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

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Ten Thousand Things

by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2015, 368 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


Anyone might feel unworthy to wear such a grandfather's ring, let alone if he lost it. Poor Wang! He began to wish he had never been born or at least not born to such an inheritance. And yet a question hangs over this "honour" and this inheritance, does it not? Given that of all the sins a properly educated gentleman may commit, disloyalty is among the worst, what is to be made of Lord Meng's conduct? It was not just that he served the foreign conquerors, but that he himself was descended from the founder of the native Song Dynasty, which the Mongols had overthrown. Perhaps a posthumous Dukedom does not seem such a very great honour when bestowed by barbarians on a man who has betrayed his own imperial ancestors?

No one, of course, disputes Lord Meng's abilities as an administrator or his genius as an artist, but wouldn't he have been a still better artist if his character had been less pliable? And although his art included landscapes, portraits and exquisite calligraphy, he specialised in painting horses. What could be better calculated to appeal to the taste of those galloping missiles, those weapons on horseback, the Mongols? As a matter of fact Lord Meng's eldest son, the Governor of Wuxing, was primarily a horse-painter too; so was his son.

But none of this was any help to Wang in his self-abasement. He would have angrily dismissed it as the envy and spite of more timid and small-minded people. Such people left the cities and went to live in isolated places partly because it was the correct thing to do, but partly also to avoid the Mongols' outrageous taxes. These well-born, well-educated dissidents occupied their enforced leisure by talking about art and literature and by writing and painting themselves. They copied and played variations on the styles of the most admired masters of the past, depicting the hills and forests, streams, mountains, fishermen, woodcutters and themselves and their friends in retreat, just as if the Song Dynasty still ruled. They despised those professional artists who stayed near the court to make a living out of their art and they thought it disgraceful to sell anything themselves. However, in many cases their means were slender and they did accept payment by one subterfuge or another: through a friend or relative or by giving a painting away in the front of the studio while finding a reciprocal gift in a back corner. Admirable and patriotic people!

How, Wang would have demanded, was his grandfather different? Not in his knowledge or practice of art, except that he surpassed all the rest. Not in giving his work away nor in retiring to his retreat in the hills whenever he could spare the time. Solely, then, in his incorrectly intimate relationship with the Mongol government. But it was precisely because of this, because of Lord Meng's influence and intercession with the government, that all those correct people avoided being harassed and could maintain their creative isolation. So, in Wang's view, his grandfather's brave decision to set aside the letter of traditional principles and serve Khan Khublai made him the best patriot of all.

Yes, of course, the Khan was a savage. He came from a wilderness where they live only in tents, while his grandfather, Jinghis, had been the most ruthless mass-slaughterer and destroyer of civilisations ever known on earth. Nevertheless, Wang would have argued, Khublai saw the point of civilisation, he desired to be civilised himself. And among those he looked to for guidance was Lord Meng. Should Meng have stayed away in the hills and left lesser, weaker, coarser, more trivial people to advise the new Emperor? Wasn't it the best principle in these circumstances to run the Empire in our way, so that as nearly as possible it made no difference how barbarous the ultimate rulers were? As for painting horses to please Mongols, that sneer too Wang would have rejected, pointing out that we had horses long before Khublai seized the Empire. Horses were as important to us as to the Mongols, the difference being that we, not being primitive nomads, had other equally important possessions: temples, palaces, wine, silk, porcelain, sculpture, literature, painting, calligraphy, printed books, libraries, theatres, the examination system, the civil service, written laws, magistrates, trade, education, agriculture, gardens, canals, ships, bridges, baths, fountains, astronomy, philosophy, jewellery, jade. In any case, must we believe that everything about the Yuan Dynasty was negative? Wang's grandfather didn't think so. "Everyone lives his life in this world according to his own times," was one of his sayings; and he even dared to point out that the Mongols, simply by not interfering, opened up new subjects to artists and freed their style from the rigidities imposed by the old Imperial Academy. And wasn't it Khublai who created our imperial post system, improving the roads and establishing decent inns at regular intervals, with relays of swift horses and messengers always in readiness? He also repaired and extended the Grand Canal, so that goods and passengers could travel quickly and easily half the length of the Empire: from the former Song Dynasty capital, Quinsai, south of the Yangzi River, to Khublai's new capital, Dadu in the far north.

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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Four Yuan Masters

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Opposite of Everyone
by Joshilyn Jackson

"Quirky and appealing characters, an engaging story, and honest dialogue make this a great book!"
- BookBrowse

About the book
Join the discussion!

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: All We Have Left
    All We Have Left
    by Wendy Mills
    September 11, 2001 is a date that few Americans will ever forget. It was on this day that our ...
  • Book Jacket: A Great Reckoning
    A Great Reckoning
    by Louise Penny
    Canadian author Louise Penny is back with her twelfth entry in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache ...
  • Book Jacket: Homegoing
    Homegoing
    by Yaa Gyasi
    It's all very well to challenge people to be the masters of their own destiny, but when you&#...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Victoria
    by Daisy Goodwin

    Daisy Goodwin breathes new life into Victoria's story, and does so with sensitivity, verve, and wit." - Amanda Foreman

    Read Member Reviews

Who Said...

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading, you wish the author that wrote it was a ...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

The Big Holiday Wordplay:
$400+ in Prizes

Enter Now

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.