In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity wit this regime - the Mongols, after all, are invaders - he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind.
Wang is an extraordinarily gifted artist. His paintings are at once delicate and confident; in them, one can see the wind blowing through the trees, the water rushing through rocky valleys, the infinite expanse of China's natural beauty.
But this is not a time for sitting still, and as The Ten Thousand Things unfolds, we follow Wang as he travels through an empire in turmoil. In his wanderings, he encounters, among many memorable characters, other master painters of the period, including the austere eccentric Ni Zan, a fierce female warrior known as the White Tigress who will recruit him as a military strategist, and an ugly young Buddhist monk who rises from beggary to extraordinary heights.
The Ten Thousand Things is rich with exquisite observations, and John Spurling endows every description, every detail, with the precision and depth that the real-life Wang Meng brought to his painting. But it is also a novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama, and in its seamless fusion of the epic and the intimate, it achieves a truly singular beauty. A novel that deserves to be compared to the classic Chinese novels that inspired it, The Ten Thousand Things is nothing short of a literary event.
"THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS, translated from a manuscript rescued from the Hanlin Library fire by Dr Stephen Albert during the siege of the foreign legations in Peking". This refers to the 'Boxer' Rebellion of 1900 in what is now Beijing. Privately printed by the Kanhai Press (no place or date of publication). Bound in boards covered with red cloth, somewhat stained, scuffed, faded and foxed. Only known copy. Price on application.
1. LANDSCAPE IN WINTER
The times are turning bad again. I have been arrested for going to see a private art collection. Can you believe it? An old man of nearly eighty, a retired magistrate, is put in prison on suspicion. Instead of sitting on a dais giving judgment, here I am sitting on a stone floor waiting to be judged. Of course I'm only on remand. No one has tried or condemned me yet for the crime I am supposed to have committed, but still I've been here for weekslong enough almost to have got used to the stench of the bucket in ...
It is striking that a novel set hundreds of years ago in China can have lessons that resonate even in our times. Spurling has us contemplate our own lives; revisit what values we hold dear over others. He makes us consider the role of duty and passion and what we would do if the two don’t align. “The Ten Thousand Things,” after all, never fade away. They take different avatars and ring with varying resonance for different people through the generations.
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).
Full Review (1112 words).
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