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

The Han Agent, by Amy Rogers: Book Review

Han Agent review picture Unit_731_-_Complex
Unit 731: the Japanese compound in China where biological warfare experiments were carried out.

 

Amy Rogers’ new book, The Han Agent, is a fast-moving, suspense-filled thriller. This science fiction novel is, above all else, entertaining. I read through the book in one day–I  had to find out  “what happened”.  The story held my attention because it was well written, and because it honed so closely to reality.  In the tradition of the best science fiction, the book was grounded in facts and took those facts into the realm of imagination.  

Ms. Rogers knows her science, and her history.  She’s a scientist by training, so that wasn’t surprising.  However, her attention to historical detail was surprising, and gratifying.  The accuracy of events referenced in the story made the narrative all the more believable.

The plot is rooted in a biological weapons program carried out by the Japanese in WWII (and pre-WWII) China.  The protagonist is a young scientist, a woman who suffers from a flaw that has afflicted dramatic characters throughout history: hubris.  Suspense arises not only from concern about a deadly biological agent, but also from wondering if the young scientist, on whom so much depends, will resolve her moral dilemma.

The Han Agent is a credible exploration of scientific possibility.  Generally, people think about threats to security coming from a nuclear attack or a dirty bomb.  In The Han Agent, the author suggests a different, perhaps more devastating possibility.  Ms. Rogers creates a universe in which the unthinkable may be realized. 

The Han Agent is a great book.  Readers from various backgrounds and all ages will find it thought-provoking and enjoyable.

The Duality Code: Book Review

By
W. K. Choy

yin-and-yang
This image was captured from Google Translate.  The concept is represented in traditional Chinese characters.

 

The title of this book, The Duality Code, will lead some readers to expect a spy mystery. In a way, that expectation is correct. There is a mystery, one that involves an obscure code. And there is intrigue, even murder. The startling aspect of the murders is that these are occasioned by disagreements over language.

W. K. Choy guides us through the sometimes gruesome history of China’s language wars. As he does so, he deciphers the mystery of China’s ancient language. Choy provides detailed analyses of relationships between Chinese written characters and he explains the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

According to Choy, the Duality Code has its roots in pre-modern China, in a warrior class called the shi. The “code” is secret in the sense that mastery of it, even today, is reserved for the highly educated. It is partly because Chinese characters were historically complex, according to Choy, that the literacy rate in China remained low, until recent times. Attempts toward simplification in the twentieth century included the suggestion that Chinese characters be eliminated altogether in favor of an alphabet-based system. Such a reform, it was believed, would make the language more accessible to ordinary people. However, the reform was never instituted.

Choy writes about how language has been a cultural football in China, and how the rules of this game have been brutal at times. For example, the Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered (in 212 BCE) that four hundred and sixty Confucian scholars be buried alive. He wanted to control scholarship and the use of language in his empire. Mao Tse-tung, centuries later, also wanted to control scholarship and the use of language. In furtherance of that end, Mao boasted, “We are a hundred times worse (than Qin Shihuang)…We have buried forty-six thousand Confucian scholars”.

I learned a great deal about the Chinese language from reading The Duality Code. I know now, for example, that Chinese characters are logographic. Each character represents a concept. This is distinct from alphabet-based languages, in which letters are combined to represent speech sounds. Sounds, in Chinese, are not associated with the characters. Therefore, Chinese characters may also be used by people who speak other languages.

Chinese characters can be combined (described and diagrammed in detail by Choy). Some characters are pictographic–their shape approximately resembles the idea they are intended to convey.

This book has much to offer besides an analysis of Chinese language. There’s history, political theory and philosophy. There’s commentary on the role of language in culture. W. K. Choy has a broad command of a variety of subjects. Readers of this book may not understand everything that is offered, because there is so much here. Choy’s analysis of language morphology is very clear and logical. For those with the ambition and time, it can serve as a veritable course on the Chinese language.

I found a wealth of information in The Duality Code, and not all of it specific to China. The book is unlike any I’ve read. It is challenging and entertaining. It is a cultural history and technical analysis. For Western readers, this will likely be an eye-opener. It was for me.

I highly recommend W. K. Choy’s Duality Code.

A. G. Moore  2/3/2017