Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review - "Acre's Bastard" by Wayne Turmel

Going into this novel I was ignorant of the historiography of the Crusades, except for a cursory peek of it from romanticized movies like “Ivanhoe” and “El Cid” that I watched in my school days. A quick search on the internet indicates that the history stretched from the First Crusade (1095 – 1099) – a military expedition to rescue the weakening Byzantine Empire, to the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 17th century. Essentially, the military conflicts were religion-based (Christianity versus Muslim) and about territorial control.

This novel is set prior to and during the Battle of Hattin which took place on July 4, 1187 (roughly between the Second and Third Crusade), near the city of Tiberias (of present-day Israel) on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Opposing forces were the Crusader states of present-day Syria and the Muslim army led by Salah-adin, the Arabic sultan.

The story follows a ten-year-old orphan of mixed parentage through his adventures when he accidentally gets caught up in an espionage conspiracy on the eve of a decisive battle between Christian and Muslim states. Through his adolescent eyes, we get to sense, smell and listen to the everyday life in Acre, the melting pot of different cultures, in particular the life of the destitute underclass. The author’s sense of humor keeps the dark tone from getting too dark.

Overall, it was an entertaining read, but for my taste, the historical background could’ve used a little more rigorous treatment. I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars, rounding up to 4.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Liu Rushi's Paintings & Why I Feature Her in My W-I-P

I was quite excited when I found last week on the internet a collection of Liu Rushi’s paintings. Before this discovery, I was aware that one painting by her, titled Misty Willows by the Moonlit Dike, is held at the Palace Museum of Beijing.

Liu Rushi 柳如是 (1618 – 1664), the poetry prodigy of late Ming, together with Chen Yuanyuan 陳圓圓 (1625 – 1681) and Li Xiangjun 李香君 (1624 – 1653), are the three protagonists of my novel-in-progress, the manuscript of which has just been submitted to my publisher. These three late-Ming courtesans were the most outstanding of the Eight Great Beauties of Qinhuai, Nanjing 秦淮八艷.

I’ve come to know that the painting collection is now in the possession of the Freer Gallery of Art (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington DC. Information on the museum’s website shows that the collection was purchased at a 1992 Sotheby New York auction from (presumably the estate of) a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Dubosc (1904 – 1988).

Curiosity drove me to do a little research on Dubosc, and I’ve discovered another interesting story.

Jean-Pierre Dubosc was a French diplomat attached to the French Legation in Beijing and an avid collector of Chinese artefacts. He happened to be married, at one time, to Janine Loo, the youngest daughter of C. T. Loo (1880 – 1957), who had, since 1908, established himself in Paris as a dealer in Chinese antiques. According to China Rhyming’s blog post, while living in Beijing, Dubosc occupied himself with sourcing Chinese treasures from antique and curio shops for various European and American museums, as well as for C. T. Loo’s Paris dealership business.

C. T. Loo, a mysterious man of humble birth, revered in the West but scorned in his homeland for stealing its patrimony, was the subject of a 2013 biography by Geraldine Lenain, an Asian art expert now living in Shanghai, titled Monsieur Loo: Le Roman d’un Marchand d’Art Asiatique (Mr. Loo: The Novel of an Asian Art Dealer). She had obtained Loo’s precious personal archives from his grandson, and permission to write the biography from Janine Loo. The publication is in French and in Chinese. I’m not sure if there is an English translation. I digress.

Back to Liu Rushi’s paintings. It is not known when or how or from whom Dubosc got those paintings. Nor is it clear why he had not sold the paintings while he was still alive. Was it because nobody in the West knew who Liu Rushi was, and so there was no demand for her work? Or was it for some other reason? It is a known fact that many of the poem and calligraphy collections and paintings by Liu Rushi and her husband Qian Qianyi were destroyed in the Qianlong Emperor’s cull of anti-Qing literary work when he championed the creation of the Siku Quanshu (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries). Dubosc could well be aware that Liu’s paintings were a rare find.

One snippet of interest is that both Liu Rushi and C. T. Loo were born to dirt-poor families in the province of Zhejiang, although 262 years apart, and both rose to fame in their respective field of expertise. But the major difference is that Liu has been rehabilitated as a Ming patriot, while Loo was and still is looked upon as a villain who “directly and strongly stimulated China’s tomb-robbing activities”. But one can't help but wonder, if he hadn't spirited those treasures out of China, would they have survived the Cultural Revolution?

For many people, Chinese or non-Chinese, the name Liu Rushi is probably not a familiar one. Yet, despite her low status as a courtesan, she was the subject of an 800,000-word biography written by the eminent historian and intellectual luminary Chen Yinke 陳寅恪 (1890 – 1969), who spent the last ten years of his life researching and writing it. The title of the work is: An Ulterior Biography of Liu Rushi. More importantly, he famously named her as the embodiment of the Chinese race’s spirit of independence and thought freedom. That comment was what had goaded me to read, research and write about this multi-talented poet-courtesan.

A note of interest is that Chen Yinke had been condemned as anti-revolutionary in his fading years, and it was not until 1988 that his former students and friends could openly commemorate him. His seminal biography of Liu Rushi and other works only emerged from oblivion in the 1990s. Hence the auction of Liu’s paintings in 1992 would appear a natural timing.

Here are some of Liu’s paintings found on the website of the Freer Gallery of Art: 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Interview with Dan Moorhouse, Schools History U.K.

I was honored to take part in an interview with Dan Moorhouse, educator and founder of the Schools History website (U.K.). He asked me some thought-provoking questions about my novel The Green Phoenix and whether historical fiction is helpful as a teaching tool.

Embedded below is the facebook link to the interview:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review - "Jin Ping Mei" 金瓶梅 by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng 蘭陵笑笑生

It took me over three months to finish reading this 1,332-page Chinese classic novel. There are apparently several popular versions that are based on abridged imprints published under the Chongzhen reign (1627 – 1644). The version I read is one based on the 1617 unabridged imprint published during the Wanli reign (1573 – 1620). This version has a preface written by 欣欣子, who claimed to be a friend of the author’s, and who stated therein the author’s motive for writing the novel. He also confirmed that the author was from the Lanling County of Shandong Province, which explains why the novel was written in the Lanling vernacular. (The direct translation of the author’s pen name is “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”.)

The story is a spin-off of one of the sub-stories in Water Margin (one of the four great Chinese classic novels) about Pan Jinlian who murders her husband when her adultery with wealthy merchant Ximen Qing is discovered, and who is subsequently killed by her husband’s brother, the tiger-slayer Wu Song. Outside of this particular episode, Jin Ping Mei has an entirely different plot and cast of characters. It is about the libertine life of middle-class merchant Ximen Qing and his concubine Pan Jinlian, and how their vices lead to self-destruction.

As for the title name, each character represents the given name of one of the three female protagonists: “Jin” is “Pan Jinlian” (a concubine of Ximen Qing’s); Ping is “Li Ping’er” (another of his concubines); Mei is “Pang Chunmei” (a housemaid who rises in status).

On a deeper level, the character “Jin” is a symbol for money, “Ping” is a symbol for alcohol and “Mei” symbolizes sex.

The major difficulty in reading this classic is the vernacular. It takes a little getting used to. The story is set in Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127), but the contents reflect the decadent and corrupt gentry lifestyle of the Ming Dynasty.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in the detailed description of day-to-day living of people in the middle-class as well as those in lower classes, from food, to clothes, to etiquette, to traditional customs. It is true there are also graphic descriptions of sex, which was the reason why the novel was officially banned most of the time. It is also true that the novel is much more than about sex. The whole novel is premised on a “karma” theme: that retribution will be exacted on those who embrace lust, greed and doing harm to others.

In my view, this novel should be categorized as realism fiction. A society that tries to ban such a novel is a hypocritical society.

I’m giving this classic 3.5 stars, rounded up. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Book Review - The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I have Homer’s The Iliad (Robert Fagle’s translation) on my TBR list and, having now read Miller’s novel, I have my interest piqued enough to want to push the Greek classic up my list.

Four years ago I read The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fagle) and loved it. I had watched and loved the 2004 movie “Troy” with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Orlando Bloom as Paris. So, going into this novel, I have some idea of who the gods and goddesses and heroes are.

The first third of the novel moved at a rather slow pace, focusing on the development of friendship and love between the boys Achilles and Patroclus. From the mid-point, the story began to pick up speed and was a page-turner till the end.

I won’t go into details about the plot, as most readers are familiar with it. What I liked most about the novel was the description of the whims of the gods as they meddled at will in the mortals’ affairs entirely according to whom they favored at the time. I thought this to some degree reflected the sense of fatalism in the real human world – humans in the end are incapable of controlling their destinies.

I especially liked the description of Thetis the sea nymph goddess – her imposing appearance, her blazing emotions and intelligent thoughts.

The central theme of this novel is the reimagining of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, giving it the homosexual twist. I was neutral to the idea. My only nit-picking was Patroclus’ fierce bravery in the final scenes (when he leads the Myrmidons in Achilles’ place in beating back the Trojans), which does not tally with his meek character as portrayed earlier.

I am aware that Miller’s writing has drawn a lot of high acclaim. But for me, in some places, the similes stretched the imagination a bit, and I blamed that for my inability to strike rapport with the main characters. Also, she tended to flip back and forth in the usage of past and present tenses. I didn’t see why that was necessary, as the narrative was fairly linear throughout.

All in all, it was an enjoyable read, and I’m giving it 3.3 stars, rounded down.