- For in books are abodes of gold
Re-reading Yasushi Inoue's novel, Tun-Huang, I once again delight in the fact that the author wrote the entire story without ever having set foot in Western China. At that time, of course, no Japanese or European scholars were allowed to travel to the area. And, yet, Tun-Huang remains to my mind the most vivid account of the silk road oasis city ever published.
It is a dream journey.
Inoue has long been one of my favorite Japanese writers-- and this particular novel remains my all-time favorite of his books. As the translator of his other great work of historical fiction-- The Roof Tile of Tempyo-- writes: "Although his works are considered as being historical novels in Japan, artistic historical narrative would be a better description." I think so too, and no where is this more evident than in Tun-Huang.
The story opens faraway from the legendary desert city of the title. Our hero, Chao Hsing-te, has arrived at the Song capital- the city of dreams-- to sit for the Palace Examination.
Yes, he is the son of a scholar. But not all those sitting for the exam were of his background as the imperial examination was open to all males in Chinese society regardless of their social class (with the notable exception of actors, slaves, policemen and the children of prostitutes). This open education system, while it can be traced back all the way to Tang times, really came into functionality during the Song dynasty. This happened right from the start, in fact, with the First Song Emperor Taizu and his systematic subordination of the military. And from that time onward, the scholar-officials saw their numbers and power at Court dramatically increase-- something which continued right down till the end of the imperial system in modern times.
You may say, "Well, I am not much impressed by meritocracies." Well, what was so revolutionary about all this was not just that the system was based on merit (though this was stunningly unique in and of itself as Europe wouldn't see anything similar until well into modern times), but rather that education and individual artistic cultivation came to be given the highest priority-- above political power, money or commerce. To be educated and artistically cultivated were characteristics that money could not buy. And this focus on education was something that came straight from the top!
To impress upon his subjects the importance of education, the narrator in the novel explains that the third Song Emperor Zhenzong personally composed the following poem:
No need to acquire rich lands to increase the family's wealth
For in books are a thousand measure of millet.
No need to build mansions in which to dwell in peace
For in books are abodes of gold
You who would realize your aspirations,
Use the light from your window and recite the Six Classics.
Tun-Huang opens up the day before our hero, Chao Hsing-te, is about to face this last exam. He had arrived at the capital from his hometown in Hunan province in the spring of 1026 and had done brilliantly. Out of 33,000 candidates, only 500 were chosen to go on to the final top exam in the three level system-- and Chao had been one of them. His future looked very bright and he had every reason to be on top of the world.
During Song times, this final examination was supervised directly by the Emperor. Those few who passed became known as “presented scholars” (or jinshi). This degree was similar to having obtained a doctorate in today's parlance, but in effect was far more prestigious-- Not to mention far more difficult to oobtain. Indeed, in the long history of this examination system, there is many a story of a poor man’s son and his stunning rise to stardom after having obtained this degree, for the holders of the jinshi degree became the luminous elite of their day.
First feted at the Palace, those with the top scores-- the season’s cream of the crop-- were posted at Court, either to assist at the Hanlin Academy or to serve as advisors to the Emperor, with the rest of the candidates being scattered at different posts throughout the empire. Because education was given such an esteemed place in Chinese society, these scholars were held in tremendous awe. Rising to the top level of this rigorous examination system required literally half a lifetime, and the scholars who were able to graduate at the top were assured brillinat futures. In a land where literacy was a rarity to say the least, that these men could not only read and write, but could compose letters and poems of such impossible elegance and beauty as to be valued as works of fine art led them to be seen as viewed as larger than life by the general population-- much like the Hollywood movie stars of America today. Stars who also hold political power, that is.
Chao is aware of all of this and has very high hopes-- as well as high aspirations. On the day of the final exam-- the most important day of his life-- he waits outside the Examination Hall along with several dozen other final candidates. It was a warm, early fall day and as he waits for his name to be called, the unthinkable happens. He falls asleep. Dreaming that he is giving his final oral examination in the presence of the Emperor, he is given the question of arguing on Ho Liang's Frontier Security Proposal for dealing with the barbarians along China's western border.
The Hsi-hsia (or Xixia 西夏) were a Tibetan people who formed a large military threat along China's western edges. As this was the corridor that ran along the silk road into Central Asia, it was very strategically important that China contain control over their frontier garrisons there. The Xixia were becoming more and more of a threat as they raided Chinese-occupied towns and forts in the disputed gray areas, and China was becoming increasingly more concerned. Ho Liang's proposal had taken a hard line, and in his dream, Chao Hsing-te gave an impassioned-- and yet brilliant-- oral argument for why Ho Liang's approach remained the only logical strategy.
Unfortunately, rather then ending in accolades, Chao Hsing-te awoke to find himself laying face-down under the great huai tree in the courtyard of the examination hall. He had fallen aspeep and missed his examination altogether! His future was over before it had even begun. Rejected, he leaves the courtyard, thinking of a famous poem by Meng Chiao:
Elated by the spring breeze
My horse quickens its pace
In but one short day
Do I view all the peonies of Chang'an
Meng Chiao (or Meng Jiao of Pink Floyd fame) had composed the poem in celebration of finally passing the Palace Examination at the age of 50. With that passing result, all in the blink of an eye had changed for Meng. For Chao Hsing-te, everything had changed as well.
The narrator of the story remarks that, "For Hsing-te there would be no peonies." For, indeed, all his high aspirations "had been reduced to the ashes of a dream."
But then something amazing happens. Walking home in a daze, Chao finds himself in the marketplace outside the city walls. The alleys are lined with shops selling hot noodles and dumplings and the smell of oil makes him realize he is hungry. At that moment he catches sight of a woman who is being sold in the marketplace. The man who is selling her announces that he plans to sell her piecemeal-- and to add impact to his words proceeds to cut off two of her fingers. Chao is amazed that the beautiful woman does not cry out in any way. Without thinking, he shouts that he will buy her, and handing over the money walks away, saying, "you are free." We now made to understand that our hero is perhaps not the complete fool we may have thought he was slumbering away in the Emperor's courtyard!
Rushing after him, she hands him a piece of paper and says, "This is all I have, take it." Looking at the writing on the paper, he realized that it is not a language he has ever seen before so he demands to know what it says. She explains that, since she cannot read she doesn't know for sure but she thinks it may state her name and place of birth. With that, she turns and disappears in the teeming crowd of the dark marketplace.
This is how it always is, is it not? One's fate. There is no rythmn nor reason. Like with all human passion, everything happens in the blink of an eye; these moments which change our lives.
Gone completely out of his mind is the exam-- something which had up till that moment been the very purpose of his life. Now, only one thought occupies him-- that piece of paper. Desiring to know more, he takes it to the Minister of Rites and begs to be told what language it is. The Minister is stumped. The characters are, he says, "worthless imitations of our Chinese characters." And, he then mutters asking Chao how he came to possess the scrap of paper, that he astounded that barbarians actually had their own script. Not much was known of the Xixia people and their language, but Chao resolves to find out everything there is to know, and henceforth immediately sets out for the border of the empire.
Tun-huang is the story of one man's fate. It is also the story of the great Buddhist kingdom of Dunhuang (Tun-huang). Indeed, some have said that the real hero of the book is the city itself.Tun-huang presents one imagined version (Yasushi Inoue's) of how it came to pass that the vast hoard of legendary documents came to be hidden in the library cave at Dunhuang. Hidden for over a thousand years, these documents continue to fascinate-- indeed they caused the creation of a new field of study, called Dunhuangology. In fact, it may never be known under what circumstances the documents were hidden away in the library and this is almost as fascinating perhaps as the documents themselves.
Perhaps more than anything, however, this story -- like all Inoue's novels-- is one that attempts to portray the pathos caused over the realization that oftentimes our lives have no real impact.
Or so it can seem at the time.
Just like the Japanese monk Gogyo, in The Roof Tile of Tempyo, who spends his entire life translating all the great sutras of China into Japanese only to see the countless volumes of his life's work wash overboard during a storm at sea as he journeys back to Japan, Chao too lives to realize that the great task he has set himself-- his life's work-- amounted to "nothing but an eddy in the broad flow of time." Yet, while this was how Chao's fate seemed at the time, indeed, the seeming failures of our individual lives can in time come to have enormous impact on history. And, inconsequential or not, Chao-- like Gogyo--- never waivered as one door closed and another opened. To perservere even in the face of the knowledge that nothing will come of it. "An eddy in the broad flow of time"-- this will always hold greater interest to me than a Hollywood underdog story. I wonder why that is?
I am trying to get a hold of the DVD(video?) of the 1988 movie, called The Silk Road, which was based on the novel and which I heard was one of the first Sino-Japanese films ever made.