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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Year of the Snake: Books in Imperial China

Xin Nian Kuai Le! Happy Lunar New Year everyone and welcome to the Year of the Snake. Commonly called Chinese New Year (although in China they call it the Spring Festival) it is actually celebrated in many Asian countries and communities, not just China. That said, China is my area of expertise, so today's list are books set in Imperial China.

    

Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey. This is a novelization of "The Ballad of Mulan." Mulan's story is most known in the West because of the Disney story, but here's another version, fleshed out from the balad, but in a different way. It's part of the most excellent Once Upon a Time series put out by Simon Pulse.

Along the River: A Chinese Cinderella Novel by Adeline Yen Mah. Mah described her own biography as an unwanted stepdaughter who survives and succeeds as a 'Chinese Cinderella story.' She has since gone on to publish many novels based on the stories she told herself to get through her harsh and lonely childhood. Along the River starts in 1942, but quickly shifts in 1091, with a girl named Mei Lan who is the daughter of a wealthy family. Defying expectations, she spends her time with her brother and Ah Zhao, an orphan slave painter. It frequently references real Song dynasty artwork, which provides full-color illustration.

A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts: A Collection of Deliciously Frightening Tales by Ying Chang Compenstine. This book isn't just Imperial China. A collection of short and gruesome ghost stories that tend to feature revenge from beyond the grave, this book spans most of Chinese history. Each story comes with a historic note and recipe. The stories are not for the faint-hearted, but everyone should try the recipes-- Compenstine has written several cookbooks.

    

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, translated from the Chinese by John Minford. More ghost stories, but less modern, as Pu died in 1715. Chinese ghosts and spirits are different than Western ones, and this collection of stories provides a wonderful introduction. Don't be daunted by the length-- it's a collection of stories that can be dipped in and out of and they don't need to be read in order. Just maybe not by yourself, after dark.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Buck spent most of her life in China and she uses her knowledge of the time and people to tell a story that's accessible to Western readers without ever explaining it to them. Wang Lung is a poor farmer who tries to build up his fortune, despite the fact that around him, the world is changing dramatically. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this one is that I had to read it for school, but never finished it before the class moved on to something else. But, the story stayed with me so strongly, that I immediately got a copy and finished reading it when the semester ended.

Peony in Love: A Novel by Lisa See. Peony is to be married to a man she has never met. Thinking of the a boy she just met, and the recent production of the opera Peony Pavilion , she instead writes her thoughts on the opera. So wrapped up in her project, she forgets to eat and dies a few days before her wedding. She then travels to her husband-to-be's house. As he moves on and marries, she haunts his other wives to finish her work. In 1694 Wu Ren published an edition of Peony Pavilion that had commentary by his three wives. This book is See's imagining of how it came about. Published for adults, Peony is a young heroine that teens will relate to. The book does need a bit of background information to truly be enjoyed, so be sure you read the author's note first.

    

Huntress by Malindo Lo. Ok, this doesn't take place in Imperial China, but rather, it's a fantasy that's full of Chinese influence. Kaide and Taisin have to journey to see the Fairy Queen in order to restore balance and save the human world. It's an epic quest story with some fresh elements and new twists. It's a companion/prequel to Lo's fantastic version of Cinderella, Ash.

Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon. This is another fantasy novel that has Imperial China influences, even though it's technically not set in China. Ai Ling's father went to see the Emperor and hasn't been seen since. In order to escape a disastrous marriage, Ai Ling must journey to the capital to find (and save) him. Fans will want to continue Ai Ling's adventures in the sequel, Fury of the Phoenix.

All Men Are Brothers / Shui Hu Chuan by Shui Hu Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Pearl S. Buck. Often referred to as a Chinese Robin Hood, All Men Are Brothers (usually translated as Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh) is a classic of classical Chinese literature. A band of outlaws is trying to help the Emperor defeat a corrupt Prime Minister and the save the common people from the everday evils that surround them. There are many translations available. Buck's is a bit dated, but remains one of the most readable and accessible to teens looking for a good adventure.

I wish you great health and prosperity in the coming year. There will be several more posts about China throughout the year, but what are your favorites that take place in Imperial times?

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