I realize that I’ve been writing a column on Chinese-language pop culture for months … without featuring a single creative work from mainland China. This was not on purpose.
More than anything else, it reflects that Taiwan is my vantage point. I have better access to Taiwanese media than other Chinese-language media and, knowing a few things about Taiwan, I’m also more comfortable commenting on Taiwanese media. If I were writing this column from San Francisco, it would probably be really different.
Taiwan, in some ways, has deeper cultural ties with the Chinese-speaking communities in south-east Asia than with China itself, and from the conclusion of the Chinese civil war up until about 15 years ago, contact between mainland China and Taiwan was limited.
Things are changing now, but they are changing slowly. Change is happening fastest in TV. Since Mandarin is understood in both China and Taiwan, many TV shows are based on stories popular in both China and Taiwan, and Chinese TV shows sometimes cast Taiwanese actors in order to get their fans’ attention. Change is happening slowest in print media, because there is the traditional characters/simplified characters barrier. Since many Taiwanese people do not want to learn to read simplified characters, it means that to bring Chinese literature over to Taiwan, a publisher has to produce a traditional-character edition. It’s not easy to persuade a publisher that this is worth the risk.
Nonetheless, a publisher decided to publish Wu Way’s novels in traditional characters, and a lot of Taiwanese bookstores decided to put her novels on their shelves.
Wu Way (吳蔚) is a writer of historical novels and has contributed to historical TV shows as well. She is originally from Hubei Province, China. She says that she finds her life in old piles of paper—in other words, digging through historical materials is her passion.
Recently, her novels have been published in Taiwan in traditional Chinese characters, and that’s how I got a copy of this novel.
Brief Story Overview
This novel is set towards the end of the reign of Wu Zetian, China’s only female empress regnant.
It is about five friends, all members of the upper class: Di Xiao, Wang Zhihuan, Wang Han, Li Meng, and Xin Jian. One night, Wang Han disappears … and then right after he comes back, he’s arrested for a brutal rape-and-murder. In order to clear his name, his friends investigate the crime to find the true culprit. There are more murders and even more mysteries, which all seem to revolve around the “Xuanji Tu.” The more they investigate, the more they become involved in intrigue right at the heart of the Tang court.
The Xuanji Tu
The Xuanji Tu is a famous and complex palindrome poem by Su Hui. For more details, read the wikipedia entry for Su Hui (note: normally I would not cite Wikipedia as a source, but I really cannot find any other website in English which describes the Xuanji Tu, and this is not an academic paper). I had no idea that the Xuanji Tu existed before reading this novel.
In addition to pursuing the Xuanji Tu, some of the characters are also trying to get an original copy of one of Wang Xizhi’s works. I can attest that Wang Xizhi is the calligrapher whom I hear of or read references to the most often.
I’ll be honest. My understanding of Chinese history is quite basic, and even that might be an overstatement. I get that the Ming dynasty ruled China more than a thousand years after the Han dynasty, but if you asked me how China under the Ming dynasty was different from China under the Han dynasty, you would get a blank stare from me.
Thanks to this novel, I know a heck of a lot more about the reign of Wu Zetian. Before, I just had a vague notion that she liked to collect attractive men to satisfy her desires—the truth about Wu Zetian’s sexual relationships is a bit more nuanced than that, and she did even more interesting things outside the bedroom.
And boy does this novel go into historical detail. Wu Way claims that 95% of the characters (including all of the main characters) are genuine historical figures. And the life of the upper class under the Tang dynasty is described in exhaustive detail. There are a lot of endnotes, which I eventually stopped reading.
I’m afraid much of the historical detail was lost on me.
On The Genre
Detective fiction happen to be one of my least favorite genres. Unless I can be convinced that it’s the most awesome detective story ever, these days it is almost impossible to entice me to read detective fiction that is not crossed with some other genre (science fiction, for example).
This book, of course, does cross genres. It bills itself as a “historical wuxia detective novel.” I’ve see it in both the historical fiction and wuxia sections (though some bookstores combine the wuxia and historical fiction section, I consider them to be as distinct as science fiction and fantasy). The “historical” part is definitely justified (see above). The “detective” part is also justified, since the first half or so of the novel is about finding out who the criminal is. The “wuxia” part … okay, yes, the characters often have to use their martial arts skills to climb over a wall or something. But there is precious little combat, and most of the characters don’t seem terribly concerned with martial arts, or with acting in a xia manner (they’re upperclass-types, not peasants seeking justice in an unjust society). So I don’t think labeling this novel as “wuxia” is justified.
As it so happens, I liked the story more after they found out who the true criminal is, because then it became less of a detective novel and more about intrigue in the Tang court, which is more interesting to me.
While this novel is only gory once in a while, when it gets gory, it really gets gory. This is an example (which you should skip if you are not sure you can stomach it).
“On the steps before the gate there was a man hanging, dripping with blood, naked, his entire body covered with every kind whip lash, burns from hot irons … his hands and feet had already been cut off, his face had been reduced to a pulp, his eyes had been dug out, his ears, nose, and tongue had all been cut off. He looked, not like a human, but a demon that had risen from the depths of hell.”
I picked this example because it is relatively brief, not because it is the most horrifying (at least, not to me).
As readers may have noticed, I have a tendency to enjoy fiction with a lot of violence, but this novel managed to shock even me.
My Personal Reaction
I had to try reading this novel twice. The first time, I was overwhelmed because it wasn’t what I was expecting (I wanted a wuxia novel and got a detective story instead) and the language in this novel is particularly difficult (definitely a couple notches more difficult than a Jin Yong novel). The second time, I came in with a better attitude, and actually enjoyed it.
I rather like history, so while a lot of the historical stuff did go over my head, I did learn a lot, and found it quite interesting. When I have time, I really do need to do my homework on Chinese history.
And eventually, I did get caught up in the characters. I appreciate the development of the relationship between the five friends, and the various people they encounter. And the brutality is most shocking, not when it’s based on pure gore, but when it’s tied into personal relationships. For example, there is a husband who does something astonishingly cruel to his own wife. That particular plot line definitely got my attention, in a jaw-dropping way. And finally, while I can’t judge how historically accurate it is, I think Wu Way did a good job of personifying Wu Zetian and her family, and I got caught up in their side of the story.
Availability in English … ha ha ha.
It is, of course, available in both simplified and traditional Chinese characters.
This is one of those novels which I would not expect to like, but nonetheless I ended up being glad that I read it. It’s not to be taken lightly, due to the difficulty of the language and the copious historical details, but there are definitely things in the novel which have stayed with me. I don’t know if I’ll ever try Wu Way’s other novels, but if there’s a convenient opportunity, I probably will.
Next time: Pinoy Sunday (movie)
Sara K. loves history in general, but really getting to know history takes time, and she’s already spending a lot of time improving her Chinese. Her favorite way to learn history is travel—whether it’s walking the streets of San Francisco with a knowledgeable guide, or walking through an interesting corner of Taiwan and reading all of the signs explaining the local history.