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The challenges and joys of writing about imperial China

The Purpose of Music in China

J.S.Bach - widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of music in the history of the world. I myself am very partial to his Brandenburg Concertos. For most people in the world today, music is... well its music. Something to listen to at any time, to suit your mood or to relax or to dance. Music, the notes, the instruments aren't about anything in particular - and I mean this quite seriously. Music today is just sounds, sometimes pleasing, sometimes odd, and in conjunction with the human voice, music can convey many emotions. But the music itself? It is what it is. Bach helped create this way of looking at music, though he was a composer for a major church for most of his life, his music was less…

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The Terrible Disease in China – 1330 to 1350
Red Turban Army

The Terrible Disease in China – 1330 to 1350

Most Americans and Europeans have heard of the Black Death which swept across Europe starting in 1347. However, most people have not heard that something very similar struck down millions in China during the same time period. The first half of the 1300s were a terrible time in China’s history. The Mongol conquest of China (finalized with the conquest of capital of the Song Dynasty in 1276) resulted in decades of mis-rule, brutal repression of popular discontent, famines, and civil unrest which ultimately resulted in a civil war that last for more than a decade. This terrible time finally ended with the victory of the Ming government over all its rivals and the establishment of a unified, and highly functional national government. Part of the reason for the popular unrest…

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Japan’s Invasion of Korea – 1592-1598

"A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail" by Kenneth Swope (2009) at Amazon.com Korea historically has been uninterested in waging war on its neighbors. The country has an easily defined northern border (mountains in the center, the Yalu river to the northwest, and the Tumen river to the northeast; in all other directions Korea is surrounded by the sea. When Korea unified under the Silla Kingdom around 670, the natural borders gradually solidified in people’s minds, though the northern border was rarely peaceful.  After the Joseon Dynasty took control of Korea in 1394, the country experienced nearly uninterrupted peace for the next ~200 years - and then Japan invaded.  Japan’s invasion of Korea in 1592 is a very strange event in world history. Never before had Japan launched an invasion…

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A Chinese Relationship with Nature
Painting by Ma Lin, scholar under a pine tree

A Chinese Relationship with Nature

This has not really come into my books but I have been thinking about it for years. Since I've recently finished my study of Daoism, I think I can explain something of what I know. To start with: I posit that there are cultures which venerate nature. Perhaps most notably in East Asia we have Japan where Shinto IS nature worship (see Kami). Japanese worship nature in a deep way as they see the Kami (demi-gods) which they believe are present in most beautiful places. About half a million Japanese hike to the summit of Mt. Fuji every year and they aren’t just doing it for the great view.  In Catholic Europe, there was a strong aspect of nature veneration (derived from the Bible, since God created the world and…

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Marriage in Imperial China

In The Burning Tower, Sandun and the other Keltens happen upon a city at the wilderness. The city is named Gipu, and it is one of several trade cities, which exist beyond the edge of Serica's borders. The people of the city have a very unusual custom, where they offer eligible young women to visiting merchants; acting as temporary wives. Sandun is given a young woman, named Ashala, who actually knows a little Kelten as well as is fluent in Serice. With Ashala acting as a teacher, Sandun is able to learn how to speak the Serice language. This element of my story is loosely based on the real world, and the cities of Kashgar, and Turpan. At one time, the Tang Dynasty took control of these far-western trade cities and then asked…

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Prices in Imperial China

In an earlier blog post (Currency In China) I described my currency and some of the actual currency used in China during the Imperial era.  Today, I want to talk about prices. In The Burning Tower, my characters are given some salt notes and they exchange four of them for ten silver cats and six strings of coins. With this money they buy some goods and they also donate some of this money to the local temple of Sho'Ash help repair the statue of their god, as well as making improvements to the building. Later, Sandun offers two silver cats and, in return, he is given a top quality Serica-glass vase, though this was perhaps not the most accurate price. And this relates to China how? Imperial China covers a…

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Chinese Stories: Feng Menglong

Feng Menglong (commonly known by his given name Menglong) is perhaps the greatest writer in all of Chinese history. Very little of his work was available to non-Chinese readers until  Yang & Yang, translators par excellence, published all 120 short stories of Feng Menglong over the span of a decade (from 2000 to 2009). English readers owe a large debt of gratitude to Yang & Yang for their accomplishment. Stories Old and New, is the first set of 40 tales, first published by Feng Menglong in 1620 (25 years before the collapse of the Ming Dynasty). You can buy it here from Amazon.com. Stories to Caution the World, is the second set of 40 tales, first published by Feng Menglong in 1624. You can buy it here from Amazon.com. Stories…

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Currency in China

In my books, there are three main forms of currency. First, we have copper coins. They are worth very little (for example, a good Serice pancake costs around 100-150 copper coins). Copper coins are typically carried with a string through the open hole in the middle, and a string of coins is usually close to 1,000 coins.  The second unit of currency is the silver cat, which is a small ingot of silver, roughly shaped like a sleeping cat with its tail curled around (forming an oval shape). The silver cat in Serica is roughly equal to a string of 1,000 copper coins. A person can barely get by on an income of one silver cat per month.  The third unit of currency is the Salt Note. A salt note…

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Censorship in Imperial China

In my books, the government of Serica has been under the control of the Kitran Empire and they don't bother with censoring books. If someone writes something they don't like, they sent a detachment of their feared cavalry to the town where the author is said to live and they burn the place down. The new ruler of Kunhalvar province, Lord Vaina, would likely censor works which advocated support for the Kitran Empire but - they are at war with the Kitran Empire. Censorship in a time of war is commonplace, every nation does this. But what about censorship during peacetime? My books don't talk much about the times of peace but this is what I learned... Censorship in Imperial China was a very complex phenomenon. I think most Americans…

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The Manchu Military and Government

Here is an eye-opening essay on the Qing Dynasty military from the Cambridge Journal of Chinese History - Qing Military Institutions by Yingcong Dai. I have been gradually changing my mind about the Manchu government of China, at least up to the year the Qianlong Emperor resigned his office (in 1797). I used to be highly dismissive of the Manchu rule but the more recent scholarship I have read in over the last decade has changed my mind. I now believe the Manchu ruled China wisely and well. They made a few but significant improvements over the Ming Dynasty, most in the area of military organization, and in other places as well. The Qing paid laborers, they kept taxes low, and they maintained the prestige of the army. Even the…

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