大理國, in present-day Dali, Yunnan), whose special martial arts skill is termed "凌波微步" ("mini-steps on waves").
The novels by this literary icon from Hong Kong have long since ignited my interest in Chinese history and inspired me to write historical fiction set in ancient China.
Thursday, April 5, 2018
It may be common knowledge for current and former students of The Chinese University of Hong Kong that the earliest student hostel ever built on campus is called the Adam Schall Residence. But perhaps the person Johann Adam Schall von Bell, in honor of whom the hostel was named, is not too familiar a figure for many, students or otherwise, in Hong Kong or elsewhere.
Johann Adam Schall von Bell was a German Jesuit missionary born in Cologne. In 1619, at the age of 28, he arrived Macau with a few other Jesuit missionaries, planning to enter China to spread Christianity, only to find themselves stranded in the Portuguese Settlement, as it was the Chinese policy then to curb foreigners’ entry. So Schall von Bell decided to settle down in Macau and learn Chinese and continue with his mathematics studies.
A few years later, in 1622, he unexpectedly got embroiled in Portuguese Macau’s military defense against an attack by the Dutch Calvinists, which attack was instigated by trade disputes. The Dutch (i.e. the Dutch East India Company) had for a long time been jealous of Macau’s lucrative intermediary position on the China-Japan trade route (silk in exchange for silver) and wanted to capture the Settlement. Schall von Bell and his fellow Jesuits went up to the citadel to man cannons that fired on the invading Dutch soldiers, and a shot accidentally hit an explosive dump near their camp. The defense was victorious and the Dutch were chased out.
When news of this reached the Ming Emperor’s ears, he invited Schall von Bell to Court and asked him to produce cannons for use against the invading Manchus. But the Jesuit’s skill at weaponry was clearly eclipsed by his knowledge in astronomy and his work in the calendar reform.
After the Ming Empire transitioned to the Qing Dynasty, Schall von Bell rose to prominence as a key adviser in Shunzhi Emperor’s reign. His influence on Shunzhi and his mother the de facto regent, the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, was nothing less than profound. Out of veneration for him, Shunzhi addressed him as “Mafa” in private, meaning “Grandfather” in Manchu. The Jesuit priest had first gained the Empress Dowager’s trust by healing a sickness that her niece had contracted, just prior to her becoming Empress to Shunzhi Emperor. It is said that Schall von Bell was overtly supportive of the Empress Dowager in her selection of Kangxi as the successor to Shunzhi. After Shunzhi died, Schall von Bell’s envious Chinese colleagues initiated a depraved false accusation against him, which led to a death sentence by slicing. He would have perished if not for an earthquake that shook the grounds of the execution square, which alerted the Empress Dowager to immediate intervention in the case. Although ultimately exonerated, his prison ordeal took a toll on his already frail health and he died shortly after regaining freedom.
Sunday, April 1, 2018
Having previously read Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (L’Oeuvre), which gave me some idea of the Parisian art scene and the lives of aspiring impressionist painters of mid 19th century France, I found this dramatized life story of Claude Monet familiar and believable. I don’t know much about the art of painting, but Monet’s eight water lilies murals exhibited at the Musee de L’Orangerie had strummed a heartstring in me, as in many others. Cowell saw an interesting link between Monet’s love for Camille Doncieux and his obsession with the painting of water lilies in his late life, and spun an evocative yarn out of it.
In general it is a story of romantic love between a struggling artist (Claude Monet) and a beautiful girl from a well-heeled background (Camille Doncieux), with all the twists and turns related to the depressing fight against poverty and social prejudice, and to breach of loyalty between lovers and friends. Sprinkled throughout the novel are elegant descriptions of countryside landscapes and seascapes in various parts of France, which become Monet’s and his painter friends’ painting targets. Towards the last fifth of the novel, the drama heightens as tension builds up in the love triangle between Monet, his wife Camille and his lover Alice (wife of his patron).
Overall, it is a well-constructed romance with trimmings of the art scene in the background, if some elements of the story lean on the make-believe side. Personally I feel that the deliberate and frequent insertion of short French phrases in the dialogues doesn’t add any more French flavor to them – it is a touch unnatural and awkward.
I’m giving this novel 3.4 stars, rounded down.
Saturday, March 24, 2018
Earnshaw Books will soon be publishing Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu as part of its Old China Historical Fiction Series, following the publication of The Green Phoenix. The expected publication date is 1st April, 2018. I am very excited to have the opportunity to interview the author, Wayne Ng.
As suggested by the title, this historical novel is about ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. We all know that Lao Tzu was purported to be the seminal founder of Taoism thoughts and that the ideology expressed in Tao Te Ching has had far-reaching influence not only on Chinese culture, values and beliefs, but also on Western philosophical studies. Wayne’s fictionalized account of the life of this revered intellectual promises us a great opportunity to peer inside his mind and soul and to be transported to China’s tumultuous Spring and Autumn period, some twenty-six centuries ago.
Without further ado, onto the Q & A session!
Alice: Hi Wayne! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Why did you choose Lao Tzu for your first novel? What is it about him that resonates with you?
Wayne: I was inspired by the image of Lao Tzu, who after a lifetime of regrets, wandered off to die. I imagined him to be very much like myself---a dreamer, an idealist, one whose social conscience underpinned all that he was. He is a figure of such veneration yet we know so little of him. To my knowledge, he hadn’t ever been dramatized, so I saw an opportunity to literally put some flesh into the legend of someone as relevant today as ever.
Alice: There are two ways to do such a book – write it as a story, or as a reflection of philosophy. How did you do it?
Wayne: Lao Tzu would answer that a natural equilibrium answers all. Here I applied a similar paradigm by juggling the narrative and the development and application of the philosophy. Dyed in the wool Taoists will find many elements of their beliefs woven into the story. Those just learning about Taoism will get the primer without feeling lectured. While the story preceded the principles, the two became intertwined. Lao Tzu created Taoism in order to make sense of the disorder around him. His story and his beliefs evolved naturally, organically. I like to think he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. In the end it became a balancing act of integrating selected timeless Taoist notions into a personal odyssey.
Alice: To what extent is the story anchored to history as it is known?
Wayne: We know that pre-dynastic China was tumultuous, but also a period of significant change and enlightenment. The bronze age was morphing into the iron age. The Zhou House had long since fragmented into smaller, warring kingdoms. Lao Tzu and Confucius challenged the existing order and were often treated like rock stars, but likely also as pariahs by others. That they supposedly met in the Royal Court is one of the few known details of Lao Tzu. However legends also give us the opening chapter where Lao wanders off to die on a water buffalo, only to be stopped by Yin to tell his story. While precise details are often sketchy, characters such as the Princes and the Kings, place names, and the construction palaces and cities are a matter of record. Like any good historical fiction writer, I’ve delicately seasoned facts with creative essence.
Alice: What connections or lessons are there in Lao Tzu and the story as you tell it in “Finding” for people today?
Wayne: Imagine a world spinning too fast. People feeling alienated, disconnected, insecure, unable to find solace in each other or governments, leaders without a moral or altruistic foundation…this isn’t 6th century BC, but here and now. The historical context of FTW was written to synchronize with similar modern questions today. The emptiness and imbalance Lao Tzu spoke of then weighs us down as heavily then as it does now. However he also offered a soothing balm through Taoism that gateways into an inner peace and harmony that’s as relevant and necessary now as it was then.
Alice: You are of Chinese ancestry but born in Canada. How did that background influence you, do you think, in terms of your choice of the story and the nature of the plot?
Wayne: It’s disappointed me that most historical fiction is “Eurocentric”. Fantastic Chinese stories about massively influential people and world influencing periods such as Lao Tzu, are waiting to be discovered. Being of Chinese heritage I understand there is something in the DNA of the Chinese, whether you live in China or as part of the diaspora. There is a sense of duty to family, acceptance of authority and order, a feverish practicality, a survival instinct that has kept the culture intact for thousands of years. I understand this inner rumbling, but also the yearning for a quietude that is best found through inner reflection.
Alice: The book involves a confrontation between Lao Tzu and Confucius. Both had a huge impact / influence on Chinese culture. How would you describe that influence?
Wayne: The genesis of both giants came from the chaos of constant conflicts with the goal of self and societal improvement. Confucianism sought to ingratiate harmony social order and hierarchies through filial piety, and a clearly defined moral code. Lao Tzu would have argued that order and harmony are achieved only through an inner journey without undue, unnatural and extraneous influences. I believe that many Chinese live within Confucianist order but quietly believe in and even yearn for the peace of the Tao/the Way.
Many thanks to Wayne for his insightful answers to my questions.
Earnshaw Books will be releasing the digital versions of “Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu” on April 1, 2018. The paperback version will be available on July 1, 2018.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
This was a haunting read, with depth. The author effortlessly leads readers into the protagonist’s recollection of his banal life as an average guy and then his subtle rediscovery of certain details of that life that have long been submerged in his memory, asking in the process philosophical questions about time and warped memory.
Part One (the recollection) shows the contrast in personality and intellect between Tony (the narrator-protagonist) and his prodigy friend Adrian whom he adores, captured during their school days. It tells the failed love affair between Tony and his girlfriend Veronica. As Tony remembers it, the fault lies with Veronica, as corroborated by her mother, who is sympathetic to Tony. Adrian goes on to become a brilliant philosophy graduate of Cambridge. One day Tony gets a letter from Adrian asking for his permission to date Veronica. Tony replies to the letter, which he burns in a fit. Shortly after, Tony receives news of Adrian’s suicide. Tony instinctively puts the blame of Adrian’s death on Veronica. Meanwhile he gets on with life.
Part Two (the rediscovery) begins with Tony receiving from a lawyer a sum of money bequeathed to him by Veronica’s mother and her letter telling him to get Adrian’s diary, which is in Veronica’s possession. Tony’s reunion with Veronica sets off an unraveling of the deeply buried details of his past life that relate to her, which details, along with desultory hints from Veronica, help him to change his perception of Veronica’s and Adrian’s character. Everything is not what it seems. The ultimate denouement is quite evocative.
The main theme of the novel centers on the effects that the passage of time can have on a person’s memory. Sometimes memory plays tricks on the human mind.
But time….how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…. Give us enough time and our best-supported decision will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
‘History is the lies of the victors.’ ‘As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.’
I’m giving this novel 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4.