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.
“Park Bridge” by Zora Steenson, used with permission of Mary Steenson. Copyright protected.
Art Alone Enduring is a poignant story of two sisters, Hughberta and Zora Steenson, who were social pioneers and artists. Zora established herself as a freelance artist when most women did not work outside of the home. Hughberta joined the Marine Corp during WWII and became one of the first women ever admitted into that branch of the service. Both women created brilliant art that is just today beginning to gain well-deserved recognition. Art Alone Enduring offers vivid color reproductions of this work. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book.
Mary H. Steenson, author of Art Alone Enduring, is related to the Steenson sisters by marriage. Her husband, Robert, was their nephew and helped to oversee their care near the end of their lives. The journey traveled by these sisters is one that takes readers through Depression-era hardship, WWII and the post-war boom in the United States.
This book is loosely based on the lives of Zora and Hughberta, but it is also a work of imagination. It is impossible to separate the known details from the fictional embellishments. No matter. Ms. Steenson has created a viable vehicle for introducing two remarkable artists to the public. These sisters began their lives in the Midwest and ended, many years later, in a Tacoma, Washington nursing home.
Hughberta was the younger sister, filled with sibling rivalry. Zora was the protective older sister. After drifting apart and finding their separate destinies, the sisters reunited in midlife and stayed together until Zora was removed to nursing care. They did not remain apart for long. A determined and resourceful Hughberta found her way into the nursing home and stayed with Zora for the rest of her days.
In 1998, Hughberta died after a bout with the flu. Zora lived on for another three years. Today, the sisters are buried together near their parents’ graves, in Minnesota.
I recommend strongly that readers seek out the art of Hughberta and Zora. Their work is arresting and unforgettable. A website maintained by Mary Steenson, maryhsteenson.com, displays some of their pieces.
Art Alone Enduring is a lovely book, a delight to hold and peruse. It is the sort of book that reminds us why sometimes reading the physical copy of a book is an experience that cannot be matched by consuming the material through an electronic device.
This blog is a reprint from one I wrote several years ago. The original appears on another of my websites.
Drunk on the Euphoria of Shared Purpose
Public opinion polls: politicians use them to hone their message; media use them to plan programming. And we – each one of us – use them, though informally and unconsciously, in order to negotiate our way through the thicket of social interaction.
Robert E. Park, pioneer researcher in the science of collective behavior, theorized that our self concept is derived from the reaction of others to our position in society. We socialize, he suggested, through a process of accommodation and assimilation. Thus, although individuals have the sense of acting independently, so much of the “I” in the social equation is subsumed by the sway of the “we”. And when one of us makes a decision about what or whom to approve, we are likely crafting decisions more from our perception of group values than we are from independent thought.
In the 2009 film District 9, a hapless Wikus van de Merwe is forced to confront the hollow myth of independent thought. Wikus is employed by a multinational company that administers District 9, a slum outside of Johannesburg where extraterrestrials have been segregated. Wikus is ordered to oversee the eviction of the aliens. As he carries out his duties he is upbeat and even cheerful. He calls the extraterrestrials “prawns” and casually destroys their incubating young. Then he has an accident and his DNA is altered.
Wikus very rapidly begins to metamorphosize into a “prawn”. As he transforms, his company decides to murder him and use his body parts for research. All of Johannesburg is warned to avoid contact with the offending citizen. Deprived of his group, Winkus must rely on himself. He becomes an “I” by necessity. He is without the affirmation or sway of the “we”, which had defined who he was and what he believed. And as an “I”, Winkus gains insight into the aliens and into his own culture.
It was Robert Park who coined the term “marginal man”. When an individual lives on the periphery of two cultures, Park explained, assimilation with either culture is not possible and marginalization occurs. While the marginal state is not a comfortable place to be, it offers the individual a unique perspective, one less inclined to be tainted by group bias.
In order to gain an undistorted view of the extraterrestrials and himself, Wikus needed to suffer a cataclysmic loss. But consumers of information today do not have to endure such privation in order to truly “see”.
This is an age of virtually universal access. Barriers that limited the cultural exposure of earlier generations have disappeared, so that ignorance of others, and of different ideas, is largely self-imposed. In order to live in a cave of narrow expectation and warped perception, one has to willfully avert the eyes from the truth.
Back in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War, CNN and network anchors recited the government line about weapons of mass destruction. Dramatic video of “Shock and Awe”streamed through our television sets and much of the nation became drunk on the euphoria of shared purpose. Phil Donahue, on MSNBC, was a notable and vocal exception to the chorus of endorsement. He had his doubts and raised questions. He was fired. NBC claimed his dismissal was a ratings issue, though his was the highest rated show on MSNBC. Few voices were raised in his defense.
Some time later, a leaked memo revealed that NBC executives did not want Donahue to be their voice when the country was at war.
Of course, Donahue was right, and today the people who fired him sheepishly deflect blame for their complicity in the war by talking about administration lies. But the truth about the fallacy of our war effort was always there, if anyone cared to look behind the most superficial information.
Donahue is a useful and fairly recent example of how each one of us can separate ourselves from the hypnotic pull of collective conviction. It takes practice. We can begin by reading not only material that is funneled through mainline news sources – sources that dredge from a common well. We also can begin by committing to use our critical faculties, to question and look beyond our comfort zone.
And maybe we can begin on an even more microscopic level. Maybe informally, when we are in a group that is in accord about someone or something, we can suspect the legitimacy of that accord. The very fact that so many agree should make us wonder if each person in the group has independently arrived at a decision. We should question whether the people in the group – or we – are thinking, or are merely being compliant in order to accommodate the expectations of the collective will.