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Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong

November 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Enigma of China

As is often the case when starting off these reviews, here’s a question for you to chew over. Is it possible to write an apolitical piece of fiction? One view of the political process is that it’s the discourse used by those who seek to achieve power. Although some would no doubt wish to reserve the meaning to the electoral mechanisms for appointing people to government, the practical reality is that the way people communicate with each other can be used to influence decisions at a personal or small group level. I might get very political in discussing possible projects with friends and colleagues. This might be trading on the nature of existing relationships or offering outcomes which might be mutually beneficial. Hopefully, these exchanges will be benevolent but, inevitably, there are times when threats of unpleasantness are made. The process of negotiation is always about sticks and carrots.

When authors write about their own cultures for the readership of those who are a part of that society, much of the mechanisms of political interaction can be left unspoken. Among those who have been socialised in the culture from birth, there’s no need to state the obvious. Hence the moment an insider offers a commentary or critique, it’s always classified as humour or, more dangerously, as satire to warn people the content is not to be taken seriously. I cut my early teeth on Stephen Potter’s books defining and exploring gamesmanship among the English. The art of cheating without getting caught has always been close to my heart. If outsiders write similar books, the English are patronising or faintly contemptuous as if outsiders can never be trusted to see through to the truth about Englishness (whatever that is). In the end, it’s all about controlling the salience and importance attached to the book. If a book is saying something unpalatable, it has to be marginalised so it will not disturb the smooth flow of the discourse. Assuming its release can’t be prevented, of course.

Writing about China is always political. This is a nation whose culture depends on the concept of face. It’s not considered socially appropriate to write or say anything that might cause others to lose face. Equally, at a higher level, it’s not politically acceptable to say anything that might divert public opinion against the current orthodoxy as defined by the Party apparatus. So here comes a book written by a Chinese born man who now makes his home in America. In these internet-connected days, what one writes in one country is often picked up and commented on in others. This means the author must be careful what he writes. If he wishes to return to his home city of Shanghai, he must tread carefully when deciding what picture of China to present to his American or other readers in the West. Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the eighth instalment of the Inspector Chen series (not to be confused with the Detective Inspector Wei Chen series by Liz Williams), which feature Chen Cao as Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau, first deputy Party secretary of the bureau, member of the Shanghai Communist Party Committee and sometime poet.

Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu Xiaolong

So how is our politically aware police officer to interpret his appointment to oversee the apparent yet suspicious suicide of Zhou Keng, the director of the Shanghai Housing Development Committee? As a man with a reputation for honesty, is he supposed to rubberstamp the predetermined official finding of suicide, or is he to act as a kind of stalking horse to flush out prey? The “safe” line would simply be to assume endorsement of the party line is required. If there are doubts, they can be included in an appendix to the official report which his superiors in the party can forget to publish. But without being able to ask anyone for guidance, he must judge the factional landscape. For all the party might like to portray itself as monolithic, there are always political currents and eddies as different groups vie for influence and power. In this instance, there may be stresses in the relationship between Beijing and the local government in Shanghai. If this speculation is correct, Beijing might expect a very different report. So to whom does a police inspector who’s rising through the ranks owe his duty? Is it to his immediate political masters or to higher powers.

In answering this question, we should not forget the rise in the power of netizens as the internet enables challenges to the discourse published through state-controlled media. Indeed, it was a piece of crowd-sourced investigative journalism that triggered this particular crisis. Zhou Keng was exposed as probably corrupt through a photograph of him smoking a very expensive brand of cigarette. Other officials are also being photographed wearing expensive watches and driving luxury cars. Although action can be taken against individual bloggers after prejudicial information is published online, it’s very difficult for the party to deter future revelations. To appease the public, Zhou Keng had therefore been relieved of his post and placed in a form of extralegal detention. The Shanghai authorities naturally hope his suicide in custody will be interpreted as an admission of guilt and bring this particular matter to an end. Inspector Chen must decide whether to investigate and, if he does, what he must do with the results. It might suit Beijing to make an example of Shanghai if the corruption was widespread among the Shanghai government elite.

Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong is a rather pleasing meditation on the nature of duty and the role of a police officer. He might suggest it’s not his job to prejudge the facts or second-guess the judges (legal or political). All he need do is discover the “truth” and leave it to others to decide what to do with it. Except if he had a romantic view of justice, he might consider himself under a more universal imperative to act when it’s the right thing to do. The answers here are illuminating. China, as the title suggests, is an enigmatic culture so you should not expect easy, black-and-white assertions. In the final analysis, it’s somewhat melancholic to discover that this culture is not unlike our own. The decision to become a whistleblower is no less difficult in our society which is supposedly more open and accountable. Those in power never like to feel threatened by mere police officers.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004)

March 28, 2013 2 comments

A_World_Without_Thieves

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

 

As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

 

All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.

 

The Silent War or Ting Feng Zhe (2012)

As a central metaphor, let’s assume that what you need to get a rounded view of any given problem is perspective. If you’re too close, you can be distracted by details and irrelevancies. Move away and you can then see the wood for the trees. The question, then, is how far away to remove yourself. You could physically retreat, say, leaving the city and taking up residence in the countryside, miles from anywhere. You might then stand in a field and the only thing you could hear would be the wind as it rustled through the grasses. If you wanted to increase the distance, you could depersonalise those around you, referring to people only as numbers and reducing all data about people to signs and symbols. The hope would be that the more you distill the information down to its core essentials, the more obvious it becomes which elements are the most salient and how solutions may be found. Taking this to an extreme, a man might come to believe that even sight was a hindrance to finding “truth”. He might be as far from centres of human settlements as he can get. He might have found a specially constructed room which is so acoustically shielded, no sound can penetrate from outside. But even that might not be enough. Only true darkness may elevate the sense of hearing to its most acute. The question is how much you might sacrifice for the one you truly love.

Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Xun Zhou

 

The Silent War or Ting Feng Zhe (2012) is a new film by Felix Chong and Alan Mak and it continues the theme of Overheard or Sit yan fung wan and Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2 in which various forms of spying and their consequences are investigated. This time, we’re relocated to the 1950s and are presented with an adaptation of An Suan or Plot Against by Jia Mai who was also responsible for the magnificent novel and film, The Message or Feng sheng. This deals with the time when the emergent Communist Party of China (CPC) was still locking horns with agents of the Kuomintang (KMT). Assassination, sabotage and terrorism were all possible threats. Not unnaturally, the CPC sets out to gather intelligence and creates a central listening station called Unit 701. It’s at this point we need to separate the literal images we see on the screen from their metaphorical counterpart. Why? Because what we see on the screen is literally nonsense.

 

In the real world of espionage, messages are kept short to reduce the chance that the code can be cracked, they are sent at random times of the day on a revolving schedule of different frequencies. This means hundreds of operatives are required to physically monitor all frequencies on the off-chance one will pick up a message. Remember this is long before governments developed automated monitoring systems which can record all frequencies and analyse even the static for signs of a message. Yet what we have here is the KMT

Xuebing Wang leads Unit 701

broadcasting messages 24/7 on 120 radio frequencies. All the CPC needs do, therefore, is have shifts of operatives trained to transcribe the broadcasts and send the punched tapes for decryption. The building is wonderfully melodramatic with hundreds of operatives, each spotlighted in an otherwise dark, vast echoing bunker, working to save the CPC from disaster. Except, by some means not revealed, the KMT decide their messaging system has been compromised and so shut down. This metaphorically leaves the CPC deaf so, not unnaturally, they persuade He Bin (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a blind piano tuner with super powers of hearing, to come and help them. He’s then able to retune all the radio equipment to find the original 120 stations on their new frequencies. Later he adds a few special channels where the leadership plot and plan their overall strategies. He does this not by inventing new technology for tuning the equipment to more precise frequencies. It’s the same twiddling of dials that mere mortals do, but he’s got the magic touch that only the blind can develop through years of sensory deprivation. As a reward for restoring the CPC’s overview, a specialist is brought back from America and performs a difficult operation to restore our hero’s long-lost sight. Later, in part because he’s illiterate, he’s feels inadequate when even the slightest error in interpreting the morse as it’s keyed could produce a major shift in meaning. Is the restoration of his sight diluting his power to hear accurately? Should he retreat back into the darkness to get the best results?

 

His motivation for this potential self-sacrifice does not seem to be political allegiance. For all he achieves hero status within the CPC, he’s in love with Xue Ning or Agent 200 (Xun Zhou) who recruited him. This sets up a difficult set of unfulfilled relationships. Agent 200 is distantly in love with the leader of Unit 701 Laogui or Guo Xingzhong (Xuebing Wang), but both are professional and never act on it. Because Xue Ning believes she will be killed in action sooner or later, she rejects He Bin’s advances and sets him up to marry Shen Jing (Mavis Fan). This gives him some degree of protection. The CPC is ruthlessly exploiting him and without someone to offer a little advice and comfort, he could easily self-destruct. So he’s buried in a loveless marriage of convenience while the other pair smile in resignation and pass on by.

Mavis Fan as a rather pallid codebreaker

 

So this is a very good film to look at with some very striking cinematography, particularly during the early part of the film showing the danger of spying in Hong Kong and a nicely judged way to meet and recruit our hero. It also has an elegant metaphorical subtext. But the way it’s constructed prevents it from generating any real tension. The whole point of thrillers with espionage overtones is to see our heroes face a challenge and then come through with the goods just in time to prevent the bad guys from pulling off their coup. Except after a great set-up, this film does not tell us anything about what the KMT cell in question is planning. All we know is that the leader is called Chungking and that he or she is one of five suspects. At the end of the film, we see the plan was to assassinate senior members of the CPC and blow up half a squadron of fighter jets. If we’d been aware of an act of terrorism on this scale from the outset, it would have generated real pressure as Unit 701 tried to identify the targets and track the explosives, detonators and guns. Sadly, being wise after the event is no substitute and does not retrospectively relieve the boredom that slowly permeates the film as it meanders its way through two hours of running time. It’s a shame. The Silent War could have been a great film.

 

Why China Will Never Rule the World by Troy Parfitt

November 13, 2011 1 comment

Why China Will Never Rule the World by Troy Parfitt is something of a chimaera in that we have a travelogue with political attitude. As a yardstick, my favorite travel writer is Jan Morris. When she walks you through a town or city, she’s giving you a fully realised insight into her own experience, picking from the details to reveal the occasional incongruous note. Troy Parfitt is both more and less ambitious. Rather than a city, he aspires to survey an entire people by travelling to all the provinces of modern China. In some senses, therefore, this becomes more a journey reported by anecdote than through a detailed journal. Sadly, this task was performed more elegantly in Coast to Coast by Morris, but this book is nevertheless an interesting effort, in the main because the writing style is engaging and betrays a man of sophisticated sensibilities.

 

So, after a short introduction, we’re off on the first leg of our whistle-stop tour through China by deviating through Hong Kong for a permit, and then on to Macau and Guangzhou. For the first fifty pages or so, there’s a reasonably entertaining summary of our traveller’s experiences as he plumbs unsuspected depths and comes up with the slightly seamy side of life. As to the man, he admits a brief experiment with opium when younger — it’s always better to discuss the Opium Wars when you have some personal insight into what they were fighting about. Now heading for Hong Kong, he elects to stay in Chungking Mansions, one of the slightly more notorious places. His idea of a “good place to start” is to explore a red light area in the hope of rediscovering Nam Kock Hotel and The World of Suzie Wong. From this you will understand this is not a travel book in which our intrepid explorer moves without preplanning, sometimes landing on his feet and sometimes having adventures. Troy Parfitt knows where he’s going and has expectations about all the must-see places if you want to do all aspects of the history of China.

 

However, quite early on, we see signs of real attitude in his summary of China’s history as it bears on the status of Hong Kong and, later, Sun Yat-sen’s life. I have no particular brief for truth which, in most cases affecting China, is always a matter of opinion based on which sources you happen to have read. But Troy Parfitt seems somewhat contemptuous of China as a country and of a man whom some describe as the “Father of the Nation”. Indeed, referring back to the title of the book, our author has found evidence of China’s impoverished state and confirms a prejudice that the weaknesses he observes will prevent China from making a positive mark on the world. Motives are always complex and I wonder whether this book is genuinely inductive. We have observations of the world and then there’s extrapolation to generalisations. It’s a form of probabilistic reasoning. The issue as this book unwinds is whether the inductions are weak or strong, i.e. they offer genuine insights into the truth of what China is really like and what that means if China actively follows a path intended to lead to hegemony.

Troy Parfitt more at ease with the world

 

Then we’re off and running again, this time to Guilin and Yangshuo, then on to Kunming and Xoaguan. It’s all a little perfunctory with a few snapshots of people met and scenes observed. The only consistency comes from the reinforcement of the lack of cleanliness and the sheeplike quality of the people who kowtow to authority figures and lead (un)quiet lives. The tone doesn’t change when we get to Tibet. Indeed, it turns into another history lesson. It’s curious to find the travelogue stop and start in this way. It feels as though the descriptive journal of a traveller must be subordinated to the author’s more general opinions reflected in these historical summaries. As it unfolds, the mixture loses some momentum and grows more serious in tone. The only moments I smiled came when he reports the comment of a US ex-pat in Beijing who thinks the Chinese more friendly than the French, and when he discovers the delights of the Tsingtao Brewery.

 

Whereas others might see China as a country trying to dig itself out of a pit, he only sees the pit. This gives the tenor of the descriptions a relentlessly monochrome view. Most places have black and white qualities at the extreme. When you visit or actually live there as an ex-pat, you try to inhabit the shades of grey in-between. That’s where there’s some hope and you can try to fashion a normality out of the cultural strangeness around you. This is a man who has spent some ten years as an ex-pat in Taiwan teaching English to the local Chinese and learning Mandarin in return, not something you do unless you find the experience reasonably convenient to continue. Yet, by the time he’s visited seventeen of the twenty-two provinces of China, he’s had enough. Curiously, he’s not only disillusioned with the mainland Chinese, but also out of sorts with the Taiwanese. He ends the book by returning to his native Canada. In a sense, his modern anabasis and consequent writing of the book give him an opportunity to reflect on his life. This is not to say his peregrination was militaristic, but it does acquire a veneer of hostility as it continues. Cultures are strange beasts. Often they lie supine and unobserved until you rouse them into life. Only at that point does the nature of the beast come clearly into focus. For Troy Parfitt, prolonged exposure to the Confucianism implicit in the Chinese psyche has proved too much. He wants to feel comfortable again and decides this means reimmersion in a Western academic environment, surrounded by people with whom he feels more immediate affinity.

 

This is not to say his view of China or its people is wrong. I would not presume to make such a judgement. But I feel he writes without a sense of balance, i.e. the inductions are weak. Books are at their most persuasive when they rehearse a proper set of arguments for and against a proposition. When the author arrives at a reasoned conclusion, we can see the force of the winning argument. This feels more like a book written by a man who’s falling out of love with a culture. He’s convincing himself of the rightness of his decision to leave and go back to his roots. Hence, he paints the picture with a broadly negative brush. If you want to read a book telling you why not to visit China and/or what mistakes were made by leaders in its past, this is the book for you. The title, Why China Will Never Rule the World, sets the tone, the editorialisation is consistent, and you will not be disappointed by the finished product. But if you’re looking for nothing more than an engaging travelogue through parts of China and around Taiwan, or you want a book analysing the history of the late Qing Dynasty and the last century, find something else to read.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

As a completely irrelevant aside, this is the first occasion on which I have ever seen an author not reserve copyright from the year of publication. The first edition is shown as published in 2011, but Mr. Parfitt only wishes his copyright to run from 2012.

 

The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia (2011)

October 25, 2011 1 comment

Films come in cycles. We’re currently overlapping the centenary of momentous events leading to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in China. This has triggered the release of the dire 1911, as the Hong Kong/Chinese film industry flirts with historical dramas at or about the Xinhai Revolution. The story of The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia reaches its climax in 1907, some four years before the main action. It tells of Qiu Jin who was one of the early martyrs leading up to the Xinhai Revolution and she enjoys a good reputation under the current Chinese regime as a poet, an early feminist and a revolutionary leader. History is one of the more malleable areas of the discourse where each new culture chooses which “facts” it will consider significant in forming the reputation of individuals or past events. Insofar as the successive attempts to overthrow the Manchu government eventually built up enough support to force the abdication of the Qing Dynasty, it’s convenient for the present Government to remember martyrs like Qiu Jin with affection. She was with Sun Yat-sen in Japan, joining the Tongmenghui, and became a pivotal figure when she returned to China, trying to unite the secret societies into a force with sufficient co-ordination to represent a credible threat to the corrupt local governments in the south. She’s a “safe” revolutionary and this has earned her a formal burial site and museum. The theme of this film is rooted in astronomy. Please forgive the mixing of metaphors. Light sets off from a distant star and there’s no telling what life will be like when it arrives at its destination. So this hero’s life is the light setting off. . .

 

In this film, she’s played by Yi Huang who’s been through an interesting period, appearing in Overheard 2 and dying along with the rest of the cast in Treasure Inn. It’s a considerable relief to see her able to carry the role of Qiu Jin with quiet dignity and some flair when it comes to the fighting.

Huang Yi as Qiu Jin armed, dangerous and dressed as a man

 

So, if we take the story in chronological order, our hero is born into a still largely feudal China where women are considered little better than chattels. To satisfy male abstract notions of beauty, women were required to bind the feet of their daughters and to stay indoors to ensure the whitest possible complexion. Qiu Jin persuaded her progressive father to treat her as a son. She therefore learned to read, write, ride and fight. Poetry and martial arts may not seem a good combination but, in this film, she’s shown as devastating with the written word as she was with the sword. Unfortunately, parental permissiveness only goes so far and, when the right family came along, she was married off to Ting-jun (Kevin Cheng). He didn’t exactly get what he was expecting, but they did contrive to produce two children before she tired of his womanising and disappeared off to Japan to improve her education. In this, she was funded by a rich woman sympathiser Pat Ha. There she met her cousin Xu Xilin (Yu-Hang To) and, together, they delved more deeply into revolutionary thinking, joining the Restoration Society or Guangfuhui. On their return to China, they planned successive uprisings at Anqing in Anhui and in Shaoxing.

Anthony Wong Chau-Sang who is unable to save Qiu Jin

 

As an early step, they established the Datong School in Shaoxing. This was a front for training revolutionary troops. Xu Xilin then bought a position as an official in Anqing where he led an uprising of the police recruits, managing to kill En Ming, the Governor of Anhui Province. Unfortunately, he was forced to move early. This prompted the government to send troops to arrest Qiu Jin. Caught unprepared, the school was surrounded and most students were killed. Qiu Jin was arrested and, despite there being only patchy evidence of criminal activity, she was executed. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang is a sympathetic government official in Shaoxing who tries to save Qiu Jin but he’s overruled by senior official Suet Lam. Fearing more unrest and wanting the maximum deterrent effect, she was beheaded, the punishment previously reserved for men. So, even in the manner of her death, she struck a blow for the equality of the sexes.

Xu Xilin (Yu-Hang Dennis To) being professorial before the fighting starts

 

At every level, this is an inspiring story of a young woman who throws off the shackles of a repressive patriarchy, fights for women’s rights and, as a patriot, fights for her country. Her contribution as a writer, publisher and revolutionary has been matched by few. In general, this film version of her story works reasonably well with director Herman Yau striking a good balance between the history and the need to remain entertaining. But, for me, two problems prevent this from being a really good film. The first is the structure of the narrative. Sadly, I’m old-fashioned and prefer a story to start and the beginning and follow through to a climax at the end. This has an endlessly nested sequence of flashbacks. We start with the battle at the school and then variously move forwards or backwards in time. This is slightly confusing and somewhat annoying. Worse, I think it undermines the emotional power of this hero’s journey from assertive girl to revolutionary leader and martyr to the cause. The second problem involves the fighting. Some of the sequences are brutal and naturalistic. This is as it should be when presenting committed revolutionaries pitched against government troops of questionable morale. But in the sequences involving the Qing military commander Ao Feng (Xiong Xin Xin), naturalism is sacrificed for the modern cinematic version of fighting based on wire work. In any event, there’s some controversy about whether Qiu Jin knew any martial arts. This is not to take anything away from the skill of Yi Huang and Yu-Hang To in their personal martial arts skills. The fights with old pro Xiong Xin Xin are very entertaining in their own right and could take their place with pride in any of the more fantasy-based kung fu films. I simply don’t feel they fit into the tone of this film which, in all other respects, is attempting to be a reasonably accurate historical drama.

 

So there you have it. The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia is inspirational and entertaining, but short of being very good.

 

Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

Many moons ago, there was a girl group somewhat improbably called The Cookies — presumably, they were sweet things on the musical casting couch. Anyway, as is the way of pop culture, their brief reign over the charts bequeathed us “Chains”, a haunting song, penned by Goffin and King, and later covered by The Beatles, which boasts the immortal refrain,

Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains

And they ain’t the kind that you can see.

Fast forward more than fifty years, and we find ourselves with the same leitmotif in the Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox. In some systems of magic, there is an expectation that, if you know the true name of a thing, animal or person, you can command it. So it is with some ironic satisfaction that I confront a book about magic knowing that the real name of the pseudonymous author is Chaz Brenchley. He is currently a denizen of Newcastle which was the nearest city to where I lived in the earliest part of my life. At least he has the good sense to stay on the north bank of the Tyne — perhaps he has also had the good sense to read The Fire Worm, a book with autobiographical asides by author Ian Watson on life in Tynemouth, which deals with monstrous consequences to be found in the river dividing the true Geordies from the rest of England.

In this book, we are in the world of Chinese mythology. Yet again, the Son of Heaven (as Emperors liked to be known way back when) comes to the Imperial Throne under the regency of his mother and her flock of feuding generals. The book begins with the court in flight from a rebellion by a general who would not play the mother’s game, the young Emperor caught up in an undignified retreat to an island which is the principal source of jade. His arrival completely disrupts the life of the people whose main interests have lain in mining the jade and fishing. Those on the mainland have the worst of the bargain because the arrival of the pursuing army results in a mass slaughter among the coastal towns which involuntarily provided the men and boats to ferry the retreating imperial forces to the island. It is strange how often the lives of the innocent can be so rudely interrupted when their rulers fall out.

The book is therefore dealing with several well-worn themes. It’s a coming-of-age story for the young Emperor, the young woman he takes from the fishing fleet as his mistress, and a young jade miner who, like the Emperor, has had significant exposure to this stone for most of his life. It also reflects on the social and political forces that shape and constrain the lives of those both within the power structure and without. In theory, everyone including the Emperor is caught in cultural chains, restricting what they can do or the way in which they can do it. While under the sea, chained by sympathetic magic, a real dragon chafes against her intangible bonds and dreams of being free again.

At many levels, this is an unflinching story. It could have glossed over the casual brutality of life and death in early China, yet the author’s gaze is focussed on the use of power as a means of imposing order and discipline on the world. There would be no hegemony over the enormous land mass of China without an iron fist to hold its disparate parts together. There would be no crew of a ship without a captain unafraid to take a limb or the lives of those who offend him. Armies depend on a balance between loyalty and fear to maintain full ranks of motivated soldiers. Mothers need a ruthless streak in them to protect their children. Yet tip the balance too far and Emperors, captains and mothers may find themselves transformed from caring authority figures into monsters with no-one prepared to follow them. Balancing power and respect for, if not love of, others is a difficult art for all to learn.

The book (as the first in a trilogy called Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water) is also balancing social upheaval against the threatened upheaval of the dragon if she can free herself from the chains that bind her beneath the sea. This dragon is not some benign Westernised creature of Hollywood design, prepared to pull up a rock and chat amiably with a young hero in Sean Connery’s Scottish brogue. Rather it is a fierce creature waiting to savour a cold dish of revenge by laying waste to human settlements up and down her part of the coast, including the straits now separating the Son of Heaven from his pursuers. Indeed, as readers, we can ponder which would be worse for the local inhabitants: an army killing all in its path or a single dragon that can call up tsunamis or attack from the air.

All this is told in a most pleasing style. Too often magical fantasy descends into purple prose whose baroque extravagance weighs down threadbare plots. Here we have an intelligent plot with a restrained but evocative tone. The characterisation is allowed the time and space to give us a real insight into motivations. So long as we all suspend disbelief at the magic and forgive Mei Feng her unexpected sophistication as she rapidly changes from a deck hand on her grandfather’s boat to imperial mistress, this represents an auspicious start to the intended trilogy. I recommend it.

For the next volume in the trilogy, see Jade Man’s Skin. For the concluding volume, see Hidden Cities. For a new series, see Desdaemona and Pandaemonium.

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