Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book Birthday Giveaway Entry Ends August 31!

Please use the contact form (on the right) to enter your name and address for a lucky draw on September 1, 2019.

Deadline for entries is 5:00 pm Pacific Time on Saturday, August 31, 2019. Good Luck!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Li Xiangjun and "The Peach Blossom Fan"

As I previously mentioned, Li Xiangjun 李香君 (1624 – 1653) is one of the three leading characters of my upcoming novel. She was among the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai 秦淮八艷 and the subject of Ming scholar Hou Fangyu’s 侯方域’s literary essay titled Biography of Lady Li 姬傳.

The premises where Li used to reside and ply her trade as a courtesan (she was a celebrated kunqu opera singer) were called Villa of Alluring Fragrance 媚香樓, which was located along the banks of the Qinhuai River, a glitzy pleasure district of Nanjing in the late-Ming dynasty. The above photographs show the reconstructed building at No. 38, Bank Note Vault Street, Qinhuai, Nanjing 南京秦淮區鈔庫街三十八.

If you have read Kong Shangren’s 孔尚任’s iconic historical play The Peach Blossom Fan 桃花扇, you would already be familiar with the real-life heroine Li Xiangjun. This classical play is a dramatized narrative based on Hou’s essay Biography of Lady Li and is a poetic weaving of the tragic love affair between Hou and Li with the collapse of the Ming dynasty.

I’ve recently stumbled across a poem written by renowned writer and philosopher Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895 – 1976), which gives a reflective and laudatory description of Li Xiangjun’s character, with gibes targeting men in general. He inscribed this poem on a scroll portrait of Li Xiangjun that he had privately commissioned.



My Translation:

Lin Yutang’s Ode to Xiangjun:-

Xiangjun is a woman, her blood spilt on the peach blossom fan.
Her moral virtue lights up history, and shames the macho men.
Xiangjun is a woman, and she has grit aplenty.
I have her painting hung on the wall, to teach me humility.
Take a look at all the men, is there any with intrepidity?
They’re all wishy-washy; what have become of them!
The world these days, is filled with crooks and shams.
I can’t go wrong admiring, beauties in a distant time-span.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Book Review - "The Family Romanov" by Candace Fleming

A breezy and concise historical account of Russia’s last imperial reign of Tsar Nicholas II, this non-fiction history book reads a lot like a novel.

Like with many other similar stretches of history, when viewed in retrospect, the course of events would seem to be so natural and predictable that it makes one wonder, had things been handled with more compassion and less hubris by those in power, if the odds of averting tragedies and disasters could’ve increased.

The Family Romanov gives an intimate account of the lives of the Romanov family members, namely, Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia and one son-and-heir Alexei. The account starts with the 1884 courtship between teenagers Nicholas and Alix of Hesse (who was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter), and carries us through to the tragic end of the whole family in July 1918.

Juxtaposing narratives of the opulent, hedonistic lifestyle of the Imperial family side by side with anecdotes of the peasant class’s everyday scourge of abject poverty, oppression and despair, the author presents a poignant picture of two diametrically opposite worlds, worlds inhabited by two classes that are distinguished by birth and destiny. Exaggerated sense of entitlement and obtuseness of the privileged ruling class becomes the cause of its own ultimate undoing.

I’m just puzzled as to why the French-educated Romanovs had not learned from the downfall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

It is interesting to note that it was not until July 2007 that the remains of Alexei and of one of his sisters were finally found. (The remains of the other five family members had been uncovered in 1991.)

I’m giving this well-researched book 4 full stars.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Book Review - "The Iron King" by Maurice Druon

This is the first book in The Accursed Kings series which inspired George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

I have always wanted to learn more about the Capetian dynasty of France. In this novel, the leading character is Philip IV, also known as Philip the Fair owing to the king’s handsome looks. But his rigid and icy personality also earned him another nickname, which is “the Iron King”.

On the whole, the novel is episodic but doesn’t lack suspenseful moments. Some descriptions of the cruel methods of execution and torture are quite graphic. Apart from being entertained on the royals jockeying for power and the royal women’s love affairs, one also gets a peek into the period’s morals, superstitions, politics and religious and territorial conflicts. One of Philips IV’s more notorious deeds is his brutal annihilation of the Order of the Knights Templar and confiscation of its wealth. He also directs much of his effort towards wrestling power from the Holy Empire. Generally, character development is not very well executed.

It is interesting to note that the demise of the Order of the Templars gave rise to construction guilds and secret institutions that eventually became the origins of Freemasonry, a fraternal organization known for its secretive initiation rites.

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars, rounding up to 4. I’m undecided as to whether I will read the sequels (including this one, there are seven books in the whole series). 

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 and 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), Chen Yuanyuan 陳圓圓 (1625 – 1681) and Li Xiangjun 李香君 (1624 – 1653) were courtesans with exceptional talents and stunning beauty from the late Ming dynasty. They were the most celebrated among the famous Eight Great Beauties of Qinhuai in Nanjing 秦淮八艷, by virtue of their high-profile romance with prominent literati and their drama-filled lives.

Liu Rushi was a poetry prodigy with artistic flair in calligraphy, painting and embroidery, while Chen Yuanyuan and Li Xiangjun were renowned kunqu opera singers and pipa (4-stringed lute) players. They are the three protagonists of my upcoming novel.

I’ve recently come to know that some of Liu's paintings are 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.

For many people, especially 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 nation’s spirit of independence and liberal thinking. 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 to be a natural timing.

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