Like the best historical fiction, reading The Ten Thousand Things, is a tactile immersion into an unfamiliar time and place leaving a lasting impression of an atmosphere and culture.
Looking through this blog I was appalled to find that I never wrote up any notes on this book. I must have read it several years ago and it continues to circle back to me—which is the best of signs. So many otherwise good books are easily forgotten.
Set at the demise of the Yuan Dynasty (14th century China), the story follows Wang Meng as he wanders the land on various personal errands and is gradually drawn into the cataclysmic events of his era.
There is not a lot of action until our refined artist/philosopher becomes a war strategist for a group of rebels and eventually endures the hardship and loss of a siege. But we also experience the complexity of this medieval Chinese society and a deep dive into the philosophical world of Chinese fine arts. As a painter I could almost see the paintings through Spurling’s descriptions.
Here’s an example:
He hung up several more recent vertical paintings which were further developments of his dialogue between fullness and emptiness. The emptiness became gradually more and more beleaguered. The distant mountains grew higher and craggier; the space setting out, as it were, from its home in the foreground—where a scholar, as often as not, sat writing in his study—picked its way from clearing to clearing in a winding upward progress, impeded by rocks and trees, to a grassy slope, a pool below a waterfall, a broad stretch of river, or a field where a man was ploughing. But when the eye reached the top of the painting the high crags which had dominated its ascent seemed to draw aside like curtains to offer a final clear passage to the sky.
Not all the descriptions are this detailed. But can’t you see the work in front of you?
One aspect of particular interest to me, beyond the life of the painters and their artistic philosophy is the tenacity of artists who continue to create while their world is in the midst of upheaval. This is a subject I’ve often thought to explore further.
I cannot comment on the story’s accuracy as I was ignorant of this period beforehand. But, once again, historical fiction serves as a bridge to new curiosity and knowledge. It gives us a place to start.
I was shocked to see that the book—winner of the 2015 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction—has only 20 reviews on Amazon. Does this mean readers of historical fiction don’t review on Amazon? Goodreads shows 154 ratings. Maybe that’s where they hang out.
Spurling has been writing since age 11. Despite his long career as a playwright and art critic, 44 publishers rejected The Ten Thousand Things. Oops. Their loss.
Highly recommended for a Long Ago and Far Away experience.