I’m obviously still a sucker for a moving finale. In the case of this novel I was a sucker for the whole thing. Written in very simple prose, almost as if the book was a series of screenshots, the story has time to develop through an A, B, C and then F plot that I had not come across in a while. In a sense, the simplicity was refreshing. A few dream sequences here and there, strange nightmares, dotted the otherwise crystalline storyline. Don’t be fooled though. A series of complexities underlines the straight-shooting. First, I would argue, is the role of English itself in a novel that deals with the advent of Westernization at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Chiew-Siah obviously has a sympathetic ear for Walter Scott’s brethren, and apparently she started writing the thing under Alasdair Gray’s tutelage. Then there’s the question of the inside and the outside, the self-contained world and the chopstick intrusions from the outside as Real.
The main character of the novel is the 2000 year old promise of the just Confucian society, embodied in the virtuous mandarin Mingzhi. “Everything changes,” though, and the stout philosophy does not crumble in the face of corruption, “the dark vines,” but in change itself, in Dao. Last, but not least, is the question of present-day China, the Marxist reading waiting to call out the Dr. Zhivago inside the little hut, somehow right, somehow wrong. You see, the novel is not only written in very simple English, it is also written in very simple Chinese History: Almost a China for Dummies, with canonical lists of events and cultural icons interspersed amongst a series of coincidences that place the main character next to the action during the main historical events of the 1890’s. “May you live in important times” says an old curse, and boy was Mingzhi cursed. Imagine visiting the Imperial City only a couple of times in your life, and have those coincide with the Gong Zhe Shangshu movement and the Boxer invasion of Beijing. And yet, if you know nothing about the end of the Qing and/or about the China of yore, I would start here.