Saturday, January 18, 2020

History Tidbits of the Pipa 琵琶

This is a brief introduction to the history of the Chinese classical plucked string instrument – the pipa 琵琶. In Tales of Ming Courtesans (coming soon!), two protagonists - peerless beauties Chen Yuanyuan 陳圓圓 and Li Xiangjun 李香君 - are both dazzling pipa players and kunqu singers in the glitzy Qinhuai pleasure district.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

History Tidbits of the Guqin 古琴

This is a brief introduction to the history of the Chinese classical plucked string instrument, the “guqin” 古琴. In my soon-to-be-published historical novel Tales of Ming Courtesans, one of the protagonists, famed courtesan Liu Rushi 柳如是, is a skillful guqin player, apart from being a brilliant poetess and painter. In one scene, she smashes her guqin, which is a gift from one client, in a blinding fit of fury.

Friday, January 3, 2020

"Xianxia" Web Drama Series - "The Untamed"

[Snippets with English subtitles (in closed captions)]

With Jin Yong's wuxia novels in translation (notably the initial three translated volumes of the Condor Heroes trilogy) gaining a world-wide audience, "wuxia novel" (武俠小說) seems on track to become a prominent subgenre under the historical fantasy umbrella. 

I recently learned that another related subgenre called "xianxia novel" (仙俠小說) has become a rising star among younger readers in Mainland China. Then by chance I stumbled on a web tv drama series titled "The Untamed" (陳情令) with 50 episodes. The drama series were adapted from a popular "xianxia" web novel series titled 魔道祖師. My own interpretation of "xianxia" is something like a Chinese martial arts (中式武俠) version of "Twilight Zone" (a hugely popular Western tv series with supernatural themes targeting a young adult audience), with a mix of martial arts heroes (武俠英雄) and immortal beings endowed with supernatural powers (仙俠) as main characters. An interesting subgenre!

I love the theme song of "The Untamed" and the choreography of xianxia-in-action (see below). There are other soundtracks that are just as beautiful. In the soundtrack "醉夢", the guqin (古琴) (a seven-string zither) represents Lan Wangji (藍忘機) and the flute (橫笛) represents Wei Wuxian (魏無羨) - perfect combination!

Book Review - "The Girl Who Wrote in Silk" by Kelli Estes

Before I read this novel, I had never heard of the discriminating Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the U.S., which was not repealed until 1943. I respect the author's honest attempt to bring an unsavory truth of Chinese-American history, through fiction, to the attention of a wider audience.

The story consists of a dual time-line: one that follows Mei Lin's tragic life in the 1800s on Orcas Island and the other one that traces Inara Erickson's present-day attempt to gradually unravel that tragedy. Although Mei Lin's story was the more compelling of the two, the tight weaving of the two universes nonetheless leaves the reader breathless. I'm giving the novel 4.4 stars. 


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Book Review - 近代中國史綱(下) (A Short History of Modern China, Vol. 2)

I had read Vol. 1 about a year ago (review here).

Vol. 2 covers the period from the establishment of the Nationalist Party under Sun Yat-sen’s leadership in 1912, through the brief Yuan Shikai autocratic reign, then the Warlords Era, the Japanese invasion and occupation of China, right up to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Having gone through annihilating tumults of the 1800s that various foreign powers incited to gain control over Chinese territories and reap economic concessions, by 1912, China was already a very sick nation with deep internal wounds. European aggression showed brief signs of let-up with the outbreak of First World War, but Japan and Russia immediately jumped at the chance to encroach on Chinese territories and seize other privileges. After declaring war on Germany, Japan seized the moment to impose its so-called “Twenty-One Demands” (i.e. territorial and economic concessions) on China.

Yuan Shikai was never a believer in Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (i.e. democracy) and was always looking for a chance to become the emperor, even at the cost of selling out to Japan. When his schemes were debunked, other factions rose against him. Thus began the Warlords Era which lasted until the establishment of the Communist Party in 1920 and beyond.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, the major Allied Powers approved the transfer of Germany’s concessions in Shandong Province to Japan instead of reverting them back to China, and this ignited the nationalist and anti-imperialist May Fourth student movement, which demanded the government to abstain from signing the Paris Treaty and to refute Japan’s Twenty-One Demands.

From 1925, the year Sun died from sickness, China became the battlefield between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party and Mao Tse-tung’s Communist Party and the remnant warlords. Chiang was repeatedly criticized for his dictatorial ways within his own Party, while Mao firmly believed that using armed force was the only solution to end his contest with Chiang.

In 1937, Japan, who had already seized and occupied Manchuria in 1932 and had tried to take over five northern Chinese provinces, started an all-out war with China (known as the Second Sino-Japanese War) in Shanghai and Nanjing, using some flimsy excuse. In December that year, Japanese soldiers subjected Nanjing to a brutal massacre and mass rape for six days. This bloody war lasted until Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces in 1945. Meanwhile, Russia was eyeing Outer Mongolia and Xinjiang, and sought to continue its influence on the Communist Party.

After this war, China was again plunged into civil war until the Communist Party finally won out in 1949 and set up the People’s Republic of China, forcing Chiang and his Nationalist Party to flee to Taiwan. Unfortunately, both Mao and Chiang imposed despotic rule and inflicted more sufferings on those under their rule.

These two Volumes of Modern China history are a result of painstaking research by the author, which was supported, apart from Chinese-language sources, by research materials found at the University of Hawaii East-West Centre, Harvard University East Asia Centre and Columbia University East Asian National Resource Center. But the author has also stated that the books are not an academician’s work and are meant for a general readership.

Both volumes chronicle a mind-boggling amount of historical account minutiae. They have helped me understand a lot better Modern China's history. I’m glad that I’ve read the books. This Volume warrants 4.5 stars.


Friday, October 18, 2019

Book Review - "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas, pere

Whew, I finally finished reading this much acclaimed French classic. While satisfied that I can now count myself among its readers, I do have mixed feelings about this epic story of one man embarking on a revenge trajectory after being dealt a harsh blow of egregious frame-up which entails fourteen years of imprisonment and the loss of his betrothed.

The novel is one large web of intricate and inter-linking plots, apparently woven with much care and passion and sprinkled with suspenseful and emotional moments. My investment in the convoluted plots did not wane throughout the novel, although some major twists lean a bit towards fantasy and some of the minor turns appear unnecessary. Still, I loved the author’s beautiful descriptions of scenery in various parts of France, and his occasional insights on human nature spelled out in the narrator’s witty observations. I especially like the moral message that a person who exacts retribution and hurts the innocent in the process will end up with more pain than satisfaction.

As much as the portrayal of the key characters enabled me to have a good grasp of the motives and reasons behind their actions and reactions, I found that they still neatly fall into either one of two distinct categories - good and bad – with very little nuance. The good stay good, the bad stay bad, throughout. But I guess that's one way of  looking at human nature.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read and I am giving it 3.4 stars, rounded down.