Ghosts, Lovers, & Boundaries

Consider the ghost character in Chinese culture, specifically, my use of the ghost character in fiction and a look at the tradition from where this character comes. As I have written in a long lost/forgotten blog, my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, crosses the boundaries of several genres. One of those genres is the traditional Chinese ghost story - a type of story that is based on boundary crossing. In my short stories and novels, I make frequent reference to boundary crossings between the Yin realm of the spirits and the Yang realm of the visible human world. In early medieval Chinese literature there arose an influential genre of writings dealing with such border crossings known as zhiguai (records/accounts of anomalies). The later Tang chuanqi (tales of wonder) were, in part, based on the influence of the zhiguai as Tang writers used those sources to fashion into short stories to entertain their peers.

Robert Ford Campany in his comprehensive study of these early accounts (Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China, SUNY Press, Albany, 1996), has written:

During or perhaps even before the Han dynasty, a cosmographic genre – a genre of writing about anomalous phenomena – began to coalesce in China. Its growth accelerated rapidly in the centuries after the fall of the Han. (p.21)

Why did the Chinese collect these accounts of “strange” occurrences? Campany insightfully notes:

To rule the world was to collect the world. Governance entailed a cosmographic enterprise, a placing of the periphery, especially that which was anomalous in the periphery, into some systematic relationship with the center. There was a locative concern to have ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ Once things were collected, writing enabled them to be situated and depicted in a unified taxonomic field, a text, table, picture, or chart structured according to the proper moral principles and correlative categories. (p.125)

So, the Chinese sought to order their universe and even those things that didn’t fit that moral order had to be given a place, thus the lists and records of the “strange.” Seen from this perspective, Campany makes an interesting comment about Confucius’ position when he writes:

This same ambivalence toward the strange and the spirit-realm is expressed in the Analects list of things Confucius did not speak of, as well as in its admonition to ‘sacrifice to the spirits as if the spirits were present.’ Note, however, that the Confucian attitude is not one of indifference but rather of studied avoidance. Spirits and rites for them, shamans, and other such matters obviously formed the locus of a problem for the this-worldly, morality-centered Confucian approach to life. (p.127)

However, this “problem” did not exist for all of Confucius’ contemporaries:

In late Warring States thought, only a few voices – notably that of the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi – dissented clearly and strongly from a worldview that included, or at least was compatible with, this cosmographic structure. The Zhuangzi inner chapters argued the irrelevance of fixed taxonomies, the danger of clear hierarchies of value, the relativity of cultural judgment, and the limitations of language; they showed delight in the anomalous and the extraordinary as revealing aspects of reality not dreamt of in the received view of things, hence as uncollectible (or, rather, ‘collection’ lost its sense). (p.126)

So we have a tension here between the Confucian and, ultimately, Daoist views of the nature of the cosmos. My first novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, takes the latter viewpoint in presenting the world of 8th century China. Thus my author’s statement notes:

The adventure you are about to embark on is based upon an 8th century Chinese understanding of reality.

And that “reality” is influenced by the point of view of the Zhuangzi. Anymore than that would put me in danger of trying to tell you, dear readers, what the novel is about – “impose no cosmographical structures, not even that one!”

What is the nature of these “anomalies”? Campany provides us with further insight when he writes:

In the strictest sense, anomalies do not simply happen. Events happen, various people and objects exist, and they are judged and called odd, extraordinary, even contranatural by human agents within communities, who judge and call them so with reference to some reigning worldview, system, ideology into which they do not readily fit. This judging and call are the stuff of cosmography. (p.3)

In other words, people decide what is strange and what is not. As we can see today, some people accept ghosts and some consider the idea complete nonsense. In ancient China, Campany found that:

Most (but not all) anomalies represented in the anomaly accounts occur at or across boundaries.

In short, anomaly accounts portray a world in which boundaries between kinds and realms are less like walls in a building than like cell membranes in an organism.  (p.266)

I dare say we can see that today among those who believe in the supernatural.

This idea of boundaries is of great interest to me. In Dream of the Dragon Pool, I look at a number of “border crossings.” Our protagonist, the poet Li Bo is trying to cross back into the “realm of inspiration” from which he feels locked out. His immediate solution is to seek a dream state from which he hopes that he can cross over from consciousness into dream and find a solution. But in 8th century China, not only can the imagination cross over from wakeful consciousness to dream awareness, so can physical objects. As Li Bo’s faithful companion, Ah Wu, warns him, dreams can turn into nightmares. And the Albino Assassin is a character who, through esoteric arts, has mastered the crossing from wakeful reality into the realm of nightmare.

Another border runner is the green-eyed blond ghost from Sogdiana (present day Uzbekistan), Chen Shao-lin. Her character has several sources of inspiration for me. Let’s begin with a favorite topic, the Tang tales of wonder (chuanqi). Pasted on my computer monitor is this comment about ghosts in reference to their significance in the Tang tales of wonder:

Ghosts are metaphors, not necessarily reality – they are eloquent manifestations of underlying human passions.

I don’t know where I got that, but when I write about ghosts this idea is very much in my mind. Perhaps because of this I see “Chinese” ghosts as very human. But I am not alone in this view. Anthony C. Yu (“‘Rest, Rest, Perturbed Spirit!’ Ghosts in Traditional Chinese Prose Fiction,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 47, 1987, pp.397-434) quotes J.J. M. DeGroot’s multivolume study of the Chinese religion, The Religious System of China, regarding the continuing visits by ghosts in the Chinese tradition:

Visits are paid by the dead to the living to bid them farewell and discourse with them about their domestic concerns; to enjoy the sexual pleasures of married life; to satiate the curiosity of their kinfolk by telling them about their adventures, fate and prospects in the other world; to tell them what measures they ought to take to alleviate their misery and improve their conditions there. Not seldom they appear just when sacrifices are set out for them, attracting them by their flavor to the ancestral home.

From this Yu points out:

Of the countless tales of this genre, a large number have thus taken up the theme of the ghost lover. Indeed, this theme apparently enjoys such enormous popularity that storytellers seem eager to explore and exploit every possible nuance of its development: not only do the dead take living spouses, but they may even arrange marriages for friends. Humans and their ghost mates may enjoy all the delights of the living, including the bearing and rearing of children. (p.423)

This then is the “amorous ghost” or ghost lover genre in traditional Chinese fiction and, later, in Chinese cinema. And from that tradition, another immediate source for my Miss Chen was the character Nie Xiao-qian from Tsui Hark’s movie, A Chinese Ghost Story. Which, in turn, was taken from a short story bearing that name authored by the great Pu Songling (1640-1715) and collected in his Strange Tales from the Leisure Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi).

Nie Xiao-qian (Joey Wang’s character in the movie) is a classic Chinese female ghost – a mistreated beauty with a kind heart who’s trying to make the best out of a bad situation. Forced to be subservient to a demonic power, she falls in love with a naive young scholar. Just as in Pu Songling’s story, my Miss Chen is able to freely cross that porous boundary between the Yin and Yang realms. And also controlled by a demon, she falls in love. What interests me the most about Chinese ghosts is their humanity. Thus, even as a ghost, my Miss Chen, like Pu Songling’s Miss Nie, seeks to retain her humanity and help others.

I also found the same tradition in Japanese fiction when I had the opportunity to see the great Japanese movie, Ugetsu (1953) by world-renowned director, Mizoguchi Kenji, as taken from the world of Japanese literature. That movie is one of the most elegant cinematic statements of the porousness of the boundary between the human and the ghost world and of the emotions that bind the two realms. The female ghost who seduces one of the main male leads expresses the full range of humanity in her need for love and her fierceness in being denied that fulfillment. Ugetsu is a classic in this genre of the enchanted ghost lover. I use both A Chinese Ghost Story and Ugetsu in my Boston University writing seminar: "Paradox of the Strange in East Asian Cinema and Fiction."

As for my latest novel, Listening to Rainwe still find ourselves in a medieval Chinese world. So our protagonists, the Shaolin monk, Tanzong, and his cohort, the Imperial Commissioner, Li Wei frequently make these “border crossings” into the realm of the Strange where the Yin and Yang realms bleed into each other. These “border crossings” are especially frequent with Tanzong who seems to have inherited some of his father’s shamanistic skills.

Further, in this volume, Tanzong and Li Wei travel into the regions of the Tang dynasty's far South. During medieval China, the northerners considered these lands to be fraught with the Strange. The geography and inhabitants of the topical South were considered mysterious and dangerous. These were regions reserved for exile and death. In Listening to Rain and the subsequent volumes of this adventure series, the Strange looms much larger and more profoundly than in my previous work.

Within the Chinese literary tradition, the genre I have chosen to emulate is known as wuxia shenguaiWuxia of course is martial or heroic fiction. The term shenguai (literally: spirits and the strange) relates to the Strange, to that realm where “reality” and “illusion” bleed into each other. Some deem it to mean, “fantasy.” From the fiction short story origins of the wuxia genre in the Tang dynasty, the shenguai aspect was a strong presence. This presence remained right up through the early 20th century era of Chinese cinema. In summing up the developments in Chinese cinema by the end of the 1920s, Stephen Teo remarks:

Henceforth, I will refer to the genre generally as wuxia shenguai to signify its existence as a single genre containing both elements of fantasy and swordplay. In time, the word shenguai was dropped, as the fantasy element became such an inherent part of the wuxia genre that there was no need to qualify it. (Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2009. p.29)

Since Teo focuses on the wuxia cinema tradition, he has no need to refer back to the earliest literary stages of this genre as I have above. Thus we can see that the modern Chinese cinema tradition carries on the Tang dynasty fascination with the shenguai aspects of this genre. It is from this Tang tradition that I draw my wuxia storytelling inspiration. In the wuxia genre, the boundaries between the Yin and Yang realms continue to be crossed in both modern East Asian cinema and in my fiction.

Yet, it is Pu Songling, the great 18th century Chinese master of Strange fiction, who contended that our understanding of the world originates from within us and not from the world that surrounds us. Hopefully, my fiction will reflect this point of view with which I firmly agree.

The Innkeeper


Sailing with Li Bo and Tanzong

Since my novel Dream of the Dragon Pool is a “river story,” with Li Bo sailing up the Yangtze River on his quest with the Dragon Pool Sword, and my forthcoming novel, Listening to Rain, spends time sailing in the South China Sea, I thought to discuss ancient/medieval Chinese ships. In Dragon Pool, Li Bo uses three river conveyances: an Imperial salt hauler – basically, a freighter;  a gorge runner – a lighter, faster ship to pass through the famed Three Gorges; and a third highly unconventional water “craft,” which you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is! In Listening to Rain, Tanzong and Li Wei sail on a mysterious “shaman’s craft,” an ocean going pirate junk, the Dragonfly, and are chased by swift sailing Sea Hawk patrol craft. Overall, traditional Chinese ship design was far in advance of the West till at least the 17th or 18th centuries C.E. As a matter of fact, the West borrowed much from the Chinese in further developing their modern ship designs. And, one could speculate that it was all due to bamboo and the Chinese sensitivity to Nature – the Tao of bamboo?

Ship Architecture

The basic advance of the Chinese shipbuilders that seems to have literally laid the foundations for all future developments was the use of watertight bulkheads – just like the bamboo when split open, the joints form natural partitions inside the bamboo. They add strength and allow for flexibility. Thus, bamboo is one of the most popular materials used in Asia for almost every conceivable construction – from kitchen utensils to skyscraper scaffolding; and, most likely, to the earliest rafts (still in use in the rivers and their fast-flowing tributaries in Asia). Scholars now believe that the early Chinese got their ideas for ship construction from the simple bamboo.

Most traditional Chinese ships were built without keels. The shipwright lays out the frame based on the bulkhead placement and builds from there. The sides and bottom of the ship are formed by planking nailed to the bulkheads and reinforced by very solid “wales” (strakes, thicker planking) along the sides from bow to stern. Not only does this lead to a very strong, watertight interior hull (probably in use by the second century C.E. The West doesn’t figure this out till the end of the 18th century. This innovation also results in flat bottoms and blunted bows and sterns, which, in turn lead to further nautical advances. Meanwhile, the West doesn’t go to flat bottoms for larger ships till the 19th century when steel comes into use for ship hulls.

The flat stern sets the stage for another Chinese advance, the axial balanced rudder. While the rest of the ancient and not so ancient world was sailing around with various forms of steering oars/paddles, the Chinese were using a stern slung rudder that through an ingenious pulley system could be raised or lowered depending upon the sailing conditions (at least by the 2nd century C.E.; the first evidence of a stern rudder in the West appears in 1180 C.E.). Thus the rudder could be used to both steer and stabilize the ship, while also allowing it to sail in shallower waters without fear of hanging up the rudder – the pirate captain, Byung Nhak will use this nautical design to her advantage in Listening to Rain. During the Sung dynasty (10-13th centuries) the Chinese developed balanced rudders, where there was a portion of the rudder in front of the rudder post allowing the flowing water to assist in the steering. A further development was the fenestration of the rudder: holes were cut into the lower sections of the rudder to allow water to pass through it to reduce the water resistance to a turning rudder. Here's a drawing of such a rudder setup:

Chinese Rudder

Chinese ships and boats were built according to the conditions of use and the conditions of the environment in which they would sail.

China has one of the longest histories of shipbuilding in the world. Wooden junks alone as described in historical records varied greatly in type, being estimated at about 1,000 by the mid-20th century. For coastal fishing alone, 200 to 300 types were noted. (Ancient China’s Technology and Science, Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, “Shipbuilding,” Zhou Shide, p.479, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China, 1983)

Professor Zhou continues on to point out the skill of the ancient Chinese in adapting form to function:

The ancient shipwrights were remarkable for their ability to develop a great variety of models and types to suit different marine conditions…The Chinese shipwrights were good at devising new types of ships by combining the good points of various kinds of vessels. The Song Dynasty ship used in both inland and sea-going navigation combined the bottom of a lake-boat, the deck of a warship and the bow and stern of a sea-going vessel. Again, in the reign of the Emperor Kang Xi in the early Qing, a type of freighter build in Fuzhou for timber shipping and know as the “Three Unlikes” was not like the sand ship, bird ship or egg ship but was a new model combining the advantages of all three. (Ibid., pp.482-483)

The flat bottomed or “sand ships” were a basic design an initially built for use mostly in northern coastal waters (from the delta of the Yangtze River and north) where sand shoals abound, but were also used as river freighters. The shallow draft, flat bottoms, and retractable rudders helped these ships avoid beaching on the numerous sand shoals in those regions; and thus the name “sand ships.” While to the south, around the great open sea sailing ports in Fujian and Guangdong provinces, their deep-sea sailing ships had rounded bottoms for swifter more stable sailing:

North of the Hangchow [Hangzhou] Bay the coastal and sea-going craft are flat-bottomed and have a pronounced ridge with relatively large, heavy and square rudders which can be lowered well below the ship’s bottom or raised up high. They are thus fitted for frequent beaching in the shallow harbours or muddy estuaries of the north, where the tidal effects are most noticeable, while at sea the rudder acts as an efficient ‘drop-keel.’ South of Hangchow Bay the coastal waters are deeper, the inlets fjord-like, and the islands more numerous. Here the underwater lines of the vessels become progressively more curved, with the sharper entry, less pronounced ridge and rounder stern; at the same time the rudders, often supplemented by centre-boards, become sometimes narrower and deeper, sometimes drilled with holes and shaped like a rhomboid. (The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, ed., Colin A. Ronan, vol.3, pp.93-4, ISBN: 0521252725)

Looking further into the hull designs of Chinese ships, we find another interesting reading of Nature by the Chinese. When the Europeans thought about hull design, they thought about fish. Seems natural, fish and water are “made for each other.” So European hulls were designed with a fish-shape in mind:

Broadly speaking, the European tendency has always been to set the greater fullness of the ship forward, towards the bow… (Ibid., pp.85-86)

Fish-shaped. But the Chinese insight differed. When they looked at a ship, they saw a duck. Fish swim in the water, ducks swim on top of the water – like a ship:

…while the Chinese tendency was to set it [the greater fullness of the ship] towards the stern. (Ibid.)

This Chinese insight was proven correct when ship design was scientifically tested by the Europeans.


In terms of the means of propulsion the Chinese were also far ahead of the rest of the world. Earlier in European history, with the Greeks and Romans there had been large ships with multiple masts, but these did not survive the fall of theRoman Empire. The Chinese, however, were sailing large ships with as many as five masts. The great European traveler Marco Polo confirms the Chinese advances in sail technology:

He gives evidence for the great mat-and-batten square sails, much greater in number than were carried by any European or Arab ship of the time, and their ability to make use of the wind coming from almost any quarter. (Ibid., p.118)

From at least the 3rd century C.E., Chinese ships were equipped with multiple masts. Most likely, this was due to their bulkhead construction methods, which provided strong anchoring positions for the masts. Further:

The Chinese also staggered their masts across the width of the ship in order to avoid the becalming of one sail by another. This is approved by modern sailing ship designers, but not adopted by Europeans during the period of importance of the sailing ship. Nor did the Chinese practice of radiating the rakes (tilts) of the masts like spines of a fan win acceptance in other parts of the world. (Ibid., p.268)

A Chinese seventeenth century description of classic mat and batten lug sail that was common on Chinese ships explains:

The sail is made by weaving together thin and narrow strips of the outer parts of the stems of bamboo, and (this matting is) divided into sections grasped by (parallel) bamboo battens. Thus the sail folds in tiers, ready to be (bent to yard and boom and) hoisted. A large mainsail in a grainship needs ten men to hoist it, but for the foresail two suffice…When the wind is favourable the sail is hoisted to its full height and the boat moves at a good speed like a racing horse, but if the wind freshens the sail is reefed (coming down by its own weight) in due order (section by section one after another)…In a gale only one or two sections of the sail are hoisted. (The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, ed., Colin A. Ronan, vol.3, pp.195-196)

The Chinese mat and batten lug sail, (for example, the ones seen most frequently on the junks in Hong Kong harbor), are raised and lowered from the deck. Not only are they more efficient than the traditional early modern Western square-riggers, the crew doesn’t have to climb the mast and hang off the spars sheeting the great canvass sails as the ship is being tossed around.

Even more interesting is the possibility that Chinese ships might have indirectly made the European “Age of Discovery” possible; G.S. Clowes, the historian of navel architecture, points out:

It was the introduction of the three-masted ship with its improved ability to contend with adverse winds, which made possible the great voyages of discovery of the end of the fifteenth century, of Columbus to the West Indies, of Vasco da Gama to India, and of the Cabots to Newfoundland; and it is a curious thought that this great development may really have been due to the introduction into Europe of accounts of the multiple-masted Chinese junks which traded so effectively in the Indian Ocean…(Ibid., p.119)

There is much more technical information in the Ronan volume about the construction of Chinese sails, but it is both beyond what is necessary here to convey a sense of the Chinese advances in naval technology, and also beyond my knowledge of sailing!

Besides wind propulsion, the Chinese, not later than the 1st century C.E., invented the self-feathering sculling oar, and “the treadmill-operated paddle wheel in the eighth if not the fifth century C.E., and its great development in the Sung [Song] (twelfth century) for warships with multiple paddle-wheels and catapult artillery.” (Ibid., p.268)


The ancient Chinese used two basic systems of navigation: celestial and magnetic. The Chinese scholar, Yan Dunjie sums it up when he writes:

Chinese sailors in ancient times learned to orient themselves on the sea by observing celestial bodies. It is mentioned in the Huai Nan Zi (The Book of the Prince of Huai Nan) that traveling aboard ship at see, one could tell east from west by locating the polar star. A similar remark is found in Bao Pu Zi (Book of Master Baopu) by Ge Hong in 284-364) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Ge Hong states that travelers on land who lost their way were guided by the south-pointing chariot, and if they lost their way on the sea they looked at the polar star. Fa Xian, a monk of the Eastern Jin  Dynasty (317-420) who returned from India by sea, said that on board ship, “we found ourselves in the midst of boundless waters, at a loss in telling east from west. We advanced by observing the sun, the moon and the stars.” This “dependence on stars at night and the sun in the daytime” continued till the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), when Chinese mariners learned to “look at the compass on a cloudy day.” (Ancient China’s Technology and Science, Yan Dunjie, p.494)

Though the exact date of the Chinese invention of the south pointing compass is unclear, it did come into use during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E.). However, it is only in the 12th century that we have clear confirmation of its use on Chinese ships. The actual use of the compass for nautical navigation probably happened a few centuries before the 12th century written source. And the Chinese record of astronomical observation is both ancient and remarkable.

This is only a meager attempt to outline the Chinese naval experience, for theirs was a long and brilliant history that far surpassed the rest of the world until recent times. In Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain you’ll make the acquaintance of a few of these remarkable water crafts.

I’ve also added some ship images to show you my inspirations for the various ships in my novels. While there aren’t any definitive images of Tang dynasty ships, I used ships of later dynasties as my imaginary models for the ships in Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain.

In the former novel, Li Bo and Ma Ssu-ming’s skiffs were based this image of a contemporary Wuhu-Hankow region skiff (NOTE: Move your cursor over the ship names to click on images).

Li Bo & Ma Ssu-ming's Skiff type

For their Long River Gorge Runner, my inspiration was another contemporary ship that probably still runs those rapids.

Yangtze Gorge Runner

Turning to Tanzong and his waterborne adventures in Listening to Rain, my inspiration for the Sea Hawks was this Qing dynasty patrol ship.

Sea Hawk Model

And for the pirate Byung’s Dragonfly, my inspiration came from another modern period ship.

Dragonfly Model

While admittedly this merchant ship looks a bit dowdy, when I see Byung racing over the South China Sea, the following image is more to my liking.

Dragonfly Under Sail! 

(The above images were all from G.R.G. Worcester's wonderful, The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze [ISBN-13: 978-0870213359)

However, someday in the future – I intend to write a volume devoted solely to her adventures, Byung will have the opportunity to build her own ship, the Dragonfly II. And my inspiration for that ship comes from this wonderful image of a 13th century Mongol (yes, they had ships – built by the Chinese) warship! Imagine the adventures!!!



Drinking with Li Bo: Tang Dynasty Wine

Welcome back to the Inn. I thought it might be interesting to look at one of the most famous traits of the poet Li Bo, who is the protagonist in my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool. Li Bo’s acquaintance (the “other” greatest Chinese poet), Du Fu (712-770 CE) wrote in reference to Li Bo, “Give him one dou (2.6 gallons) of wine and he will spout forth a hundred poems.” Du Fu also claimed that from his friend, “a thousand poems float from one cup of wine.” I would first like to take a brief look at the role of wine in Li Bo’s poetry and then broaden the subject to the nature of “wine” in the Tang dynasty.

Facing Wine

I urge you not to refuse a cup, For the spring wind has come to laugh at us. Peach and plum trees are like old friends, Tipping forth their blossoms to open toward me. Swirling warblers call from emerald trees, Bright moon peers into the golden wine cup. The rose-cheeked lad of yesterday. Today, the white hairs grow apace. Brambles grew beneath Shi Hu’s halls, Deer wandered on Gu Su Pavilion. The dwellings of emperors since times of old, Their walls and gates shut in yellow dust. If you do not drink the wine, Then where are the men of yesteryear?

Li Bo

Translation by Paula M. Varsano, Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception,University of Hawaii Press,Honolulu, 2003. p.283.

Li Bo’s use of wine was not simply as an imbiber. His legendary drinking prowess might well have been just that, “legendary,” a persona carefully crafted to achieve the sought after effect on his readers and his posterity. Professor Varsano writes of the relationship of wine and poetry in Chinese culture:

Wine-drinking, as a practice as well as a poetic gesture, is closely related to the values of immediacy and authentic expression, and it is a gesture well entrenched in the Chinese poetic tradition. In the work of Li Bo, who is so adept at marshaling a wide array of traditionally familiar tropes and motifs to establish an authentic latter-day poet’s immediacy, the “stuff of the goblet” proves a pliable and expressive medium; in the hands of critics and biographers, it became the stuff of his legend. (p.282)

In Dream of the Dragon Pool, it is the stuff of legend that I am pursuing. Yet, it is interesting to understand how Li Bo used wine drinking in his poetry. Varsano points out:

In writing about wine as a way of sustaining the past, and in choosing terms that, except for their allusive quality, verge on being non sequiturs, Li Bo expresses both the obligation to the past and its intrinsic absurdity. One drinks and, guided in part by tradition, uses the desire to forget as a pretext; but, actually, one is obliged to drink and, in the very action, to acknowledge the tradition. (p.284)

And if this weren’t enough, there is even more involved in the “simple” act of tipping a wine cup in the culture of Chinese poetry:

 It dismantles the boundaries between allusion and illusion, between what is remembered and what is seen, and between what is imagined and what is perceived. In a gesture that is as much challenge as an invitation, Li Bo enjoins his readers to share in this vision. (p.285)

As Varsano writes, “Wine combines easily with a view from on high, blurring the lines separating perception, imagination, and memory.” (p.279) That Li Bo was a master at “blurring” the lines “from on high” has been verified by over a thousand years of critical acclaim. And while Varsano and other scholars point out that Li Bo was also very much aware of the usefulness of “self-marketing,” and in that sense a “modern” literary figure, it is also interesting to look at one of his most potent “marketing tools,” wine.

Alcoholic beverages have a very long history in China. Chemical analysis made on the residues in pottery jars from the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province, northern China revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit was being produced as early as 9,000 years ago. Further discoveries have uncovered lidded bronze vessels dating from the Shang and Western Zhou periods (ca. 1250-1000 BCE) that contained rice and millet “wines.”

By Li Bo’s Tang dynasty, beverages had become much more sophisticated. But first we have to quickly deal with the technical definitions. In the West, “wines” are defined as fermented fruit juices, while beers and ales are brewed from cereals. According to these definitions, the ancient Chinese were drinking a lot of beers/ales since they used rice, millet, and wheat to create their jiu – mostly translated as “wine,” but some scholars are following the Western definition and translating jiu as “beer” or “ale.” I prefer to translate jiu as “wine.”

Dr. H.T. Huang, the former Director of the Needham Research Institute, and author of Volume 6: Biology and Biological Technology, Part V: Fermentations and Food Science of Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China series (ISBN: 0521652707, Cambridge University Press) writes:

 In fact, chiu actually resembles wine more than beer in terms of its alcohol content (greater than 10 per cent) and its overall organoleptic character. (p.149)

Dr. Huang acknowledges the translation issue, but decides in favor of “wine” as the translation for the Chinese “alcoholic drink” known as jiu/chiu. He points out three reasons:

The first is gastronomic. Chiu is used widely in Chinese cooking and dining in a manner analogous to wine in European cuisines. While beer or ale may also be served at meals, it is rarely seen at formal dinners and banquets.

The second is religious and ceremonial. Chiu was the drink presented to the gods and ancestors at ritual offerings that we read about so often in the Shih Ching (Book of Odes), the Chou I (Rites of the Chou) and the Li Chi (Record of Rites). Wine played a similar role in ancient Greece and Rome…And for toasts on formal occasions chiu is the preferred drink inChina, just as wine is in the West.

The last is aesthetic and sensual. Chiu or rather the drinking of it had become so embedded into the aesthetic and sensual experiences of the Chinese that it was often noted in their arts and literature, particularly in their poetry. (pp.149-150)

And this brings us back to Li Bo and the Tang dynasty. One of the best accounts of Tang alcoholic beverages appears in the chapter on Tang food by the late, great Edward H. Schafer in Food in Chinese Culture, ed. K.C. Chang, Yale University Press,New Haven, 1977. In his section on Tang beverages Schafer discusses the basics of the Chinese grain based wines which:

…came from a cereal mash altered by the vigorous working of ferment cakes, which provided mold and yeasts for the mixture. They in turn created the essential alcohol for the final product. (p.119)

Schafer points out that the millet based wines were a product of the north, while the rice based wines (usually glutinous millet or glutinous rice) were from the south; the latter would be similar to Japanese sake. The ferments were usually started in the sixth or seventh lunar month and the wine itself in the ninth month; this was called “winter” wine. Schafer continues:

But in T’ang times a more popular wine, celebrated in poetry, was “spring” wine, which was fully mature and most palatable when the first flowers of the cherry and peach trees were appearing. This wine played an important part in the many festivities – some solemn some casual – that signalized the beginning of the life cycle in the new year – that is, usually late in January or early in February.  (p.120)


Wine-making techniques were not exclusively concerned with the manipulation of materials. Not only did the herbs added to Chinese wines sometimes have magical purpose (hardly to be distinguished from a medical one), but the process of preparing the ferment – a delicate and critical matter – was accompanied by the recitation of spells and the employment of other modes of obtaining supernatural aid. (p.120)

There were many subvarieties of wine:

An example was the amber-colored unfiltered wine (p’ei), frequently identifiable by the bits of husk floating in it. These enjoyed the popular name of “floating ants” (fou i). They are frequently alluded to in the poetry of the whole period from Han to T’ang. (p.120)

In a note to my readers, see what Li Bo and company are drinking in Dream of the Dragon Pool when they are aboard the gorge-runner traveling up the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.

And while millet and rice were the standard wines:

 …the T’ang bon vivant had many other types of wine to choose from. There were wines flavored with pepper or fagara, chrysanthemum wine, pomegranate wine, ginger wine, “Persian” myrobalan wine (available in the taverns of Changan), and bamboo leaf wine (so named for its color)…There was even a highly favored wine brewed in a liquid taken from limestone caves. This grotto water could certainly have a high alkaline content and, in addition, would offer the magical advantages that accrued from long association with mysterious places – the underground residences of supernatural beings. (pp.120-121)

Then there were the exotic wines from south of the Tropic of Cancer, the palm toddies and fruit extracts - and here check out Listening to Rain to see what Li Wei is drinking! And into the west, there was grape wine, western grapes produced in Central Asia. One of the most famous grape wines during the Tang was “mare teat” wine from the grapes of the elongated, purple variety grown in the Turfan region conquered by the Tang in 640 CE. In the northern pastoral regions, there was also koumiss, a fermented mare’s milk drink that was also popular in the capital, Chang’an (Xian).

If this wasn’t enough, there was also shao jiu or “burnt wine” which is believed to be distilled liquor. Recent archaeological discoveries have uncovered ancient Chinese distilling equipment that still works! These wines were probably similar to the fiery maotai wines that were made famous in the West with Mao’s toasts to Nixon in 1972.

And, of course, a Dragon Gate Inn specialty, tea; it was during the Tang that tea became a popular Chinese drink. Speaking of tea, I need a drink!

Conjuring the Other: Writing Fiction about a Foreign Culture

After seventeen years of graduate historical study and research, I guess I wanted a change. Perhaps what I really wanted was the freedom to discover my own truths. To do so, I turned from the study of history to the writing of fiction. And since I had been studying medieval Chinese history, I turned to writing medieval Chinese historical fiction; specifically, the period of the early Tang dynasty (7th & 8th centuries C.E.). Yet, in making this transition, I faced an unforeseen problem: how does a Western fiction writer deal with a non-Western culture so far removed in both time and space? Dealing with non-Western culture as an academic, I could resort to “academese” - where footnote after footnote and citation after citation can be employed to explain the author’s meaning. But there are two immediate problems with this form of culture bridging: 1. the reader has to wade through the scholar’s “academese,” and 2. the reader immediately forgets it all after the test. As I used to tell my creative writing students:

A fiction writer doesn’t have the luxury of academic authors where their readers in the same field of study are required to read what’s written, no matter how badly written. Not so for the poor fiction writer, that audience can toss the book as soon as it gets boring – no tests here!

As a novelist writing about medieval China, I can’t stop the story and give you a lecture on the status of poetry in Tang culture pointing out that it could literally make or break a person’s career at Court. And here is where that old, clichéd writer’s rule remains true: show, don’t tell.

The non-fiction writer might spend a few pages on telling you the role of poetry in Tang culture and the importance of the written character in Chinese history and culture, how it was the very glue that held China and its empire together for thousands of  years – and, as an acacdemic, I can just keep on going and going.

Switch back into fiction: but what’s happened to my protagonist, Li Bo, in my first novel (Dream of the Dragon Pool), as we leave him reading an inscription on some strange tomb, on some strange mountain, with all that strange mist swirling around him. You would have closed the book at that point if I had launched into exposition on the role of poetry in his world.

The novelist can’t linger and expect the story to keep flowing for the reader. So how do we write that? After my graduate studies in the mid-80s, I took up a long, slow, and painful path away from explaining everything. Exposition is the main illness of academically trained fiction writers. As academics, we are taught the use of “code” or technical words – academese – to embody ideas and explanations for other ideas and concepts. Inside the ivory tower, they “tell” and don’t “show.”

What I am learning in fiction writing, every time I return to Tang China, is that I have to embody these concepts, these bits and pieces of Tang culture, thought, and attitude, and express them in a language that resonates clearly within the culture of English. So, hopefully, I show you what Li Bo was able to do with his poetry and how devastated he is once he loses that power – and there it is, poetry and power, political power, life-giving power equated. Once you see that, you understand how powerful the poetic voice was in Tang society – you don’t need a lecture.

I guess what it comes down to is that Chan (Japanese: Zen) saying that understanding enlightenment is like sipping tea: as much as I explain how hot and how fragrant the tea is, you will only truly understand once you taste it – in essence, that Reality is beyond words, it can only be experienced. Guess that puts us writers out of business. But I’m not worried for in fact the Chan school was one of the most prolific producers of written texts that aimed to point beyond written texts and logical explanations to the essence of experience!

What helped in my case was that I had the good fortune to live in the lands once occupied by the Tang dynasty and especially among the people who were their cultural descendents. By being exposed to their language, their ways of thought, and participating in their social interactions, my fiction writer’s education was helped immeasurably. Yet, with all of that education and living experience, there was still the necessity to express all those experiences in English.

A number of years ago, I joined my first writers group. I was mixed in with short story writers and poets – and none of them was deeply acquainted with the Chinese tradition. At first, I was a curiosity: a history scholar writing fantasies about swordsmen/women in China, ancient China! There were a lot of things that I had taken for granted in my writing, things I figured “everyone knew.” Ha! How naïve!

Just one basic example will serve - character names. I discovered that Western readers easily get lost in all the Wu’s, Wang’s, Hu’s, and Li’s that populate aChinabased story. Some Western writers will translate the names. For example, my Chinese given name (An-bo), a transliteration of the sound of “Albert,” when translated means, “Peaceful Uncle.” So rather than writing:

An-bo said, “This is very ridiculous.”

We’d end up with:

Peaceful Uncle said, “This is even more ridiculous.”

I don’t like translated names. It reminds me of translating Albert into its Anglo-Saxon meaning: “All Bright.” Too weird for these ears, just like “Peaceful Uncle.” The solution? Pick a name in the foreign culture that is not too difficult to pronounce, like Li Bo – but then his parents did that for me – and attach that name to a fully developed character, one that the reader recognizes the second that the character appears in the scene. Then it doesn’t matter what you name them.

Further, I give my characters an epithet or title. For example, in Dream of the Dragon Pool, my character, Luo Jhu-yun; the emperor’s grand shamaness. I think I only refer to her once by her full name – a name that admittedly most Westerner’s might find difficult to remember – the rest of the time she is known as “shamaness Luo,” or just “the shamaness.” And, another character, the “Albino Assassin” is only referred to by that epithet.

As for describing the physical environment, as you can see by the bicycling part of my website, I loved riding around Taiwan, especially in the mountains. I have deep feelings about Chinese landscapes and, hopefully, there is a sense of authenticity in my descriptions. And places that I haven’t been to in China, I research so I know the weather, the earth, the flora and fauna of the region that my characters travel through. For the trip through the Three Gorges that Li Bo takes, I had a 12th century travel diary of a Chinese official who took the same trip. There are no 8th century travel diaries of that route in existence. But a 12th century description is much more accurate to Li Bo’s time than what you’ll find if you make that trip today.

And accuracy is another aspect of my fiction. My stories are set in a medieval China that is as accurate as my skill and knowledge permit me to make it. These settings are not “a China that might have been” or a China that I completely dreamed up. Further, the historical situations that are the starting point of the story are those that arose in the course of Chinese history. As far as, we know, Li Bo was sentenced to a death exile up the Yangtze River toward Burma for treason. This was after his initial sentence of death was commuted through the intervention of his high ranking friends. And by the time he reached the Mount Wu region, the exile sentence was commuted. It’s said his trip involved visiting and drinking with old friends – I, perhaps, have changed the nature of those “friends.”

My most recent novel, Listening to Rain, deals with a main protagonist, the Shaolin monk Tanzong, who, while historical, is even less well documented – we have a medieval Shaolin stone stele referring to him in the context of his assistance to the Tang emperor Li Shihmin. We don’t even know what he specifically did to earn that bit of note. Of course, that presents an opportunity for the historical fiction writer!

It has been my experience that when conjuring the “other,” as a fiction writer of a foreign culture, the author needs to combine the skills of both nonfiction and fiction writing - know the culture and know the writer’s craft.


Note: I must thank Octavia Randolph who, in 2007, asked me to first record my thoughts on this subject for her website (Anglo-Saxons and Vikings). This is an updated version of that original piece. 

A Writing Career: The Opportunity of Defeat

What it is that sustains me as a writer? First of all, you have to be crazy to expect to sustain yourself financially as a fiction writer. What’s that about “not giving up your day job?” It’s not a joke. Everyone seems to think they can write and everyone seems to think that their writing should be sent to literary agents and publishers. This turns into a permanent rush hour around the e-mail addresses and phones of those literary agents and publishers. Best bet here is to get that day job and then go onto to “just do it” when it comes to your writing.

When I was a creative writing teacher, I used to read a lot on the teaching of writing. Most experienced writing teachers seem to agree that becoming a successful writer is 10% talent and 90% perspiration/hard work. Many times the most talented writers don’t have the patience for the long haul that it takes to weave oneself through the nonsense of the publishing industry. They get their stories right the first few times through and then lose patience with all the waiting that it takes to get through the publishing door. While those of us less talented writers are working away at getting the story right and pass the time in endless rewrites before we might get noticed. But nothing that I’m writing here is new, there are endless articles and books on writing that will tell you the same thing. I’d rather write about my path, because that’s what I know best.

It is a cliché in writing that there are two basics to becoming a writer: writing and reading. And both are equally important. It’s obvious that a writer must write, but perhaps not so obvious that a writer must read. And read not only what’s in the field you’re most interested in but read eclectically, read everything that you’re remotely curious about – and some things that you thought you could care less about. When you’re reading in your field of fiction interest, read for the story and then read for how the author did it, or didn’t do it – read both the successes and failures. Learn how they were done, how they were constructed and by doing so learn what works and what doesn’t work – and WHY! This is how reading teaches writing. But of course, if you don’t apply yourself, all the reading and writing in the world doesn’t teach a damn thing.

Let’s look at my reading list. In the category of reading for sustenance, probably the number one lesson in the writing field that I’ve learned was taught to me by Joseph Campbell when he wrote:

Any life career that you choose in following your bliss should be chosen with that sense that nobody can frighten me off from this thing. And no matter what happens, this is the validation of my life and action.  (The Power of Myth)

Yes, “following your bliss.” Campbell was of that 60s generation, and “bliss” was a big deal. And as you can see in the above quote, he is equating “bliss” with “the validation” of your “life and action.” This is serious stuff. He’s saying that what most profoundly moves you is the purpose of your life, your reason for being alive. Further, Campbell has said that if you follow your “bliss,” you are not only validating your meaning as a human being, but by following this path, this dao, doors will open, connections will be made for you. He notes that although these doors will open and connections will be made, you will not necessarily become rich or famous, but you will have a fulfilling life.

My writing career has been this way. Lot of hard work, lot of persistence, but also a lot of satisfaction with the stuff I write and its reception - certainly, no riches and no fame, but great enjoyment out of exploring medieval China in my own way. And here too, Campbell’s work has helped define the way for me. In preparing to write my first wuxia novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, I read his Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is in this book that Campbell puts forth a detailed concept of the “monomyth” – the story of the heroic archetype that appears in most literate civilizations throughout time and geography. The hero’s path is now so well known that Hollywood screenplay writers can probably recite it in their sleep. It was, after all, George Lucas teaming up with Joseph Campbell in scripting out the “myth for our time” – Star Wars.

Campbell’s position made a lot of sense to me, that those stories that touch most deeply on our common shared humanity are the myths that explain what this world is all about; perhaps, the original purpose of storytelling. So I sought to make this part of my storytelling when I set about to write Li Bo’s adventures in Dream of the Dragon Pool. Although, Li Bo lived a long time ago, in a “galaxy” far, far away, his story, hopefully, is one that we can all recognize and share. If that happens, then to no small extent, Joseph Campbell had a hand in it.

As for my literary guides, two or three stand out. At the top of my list for sheer inspiration and imagination rests the great Latin American writer, Gabriel García Márquez. I can still remember riding in a Taipei taxi heading to my class and finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude with a gasp – “He brought the whole story full circle!” I remember my feeling of profound admiration for his literary talent and the power of his imagination. I was deeply awed by Garciz Márquez and read more of his works and those of his fellow “magical realists.” I went on to use them in my creative writing classes to illustrate the leading edge of literary imagination. In some ways, I saw the Chinese wuxia genre as a form of China’s “magical realism.”

But it wasn’t García Márquez, who inspired me to write my first wuxia novel. Rather, that inspiration came from the Italian writer, Umberto Eco, and his renowned, The Name of the Rose. Like many, I bought the novel, but never managed to finish it. I came away thinking, “I can do this and I can do it with a much more interesting culture and historical period.” Of course, I was thinking of the Tang dynasty. Li Bo’s tale was born from that “inspiration” – an historical fiction novel with “Chinese characteristics.”

As I continued to write and read, another author profoundly influenced me. A friend once remarked that there are “popular” writers who are actually better writers than the so-called “literary” writers. As an example, he mentioned Patrick O’Brian, a historical fiction novelist who wrote a series of novels about the British navel experience during the era of Napoleonic sea warfare. What came to be known after the two main protagonists as the Aubrey-Maturin series has been declared the best historical fiction series ever written. After I got by the early 19th century British English, I was hooked and read all 20 volumes one after another. O’Brian writes so well and knows how to do it all: plot, draw characters, do dialogue, go off on fantastically interesting tangents, and create riveting action and suspense. My forthcoming series, The Adventures of the Shaolin Blade Tanzong is a direct influence of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series right down to the dual main protagonists!

There are other writers who informed my imagination, but those mentioned are the main influences. The next influence would be the cinema that includes mostly Chinese wuxia pian and Japanese samurai and anime films.

So we come back to the basics for a writer: writing, reading, and persistence. The motto that I most abided by over these long years was, “Every defeat is an opportunity.” Each time I got a rejection, whether it was for a job application or a literary submission, I saw it as an opportunity to make something better. Best wishes in your writing careers - and remember to be kind to yourselves, writing takes patience!

Writing Historical Fiction: Traveling in the Tang Dynasty

 Reading the Authors Guild’s Bulletin, Fall 2006, I came across this notice:

Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian, wrote: “Treasure Island made me think of travel as pure excitement.” Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water made her “love the element of imagination in travel; Stevenson imagined adventure, but Fermor walking across the map, imagined history.”

This notice made me reflect on my travels through medieval China with the characters I’ve created. I began my travels as a historian, believing this was the most “objective” way of finding out what happened. Took me years of study, research, and the exposure to some interesting Buddhist teachers – okay, I’m a bit dense – to figure out that “objective” is just that, a “theory.” Nice idea, but only a theory. A historian, like a novelist, attaches their sensibilities, their subjectiveness to whatever interpretation they are setting forth either as “fact” or as “fiction.”

So my first journeys in writing were as a historian, a nonfiction writer. In those travels, medieval China looked like thousands of ancient Chinese characters, interpreted by thousands of Japanese characters, further interpreted by thousands of English words. Referring back to Kostova’s comments above, my travels through historical texts were both exciting and imaginative. I’ve always loved history and its study has always been like travel for me. When I read history, especially historical documents or see objects created in some historical period, I become a time traveler. Perhaps, what I didn’t realize when I was reading as a historian was that imagination played a much larger role than I recognized. But that realization was forthcoming.

When I added travel over the earth to my travels over the page and arrived in East Asia, my journeys through medieval China began to add the elements of sensual recognition. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of China began to influence my travel perspective. With these additions, my historical travel became more exciting, more imaginative, and more adventurous. Researching the social and intellectual history of the medieval Chinese Buddhist clergy, I was now able to go out and meet them – or at least, their lineal descendants. A doorway, or, perhaps a rabbit hole, had opened. I could not only learn their point of view on their own history, but could also begin to see first hand their perspective on the world around us. As I became better at spoken Chinese, I learned more and more about these different perspectives. As a result of living in a Chinese Buddhist monastery for a year, I not only got to see how it functioned internally, within itself, but also how it functioned within its society.

Perhaps it was the accumulation of all these factors – sights, smells, tastes, sounds, tactile sensations, and new acquaintances – that moved me from traveling through medieval China as a historian, thinking I was seeing the “reality” of that time and place, to discovering a deeper form of travel – that of the fiction writer.

I’m still not certain what it was that made me turn from historical travel to travel via the imagination. When you stop to think of what I just wrote, it sounds funny. The student of any event that they haven’t witnessed is also traveling via their imagination; and there are those who would argue that even events witnessed are heavily influenced by the imagination. Perhaps what turned me toward fiction was the combination of my East Asian experience and the “rules” that govern historical travel – that, strictly speaking, “knowledge” must have as its basis “objective” evidence.

I do know that up to the point when I received my doctorate in history, I had little use for fiction; that after that point, I wanted to read and write nothing else but fiction. Well, not exactly, I still found it meaningful to base my fictions on historical ground, so I continue to read history. Perhaps, the compromise that facilitates my travel is historical fiction.

So what are my travels in historical fiction like? They combine pure excitement with adventure in historical imagination. But like the historian, the novelist also has rules. So I’ve not escaped rules. Likewise, the historian understands that rules help focus our intellectual energies and provide us with deeper insight and greater breadth of understanding. The use of rules, of limits, also functions in other endeavors, like martial arts for example. In my art of taichi, all those hours of slow focused movements function as a pathway (dao) to levels that transcend many of those restraints.

Which brings me to the path I’ve chosen for my writing, that of the wuxia genre. Why this genre, one that seems on the surface foreign to English language literature? But what is a genre but a collection of conventions. And who determines those conventions? The audience, the readers; they have expectations based on their experiences of various genres. To write in the wuxia genre the author should have some idea of its conventions. And now the historian side of me kicks in – since this genre is at least a thousand years old, at what point in its development do we freeze time and identify those conventions that define the wuxia genre?

As you might know by now, I’ve chosen the Tang dynasty to “freeze time” and use some of its conventions in my definition of the wuxia genre. But each author adds themselves to the mix of conventions when writing – even historians do that!

It comes down to how your definition of the genre plays to your readers. I’m not saying that a writer has to be accepted by the readers to validate their work. Financially, it is certainly “helpful,” but artistically, that’s up to the writer’s sensibilities. Writers, in my view, have to first satisfy themselves with their work. Following popular fancies usually doesn’t make for literature of any lasting quality, but then there are those who could care less. I’m not here to pontificate.

We see a lot of Westerners being attracted to East Asian storytelling forms nowadays – from wuxia to anime; the attraction is very strong. Maybe the grass is greener on the other side or just the seeming freshness in the storytelling. Or, maybe we are learning that there are many ways of gaining insight into “reality.” That traveling these paths of insight involves what Elizabeth Kostova recognized – “the element of imagination.”

And I think that is what will make the wuxia literary genre attractive to a Western audience – that element of imagination evoked by the sights, scents, tastes, sounds, and touch of the East Asian experience. It is my hope that my fiction will be able to do this for my readers.