Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review - "The Peony Pavilion: Mudang Ting" (牡丹亭) by Tang Xianzu (湯顯祖)

I remember vividly a time in my childhood when my grandmother used to take me to watch Cantonese operas. A scene from one such opera etched an indelible mark on my young mind: the scene of reincarnation of a beauty who was the subject of a portrait. It just felt shockingly unbelievable to me then! The opera was The Peony Pavilion Dream (牡丹亭驚夢) directed by the iconic Tang Ti-sheng (唐滌生). It was only much later in life that I found out that the opera was based on Ming playwright giant Tang Xianzu's (湯顯祖) famous drama entitled The Peony Pavilion.

The play was written in 1598 (eleven years earlier Tang Xianzu had written the popular drama The Purple Hairpin (紫釵記)), and the setting was in Southern Song. The story is about a cloistered aristocratic young lady's listless pining for true love and freedom from social conventions, her dream of sexual romance with a young scholar in the garden pavilion, her tragic death from unfulfilled longing, the subsequent reincarnation through her own hand-drawn portrait and reunion with the scholar, her father's stubborn refusal to allow their marriage and the final happy ending brought about by the Emperor acting as the arbitrator.

It has taken me over six weeks to finish reading the play as it was written in classical Chinese text and was full of metaphors with historical allusions, which meant that I had to constantly refer to the annotations. Although I had had training in school in reading classical Chinese texts, it has been a long time since I last read anything in the antiquated language, except poetry. Yet it was such a pleasure to savor the lyrical metaphors and the choreography of imagery in the play. What struck me as most incredible was the occasional erotic description. Overall I was greatly impressed by the author's embrace of the idea of youthful optimism and relentless pursuit of freedom.

This literary gem deserves no less than 5 stars.

P.S. I've just stumbled upon a piece of beautiful artwork by Jason Pym - "The Shakespeare and Tang Xianxu Silk Scarf", the design of which combines scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Peony Pavilion.



Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reading - 2016 & 2015 Year End Reviews

In 2016 I read 19 novels, 2 plays and 4 non-fiction titles (including the history tome The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle). My favorite fiction of the year is War and Peace and my favorite non-fiction title of the year is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Monthly favorites:-

January - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
February - The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
March - Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
April - Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant
May - The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia by C.W. Gortner
June - Unless by Carol Shields
July - Watership Down by Richard Adams
August - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
September - Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska
October - The Masterpiece by Émile Zola
November - The Book and the Sword by Jin Yong
December - The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren (a Chinese classical play)

 In 2015 I read 4 non-fiction books and 18 novels - a total of 22 books, which was not bad considering I was engaged full-time on a writing project for the first half of the year!

Of the non-fiction category, my favorite would be Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, with Marie Antoinette: The Journey trailing right behind.

Of the 18 novels that I read, these found their way to my heart (not in any order):-

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
A Woman's Life and Other Stories by Guy de Maupassant
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Odyssey by Homer
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola
Wolf Of The Plains by Conn Iggulden

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review - "In the Company of the Courtesan" by Sarah Dunant

After reading Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, I always wanted to read another novel by Sarah Dunant. At some Goodreads friends’ nudge, I decided to pick this one up.

Throughout the first three-quarters of the book I was more emotionally twined with the character of the dwarf Bucino than I would care to admit. The fact that he is also the first-person narrator is supposed to give immediacy and sense of reality to the scenes and things happening to him, but I must confess that I consciously and stubbornly clung to my skepticism. However, by the time I reached the denouement, I was obviously already too invested in him to be able to detach myself from his pain and anguish, or hold back my tears. That Dunant is a brilliant writer needs no further proof.

The plot would seem simple enough but nonetheless enthralling: a famed courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf Bucino must escape the carnage of Rome’s invasion by foreign powers and are forced to find their footing again in prospering Venice, where they meet their friends and foes. With their loss of a precious jewel, we are led down a path of intrigue behind a veil of fog when Fiammetta’s healer and friend – a blind hunchback called La Draga – starts to snatch our attention. From that point on, I was loath to put the book down. The ending didn’t surprise as much as it saddened me.

Apart from being a skillful storyteller, the author is also adept at painting a vivid picture of 16th century urban Venice. In true historical fiction form, real historical characters abound in the novel to enhance the sense of place and time: painter Tiziano Vecellio (or Titian), engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, writer Pietro Aretino, painter Giulio Romano, and healer Elena Crusichi (fictionalized as La Draga).

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars. [Warning: the language may be a bit raunchy for some readers’ taste.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review - "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu

I read the Chinese version with English translation. I was most impressed with this observation: that winning every war is not the best scenario; the most ideal scenario is where one manages to repel an enemy without fighting. The other theory I found convincing is that a shrewd fighter would choose his men wisely and would know how to ride the prevailing situation. Most of the contents would seem to be practical common sense.

The keynote of the first chapter ~ all warfare is based on deception ~ seems to tally with the last chapter, which is about the use of spies.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review - "The Peach Blossom Fan" by Kong Shangren (桃花扇 - 孔尚任)

I read the English version of this famous classical Chinese play set in the late Ming/early Qing dynasty. The translators did a superb job, considering the difficult classical Chinese language and the numerous historical allusions, which are not easy to grasp even for the average Chinese person.

The story is about a late Ming courtesan's struggles to stay loyal to her true love despite villainous attempts by self serving power mongers to tear the lovers apart. It reflects on the stark contrast between the courtesan's strong-willed patriotism and the traitorous deeds of an avaricious and corrupt clique at the Southern Ming court, whose total lack of morals and internecine feud ultimately led to the demise of the Southern Ming Pretender's reign.

I loved the historical background of the play, as well as the poetic renderings of much of the dialogues, which add to the poignancy of the story. I kept referring to the original Chinese edition to check out the beautiful poetry.

Overall, it was a 5 star read.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Book Review - "The Book and the Sword" (書劍恩仇錄) by Jin Yong (金庸)

I had read this in Chinese in my childhood, along with other Jin Yong martial arts novels. The image of the virtuous hero Chen Jialuo stuck in my mind.

Update (Sept. 14, 2016) - I'm reading the English version.

Update (October 8, 2016) - After flipping through a few pages of the English version, I became frustrated as I couldn't recognize the names of the characters due to the "pinyin" romanization (my recollection is in Cantonese). Otherwise, the translation is well done. I'm going to re-read the Chinese version.

Update (December 6, 2016) ~ I've finished rereading the Chinese version of the novel. Almost half a century after my first read, I still found this novel magical! The author skillfully weaves together three main storylines: that of the resistance movement against the Qing rulers by a powerful clique called the Red Flower Society; that of the enigmatic birth secret of Qianlong Emperor who, as it turns out, is related to the protagonist Chen Jialuo, the head of the Red Flower Society; and that of the Xinjiang Uighur tribe's loss and recovery of their sacred scriptures. A convoluted love quadrangle forms between the protagonist, Qianlong and two Uighur sisters. Apart from these key storylines, there are several sub stories about some of the Red Flower Society's members, who are all veteran martial arts experts. The central theme is about honor and integrity of the individual, and loyalty and comradeship of the brotherhood.

For me, this was unquestionably a 5 star historical fantasy read.

Friday, October 28, 2016

More Poems by Su Shi (Su Dongpo)

[This post is edited on November 2, 2016 to add one other lyric poem by Su Shi - Calming Wind and Wave (定風波).]

Original Lyric Poem Calming Wind and Wave (定風波):-

莫聽穿林打葉聲, 何妨吟嘯且徐行;
竹杖芒鞋輕勝馬, 誰怕?  一蓑煙雨任平生;
料峭春風吹酒醒, 微冷, 山頭斜照卻相迎;
回首向來蕭瑟處,歸去, 也無風雨也無晴。

My translation:-

Stop listening to the rain pattering on leaves,
Why not enjoy a stroll, and sing your heart out?
Giving up the horse for sandals and a cane – who would mind?
A straw cloak may be all I need in misty rain.
The spring breeze wakes me up from drowsiness – a bit chilly.
The setting sun warms me though with embracing rays.
Turning back, still mindful of that cold and wretched place.
Now that I have arrived – home at last,
Nothing stirs me any more, the glaring sun, the wind or the rain.

Original Lyric Poem Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs (念奴嬌: 赤壁懷古):-

大江東去, 浪淘盡, 千古風雲人物
古疊西邊, 人道是, 三國周郎赤壁;
亂石崩雲, 驚濤裂岸, 捲起千堆雪;
江山如畫, 一時多少豪傑。
遙想公瑾當年, 小喬初嫁了, 雄姿英發;
羽扇綸巾, 談笑間, 強虜灰飛煙滅。
故國神遊, 多情應笑我, 早生華髮,
人生如夢, 一樽還酹江月。

My English Rendition:-

The Great Yangtze scurries forever east,
Many an ancient hero buried in its sweep.
West of the old forts, they say, 
Was fought Zhou Yu’s Battle of Red Cliffs;
Rampant cliffs that pierced clouds, 
Angry waves that ripped shores, churning up snowy foam.
Such a picturesque country, 
So full of gallant men in times of old.
Thinking of Zhou in that distant past,
He must've looked valiant, with Xiaoqiao his new bride;
Feather fan in hand, hair tied in silk, 
His enemies crushed to dust as he joked.
Such was my dreamy tour; mock me as maudlin,
But I’m just a young white-haired bloke.
Life is but a dream; let me offer wine to the river moon.

[Note: This lyric poem was written during the time when Su Shi was serving as a junior official in Wang Zhou () (in Hubei Province), to which he was banished after his release from prison. His imprisonment had been brought about by his writing a politically-incorrect poem called Crow Terrace Poem (烏臺詩). Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs reflects his dramatic change of outlook on life after experiencing the near-death trauma (as imprisonment could well turn into a death sentence on a momentary whim of the emperor). The “Crow Terrace Case” was an incident in which Su Shi’s Crow Terrace Poem was deliberately taken out of context by his adversaries to make it sound like an offending accusation against the emperor. The whole incident made him feel not only wronged, but also helpless within the then prevalent officialdom where knavery and chicanery thrived. His cherished ideal of serving his country was wrecked by the incident.

Thus, the tone of the lyric poem is one of unfulfilled mission and ruefulness. In recalling Zhou Yu’s (a handsome and gallant general of the Three Kingdoms period) once heroic and romantic deeds, which had nevertheless evaporated into the time river of no return, the poet was trying to express his own helplessness and the heartbreak of unrequited love for his country and his emperor. By implication, the poet wanted to say that as admirable and noble as Zhou, he had only lived a short life of 36 years. So, what right did he have, being a much less accomplished person than Zhou, to complain about petty failures? The undertone is sad (about the vicissitudes of life) though redemptive (because of his unchanging love for his picturesque country).]

Original Poem Plum Blossoms Poem (“梅花詩”):-

春來幽谷水潺潺 ,的皪梅花草棘間
一夜東風吹石裂 ,半隨飛雪渡關山。

My English Rendition:-

Chanting spring creek through the hushed valley fares;
Among thorn bushes, plum blossoms shimmer in a glare.
One night an east gale surges, with stone-shattering force;
Half the petals, with blowing snow, o’er the border they dare.

Original Poem Impromptu Writing on a Xilin Wall (“題西林壁”):-

橫看成嶺側成峰 遠近高低各不同
不識廬山真面目, 祗緣身在此山中。

My English Rendition:-

These Lushan mountains often fool our eyes,
Rolling range one minute, towering crest the next.
Their true portrait from all people hides,
‘Cos they happen to be on the inside.