Category Archives: China

Books about China.

Review 210: Interesting Times

LL 210 - Interesting TimesInteresting Times by Terry Pratchett

There is a saying, often attributed to the Chinese – “May you live in interesting times.” Usually when this is invoked, it’s done so as a curse, the idea being that interesting times are more likely to cause you trouble than nice boring times, and perhaps that’s true. The folks in Mali, for example, are certainly living in interesting times right now. The trouble is that not everybody is able to stay alive to enjoy them.

Pictured: An interesting time

Pictured: An interesting time

That’s one of the problems with life as we know it – we long for things to be interesting, exciting and thrilling, like what happens to Bruce Willis every time he’s on the screen. When those times come, however, we realize that it’s the boring, predictable times we really want. In other words, we want whatever we don’t have at the moment, which just goes to prove that we, as a species, are messed up in the head. If we had been assembled by any rational Supreme Being, it would have made us a little more accepting of the lives we lead. This mind-set may not lead us to the advanced society we have now, but it certainly would lead us to something approaching world peace.

This book is about wanting what you don’t have, and what happens when you get it.

The central character is the wizard – or Wizzard – Rincewind, one of the oldest of the Discworld characters. He’s been with the series since the first book, The Colour of Magic, and he’s grown to be a favorite for many readers. What Rincewind wants, really wants, is to be left alone. No quests, no challenges, no one trying to kill him or otherwise ruin his day. If the world forgot that Rincewind existed, he’d be the happiest man alive.

Unfortunately for Rincewind, the world hasn’t forgotten him. He has to be sent to the far-off Agatean Empire, a place so remote that few, if any, people know anything about it. A message came, asking for the Great Wizzard, and Rincewind is the only one who fits the bill. The fact that he can’t do magic is not important, really.

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with...

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with…

When he gets there, he meets Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde – seven incredibly old barbarian heroes. Seven men who don’t know the meaning of the word “defeat,” though you’d probably have to repeat it very loudly before they heard what you’d said. Together, the Horde are headed to the capital city of the Empire, looking to make the biggest heist in their long, long, long barbarian careers.

Together, Rincewind, Cohen and the Horde find the Empire in the throes of a people’s revolution, borne of righteous peasant rage and the skillful manipulations of the Grand Vizier, Lord Hong.

Like so many Discworld books, this is a lot of fun to read. The Agatean Empire is a blend of ancient China and Japan, giving us ninja and samurai alongside blue and white Ming ceramics and an exam-based bureaucracy. And like most of the other Discworld books, this one gives you something to think about – what do you want to be?

Rincewind wants to be left alone, because he thinks he’ll be safer that way. Cohen wants to settle down, because he worries that his life as a barbarian hero might be catching up to him. Lord Hong wants to be a gentleman of Ankh-Morpork, or at least the ruler of such men. And the people of the Empire, who call themselves the Red Army, want to be free, even though they have no idea what being free means.

They're... they're TERRIFYING!!

They’re… they’re TERRIFYING!!

The only character who seems to change his life for the better is Mister Saveloy, the youngest member of the Silver Horde and the one they call “Teach.” He realized that what he thought he wanted – a life of educating young people – wasn’t what he really wanted after all. What he wanted was the certainty and simplicity of Cohen’s barbarian lifestyle, and found it rather agreed with him.

So what’s the lesson here? Perhaps this: Be happy with what you have, but don’t be afraid to change. Just remember that not all change is for the better.

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“…I decided to give it up and make a living by the sword.”
“After being a teacher all your life?”
“It did mean a change of perspective, yes.”
“But… well… surely… the privation, the terrible hazards, the daily risk of death…”
Mister Saveloy brightened up. “Oh, you’ve been a teacher, have you?”
– Rincewind and “Teach”, Interesting Times
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Filed under adventure, China, Discworld, fantasy, humor, Terry Pratchett

Review 78: Bridge of Birds


Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

It’s not often that you read a book and it immediately jumps up into your “Best Books Ever” list. Usually it takes some time and reflection, careful thought about the book’s characters, themes and message. Perhaps a re-read would be in order, and then, after some consideration, you might say, “Yeah. I think this is a really, really good book that I want everyone else to read.”

I think I hit that somewhere around page 182.

This is, as the cover tells us, a novel of “An ancient China that never was.” It’s set in the long-ago, indeterminate past (of which China has so very much), and starts off in a small village with an unusual history. The village of Ku-Fu, the story goes, was home to a section of the Great Wall, commissioned by the Emperor of China many centuries ago. This would not in itself be notable, except that it was built 122 miles south of the rest of the wall, thus serving no real purpose whatsoever. The general in charge was, he maintains, given the orders by the Emperor of Heaven himself, a story which held no sway with the more earthly Emperor who was ready to execute him. A more believable story was produced – that a great dragon had rested itself on that part of the wall, thus moving it, and it shouldn’t be tampered with.

And so the village of Ku-Fu became home to what was known as The Dragon’s Pillow, a place that would one day loom large in the history of not only the village, but all of China.

It is a peaceful village with the usual colorful characters that you get in such a place, such as the terrible partners Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, two greedy and unscrupulous men who hold the economic life of the village in their hands. When their misdeeds go too far, resulting in the horrible poisoning of many of the village’s children, the story’s narrator, Number Ten Ox (whose given name is Lu Yu, but he would not want to be confused with the famous author of The Classic of Tea) is tasked to bring a wise man from the city to diagnose the problem and find a solution. Out of the many wise men, Ox finds Li Kao, a cynical, world-weary curmudgeon with, as he so often tells us, a slight flaw in his character.

Together, Ox and Li Kao must travel the length and breadth of China to find the Great Root – a ginseng root that was kept by the mythical Princess of Birds, and whose healing properties are all that stand between the children of Ku-Fu and certain death. Along the way, they must travel terrible labyrinths, fight unimaginable monsters, battle against an immortal evil, bring peace to restless ghosts and solve the greatest mystery in the history of China – what happened to the Princess of Birds, beloved of the Star Shepherd, Prince of Heaven.

There is just so much to recommend this book, I don’t even know where to start. For one, it’s a lot of fun to read. The person who recommended it to me did so on the reasonable assumption that, since I like Terry Pratchett so much, I would probably like this book as well. And that was a very good assumption – there is a certain similarity between the two. Hughart uses humor very deftly, keeping the characters alive and interesting through even the most dangerous of times. Where Pratchett’s humor often feels like literary slapstick, however, Hughart’s is a bit more subtle. The characters are funny, yes, but the book was not written to make you laugh. It was written so that the reader would have a good time reading a story well-told.

And what a story it was. It begins with a fairly straightforward quest – a search for the Great Ginseng Root to cure the children of Ku-Fu – and turns into something so much larger than that. As the evil Duke of Ch’in says, they’re on the right quest, but for all the wrong reasons, a cryptic statement that takes a while to make sense. The scope of the story gets bigger and bigger as it goes on, and you realize that the pieces for this quest were put into place hundreds, if not thousands of years before the story actually started.

The history of China is on display here, if somewhat distorted for the purposes of entertainment. Hughart spent time living in the Far East and gained a healthy respect for its long and often unbelievable history and culture. The book includes elements of China’s history of inventiveness and ingenuity, as well as cultural myths that extend beyond its borders.

The characters themselves are wonderful, too. Number Ten Ox is an earnest, strong, well-meaning young man who has one goal in mind- save the children of his village. Li Kao is a devious old man who tends to use his wisdom and quick thinking for more nefarious purposes – thus the slight flaw in his character. There are a lot of notable minor characters as well, including Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, who somehow manage to turn up all through the story, always being chased by the people they’ve cheated. The Duke of Ch’in is a terrifying figure, Henpecked Ho is comically dark, and Miser Shen starts off utterly unlikable, but if there’s one character in the story that forces you to put down the book for a few minutes and gather your thoughts, it is he.

It’s a moving tale of hope and perseverance and the power of myth. It’s a story about the need for humanity to temper desire and what happens when we let our lives be governed by fear and greed. It’s about love and justice, revenge and history. It’s a book that almost immediately earned my respect and admiration, and that’s pretty hard to do.

So go get it. Block out some time when you can sit and fall into the story and really get absorbed in it, because let me promise you – it will be well worth it.

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“Take a large bowl. Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei – which means ‘dry cup’ – and drink to the dregs.”
“And I will be wise?”
“Better. You will be Chinese.”
– Li Kao to Procipius, on attaining wisdom, Bridge of Birds
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Barry Hughart
Bridge of Birds on Wikipedia
Bridge of Birds at Amazon.com
BarryHughart.com

Qixi Festival on Wikipedia

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Filed under Barry Hughart, China, fantasy, humor, quest