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 When I read history, especially historical documents or see objects created in some historical period, I become a time traveler.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.