Tun-huang's summary sounded very promising, and I quote:
More than a thousand years ago, an extraordinary trove of early Buddhist sutras and other scriptures was secreted away in caves near the Silk Road city of Tun-huang. But who hid this magnificent treasure and why? In Tun-huang, the great modern Japanese novelist Yasushi Inoue tells the story of Chao Tsing-te, a young Chinese man whose accidental failure to take the all-important exam that will qualify him as a high government official leads to a chance encounter that draws him farther and farther into the wild and contested lands west of the Chinese Empire. Here he finds love, distinguishes himself in battle, and ultimately devotes himself to the strange task of depositing the scrolls in the caves where, many centuries later, they will be rediscovered.
Wonderful summary. Unfortunately, I had initial difficulty getting into the book. I think I expected a swashbuckling adventure right off the bat and through and through, but it was nothing like that. The great thing, however, with books like these is that, after you get through an initial disappointment, you realize what it is and appreciate it for its own merits.
It's obviously a historical novel. And it was the history--its entire sweep--that finally got me into it. That and all the things I learned from reading this book. It's fascinating, especially for an Asian like me who, admittedly, has read and been exposed to more Western than Asian works. So I set out to read Tun-huang for the exposure that it would give me. And exposed I got.
For instance, have you heard about the Thousand Buddha caves, which are a complex series of sacred caves that have existed since the 5th century, in a far-off region in China? First time for me to hear about them (unless our teacher discussed them with us in high school and I happened to be not listening).
|The Thousand Buddha Caves in Dunhuang or Tun-huang (img src)|
Did you know that in the early 1900s, a monk discovered that one of these caves contained thousands of Buddhist manuscripts that dated from the 10th century or earlier? Did you know that these manuscripts were a major archaeological find and influenced changing views of how history, culture, and literature were interpreted? Did you know that the monk, not knowing what the scrolls were actually worth, sold a majority of them to a Hungarian archaeologist/treasure hunter (take your pick, depending on which side you're on) named Aurel Stein, for the grand sum of 220 pounds?
Did you know that after Stein came, French, Japanese, and Russian expeditions followed to gain more of the scrolls? Did you know that the Chinese government only laid claim to what was rightfully their cultural heritage way after these expeditions had gotten most of the scrolls?
Did you know that a copy of the Diamond Sutra was one of the scrolls taken by Stein and that that copy is actually the earliest extant copy of a dated printed book? Did you know that the Diamond Sutra was dated 587 years earlier than the Gutenberg Bible?
This was all fascinating news to me. And this was the context of Tun-huang--a millenial mystery. Like the summary says, no one knows who put the scrolls there or why. Many historians, though, have made educated guesses. Inoue's book is actually a fictionalization of one guess as to why the scrolls are there.
It wasn't the story that fascinated me in Tun-huang. Aside from learning of all those things above (which, really, you read about in the Introduction, mostly), I was fascinated by the things I learned about Chinese culture and the Chinese people who lived at that time.
Another set of did-you-knows...
Did you know that in the 10th century, young men in China were already taking rigorous civil examinations to determine their career in government or lack thereof? Did you know that these examinations required years of intense study and included subjects such as history, culture, writing, etc?
I did not. But it was exhilarating, learning that as early as 10th century (or even earlier), China had such a rich culture and a strong civilization, greater than anything I've read from the West.
|The Diamond Sutra. Beautiful, isn't it? (img src)|
And yet another thing that impressed me--the characters in the story. Tsing-te, the scholar-turned-soldier-turned-historian, and his friend and commander, Wang-li, a decorated military man who lived for the battle: these men seemed to understand their place in the earth's great history. Because it seemed to me that these men did not hold on to life the way we, now, so desperately hang on to it. And they did not think of themselves as much as we, now, seem to consider always our comfort, our needs, etc. Not to say that Tsing-te and Wang-li did not love life. I think they did. But they knew that any moment they could die and there was something greater than their own paltry lives. For Wang-li, it was honor in battle. For Tsing-te, it was preserving all the wealth of culture and knowledge that they had amassed.
What intrigues me, though, is why a Japanese author wrote about this interesting piece of Chinese history. Yasushi Inoue is Japanese. He wrote Tun-huang originally in Japanese in 1959. This English translation was done in 1978, by Jean Moy. And in 2010, the book was republished by NYRB. That's a little of this book's history for you. However, to return to my original question, wasn't there a Chinese author who also wrote about this topic? I love Inoue's novel, but I wonder at the vagrancies of history that a Japanese author would introduce me to this Chinese mystery. I would also love to read about it from the Chinese perspective.
I hope the readers of this blog do find an opportunity to pick up the book. It's not a fast read, but it is the kind of read that will stay with you long after you've closed the last page. It creeps up on you that way.