Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Ming Storytellers - Sexuality

Issues of sexuality, sexual frustration and sexual obsession are an important undercurrent of the historical novel, The Ming Storytellers.

At the very core we have a world, the Forbidden City, where the only male population consists of an impotent emperor, Zhu Di, and his hundreds of castrates. Both ironically feel their inadequacies and both look to other worldly ambitions to compensate.

Zhu Di knows that he is unable to perform and in an attempt to dupe the world that he is still a virile man, continues to supplement his harem with yet more beauties from as far as Korea. Zhu Di persists in rubbing himself with aphrodisiac ointments and consulting with his physicians to improve his condition. Finding himself unable to perform, he assuages his masculinity on the military field.

Meanwhile the eunuchs who have sacrificed their manhood in order to accede to an imperial position understand that they will never have other means to succeed in their life than to serve their emperor. Maimed, conscious of their differences, plagued by lifelong health problems and sexually frustrated, they direct their ambitions, finding self-esteem and meaning in ascending the echelons of eunuchism, competing for roles and or often driving themselves to complex and illicit affairs with concubines.

For the hundreds of bored and sexually unfulfilled concubines in Zhu Di's harem, relief is found in forbidden literature. The women secretly indulge in the printed tales of the Ming storytellers, renown for their dubious virtue. They devour lascivious erotic vignettes, a Ming equivalent for pornography which arose during this period with the development of the printing industry.
In much the same way, Kareem, an envoy from Zanzibar is himself not foreign to the use of literature to compensate for the lack of spice in his bed. While his highly obsessed partner, Shahrzad, whiles her journey aboard the Ming fleet compiling theories about her idol, Admiral Zheng He, Kareem plunges ever deeply into the classic Persian volumes of One Thousand Tales (Arabian Nights).

Back in the Inner Palaces of the Middle Kingdom, bored and unfulfilled imperial concubines like the main protagonist, Min Li, become trapped in a form of fantasy, where they pine for unrequited forms of love. They become obsessed with eunuchs, perhaps men who believe themselves to be so inadequate that they shut themselves in a protective shell, convinced that they are undeserving of any adoration.

One such eunuch, Zhijian, will have to bear the frustration brought upon by castration all his life. He fills his time with the senseless completion of routine chores, without so much of a career goal, having abandoned all motive for life. The only escape from his torment is the obsession that he will develop for Min Li. His only joy following the castration that has deprived him of all he wanted from this life, is to seek every rumour concerning this one woman that he knows he can never have and who belongs to the emperor.
Zhijian will project his anima onto Min Li believing her to be pure and faultless, convinced that she is like him, a victim about to be slaughtered. Unable to function sexually, Zhijian elevates Min Li to muse status. He places her on a pedestal, relishing his platonic devotion as a welcome refuge because if he were to see her as a woman and desire her, he would ultimately need to face the 'villainy' of his physical condition.

But returning to the women of the palace, we find in the Ming Storytellers, another brand of sexual frustration one which perhaps would not be so problematic today, at least in many parts of the world.
It is the frustration of women who love other women and who are either forbidden to publicly meet due to social constraints or who entertain a secret passion for a loved one, a passion they hide, for fear of rejection.
The Ming dynasty is not foreign to sapphism. Palace women were known for having affairs with each other and wooden dildos have been found in the ruins of ancient Han palaces.

At the other extreme, there is another complex character who embodies a man completely at peace with castration yet who nevertheless suffers the frustration of remaining a man. Ji Feng is a eunuch, criminal at that. My conception of this character can be read in many ways. At the simplistic level he is a sexual criminal. At a more twisted level he is a man who has not 'come out' with his homosexuality. He experiences every woman as a threat, seeing them as creatures he can never compete with and whose form he can never hope to achieve.
Yet Ji Feng remains completely unaware of his own sexuality and of his seething jealously, nor is he conscious of his motivations for wanting to hurt women and see them under his power. Ji Feng's criminal impulse and his voyeurism, compound to produce a perverse individual capable of the worse crimes towards a gender that he cannot attain.

One salient undercurrent of The Ming Storytellers is the common theme of frustrated sexuality and soul-consuming sexual obsessions. It depicts a contrived world with extreme social taboos and physically maiming traditions, a world where eunuchism and forced concubinage combine to produce frustrated human needs that more or less contribute to the characters' journey.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

10 Things You Didn't Know about The Ming Storytellers

1. It has eunuch characters - The main male character is a Muslim eunuch with a turbulent childhood. He existed. Yet in contrast to what is known of his role in Ming diplomacy and naval history, little has been written about his personal life or for that matter, about the many eunuchs who suffered and whose lives were violently transformed.

Today in many parts of the world, notably the West, there is much outrage over female genital manipulation in African and Middle Eastern communities, and how this scars women physically and psychologically. Conversely, the maiming of countless men over the course of history and even today is not dwelt upon with the same psychological and human rights perspective. It seems we have become disensitized about the practice of castration.

Whether through literature or film, we have come to accept that say, Romans, Turkish Sultans and Chinese emperors enslaved eunuchs, without dwelling on what being a eunuch meant for the victims. There is no memorial to acknowledge the lot of these men as eunuchs. There is little empathic study or recognition of what they endured, relative to our recognition of what slaves, in general, endured.

There are exceptions in literature. For example, I recently read the graphic novel, Habibi, and found it a truly respectful, eye-opening story featuring a eunuch as central character. It is a wonderful work of art and literature.

2. It contains torture scenes and a castration scene and offers the rudimentary outline on Chinese footbinding - history has its realities, however grim. I do not like to overlook the truth no matter how hard this truth. 

3. It presents a realistic portrayal of the life of Ming imperial concubines - What do bored women get up to, do you think? Yes, there is much plotting and scheming in secret, just as there are broken rules, bitchiness and much brooding. At the very least, readers can discover what it takes to be selected for the emperor's Royal Chamber and how to become a fashionable imperial courtesan. You can read more about this in my previous post, The Secret Life of Ming Concubines.

4. One of the great joys in writing historical fiction is that of giving a voice to those who have been overlooked or forgotten and offering a re-balance of perceptions through storytelling. And this is what The Ming Storytellers sets out to do. 

There is a magic realism element and as such, the novel slightly advances the cause of Shamanism. Long before the feudal Buddhist system headed by Tibetan priests, the old Tibet religions were rooted in shamanism. There was a deep reverence for animals and nature, and the belief in female seers or shamans. This root religion is explored and lends a magic realism aspect to the story.

The Ming Storytellers invites further contemplation into the history of Chinese minorities, notably those of Yunnan province, and the complex power systems that existed between China, Tibet and Mongolia in the 15th century.

5. It references Hazar Afsanah (One Thousand Nights, now known as 1001 Nights) - The Ming Dynasty is after all, the period where volumes of One Thousand Nights were being published in both Arabic and Persian editions.

6. It is set in a period where Arab and Chinese trade dominated the Indian Ocean, a time preceding the arrival of the Portuguese navigator, Alfonso d'Alburquerque, and his systematic takeover of Arab, Indian, South East Asian and East African trading ports. The Ming Storytellers is actually set just prior to a pivotal point in global trade history. The years following the novel's period mark a major historical shift from Chinese and Arab-dominated naval trade to European-dominated naval trade.
Today we find ourselves in a similar period of change but in the favor of China. From a political and economic perspective, the idea underpinning The Ming Storytellers is that empires, economies and military/trade supremacies rise and fall, and are also fraught by the same prejudices, fears, paranoia and delusions time and time again.

7. It is set in various places around the world including Nanjing, Lijiang in Yunnan, Beijing, Baidu in Sichuan, Deqin in Yunnan, Zanzibar in Tanzania, Calicut in Southern India, with general references to Mongolia, Tibet, Venice, Melacca, Oman, Mecca, Persia, Siam, Vietnam, Korea and of course, there are many passages set aboard the Ming fleet.
During the 15th century, these latter foreign places were all known by the Chinese. China was engaged in global trade with representatives from these parts of the world. It also received tributes from them as a form of allegiance and in exchange for naval protection and trade benefits. There was also a complex relationship between Tibet and China for both political and trade purposes.

8. The Ming Storytellers is transcultural - it embraces all religions and beliefs, and is divorced from all of them - There are references to Taoism, Buddhism, Tibetan Shamanism and Islam. There are references to several superstitions, together with the rejection of these.

Mazu, Celestial Goddess of the Seas guiding sailors

There are references to the Goddess Mazu - the Celestial Goddess of the sea for the Southern Chinese - together with references to the Nakhi ethnic group's frog worship.
The historical figure, Admiral Zheng He, on which the main male character is based, is believed by some historians to follow a harmonious integration between religions. The Ming Storytellers tries to be faithful to this notion and presents Zheng He as highly tolerant, with his attitude remaining quite fluid to integrate belief systems.

9. It deliberately features no White characters - In the story, when white foreigners are mentioned, they are commonly misjudged or treated as backward barbarians- this may be misconstrued to mean that Asian-centrism was the norm across all Ming Dynasty subjects (or that the novel endorses any existing Ming Dynasty racism). This is not the case. A couple of years ago, I wrote that this novel is an experiment in social psychology. It is a paradigm shift and nothing else. It is an exercise in human relations. It illustrates what often happens when an economically and politically powerful group of people, regardless of origin, looks upon the 'other'. 
I have always floated between East and West influences. It is my fluid background (Lebanese, Vietnamese and French) which allows me to setup this paradigm and remain...transcultural.

10. It contains both sexual references and sex scenes. Nothing coarse or pornographic, but I thought you might want to be aware of this. The Ming Storytellers features both homosexual and heterosexual sex scenes, including sex scenes between female and eunuch.

But in the words of my storyteller character, Jun: "Everything is important to the story."