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."

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