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 by John Spurling
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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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Under this Mongol Emperor—why not admit it?—we were governed efficiently and not, on the whole, cruelly. Our civilisation was damaged but not destroyed. It's true that things began to go wrong under Khublai's successors, but how many dynasties thrive for more than a hundred years?

* * *

Wang's thoughts were still on his grandfather when the next day dawned and the search for the ring was resumed. It was not found either in the place where the bowl of water had been emptied or anywhere along the unlucky firewood-gatherer's route, though the snow had melted. The sky was overcast and the atmosphere heavy. Wang returned to his studio and sat down in front of the unfinished drawing. When Deng came in to say that the gardener had been searching the bed of the stream and still not found the ring, he was dismissed with an angry gesture as if the matter was of no further interest. Really Wang was angry with himself, as his mother had once been, for caring so much about a mere object and for showing others that he cared. Making ink on the inkstone and reminding himself yet again of his naked finger, picking up a brush and recalling his grandfather's left hand on the paper thirty years before, he ruined his drawing with distracted strokes. He stood up and went to the window. It had begun to rain heavily and the irritation in the surface of the stream directly below, with the relentless beating on the roof above, matched and assuaged his own feelings. Often as a child he had stood like this watching downpours with mixed emotions of frustration and exhilaration in his grandfather's retreat in the Blue Bien Mountains. He remembered saying to his mother:

"They ought to be called 'Grey Rain Mountains'."

"Yes, but on a nice day they do look blue," she said.

"Not as blue as the sky," he said. "On a nice day they look black."

"They look blue from a distance," she said.

"But why 'Bien'?"

"Because a long time ago a man called Bien Ho found a wonderful piece of jade when he was walking in these mountains."

This explanation always troubled Wang. Surely the jade should have been called after the mountains (which must have already had a name even long ago), not after the man who found it? And didn't all mountains look blue from a distance?

That country retreat in the Blue Bien Mountains was a far larger place than this, a walled complex of many buildings, higher up and more remote. But although the carriages that brought visitors had to wind about the hills and cross five bridges over the same rushing stream to get there, it was not at all solitary in those days. The whole family was centred on Wang's illustrious grandparents. His grandmother, widely admired then and still famous now for her paintings of bamboo, had been Lord Meng's student and was several years younger than him. Children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, as well as friends and pupils assembled round these two masters and vied for their instruction and approval. The retreat was as much an academy as a summer holiday resort.

Wang remembered one summer especially, when, barely fifteen, he had fallen in love with a cousin of the same age from his grandmother's side of the family. Peony's grandfather had been a Mongol officer, who took part in the Mongols' unsuccessful campaign against the Annamese in the tropical south and was killed by the unhealthy climate. Her family was poor and particularly grateful for the good food and wine, the comfortable rooms and beautiful garden of Lord Meng's retreat, which they seldom visited because they lived much further north. Peony attended drawing lessons like all the children, but she was not very serious about her own art. When she saw what Wang could do, she told him that she felt like a mule trying to keep pace with a horse. That pleased him, since in everything else that went with being young—energy, high spirits, adventurousness, aptitude at climbing, playing football—she, brought up in the Mongol fashion without having her feet bound, was the horse and he the mule.

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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