Thursday, April 12, 2007

Repainting history.

Just finished reading Anchee Min's The Last Empress, the sequel to her novel Empress Orchid. It provides a really sympathetic angle at Cixi Taihou's life, and the decisions she made. I'm pretty excited to hear Anchee Min read next Tuesday, and I wonder if she'll shed any light on what made her write not one, but two books, on a female figure made notorious by historians both Western and Eastern.

I've grown up listening to my mom tell me how Cixi Taihou was an evil woman, and was all but responsible to the death and fall of Imperial China (and thus the aftermath that China is now still recovering from). It's written in history how she dominated over two child emperors, making them prisoners while using them as puppets for the throne. I've never questioned this history and the fact behind it, although now I realize that history is perception, no matter how hard a journalist may try to be subjective.

The book offered a very human view of this so-called "dragon lady" - explored the reasons she may have had for the decisions she made, even if they were not always smart. I'm always intrigued by this, by the idea that the outside world will exploit and misinterpret public figures, stripping them of their humanity, and forgetting the burden that ruling a nation may have upon someone. I couldn't help but seethe for the injustice of the horrible things that she was being called by papers worldwide as she struggled to do what she thought was best for her sons and her country in the face of brutal attack.

And that is the other thing. I really wish I knew more about Chinese history than I do, both contemporary and ancient, as China has a long, long history and the last century and a half especially are so important to the Chinese people. I love reading historical fiction because I want to find out about this stuff without having to read some boring history book (and believe me, a history book on Chinese history would be EXTREMELY long and boring... it's no 200 year old fledgling country like America).

Anyway, reading this book though, it made me both sad and angry, the way China was backed into a corner (and I will admit that they were left vulnerable due to their pride and closed-door policy, but still), and the way the various nations came down upon them like vultures on a not-dead corpse. I've long been told by my parents, of the Opium Wars and how the British encouraged the trade of opium to weaken the Chinese people so they could not fight. And reading about how they could barely survive and fend for themselves - the Russians at one border, the British and Germans and French demanding territories, the Japanese invading at another port - it just seems like so much to me. So much bullying. Of course China was doomed to fail. Of course the empire would fall. When every last prosperous nation with a military is on your back, how can you shake them off? When everyone wants a piece of you, and then the peasants themselves start uprising, starting rebellions, and no one cares to understand your people or your culture... what else can you do? I feel so terrible for these child emperors with the burden of a billion people and the weight of a nation in inevitable decline on them. And reading this account, while perhaps we will never know what Cixi's true intentions and character were, I can't believe she would evilly drive her country into the ground for her own personal profit. I'm barely Chinese, already a generation and a half removed, and I read this story and felt pain for my people, for my country that isn't really mine. It's not that I'm for Chinese feudalism, but there is the pride of my ancestral nation and pride of my ethnicity and race to consider. (And I'm not even Manchurian) Thinking about what it must have felt like, to try to defend your country from others that just wanted to divide you up like a piece of pie.... it makes me so angry, so sad. Especially knowing what is to come. The closed doors. The bamboo curtain. The cultural revolution in a desperate, extremist attempt to make up for lost time. The generation of lost people. My father frequently reminds me that if his parents had not decided to go to Taiwan, he would have been born in China. He would have been in the generation of the Red Guards, and very likely he would have never learned anything past 5th grade level. A generation lost, and countless cultural and historical artifacts, books, art, literature, all gone. How sad. I sometimes think China's history in the past 150-200 years has been nothing but tragedy.

Oh and the lines that I wanted to write down, I believe are probably from real Chinese poems, but I confess I don't remember any of the poems I learned as a kid except the one about moonlight falling on a bed and some other poem about returning home after years. But I liked this:

The silkworm labors, until death its fine thread severs
The candle's tears are dried when it itself consumes

I sometimes wish I had been born in China or had better faculty of the language. I think I could have been a good writer in Chinese, given how inherently poetic the language is. Even when I don't fully understand the meaning of poems, descriptions, song lyrics, I can hear how beautiful the words are, how so much is captured in a few simple characters, unlike the many words that is required in English to describe something. Chinese language is steep in simile and metaphor - in fact, I don't think there's a way to avoid it if you are good with the language. I think if it had been a true native tongue of mine, I could have done so much with it, I could have written things moving and poetic and beautiful, finding just the right couple of phrases to do what is needed. The poetry of it moves me, and at the same time, frustrates me that understanding it is out of my reach. I will never hear the Chinese language, understand its clockwork, see the way the pieces fit together, not in the way the English language does for me. And that makes me sad, because I think I had the inherent ability, just not the knowledge.

Anyway. Good book. Can't wait to hear Anchee Min read on Tuesday. I love historical fiction, and this one stirred up all sorts of Chinese-y feelings in me that I almost forgot existed.

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