19 February 2011

Tun-Huang by Yasushi Inoue

I think you can tell I'm a fan of NYRB. I actually squealed when a Random House executive gave me a catalog (as if I couldn't go find the books online). Ah well. What I liked a lot about the catalog, though, is the list of NYRB Classics recommended for young adults, which includes Tun-Huang by Yasushi Inoue. It was new (as in newly released), it was Asian, it was NYRB. That was that.

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.


Stepford Mum said...

I want to read this now. And I drool over book catalogues the way other people do over photos of designer shoes and handbags.

fantaghiro23 said...

Hi, Iya! You and me both. Actually, I don't even like shoes and handbags. Which is why some people wonder if I'm really a girl.

Rise said...

Fascinating story of Buddha scrolls, as intriguing as the dead sea scrolls. I have a book by Inoue ("Chronicle of My Mother") somewhere in my pile. I think it's nonfiction. I just might try this author.

Honey, I'm hoping there's another round of NYRB Reading Week come November?

Peter S. said...

Honey, we should have a show-and-tell session for our NYRB titles. That should be fun!

Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks said...

Hello! I've been so remiss in leaving comments to my favorite blogsites with a world of things happening all at the same time.

Anyways, I've always gravitated towards narratives that are related to the Chinese culture - primarily because I am now based in Singapore - and reading your thoughts on this make me want to borrow this book from our library. It sounds really interesting. Great review, as always.

fantaghiro23 said...

@Rise - If you do happen to read Inoue, I hope to read your review, too. I'm interested in the other books he's written. Oh, and about the NYRB Reading Week this year...we'll make it happen.:)

@Peter S. - You know, that's a great idea! What if we have another "informal" discussion about NYRBs, sort of like the Mockingjay discussion?

@Myra - don't worry--I've been remiss about blogging and commenting myself. Hectic stuff at work and life.:) Anyway, I hope you do get to read this and share your thoughts. I would love to get another perspective.

dementedchris said...

Thank you for sharing this. I enjoy reading Asian history and this looks like something I would readily pick up. I like how you pointed out that it was written by a Japanese author. I always question what I-as-a-reader would bring to the text and I suppose this state of mind comes into play more often when I am conscious of another culture present in the reading experience.