Sunday, March 4, 2018

My Call to Chinese History

 "Within these halls, the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets."

So I wrote in The Jade Owl, a short snippet of an undulating paragraph about the tales historic artifacts tell. And back in 1971, I first heard the cuckoo sing history's sweet song from the podium. First from the leader of the Hungarian Revolution, Bela Kiroly, and then from Mary Giles, a consummate lecturer on Ancient history, a woman who brought the old Roman threadbare jargon to life. Sumerians glowed; and I remember doing a paper on Hathor's mirror, which sat on a velvet drape at the Brooklyn Museum. Within these halls, the relics told their tales and let slip their secrets. Yessum. It was history for me.

And then there was Professor Hyman Kublin, who specialized in Japanese history. Ah! Japan.. The land of The Mikado (not really), but I was hooked forever . . . well not forever. Until Prof Kublin introduced me to a larger well—CHINA. Her blossoming fathomless sea of rich history, relics, lore, customs and immovable presence. I couldn't get enough of her . . . never have . . . never will.

Destiny knocked, and I cared little for the practicality of making a living as a Sinologist. I was still with a company that kept me fed (and would so 'til this day). I had scant notion of the job market or the glut of Sinophiles (unemployed ones). Still, China dominated all, including my writing. Suddenly hundreds of story possibilities came my way. So what did I do? I took a western-style tale and bent it a la Chinese. But it was an important tale. It was called Vagrants Hollow . It was my first mature novel. It concerned a Sung dynasty student and bureaucrat; and the death of his teacher - a murder mystery in 12th Century China. Why not? It had action, obsession and a twist ending (so twisty, it defied logic). Most important, it gave birth to my oldest fictional companion, Li K'ai-men (the scholar-official), whose story I tell. Little did I know then that Li and his ilk (his descendant Little Cricket figures heavily in later work), would burst through several works for the next forty years.

I also scrawled a few Chinese themed short stories, one of whichLaughing Dog reflected my knoledge as a Sinologist. It was sort of the Papago Wedding for the Chinese set. It also figured in the scheme of my writing, the basis for my play (1999) Fishing With Birds and the first sections of my novel (2002) Nan-ya, which has since become the Southern Swallow series (The Academician).

Yes, these were fecund times. I also was writing papers, the real work of the historian. I committed to it. I would walk in the wake of Marco Polo. I would do it, because . . . because the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets. I would tell the world. Finally, a reason for a writing life. And then, after 5 Jade Owl novels and 4 (soon to be 5) Southern Swallow works, Master Wu's Bride was born. Yes, a reason for living . . . to provide a voice to a woman from the past to today's women in this age of #MeToo.

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