Tuesday, June 6, 2017

History and Historical Fiction




Historians have attributed the demise of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) to various reasons, the most prominent being: emperors indulging in extravagance and/or self-glory or being pathetically paranoid and/or incompetent, factional feuds between eunuchs and officials in court, endemic corruption in all levels of administration, and the court overtaxing the already desperate underclass of peasants. It took a long period of time (stretching over the reigns of the last three or four emperors) for these factors to foment and become a deadly tumor that set the nation’s body and spirit on an irreversible trend of decay. This internal cancerous growth, in convergence with fateful external factors like the emergence of an ogling neighbor state and the rise of rebellious commoner leaders, ultimately put the Dynasty to rest. Indeed, those internal causes of death sound almost banal, given that they can probably be applied, with adjustments here and there, to any previous dynastic era in China’s long history.

In the case of the Ming Dynasty, one external factor - the “ogling neighbor state” - turned out to be the Manchu Empire, a newly united tribe of cavalry Jurchens under Nurhaci of the Aisin Gioro clan. The origins of the Jurchens could be traced back to the Great Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234), which had persisted in nettling the Southern Song Dynasty after defeating the Liao in Northern China. It was Hong Taiji, one of Nurhaci’s sons, who established the Qing Dynasty in Mukden, just outside the borders of Ming China. But his dream of conquering China proper was not to be realized in his lifetime. Just one year after his death, though, his half-brother Dorgon, Regent to the child Shunzhi Emperor, fulfilled that dream with the uncanny help of a Ming General, Wu Sangui. Yet the fledgling years of Qing were far from stable, and it took the wits and tenacity of one Mongolian woman – Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang - to keep the multi-ethnic Empire from crumbling.

Those are just some basic facts of history at the crucial crossroads where Ming’s end met with Qing’s start. The study of history can turn people off if it involves only chewing on dry hard facts. But we ought to sing the praises of historians who take great pains to attempt an unbiased and accurate recording of historical facts, if only because our collective future depends on drawing valuable lessons from and avoiding disastrous mistakes of our past, all races included. That said, we must remember that history is often written by the victors, or those who dominate or suppress others (no distinction is made between Western and Eastern history here), and thus we should keep a questioning mind. As well, there is always the element of historians’ own subjective interpretation of facts, so that three different historians may well present three accounts of the same event with quite different slants. All of them valid.

Yet, history is intrinsically made by people and it is always the “actors” of history that make the study interesting or even worthwhile. It should not be surprising then, that some of us love reading historical fiction for the very reason that such fiction focuses on telling the personal stories of those “actors” of history.

The task of weaving historical facts with fictional narratives (in some cases with fictional characters) falls to historical novelists, whose mission is to work creatively with the gaps left by historians, while animating the actors of history with feelings, emotions and thoughts. In general, historical novels are invariably more enticing and less intimidating than dry, non-fiction history, thus more likely to reach a wider audience. If such novels can pique readers’ interest and curiosity and make them want to learn more, then they will have served one great purpose.

I am not a historian, at best only an amateur in Chinese history. But I am passionate about writing historical fiction set in China’s distant past, in which is embedded a colossal untapped reservoir of juicy materials to write good fiction from. The historical fiction genre has long been skewed towards Western history and badly needs diversification into Oriental history. I, for one, would certainly love to see more historical fiction writers jump on this Old China bandwagon.

The above is my humble view.

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