Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Ming Storytellers - Paperback Release

I am pleased to announce the Paperback release of The Ming Storytellers on 
January 2013.

To celebrate this occasion, one lucky person will WIN an advance paperback copy of The Ming Storytellers. Talk about a Christmas present... 

And wait! There's more...we are speaking about a dedicated and SIGNED copy of this absolutely gorgeous book set in China's Ming Dynasty. How can you not want this?  

But seriously, how can you not want to ditch your e-reader for a hefty 633 pages? This is, after all, a historical novel. It demands the traditional reading experience with the forearm cramps, paper cuts and all.

To be in the draw to win, please click here and follow the competition instructions.

The winner will be announced shortly after the Australian New Year's Eve countdown on 01/01/2013.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Council of Ten

I seem to always return to the secret and the mystery within history.

I don't know why.

Some very pleasurable days ahead, wandering in Venice's sestieres, inventing the canals at dawn through the eyes of Antonio da Parma, my main character. In this flurry of research, underneath the silks and draped turbans, beyond the Venetian merchants, the glittery world of artisans and the orgiastic madness of Carnivale; past the putrid den of a Jewish physician who mulls over the sores of a decaying man, I am losing myself in historical works by masters before our time.  Victor Hugo's Angelo.... Lord Byron's The Two Foscari...
And a more sinister joy surges in me, that of encountering those I know. Or rather, I feel I know them well.

The Three Capi and those others...the Consiglio dei Dieci, who we call The Council of Ten.

Am I ready for the evil? The evil of Venice.

Why, yes. Of course.


Those maxims for your mass of scared mechanics,
Your merchants, your Dalmatian and Greek slaves,
Your tributaries, your dumb citizens,
And masked nobility, your sbirri, and
Your spies, your galley and your other slaves,
To whom your midnight carryings off and drownings,
Your dungeons next the palace roofs, or under
The water's level; your mysterious meetings,
And unknown dooms, and sudden executions,
Your "Bridge of Sighs," your strangling chamber, and 
Your torturing instruments, have made ye seem
The beings of another and worst world!
Keep such for them: I fear ye not. I know ye;"

                    - Marina, wife of Jacopo Foscari, to the Council of Ten,
                                                                in Lord Byron's The Two Foscari

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

When the Mongols Invaded Vietnam - A History of an Independent People

For those who do not know my grandmother, Phuong Lan and who misguidedly fall into the trap of their own prejudices or else employ irreverent condescending language towards a 'little old Vietnamese' woman, you are in for a BIG surprise.

There is nothing seemingly fierce about this peaceful, broad-faced, soft-skinned five-foot woman who enjoys the company of her little cubs (aka, her grandchildren) and demonstrates artful patience in the kitchen. But show her an ounce of disrespect or else badmouth her ancestors and you will find a woman who can defend herself. You will be subjected to a well-timed repartee whose wit is as admirable as its ability to cut to the core.

Appearances are deceptive.

When people encounter peaceful, non-boisterous others, they are tempted to judge them as weaker or else attribute their retiring demeanour to lack of ability.

In Eastern cultures especially, this attribution could not be further from the truth. Recall Lao Tzu's emphasis on seemingly soft, flowing water and its ability to carve rock over time. Strength has a different meaning in the East where one's flexibility, one's ability to 'bend' is a marker of strength.

But this should not be seen as a sign that those who bend will bend forever. The decision of whether to bend, to 'let it slide' or to fight back comes with wisdom. It comes with an evaluation of the right action to take for the greater good.

When does it become necessary to fight back?

If it is only your ego under attack: Bend. Bend.
For what is ego? Why does it matter? And would you ruin your relationships to preserve your ego?
(Though one has to discard relationships that are toxic...)

But what if your country is under attack? What if it is more than your own petty preoccupations at stake?

Since I began this post about my grandmother, I want to reflect on an impressive Vietnamese battle.
This is a battle that was fought by the Vietnamese people in the 13th century. The Battle of Bạch Đằng. It took place when the Mongols tried to invade the Vietnamese land, just as they had previously invaded most of the world and were at the time, the rulers of China.

In this battle, Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, who had since conquered the Chinese and led to the collapse of the Song Dynasty, sent the Mongol fleet to take Vietnam or what was then called, Đại Việt.

It was a mighty fleet that Kublai sent. It had 500 vessels, manned by one hundred thousand men. Please note that the Mongols did not build this fleet. They appropriated it from the Song Dynasty Chinese and initially, the Mongol navy consisted of Chinese defectors.

 Let us see what happened in this battle, when the might of the then world, came ploughing at the Đại Việt's door...

The Battle of Bạch Đằng

The painting above shows the distressed Mongol fleet after it was lured into a Vietnamese naval ambush.
It does not look good.

It turns out that The Battle of Bạch Đằng was the third invasion into the Đại Việt by the Mongols. The Mongols had been defeated twice before but they were at it again. For this third battle, Kublai Khan had entrusted victory to his general son, Toghan. "Son, do me proud!" And for the third time, the Mongols were militarily defeated by the Vietnamese Tran generals.

In a period where the Mongols stood as the uncontested leaders of the world and had subjects across many nations, the Vietnamese successfully resisted them for thirty years.

Kublai Khan was so furious upon learning of this defeat, that he banished his own son, Toghan, for life. I suppose Kublai Khan's ego was severely trampled on at this point and his reprisal is a perfect example of someone who cannot 'bend' gracefully.

In the end, however, the Tran rulers officially agreed to pay tribute as Kublai's 'subjects' if only to avoid further war which was ruining their own people. Resistance, no matter how successful, was costing lives and so the Vietnamese accepted the loss of face and chose to 'bend' for the greater good.

I enjoyed highlighting the Mongol-Vietnamese war for two reasons. On the one hand, it illustrates what happens when we undermine our opponent. In this story, the Mongols undermined the Vietnamese. Surely, it should have been easy to take the Đại Việt given their other conquests? But it was not.
This is a reminder of the strength of what we perceive as 'little' things. It is also a reminder of the endurance and determination of those who feel self-righteous in defending their own land.

The other reason for this post is that I think the Vietnamese people are not given credit for their strategic genius and their fighting spirit. I sought to highlight their amazing achievements. They are peaceful people who for years have suffered invasions and or colonialism. Yet they have proved time and time again that they will fight, and successfully so, for their independence.

The Vietnamese resistance to the Mongols in the 13th century is only one example of their spirited rise in the face of invasion. In later years, during the 15th century Ming Dynasty, Chinese emperor Zhu Di was fully aware that the Chinese invading army was not faring well in Vietnam. He ought to have known, given that his army had since appropriated samples of Vietnamese-made firearms, known then to be technologically superior than the Ming cannons. He knew long before his death that the Vietnamese would eventually win and reclaim their independence.
And he was right. In 1427, three years after Zhu Di's death, after 10 years of battling the Chinese, Vietnamese leader Le Loi defeated the Ming army and proclaimed the Đại Việt’s independence.

There is another story along those lines... The story we are all familiar with. A story where Vietnamese soldiers were pitted against the French imperialist force and then later against the greatest army in the modern world: the US military.

Of course, there were no real 'winners' in the Vietnam-US war, since war is a harbinger of loss and tragedy for all sides. But having said that, it is clear that the US, just like the Mongols before them and just like the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty, did eventually retreat.

Sometimes 'bending' is good for all.

I leave you, now with these two strong Vietnamese sisters.

The Trung sisters. Two Vietnamese women, amazon-like figures whose story you may Google, a story that was originally passed down orally for generations in Vietnam's early history. Distrust of oral tradition has given their story a legendary reputation. But we know better.

It is not legend.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Ming Storytellers - Sexuality

Issues of sexuality, sexual frustration and sexual obsession are an important undercurrent of the historical novel, The Ming Storytellers.

At the very core we have a world, the Forbidden City, where the only male population consists of an impotent emperor, Zhu Di, and his hundreds of castrates. Both ironically feel their inadequacies and both look to other worldly ambitions to compensate.

Zhu Di knows that he is unable to perform and in an attempt to dupe the world that he is still a virile man, continues to supplement his harem with yet more beauties from as far as Korea. Zhu Di persists in rubbing himself with aphrodisiac ointments and consulting with his physicians to improve his condition. Finding himself unable to perform, he assuages his masculinity on the military field.

Meanwhile the eunuchs who have sacrificed their manhood in order to accede to an imperial position understand that they will never have other means to succeed in their life than to serve their emperor. Maimed, conscious of their differences, plagued by lifelong health problems and sexually frustrated, they direct their ambitions, finding self-esteem and meaning in ascending the echelons of eunuchism, competing for roles and or often driving themselves to complex and illicit affairs with concubines.

For the hundreds of bored and sexually unfulfilled concubines in Zhu Di's harem, relief is found in forbidden literature. The women secretly indulge in the printed tales of the Ming storytellers, renown for their dubious virtue. They devour lascivious erotic vignettes, a Ming equivalent for pornography which arose during this period with the development of the printing industry.
In much the same way, Kareem, an envoy from Zanzibar is himself not foreign to the use of literature to compensate for the lack of spice in his bed. While his highly obsessed partner, Shahrzad, whiles her journey aboard the Ming fleet compiling theories about her idol, Admiral Zheng He, Kareem plunges ever deeply into the classic Persian volumes of One Thousand Tales (Arabian Nights).

Back in the Inner Palaces of the Middle Kingdom, bored and unfulfilled imperial concubines like the main protagonist, Min Li, become trapped in a form of fantasy, where they pine for unrequited forms of love. They become obsessed with eunuchs, perhaps men who believe themselves to be so inadequate that they shut themselves in a protective shell, convinced that they are undeserving of any adoration.

One such eunuch, Zhijian, will have to bear the frustration brought upon by castration all his life. He fills his time with the senseless completion of routine chores, without so much of a career goal, having abandoned all motive for life. The only escape from his torment is the obsession that he will develop for Min Li. His only joy following the castration that has deprived him of all he wanted from this life, is to seek every rumour concerning this one woman that he knows he can never have and who belongs to the emperor.
Zhijian will project his anima onto Min Li believing her to be pure and faultless, convinced that she is like him, a victim about to be slaughtered. Unable to function sexually, Zhijian elevates Min Li to muse status. He places her on a pedestal, relishing his platonic devotion as a welcome refuge because if he were to see her as a woman and desire her, he would ultimately need to face the 'villainy' of his physical condition.

But returning to the women of the palace, we find in the Ming Storytellers, another brand of sexual frustration one which perhaps would not be so problematic today, at least in many parts of the world.
It is the frustration of women who love other women and who are either forbidden to publicly meet due to social constraints or who entertain a secret passion for a loved one, a passion they hide, for fear of rejection.
The Ming dynasty is not foreign to sapphism. Palace women were known for having affairs with each other and wooden dildos have been found in the ruins of ancient Han palaces.

At the other extreme, there is another complex character who embodies a man completely at peace with castration yet who nevertheless suffers the frustration of remaining a man. Ji Feng is a eunuch, criminal at that. My conception of this character can be read in many ways. At the simplistic level he is a sexual criminal. At a more twisted level he is a man who has not 'come out' with his homosexuality. He experiences every woman as a threat, seeing them as creatures he can never compete with and whose form he can never hope to achieve.
Yet Ji Feng remains completely unaware of his own sexuality and of his seething jealously, nor is he conscious of his motivations for wanting to hurt women and see them under his power. Ji Feng's criminal impulse and his voyeurism, compound to produce a perverse individual capable of the worse crimes towards a gender that he cannot attain.

One salient undercurrent of The Ming Storytellers is the common theme of frustrated sexuality and soul-consuming sexual obsessions. It depicts a contrived world with extreme social taboos and physically maiming traditions, a world where eunuchism and forced concubinage combine to produce frustrated human needs that more or less contribute to the characters' journey.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

10 Things You Didn't Know about The Ming Storytellers

1. It has eunuch characters - The main male character is a Muslim eunuch with a turbulent childhood. He existed. Yet in contrast to what is known of his role in Ming diplomacy and naval history, little has been written about his personal life or for that matter, about the many eunuchs who suffered and whose lives were violently transformed.

Today in many parts of the world, notably the West, there is much outrage over female genital manipulation in African and Middle Eastern communities, and how this scars women physically and psychologically. Conversely, the maiming of countless men over the course of history and even today is not dwelt upon with the same psychological and human rights perspective. It seems we have become disensitized about the practice of castration.

Whether through literature or film, we have come to accept that say, Romans, Turkish Sultans and Chinese emperors enslaved eunuchs, without dwelling on what being a eunuch meant for the victims. There is no memorial to acknowledge the lot of these men as eunuchs. There is little empathic study or recognition of what they endured, relative to our recognition of what slaves, in general, endured.

There are exceptions in literature. For example, I recently read the graphic novel, Habibi, and found it a truly respectful, eye-opening story featuring a eunuch as central character. It is a wonderful work of art and literature.

2. It contains torture scenes and a castration scene and offers the rudimentary outline on Chinese footbinding - history has its realities, however grim. I do not like to overlook the truth no matter how hard this truth. 

3. It presents a realistic portrayal of the life of Ming imperial concubines - What do bored women get up to, do you think? Yes, there is much plotting and scheming in secret, just as there are broken rules, bitchiness and much brooding. At the very least, readers can discover what it takes to be selected for the emperor's Royal Chamber and how to become a fashionable imperial courtesan. You can read more about this in my previous post, The Secret Life of Ming Concubines.

4. One of the great joys in writing historical fiction is that of giving a voice to those who have been overlooked or forgotten and offering a re-balance of perceptions through storytelling. And this is what The Ming Storytellers sets out to do. 

There is a magic realism element and as such, the novel slightly advances the cause of Shamanism. Long before the feudal Buddhist system headed by Tibetan priests, the old Tibet religions were rooted in shamanism. There was a deep reverence for animals and nature, and the belief in female seers or shamans. This root religion is explored and lends a magic realism aspect to the story.

The Ming Storytellers invites further contemplation into the history of Chinese minorities, notably those of Yunnan province, and the complex power systems that existed between China, Tibet and Mongolia in the 15th century.

5. It references Hazar Afsanah (One Thousand Nights, now known as 1001 Nights) - The Ming Dynasty is after all, the period where volumes of One Thousand Nights were being published in both Arabic and Persian editions.

6. It is set in a period where Arab and Chinese trade dominated the Indian Ocean, a time preceding the arrival of the Portuguese navigator, Alfonso d'Alburquerque, and his systematic takeover of Arab, Indian, South East Asian and East African trading ports. The Ming Storytellers is actually set just prior to a pivotal point in global trade history. The years following the novel's period mark a major historical shift from Chinese and Arab-dominated naval trade to European-dominated naval trade.
Today we find ourselves in a similar period of change but in the favor of China. From a political and economic perspective, the idea underpinning The Ming Storytellers is that empires, economies and military/trade supremacies rise and fall, and are also fraught by the same prejudices, fears, paranoia and delusions time and time again.

7. It is set in various places around the world including Nanjing, Lijiang in Yunnan, Beijing, Baidu in Sichuan, Deqin in Yunnan, Zanzibar in Tanzania, Calicut in Southern India, with general references to Mongolia, Tibet, Venice, Melacca, Oman, Mecca, Persia, Siam, Vietnam, Korea and of course, there are many passages set aboard the Ming fleet.
During the 15th century, these latter foreign places were all known by the Chinese. China was engaged in global trade with representatives from these parts of the world. It also received tributes from them as a form of allegiance and in exchange for naval protection and trade benefits. There was also a complex relationship between Tibet and China for both political and trade purposes.

8. The Ming Storytellers is transcultural - it embraces all religions and beliefs, and is divorced from all of them - There are references to Taoism, Buddhism, Tibetan Shamanism and Islam. There are references to several superstitions, together with the rejection of these.

Mazu, Celestial Goddess of the Seas guiding sailors

There are references to the Goddess Mazu - the Celestial Goddess of the sea for the Southern Chinese - together with references to the Nakhi ethnic group's frog worship.
The historical figure, Admiral Zheng He, on which the main male character is based, is believed by some historians to follow a harmonious integration between religions. The Ming Storytellers tries to be faithful to this notion and presents Zheng He as highly tolerant, with his attitude remaining quite fluid to integrate belief systems.

9. It deliberately features no White characters - In the story, when white foreigners are mentioned, they are commonly misjudged or treated as backward barbarians- this may be misconstrued to mean that Asian-centrism was the norm across all Ming Dynasty subjects (or that the novel endorses any existing Ming Dynasty racism). This is not the case. A couple of years ago, I wrote that this novel is an experiment in social psychology. It is a paradigm shift and nothing else. It is an exercise in human relations. It illustrates what often happens when an economically and politically powerful group of people, regardless of origin, looks upon the 'other'. 
I have always floated between East and West influences. It is my fluid background (Lebanese, Vietnamese and French) which allows me to setup this paradigm and remain...transcultural.

10. It contains both sexual references and sex scenes. Nothing coarse or pornographic, but I thought you might want to be aware of this. The Ming Storytellers features both homosexual and heterosexual sex scenes, including sex scenes between female and eunuch.

But in the words of my storyteller character, Jun: "Everything is important to the story."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On Prometheus and the Creator-Creation Dynamic

I had not seen Aliens and so for me, Prometheus stood apart as an original cinematic creation. The highly anticipated answers it was presumed to bring to thousands of Aliens fans were far from my mind when I watched and enjoyed it last week.

As to the questions it raised, they were many. The Guardian's take on the film's unanswered questions is thought-provoking but mostly hints at the superficial deficits in the production.

I decided to blog about Prometheus to offer a different interpretation. To begin, call me dense, but I glossed over those 'unanswered questions' in the film. I gratefully indulged in suspension of disbelief allowing myself to- in Ben Walter's words -endow the miracle medicine pod with strength-endowing, pain-suppressing supercharger qualities. Therefore it did not surprise me if Elizabeth, who by the way happens to be a highly trained astronaut living in futurescape, was running around after having her impromptu Cesarean.

The Eight Tenets of Prometheus
But putting aside the superficial, I want to blurt it out here. I saw Prometheus as rhetoric. I saw it as a set of philosophical possibilities, an exposition of what the film suggests as universal tenets, namely:

1. creations are arrogant, they inevitably come to believe that they are equal to or surpass their creator
2. creations are rare, and the act of creation is a miracle, a difficult process
3. creations want to live, they fear death
4. curiosity and scientific approach are two requirements for a creation to become itself a creator
5. creations will eventually desire to topple their creator, partly due to arrogance
6. a creator does not necessarily create out of a sense of benevolence or goodness, this is a myth; they may create out of personal ego, to defend themselves, to prove themselves or out of accident
7. considering the accidental and sometimes undesired effects of creations, a creator may destroy without feeling remorse
8. a creation may have an incessant, cult-like curiosity towards their creator that is often misplaced given the accidental nature of creation and given that creators destroy without remorse

These tenets- which I will say define the Creator-Creation Dynamic, -if accepted by the audience, can then be applied across all character relationships in the film solving all questions that concern them:

Meredith -> Father
David ->  Father
Newborn Alien -> Elizabeth
Meredith's Father -> Alien Ancestor
Humans in general > Alien Ancestor
and at the audience level we would have:
Audience ->   Unknown Universal Creator vs Known God

Resolving Prometheus
Seemingly, the primary preoccupation of the film's narrative is with the questions of where the Aliens come from, why they created us and why they would want to kill us.
But if we ignore the narrative and instead, readily accept the film's discourse with regard to the Creator-Creation dynamic, then it is possible to use the above tenets to easily answer the last two questions.
The problem with embracing those tenets, is that the answers they formulate invariably create much discomfort in the greater part of the audience.

This is because:
No one who believes in a divinity wishes to accept a tenet that human creation might have been the result of some defence-related, experimental and other non-benevolent motivation.

No one who believes in a divinity could readily accept the tenet that a lifelong search for one's creator would eventually bring us face to face with a soldier-minded tyrant and that this quest is therefore meaningless and wasteful.

No one who believes in a divinity would be happy to believe that their creator destroys remorselessly.

And, no one who believes in a divinity would accept that their clinging to life is an arrogant pursuit, that in the scheme of things, they are an accidental rarity that does not deserve the special attributes we give ourselves.

The Core of Prometheus
I would not rule out Prometheus as decidedly anti-creationist or anti-religious. But it does present tenets that are outright incompatible with many religions in the world and shake our sense of belief in the divine. They shake our sense of belief in the sacred nature of life itself. 
However, the interesting thing about the tenets presented by Prometheus is that they are not absolute. They are suggested as the way things might be, not as how things are or ought to be.
Some of these tenets are important because they lead to the core meaning of the film which I will now argue.

The Unjust Death
For some of us, like Elizabeth, death is seen as an 'unjust' happening, one that raises questions about the motivations of the creator.
Alluding to the alien 'ancestors', Elizabeth questions "What have we done wrong, why do they want us to die?" But ironically she kills her unborn alien child. There is this theme of an experiment (arguably David's) gone wrong. She saw no other means but to remove it from her womb. Yet is she not, like the newborn alien, in fact, a result of an accident? Are we then also an experiment if this parallel is true? Are we the accident?

Yes, we are.
Remember: Creations are rare, and the act of creation is a miracle, a difficult process

Based on this, is the life that we self-righteously prize and hold dear, the life that we believe we deserve and should not be taken away from us, in fact, just the result of extremely unlikely probabilities? Consider the revelation Elizabeth makes earlier: I cannot create life. At this, she cries, leading to pathos in the narrative but also at a discursive level, she highlights the fragility of life and the difficulty that is creation.

Consider too how improbable creation is beyond the film: the difficult sperm trajectory, even the universal creation process as a rare event. Yet when it happens, this rare event, this accident is perceived by us as normal. So normal that its product, life, should not, ought not to be taken away from us, hence our fear of death.
But going back to Elizabeth's questions. The same old questions are asked and have been asked for the entire humanity by those who believe in a creator: How can a god possibly send diseases, natural disasters and otherwise cause the death of people who 'seemingly do not deserve it' and who he/she has, after all, created?

Again, remember: 
Given the accidental and sometimes undesired effects of creations, a creator may destroy without feeling remorse

The film suggests that maybe we are being destroyed because we have become too dangerous and are a threat to the creator. Consider at another level, the threat David- himself a creation -poses. How much mischief can his curiosity cause to the crew? Has caused so far? Albeit at times, he shows genius but it is his arrogance-in-knowing that is cause for concern.
Does it recall our own curiosity? It should.

By setting out to highlight the heroism of a selfless ego-less death and contrasting it to the clinging for life, the narrative hints to something else beyond its tenets: it does not really matter if we die. It is inconsequential. If we cast our arrogance aside, death matters little.

Contrast Meredith's fear of death and the pilot's eagerness to give up his life in order to save Earth and the remaining crew. How quickly Meredith dons her suit and ejects herself while the pilot and his colleagues fly Kami-kaze into the Alien vessel. He shows no arrogance about living, does not cling to life as a God-given right, sees his own life as incidental, a commodity he can disregard for the greater good.
Death for him becomes a necessity, not a personal tragedy.

Ultimately, through the pilot's heroic death and the sense of goodness that this evokes- especially in comparison to Captain Vickers' jealous guarding of her own life, -there is a sense that the fear of death, self-interest and arrogance of living, all those things which Captain Vickers displays, is to be frowned upon.

Humility in Living
Might not Prometheus be suggesting that unlike the main characters in its narrative, and perhaps more like the pilot of the Prometheus, if we are to find true peace- and this, whether we happen to be 'creations' of either love, nature or some God, -we should remain humble about Life. True humility for this rare event that is Life ought to make us grateful, less fearing of death, less inclined towards dissatisfaction in relation to our creator, less indignant about the difficulties that are thrown our way.

Because death is an inevitability. It is Life that is the miracle. Because death does not necessarily mean that we have done something wrong or that we did not deserve to live. Even Life when we had it, may have only been just an accident...

Might not Prometheus be suggesting that we have become arrogant about living? And that it is our arrogance, the perceived injustice of our death, and our complete incomprehension that death should happen to us- us the special ones -which makes us fear Death in the first place.
An interesting message given the age of the director. Perhaps Ridley Scott might himself feel more at peace embracing its meaning.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Return of the Dragon

Post Opium War: (left to right)
Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan slicing out China

There is a perception, especially in the West, that ever since China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy that China’s status as a superpower is something new.  For a while, in the last 30 years, China's economy has been growing at a fast pace, averaging a 10% growth per year.  In the last five years especially, the  media has compared China more favourably against the West along several economic markers, bringing it to our attention as though it were an anachronism in our decidedly fixed vision of the country as, “lagging behind the West” or “curtailed by its communism policies”.  One notes that China’s performance has only been more noticeable following the recent global economic crisis and its detrimental impact on both the EU and the US.  When the head of the Eurozone bailout fund flew to Beijing early this year to ask the Chinese to contribute from their massive foreign reserve holdings, this move was seen by some as an indication of China's emergence as the world's top economic power. 

Yet reviewing China's history beyond the 21st Century, China’s place as a top economy and its influential presence on the world’s stage is not something new. Hence the title of this article, Return of the Dragon, not Rise of the Dragon.

One must examine the reason why the Dragon's rise might be seen as a new phenomenon together with the fears that go hand in hand with such belief. Arguably following the Cold War period, the extensive English literature pervading our media where China was concerned has focused on the Cultural Revolution, stringent communist policies, the one-child policy, human rights records and censuring. That this coverage serves ethical and political (especially during the Cold War) values is one thing but its narrow focus fails to highlight the complete Chinese essence and partly obscures the vast history that has shaped China. Again, this narrowly focused coverage has, by its nature, bordered on propaganda, in the sense that it has fostered a  "rising fear about how China could use its power"

Re-Assessing China's History

China’s history is extensive with records dating back to 1600BC.  The assertion that events taking place in China during any particular decade either in the 20th or 21st century could serve as a definite marker for the country’s productive capacity and its standard behaviour in the international sphere, would be akin to attributing that Britain and Holland are defined by their colonial past, Germany by its Nazi Holocaust and Spain by its Inquisition.

China is clearly more than its Cultural Revolution, the subject of most films and historical books, at least in the West. In this extensively documented and troubling period, China saw the unprecedented burning of books by the Red Guards, together with the replacement of all practices that were deemed ‘old’, and therefore 'bourgeois', in favour of ‘new’ or 'working class' practices, often at great costs to culture, peace and social structure. Today, given China's consumer record, one would argue that 'bourgeois' practices have been embraced anew wherever affordable. So much for the Cultural Revolution.

Even if one were to reflect on the extent of communist influence in China, Mao’s policies do not define China more than would its 2600 years of Confucianism. Albeit there was a time, when the replacement of the 'old' with the 'new' did conflict with Confucianism and had a resounding effect on the country’s society, with children being encouraged to break away from filial duty by turning in their 'dissident' parents. Today however, it would be erroneous to believe that Confucianism is dead in China’s society. In fact Confucianism has experienced a strong revival in China in the last 20 years.

The Ming Dynasty - The Last Peaceful Period when China Ruled Itself

In evidence, one needs a broader picture of China. One needs to look back, before the unstable decade of the Cultural Revolution, long before Mao’s time, even prior to the colonial conflicts which led to the Boxer Rebellion together with the Opium Wars and China’s forced dispossession of Hong Kong.  Again, we should look prior to the 19th century, long before the reigning Qing Dynasty during which China was ruled by Manchu tribes for several hundred years, and when even the elegant thousands of years old Han-fu dress code, pride of the dominant Han culture, and precursor of Japan’s own Han-fu based kimono, was forcefully replaced by the plain qipao.

We are almost there…

...back to a time, when Chinese men were still permitted to wear their long hair in buns without being forced by the Manchus to shave their head and grow a braid; a time where they were masters of their own country: the Ming Dynasty.

The Ming Dynasty spans almost 300 years. A key period in Chinese history and one of the least written about in English language literature, it is also the setting for The Ming Storytellers, an English language character-driven historical novel whose plot weaves intrigue between Ming emperors, fleet navigators, shamans, eunuchs and concubines. The Ming Storytellers brings to the fore several key events in the Early Ming Dynasty, including the construction of the Beijing Imperial palace. 
Chronologically speaking, the Ming Dynasty sits between China’s 90-year rule by Mongol tribes and its near 300-year rule by invading Manchus (who have since blended into the Han Chinese population). 

The Ming Dynasty seems like some political miracle in comparison to these adjacent periods.  During this dynasty, the Chinese Han majority governed itself. This is in sharp contrast to its later political situation following its encounter with the Manchus, later with Western powers (Germany, Britain and France) and finally, with Japan in WWII. 

Evidently, China has had its share of foreign invasions and foreign political pressure. It raises a question as to whether it deserves the potential "red" invader reputation that some fearmongers have attributed to it in these modern times...Something to ponder.

China's Foreign Policy During the Ming Dynasty

While being itself a country familiar with external aggressors, one must acknowledge China’s then resource hungry Ming policies which saw it invade Annam (today’s Vietnam) during the 15th century and deforest a great part of the Annamese land to service its domestic architecture. Parallels might perhaps be seen with China's current policies towards Xinjiang and Tibet.

Then again, one must also acknowledge the extensive Ming tribute system. In this mostly peaceful system, diplomacy and trade with China were dependent on a country's willingness to send gifts to the Ming emperor. To reward its 'subjects', China reciprocated in gifts and offered protection from pirates. China's feared Ming fleet made it a respected superpower. 

In the Ming Dynasty, China successfully engaged in a tribute system with what is now Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Southern India, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Borneo.  

Overall, however, China's foreign policy was geared towards diplomacy and 'face', not profit. The cost of the tribute system which included massive expenditure on the Ming fleet, was so significant, that even China’s government ministers would rile against it, leading the country to eventually close itself to better deal with its growing inflation. 

Ming China - an Economic Giant Catering for a Global Market

Nevertheless, China during the Ming Dynasty was an economic power, producing mass quantities of silk, porcelain, craftwork and food products.  During Admiral Zheng He’s time, the Ming treasure fleet, travelling as far as Zanzibar and Dhofar, carried in its holds thousands of porcelain pieces destined for Persia, Constantinople, Hormuz and other parts of the Arab world. Topkapi Palace museum exhibits 10700 pieces of porcelain ranging from the Song, Yuan (Mongol), Ming and Qing dynasties. In the Ming Dynasty, porcelain destined for the Islamic world was even designed by the Chinese with their Muslim patrons in mind. The pieces limited figurative imagery, as prescribed by religious guidelines. 

China’s mass manufacturing, its industrious spirit and its capacity to cater for its world market and trade extensively with the rest of the world is clearly not exclusively a post-Mao neo-liberal phenomenon.

Civil Liberties During the Ming Dynasty

Interestingly, if we extend our scope to domestic policy, China’s reputedly stringent political control is not a device born of communism.  To support this claim, one only has to dwell into the beginnings of the Ming Dynasty at a time when Emperor Zhu Di once officialised a secret police known as the Eastern Depot. This institution was named after the Donganmen (the Eastern city gate of Beijing) where it was situated.  The Eastern Depot was a ruthless secret police that saw eunuch guards hire spies to weed out dissidents and potential traitors while systematically torturing political suspects.  

The Eastern Depot had its own torture prison called the Zhenfusi and was feared for its cruel torturing techniques. It lasted for as long as the Ming Dynasty.  The Eastern Depot is a central theme in the character-based The Ming Storytellers. While the novel covers a larger scope than the political, The Ming Storytellers gives a fascinating insight into the paranoia of the early Ming emperors and their often corrupt secret police, driven to service political interests at the cost of civil liberties and justice.   

The Zhenfusi is not unlike Guantanamo, nor is Guantanamo unlike many other torturing locations in the world.

The Threat of the Dragon

It appears that China is today more than just regaining its place as a world superpower. Just as we have been noticing China more and more, China, too, is regaining an interest in its past. Unlike the days of the Cultural Revolution where the past was seen as decadent and not a subject to learn from, China has lately seen a rising wave of interest for history books and films. 
Evidently, China's surge in interest for its history serves the country's growing nationalistic pride. It is this rising nationalism that is seen by some Westerners as a threat, especially by those who fear that China, given its political and economical power, could assert itself more aggressively in the future just as it has been seen to assert itself in Tibet.  

In this respect, one must remember that there is always an irrationality in fear that needs to be closely examined. That nationalism in China should arouse fear while the singing of La Marseillaise by the French leads to goosebumps, invites curiosity. After all, to use it as an example, France once invaded parts of America, Africa and Asia. Its government practiced scorched earth policy in Algeria. France's human rights record, notably, during the aptly named Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, and, over several centuries as a prominent slave trader, could equally lead to suspicion or sense of threat. 

Why does it not?

The answer to this question might well be found in Nicolas Barre's argument published in France's Le Figaro, 21 April 2008  during the pre- China Olympics period which saw a call to boycotting of China in response to its treatment of Tibet: 

"No matter how sincere this pro-tibetan mobilisation is, we can observe that it is sometimes accompanied by an anti-Chinese dimension which is not unlike the anti-Japanese animosity of the 70s and 80s. Under the white flag of great principles and human rights discourses, there often hides, here and there, a certain resentment towards a country, which similarly to Japan 20 to 30 years ago, perturbs the world's equilibrium, notably in economic terms: this mobilisation is often stronger when it is fueled by the fear of the 'made in China'. Cloaked in the noble argument of our so called 'universal values' there often exists the stench of racism which lies at the antipodes of those principles that we pretend to incarnate." - author's translation 

A New Beginning

Only time will tell if the Dragon that is China, cannot be trusted and if this Western fear is at all justified.  Indeed, perhaps this fear is the same type of fear as the one which haunted early Ming emperors when they established their secret police. 

For now however, having taken a brief glance at its broad history, together with the global role it has played in past centuries, one should not feel surprised to watch this Dragon rise. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Secret Life of Ming Concubines

The alluring Gong Li in Tang Dynasty film,
 Curse of the Golden Flower

Nothing quite spells mystery like a glimpse into China’s forbidden palaces, centuries ago. Stepping back in time over 600 years ago, to the Ming Dynasty, one wonders about the women who dwelt in the palaces of Beijing and Nanjing. Unlike the daring women of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) who lived in Chang'an Palace opulence and shied not from revealing skin or cleavage, Ming court women were more demure. 

During the early Ming Dynasty the dragon throne, seat of the emperor, lay in the palace in Nanjing, a cosmopolitan city then known as Yingtian. 

Emperor Hongwu - Zhu Yuanzhang
Founder of the Ming Dynasty

Emperor Hongwu, the first Ming emperor had just driven out the Mongols from the Middle Kingdom. Like many Chinese emperors before him, and much like the former Mongol rulers who had ruled China from Dadu (modern day Beijing), Emperor Hongwu owned a Royal Chamber or harem where lived, or so he hoped anyway, the most gorgeous creatures in the country and beyond. 

Who were these women? Where did they come from? Standards of beauty vary enormously between historical periods and cultures. What were the primary physical attributes that rendered a woman attractive in Ming China? And were these women happy? 

To answer these questions, we travel back in time to the Yingtian Palace. Here, in the Inner Palace, only the emperor, his eunuchs and the court ladies or maids can usually enter. But today for this exclusive interview with a Ming concubine, we have been permitted entry by a corrupt eunuch. We will sit under a pavilion in the Imperial Gardens and we will ask the delicate Zhou Mai, a fifth-ranking concubine, to tell us a little bit about herself, her beauty routine and what her experience has been so far living in the palace.

Greetings Zhou Mai. Where do you come from?
I was born in Korea. My country pays tribute to the Hongwu Emperor. This is a demonstration of my people's loyalty as vassals to the Middle Kingdom. In exchange, Korea is offered protection from pirates. It can also trade with the people of the Middle Kingdom. 

Is it true that you were sent to the Middle Kingdom as a gift?
Yes. Last year, the Hongwu emperor asked that my country pay tribute by sending him one hundred virgins. I was one of the girls chosen to be his concubine.

How old are you?
I am thirteen.

Did you want to be selected?
It is an honour to serve in Emperor Hongwu's Royal Chamber. But...I miss my family. My parents were very upset to see me go. 

Where do you live now?
I live here, in Yingtian palace. We girls sleep in the Royal Chamber quarters. We cannot go outside the palace. 

What is your palace title?
Here, I am called Zhou Guiren. Guiren is an honorific title for fifth-ranking concubines like me. I want to be a Guifei. This is a first-ranking concubine. I have much to learn. I can only become Guifei if the emperor is pleased with me or if I bear him a son.

What were the reasons you think you were selected? 
I was told my skin was as pure as jade and white as glistening snow. In the Middle Kingdom and Korea, fair skin is very important. Also my breasts are not too big as I have bound them tight from an early age with strips of cloth. Having big breasts is seen as salacious. I think also, I have a lithe waist and have always been encouraged to shuffle graciously with tiny steps. I am well-spoken and have a good voice.

I noticed that you do not have bound feet. Do not the women of the Middle Kingdom bind their feet?
We Koreans do not bind our feet.   
Yes, footbinding is increasing in the Middle Kingdom today.  It is called "lotus feet". 

So some women in the Middle Kingdom have bound feet and some do not?
The Mongols tried to outlaw the custom. They have since been pushed out, back to the North. Emperor Hongwu, is against all Mongol practices. Now footbinding is becoming popular again all over The Middle Kingdom. 
But there are still exceptions. Even Emperor Hongwu's consort, Empress Ma does not have bound feet. She is from Mongol stock.  She even rides horses.

Why do you think men of the Middle Kingdom like bound feet?
Any man with a good reputation prefers his woman to stay in the home so she cannot invite illicit affairs. A woman with bound feet cannot easily walk. So she is less likely to leave her husband if she wanted to. 
Also only country women who work outside in the fields need use of their big feet. So for a man to be seen as wealthy, it is best that his woman has lotus feet. 

Do you wish you had bound feet?
(frowns) Yes...and 

Lotus feet are seen by some women as more precious than a beautiful face. They say men are excited by lotus feet. They play games with them in bed. But then I know that lotus feet cause a lot of painIn the Royal Chamber, girls with bound feet need help to squat for toileting. They are dependent on their chamber maids. I often hear concubines complain about pain.

What do you do with your time, Zhou Guiren?
We do many things. We like to read books. They are not illicit tales from the streets, they are mostly virtuous books written by Empress Ma, Hongwu's consort. Also the educated ladies from Suzhou in the south come to visit us often. They are very talented. They teach us songs and music. They teach the younger girls to read.  I like to embroider animals on silk. I am getting better at silk embroidery. 

Do you go outside your chamber?
Yes, when it is not too hot. We ask the eunuchs to bring parasols for us and we play in the Inner Palace's gardens. We play behind the rocks and sing songs. But we cannot go outside the palace. On special occasions, some Guifeis will travel on sedan-chairs and accompany the emperor to visit the other palaces where the princesses and princes live. 

You mentioned illicit tales before. What are those?
They are road-side tales told by ambulant storytellers in the cities and the country. I am told they can be crude and not virtuous. Some tales have been made into bound books by the publishers of Fujian province in the south. But we are not permitted to read these. We are only allowed virtuous literature. Women should be modest, chaste and Tend to the Gentlemen. This is our highest calling.

Long silk pleated skirt, blue is usually a colour no commoner can wear
The ribbon tied coat is a little passe, Zhou Mai preferring buttons

What are you wearing Mai?
(stands) On my feet, I have slippers with peony pattern embroidery. I am wearing a long white silk pleated skirt. Pleated skirts are the latest fashion in the palace. On top of this, I have a silk peach waist coat with porcelain buttons. Buttons are very good to have. 
I like being a concubine because we have beautiful silk clothes. Country people can only afford cotton or hemp.

Did you do your hair yourself?
(smiles) My chamber maid helped me with this double bun. She picked blue flowers from the imperial garden and pinned them to the sides above my temples. One of the princesses gave me a gift of this cobalt tasseled pin and I have pushed it into my bun. This type of pin is only for girls who have reached menstruation. 

Ming Dynasty Hair ornaments 
Tasseled pins adorn double buns

Tell me more about your makeup and beauty routine, Mai.
It is important to keep the skin white and so we use powder from crushed shells. After covering my face in powder, I draw-in my eyebrows into black crescent shapes and spread a vermillion-tinged pomade on my cheeks to bring them to life. 
I use a vermilion lip balm to draw a cherry-shaped pout in the centre of my lips. It should not go out too much, only three quarters of the lip should be covered. 
On my nails, I have a red nail tint made of egg-whites, beeswax, balsamic dye and Arabic gum. Last month, my nails were tinted in black but I decided to change today. I wear a scented pouch around my waist to give off pleasant smells wherever I walk. (touches earrings) These jade earrings are a gift from the emperor. (smiles)
All this is what men find beautiful.

The cherry-shaped pout in latest vermilion

You mentioned eunuchs before, what are those?
They are men who have been castrated. They cannot have children. They are the only men we see in the palace aside from the emperor. 

What do you think of eunuchs?
Some are not to be trusted. But others are very helpful. It depends. They are from all over the country including the south in Yunnan province. Others come from as far as Annam, Korea and Manchuria. There are some eunuchs who never wanted to be eunuchs but they had no choice because they were made prisoner by the emperor's men and taken by force, like the Mongol eunuchs for example.

What is the role of eunuchs in the palace?
They work hard in the palace. They do everything for us. They bring toilet paper, empty chamber pots, call onto female physicians and they organise our foot warmers, parasols and sedan-chairs. They will bring us to the emperor's night chamber whenever we are selected to spend the night with him. They do everything in the palace but they cannot read.

Why can they not read?
(whispers) The Hongwu Emperor has forbidden that eunuchs learn how to read. He believes they should not be trusted with important documents. 

What about the Royal you girls trust the eunuchs?
(hesitates) Well...I will tell you something that the emperor does not know...yet. Some of the concubines have eunuch lovers. They meet them in secret... 

Why do you think the concubines seek a eunuch lover?
I don't know. Because...they are lonely maybe. They miss their family...but eunuchs are always here for them. Also some of the concubines can seek the attention of eunuchs when they are sad or lonely. You see, even if a concubine has children, these are taken away from them as soon as they are born and sent to the nursery in the Eastern side of the palace. 

Do you think you will ever return to your homeland?
Maybe. I think it is not likely. When concubines are old, around thirty years, they are sent to do laundry or become maids. They also cannot remarry with a man from the Middle Kingdom, only with a foreigner. Maybe I will die an old maid. But I am still lucky. I could be on a farm working hard on the land with not much food to eat. The emperor knows everything about famines. You see, when he was a young boy he lost most of his family in the Anhui famine. (smiles) So I am lucky living here in the palace.

Thank you, honourable Mai Guiren, for your time. It has been a pleasure. 
May the path you walk on be sprinkled with the most fragrant flower blossoms and may you live a long life.

An erotic embossment on a brick - Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Courtesy of the Chinese Sex Museum in Xi'an
Published in

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A new historical novel, The Ming Storytellers crafts a mysterious tale of imperial concubines and eunuchs set against the political intrigue and obsessions lurking in the palaces of Beijing and Nanjing. Set in the early Ming Dynasty, The Ming Storytellers brings to the fore the lives of imperial concubines during this period. It is available internationally from Amazon (Paperback and Kindle Editions), Barnes & Noble NOOK and Apple's iBookstore.