土曜日, 1月 31, 2004

Yang family warriors, pt. I (pt. II below)

At the Chinese bookstore, I picked up the 楊家將演義 (Chronicles of the Yang Family Warriors). It's a relatively short novel, written in the half 白話 (plain language) half 文言文 (literary language) of Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber. Chronicles is a FAR lesser work--the characterization is poor, the background description is practically nonexistent, and every plot arc is wrapped up in five pages. As much as I delight in trash fiction, I wouldn't have wasted time on that mediocre novel if it weren't about my ancestors.

Yes, apparently I am related to the famous Yang family warriors of the Sung Dynasty. I have hazy memories of Dad's family burning incense and sacrificing a hog to them when I was in elementary school. Then again, Chinese/Taiwanese people love to claim famous historical figures as their ancestors. For all I know, every Yang family in the continent believes it's descended from the 楊家將.

It's amusing to discover that one's alleged ancestor was quite a Don Juan. In the Chronicles, Yang Wen Guan 楊文廣 is the Orlando Bloom of the Sung Dynasty. As the son of famous generals, he has a reputation for martial prowess. Yet, every character who is introduced to him remarks on how pretty his light skin and red lips are. Aiyah.

In one chapter, Yang Wen Guan is tasked with retrieving three stolen imperial treasures from a pair of female bandit chieftains. They know he is engaged to an imperial princess but still decide that he would make an excellent husband. The less beautiful of the two chieftains first shoots Yang Wen Guan off his horse and pressures him to marry her. When Wen Guan refuses, she ties him up in her bedroom and gets his right-hand man to be the matchmaker. "Why not?" Wen Guan asks himself, and they're quickly married. The NEXT DAY, the other chieftain shows up, throws a violent fit, and Wen Guan marries her, too. Wen Guan soon bids them farewell and promises to return.

On the way back to the capital, he runs into a third bandit family. Wen Guan defeats the father, but the smitten daughter engages him in an extended duel. Riding away from the battleground, she lures Wen Guan to a gorge, where his horse tosses him into the water. Wen Guan is quickly "forced" to marry her, and they tearily part days later. When Wen Guan FINALLY arrives back in the capital, the grateful emperor arranges his wedding with the princess. In the course of two chapters (about ten pages), Wen Guan marries four times, and three of his wives don't know about each other. Hilarity ensues.

Yang family warriors, pt. II

In reading the Chronicles, you discover the Chinese concept of the strong woman. Though the 楊家將 (Yang family warriors) start out with a patriarch and seven sons, everyone but the sixth son dies or goes missing. (No. 6 dies later, but after producing an heir.) For the rest of the story, Son No. 6 and his boy (Wen Guan) go through various crises and rely on their mothers, wives, and aunts to bail them out. These 楊家女將 ("lady warriors of the Yang family") are mostly widows who still fight for the corrupt dynasty that killed their husbands.

From the Chronicles, it seems that Chinese men don't mind being beaten by beautiful warrior women, as long as the women fall in love with them in return. If two or three (or four or five!) such women fall desperately in love with the same man...why, the more the merrier! This scenario is a staple of lesser historical novels (the irritating 兒女英雄傳) and wushia novels (the Jinyong ones come to mind). Why these spirited, athletic, independent Chinese women would fall for physically weaker, annoyingly orthodox Chinese men is a mystery. Wen Guan's excuse is that he's a 10th century Orlando Bloom, but most of the other "heroes" are not that lucky. The classic example is Liu Bei from Three Kingdoms and Sun Chuan's besotted sister. Liu Bei is not much of a prize, but the Princess abandons her family for him anyway. Gah.

I'm usually not much of a feminist, but Chinese novels always get me worked up.

水曜日, 1月 28, 2004

I started on Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds after Jaquandor recommended it (read his review here) and finally found time to finish it yesterday (and started on the second book immediately :p).

Bridge of Birds is what you never knew you wanted: a delightful fantasy/mystery set in medieval China. Exactly when and where in medieval China is a good question--Number Ten Ox lives within running distance of Peking, and it's apparently the Tang dynasty. In fact, Barry Hughart manages the extraordinary feat of getting the history wrong and the setting perfectly right.

As a lapsed Chinese history buff, it was fun to spot all the (intentional?) errors in the background. Hughart takes all the Chinese dynasties and meshes them together. Thus, we have a Sui Dowager (the Ancestress) living during Tang Tai-Tsung's reign, along with a Dukedom of Ch'in that's survived eight hundred years (the dynasty only lasted fifteen.) Tsao Hsuei-Ching is mentioned as a great writer, though he won't be born for another millennium, while the jia gu wen of the Shang dynasty shows up, though it too wasn't discovered until the Ching Dynasty. I don't say this to nitpick. Hughart's a genius--he doesn't let chronology keep him from capturing the essence of Chinese culture.

A minor (but telling) example:
"There really was a minor deity called the Princess of Birds, although not necessarily as described in the story, and she really did wear a crown that was decorated with three feathers from the Kings of Birds. We would have to be as blind as neo-Confucians not to guess what happened."

The "neo-Confucians" jab is technically unnecessary to the plot and historically inaccurate (these guys show up in the Sung Dynasty.) But where else in Chinese history could Hughart find such a large group of reactionary idiots? It's an obscure reference that completes the uniquely Chinese feeling of the novel.

As you may have guessed, the bridge of birds sort of refers to the Shephard (Niou Lang) and Weaver (Jhi Nyu) of the legend. Hughart has his own twist to the myth, which I actually prefer to its rather dull origin. There are many scenes in this novel where the author surpasses his source material: the dancing girl and her captain and Miser Shen's Ah Chen poignant stories in their own right.

I agree with Jaquandor in everything but my reaction to the last arc of the novel. The surprise of the ending is indeed wonderful, but it also sent chills down my spine. Indeed, I haven't had this many goosebumps from a book since reading the first third of Fellowship of the Ring. (Ringwraiths are scary.) Well, the Duke of Ch'in scared the crap out of me, too--call it ancestral memory of the original Qin Shihuangdi, but the Duke is just practically Poe-esque. Indeed, the more you know about Shihuangdi's motivations, the more plausible and terrifying the story becomes.

I wonder if I am unique in this reaction. Right now, I've started Story of the Stone, and the Laughing Prince is also keeping me awake at night. Read it and let me know.

土曜日, 1月 24, 2004

On a less serious note...

I've been cramming chemistry with the Gladiator soundtrack blasting from the headphones (listened to the Beautiful Mind soundtrack two hours ago), and then I see this on the page:

The Russell Saunders Coupling Scheme

I must be dyslexic, because only two words immediately stood out...My mind really didn't need to go there.


金曜日, 1月 23, 2004

I may be giving the impression that I do nothing but study and read books of great literary value. Pppphhhtt! It was Chinese New Year's Eve on Wed. (my birthday), and we stayed up late eating cake and watching My Sassy Girl (a Korean romantic comedy) and Hero (Chang Yimou's beautiful propaganda flick.

My Sassy Girl is a charming film that trots out every cliche in the genre:
she can't get over the death of her old boyfriend, he struggles in school to meet his parents' expectations, they search for each other but happen to be on opposite sides of the escalator, she bids him farewell at the train station but then starts chasing it...The fun is all in the delivery. The stars are great comic actors--indeed, it's when the movie becomes blatantly sentimental that it bogs down.

I find that Korean movies in general is rather melodramatic. As a friend pointed out, it's always boy meets girl, boy gets girl, girl dies of leukemia or boy meets girl, girl is actually his sister, boy and girl agonize for two hours, boy and girl are actually unrelated because boy's mom was having an affair. The Japanese already went through that phase a decade ago and are much more sophisticated--or perhaps I'm just being biased. :)

Still, while My Sassy Girl could have been a Japanese or Chinese film, Hero is an unmistakably Chinese film. When you get a bunch of Chinese people together, the regional differences always stand out (i.e. everyone dislikes the Shanghai-ese). But tied to it is always the identity of the "Empire"--all peoples (barbarians don't count) united "Under Heaven."

I watched Hero with a group of heavily Americanized high school classmates. Yet, every one of us walked out talking about the political message of the movie. The subtext is strong enough that it sometimes ruins my enjoyment of the visuals. More on this later.

On Wednesday morning, I shuffled groggily away from studying for the anthropology final to go brush my teeth--and looked up to see the door plastered with "Happy Birthday, Michelle!!!" It was all my roommate's doing. And today I finally have time to read Byzantium Shores, only to see that Jaquandor's noticed my non-blogging. I'm rather flattered by both.

This would give the false impression that I've been studying all week. What I've actually done is cram desperately the night before each exam (two more next Monday), while finishing Thirteen Gun Salute, Nutmeg of Consolation, and The Truelove of the Patrick O'Brian novels, continuing Bridge of Birds, and starting on Auerbach's Mimesis. The last book was a random recommendation from Jessa at Bookslut. In Mimesis, Auerbach addresses the "representation of reality in Western Literature." I'm only a few pages into the book, and already I feel like pleading for forgiveness because I skipped through those long, descriptive passages in The Odyssey. (Hey, I just wanted to know what happens in the story!)

And so to bed.

(Not really. I've been following Samuel Pepys's diary at www.pepysdiary.com and couldn't resist.)

土曜日, 1月 03, 2004

Having gushed about Patrick O'Brian the novelist, it would only be fair to consider Patrick O'Brian the man. Unfortunately, it now appears that he spent most of his life constructing a facade. It doesn't decrease my enjoyment of his books; indeed, I'm impressed that such a prickly, ornery old man can create such wonderful, human characters. Orwell is a contrary bastard, and you sense that in his writing. O'Brian, on the other hand, never gives the game away. Still, I'm now persuaded that I wouldn't want O'Brian as a neighbor. What a pity.

Finished Reverse of the Medal (Book 11) three days ago, and had underestimated the number of books I should have borrowed from the library. After a day of abstinence, my hands actually started twitching...I settled for finishing Master and Commander, finally. (The copy back home has the bookmark somewhere in the middle.) I'm now done, and America is so ill-designed that you need a car to find a decent bookstore. My temporary solution is to hang around O'Brian discussion forums until it's time to get back to Boston. The concentration of erudition on those mailing lists is daunting. In twenty years, I might feel confident enough to join the conversation.

I've read the claim that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin don't grow as characters (Jack grows VERY fat, but you know what I mean.) Bullshit. It's such a shock to go from RotM, with it's older, more sombre characters, back to the beginning, when Jack believes making post will guarantee smooth sailing till he hoists his flag, and when Stephen's still unentangled in espionage and Diana. There's an exuberance in the two that diminishes as the series progresses. No doubt Patrick O'Brian was feeling the ravages of time, but this man began writing the series when he was FIFTY! Surely there isn't that much of decline between fifty and seventy.

While we're on the subject of O'Brian's age at M&C, let me admit how encouraged I am by it. We live in an age of prodigies, flashes in the pan, burned out geniuses--the implication is that if you're not published in Nature by 30 and tenured by 45, you're an utter failure. Well, I'll go down that path and do my best, but something tells me that I'm not cut out for early success. Perhaps it's my utterly unpractical interests, fluctuating amount of ambition, distaste for socializing...if life were a multiple choice test, I'd have a better shot at fame and fortune. As it is, I will give it all my best shot before settling down to some remote cottage in the mountains of Taidung and writing the Great Taiwanese Novel. (Less competition than the Great American Novel.) Or I'll muddle my way into the Chinese Democracy movement and watch it all come to grief. There's a fat Dickensian novel somewhere in that.

Can you tell that I've been reading George Orwell all day? My English Lit teacher was right to warn me of Orwell courses in the winter. I, counting on the resilience of youth, dismissed his advice the moment he gave it. Aiyah.

Anyway, I've now been deprived of Patrick O'Brian for a day, and my hands are starting to twitch again. This morning, I picked up Treason's Harbor, started reading from a random point till the scene where Jack discovers that his promised command has been given away. There is now a high chance that he will be cut off on shore with half pay:
He was eating his dinner, not in the dining-cabin but right aft, sitting with his face to the great stern-window, so that on the far side of the glass, and a biscuit-toss below, the frigate's wake streamed away and away from him, dead white in the troubled green; so white that the gulls, poising and swooping over it, looked quite dingy. This was a sight that never failed to move him: the noble curve of shining panes, wholly unlike any land borne window, and then the sea in some one of its infinity of aspects; and the whole in silence, entirely to himself. If he spent the rest of his life on half-pay in a debtors' prison he would still have had this, he reflected...and it was something over and above any reward he could possibly have contracted for.

Tears are nasty business when a library book is concerned, but in this case I hope they will forgive me.

"This fellow has created characters and stories that are part of my life." --David Mamet