Ten Thousand Things, By John Spurling: Book Review

Wang Meng_Forest_Grotto_Part2
Forest Grotto, Part 2.  The painting is by Wang Meng.  It was painted in the fourteenth century.

Many hundreds of years ago, Genghis Khan swept across Asia and conquered northern China. He laid the foundation for Mongol rule of the empire. His grandson, Kublai Khan, cemented this victory by crushing Song Dynasty forces in the South and uniting the vast empire. Kublai Khan’s success marked the beginning of almost a hundred years of Mongol domination of China. It is during this period that the events described in John Spurling’s book, “Ten Thousand Things” take place.

Spurling’s book is historical fiction. The narrative follows the life of an artist, Wang Meng, whose work is on display today in museums across the world. By using Wang’s life as a focus, Spurling gives readers insight into the zeitgeist of Mongol China, which is known as the Yuan Dynasty. Art is as much a character in this book as any person. And art, as described by Spurling, is indistinguishable from the philosophical and religious traditions that inspired it in Yuan China. Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism–each is discussed as living templates for artists, common folk and rulers.

Wang Meng is one of four artists who came to be known as the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. These artists shared not only a philosophy but also an aesthetic that was manifest particularly in landscape painting.

The life story of each Master is woven into a narrative that follows Wang through his marriage, love affairs, tragedies and, finally, imprisonment. The story also describes the disintegration of Mongol rule in China, as bandit leaders vie for control of the empire. Eventually, one of these bandits, Zhu Yuanzhang, prevails and establishes the Ming Dynasty.

It is difficult to sort the fictional elements of this story from the true record. Skillful blending of story with history is a reflection of Mr. Spurling’s ability as a writer and researcher.

“Ten Thousand Things” is an engaging book and also highly informative. Upon finishing it, I immediately turned to the Internet to learn about the Yuan Dynasty and the Four Masters. After perusing the Internet, I searched the public library catalog for books on Mongol China. I wanted to know more about this distant and exotic time in China’s history. A less well-written book would not have prompted me to do this.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy historic fiction, to lovers of art, and to those who appreciate a well-told story.

 

By A. G. Moore

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