Excerpt from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ten Thousand Things

by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 400 pages
    Apr 2015, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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You don't deserve it. You're greedy and selfish."

Yes, he was; and humiliated too, to have exposed his greed and selfishness so crudely. At the same time he thought he did love Grandfather as much as his ring and that having the ring would somehow seal their relationship and keep it alive. Because by that time, when Wang was fourteen, his grandfather never scrupled to admit openly that although his wife, his brother, his son and his son's son—all of them his own pupils—were sensitive and skilled artists, none was as gifted as his daughter's son. Still, Wang never mentioned the ring again after that and tried to forget it himself, assuming it had gone into the grave, until three years later, when his grandmother was dying in her turn and Wang came to her bedside to say goodbye. Suddenly she said in her faint, distorted voice (half her still beautiful, clever face was twisted and rigid):

"Pillow . . ."

"What, Grandmother?"

"Yours at last, dear child!"

Glancing back at his tearful mother in case he had misunderstood, he received an almost imperceptible nod, then nervously put out his hand and felt about under the pillow, his eyes never ceasing to look into the nearest eye, the still living, glistening eye of his grandmother. And there it was, his fingers touched it and drew it out: the white jade ring carved with dragons which his grandmother had not been able to part with as long as she was alive, though she never wore it.

Turning constantly in his bed, Wang suddenly remembered that, after bringing the firewood home, he had washed his hands before changing his clothes. Had he still had the ring then? Did it slip off in the water? He got up and went to see, not troubling to light a lamp or to call Deng to light one for him, but feeling his way in the dark. The bowl had been emptied, of course, and there was no ring in the bottom of it. In the morning, first thing, they must search the ground where the dirty water had been thrown. He returned to bed, almost hopeful, almost forgiving himself his carelessness.

But he still found it difficult to sleep. He was reproaching himself now for not being a worthy recipient of the ring. We educated people make a great display of humility when we meet, trying to get the better of each other in unimportance. It is usually only a formality, of course, a polite mask for our feelings of superiority. All the same we are also peculiarly susceptible to genuine feelings of unworthiness, trained as we are from the earliest age to be conscientious as well as sensitive and clever, to defer to our elders and pay exaggerated respect to our ancestors. Half waking, half dozing, Wang began to imagine that it was his grandfather's spirit, rather than fate, which had slid the ring off his finger.

"I should never have given it to you in the first place," he seemed to hear the spirit say. "It's an Emperor's ring, not at all suitable for a small-time clerk. I should have given it to my own son, your uncle, the Governor of a city, who would have passed it on to his son, also an able administrator and likely to achieve high office."

"But you gave it to me for being an artist, Grandfather, and I have resigned from my despicable job precisely in order to concentrate on my art."

"Your uncle and cousin are both excellent artists. For people of our class, art is a recreation and a pleasurable adventure, but not a substitute for public duty. Besides, having failed in one direction, you will most likely fail in the other. The mistake was mine, I admit. Your gifts were great and you were a charming child, but I should have judged you by your character. Character makes the artist as much as it does the Governor."

There was no answering him. This grandfather, Lord Meng, was still young when the Mongols swept down into the southern part of the Empire and, like most others of his noble background and first-class education, at first turned his back on the conquerors and retired from public life. But Khan Khublai, the new Mongol Emperor, soon showed that he was a preserver more than a destroyer. He urgently invited our leading intellectuals to his court and persuaded many to take office again, Lord Meng among them. Under Khublai and his successors Wang's grandfather rose to become Governor of a province, Minister of State and Director of the Central Academy of Culture. On top of that he was recognised in his own lifetime and ever afterwards as a great artist and teacher of other artists. Khublai himself called him "one of the immortals" and an honorary Dukedom was bestowed on him after his death. Most titles in our Empire, as doubtless elsewhere, are acquired by nepotism, graft or violence, but a posthumous title is a true honour.

Excerpted from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling. Copyright © 2014 by John Spurling. Excerpted by permission of Overlook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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