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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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.

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