17 February 2008

My China Research, Going Back in Time

In the last 2 months, I have been researching a modest period of China's Ming dynasty. This is something I was eager to complete to enrich my novel.

I have a good general background about China's history but it has always been stronger for events relating to the post-Qing period. Comparatively, my interest in the Ming dynasty only began in 2005. And my research sources were limited. Apart from the ubiquitous "1421 - The Year China Discovered the World" which has been marketed ad nauseum and which deserves respect, there is a real lack of Chinese history books in Australian book stores. The stuff they sell out there is absolute crap for anyone wishing to instruct themselves. Back in 2005, apart from Gavin Menzies' bestseller, I think I saw one other book about the Terracotta warriors (Qin dynasty), another one about Kublai Khan (Yuan dynasty), and several books relating to China's contemporary rise as economic giant. That's it. Oh, and I also saw a "general chinese history" book. A remarkable work, that one, because it managed to somehow condense China's history in one volume.

Well, nothing much has changed since 2005. 1421 is still gracing the shelves.

So what was I to do? To begin, I purchased several history books from Amazons. These books deal with very specific subjects relating to Ming rule (sorry, too secretive to reveal anything here). Later, during my visit to Beijing and Lijiang in 2006, I was lucky to purchase several books in the English language from Xinhua bookstores. But I was still limited since the majority of the works are in Chinese. And while I have a solid command of English, French and Spanish, I have a lifetime to go with Mandarin...I was despairing.

Late last year, I had a stroke of good luck. It turns out that Brisbane's Chinese Consulate donated a generous collection of Chinese history books to UQ's library. All in the English language!! One of these was written by Jesuit scholar and eminent Chinese historian Albert Chan which I'll probably buy from Amazon now that I know of its existence and excellent content. And so during December 2007, I borrowed 4 excellent books on my topic and also bought myself another one for Xmas.

Over the Summer holiday, I devoured those books and took care to note well all those facts which inspired me or enriched my novel with some vividness from the past. I worked over the entire books, filling over 40 pages of notes and photocopying any maps or palace plans. My studious, pseudo-time travelling trance was interrupted (discouraged in some cases) only by:

1. a fun filled escapade to sunny Sydney over the Xmas break
2. miscellaneous sorties to the cinema
3. visits to relatives who know little or nothing about my passion and who constantly remind me to produce an offspring
4. my IT job which, I admit, swallowed 3 days off each week and regularly tumbled me down from my creative cloud
5. my addiction to Facebook and to friends which I am in no rush to remedy and
6. several bouts of mild depression brought upon by my ill health, and often, by lack of sunshine or utter disbelief in myself and in what I am trying to achieve.
And perhaps compounded by the lack of support.

The lack of sunshine is actually starting to become a problem.

But interruptions aside, the Summer holiday saw me travelling into another world. And it was a pleasure. To at last inhabit that world and to know it so that one can paint it and place in it, those characters which one has created.

From there, I lost contact with the real world....and.... I am an absolute monster...I refused to return those books!

You see, I borrowed them just before Christmas. And they were due a month later in January. When this time came, I permitted myself 1 week's extension, which is easily effected via the library's website and later...I added another week's extension. When this had passed, I had to *theoretically* show up with the books at the library or risk paying a fine, something I loathe to do (I have no debts and in general, I despise owing money.) Since the books could no longer be extended and kept accummulating fines and since I still refused to return all of them, I decided to at least reduce the rate of accrual of my debt. So I returned three books in the first week of February. I kept the other three right until my library debt had almost risen to the point where it could no longer be cancelled after the summer semester. Such that on 13th of February, so as to avoid paying $20 (what a scrooge!!!), I had no choice but to photocopy some pages of the remaining books and deposit them in the library chute with an offended sigh.

But where was I? Yes.

Now, there is nothing missing. I had the story, and the characters, and the main historical facts... Now, I have more details about this world and I can very clearly imagine scenes. It is no longer an opaque mess where I fantasise for 5 minutes and interrupt my thoughts to speculate and ask "But back then, would they really do that?" or "I wonder how people did this during that period..."

Now, I could be any character in that world. In each case, I would know, where I live, I would know what to wear, how much to pay for certain products, where to buy certain things, and where I can find a product of the best quality. I would know what it means to be of my status, ethnic background or profession. I would know what the current ruler is in my time, who he is at war with, what his personality and laws are and what I am forbidden to do. I would understand the way the economy runs and what my country produces, exports and imports. I would know who are China's enemies, her trade partners and who came to the palace recently to pay tribute. I would know how the army is organised and how soldiers are conscripted and spend their days, how the imperial princes are paid, what the scholars are employed to do, what people like to read, what art they like, how the government controls some monopolies and why. I could live there... It's a fantastic feeling.

It sounds so easy doesn't it? But it's not. You have to remember that this isn't Rome we are talking about. Nor is it any other well covered, extensively written about civilization so long ago impregnated in popular fiction books, movies, media and school curriculum. To the non-Chinese mind, China's history is still a blur. People don't know their Yuan from their Qing and they don't care. Qing is pronounced 'ching' by the way.

What do we at least know about? Well, let's see. Thanks to fervent anti-communist propaganda, much literature has been disseminated about Mao's China and about the cultural Revolution. Novels with shock value abound that speak of torture and all sorts of horrible things aimed at justifying the capitalist cause. Some of those horrors, although they can occur under any political institution, can not be denied as they have happened, but that...is not my point. Incidentally, Ming China has one of the most disturbing torture chambers in Chinese history. It was managed by the secret police and these eunuchs could do anything to you without the emperor knowing a thing. The emperor would send spies throughout the country to report on rebellious behaviour or political dissent. It was not unlike the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

The concerned media speaks of the old Beijing hutongs being destroyed and their dwellers being displaced against their will and at the whims of the government, all to make way for modern development in the capital...but that is nothing new. This forced relocation isn't the result of communist china or economic-giant-china, at all. Under the Ming, when the capital was relocated from Nanjing to Beijing, tens of thousands of people from poor land areas were more or less forced relocated to Beijing all the way from their far away provinces, just to boost the new capital's population.

I really think it is worth examining history to understand the present. For a country like China which is gaining prominence as a global economic and political force, to not understand its past is an impediment to understanding it today. Ill informed pre-conceptions lead to poor judgements and poor judgements about any person, group or country can lead to conflict or plain, dumb fear.