Book Review: The Ten Thousand Things

Started: Edinburgh Int. Airport
Finished: Jodhpur, India

It’s been what feels like a long, long time now, since I finished this book. Unfortunately back then I was either too lazy, too homesick, or too distracted to write a review; so you’ll forgive me if this is overly brief.

John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things, set in just pre-Ming dynasty China, is a love letter to the arts & to nature, and a stubbornly humorous portrayal of the irony of revolution.

Landscape painter Wang, the protagonist, is swept along in the tides of rebellion which were to bring down the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, and, eventually, replace it for the Ming (perhaps best known for its unification and renovation of the Great Wall).

Wang’s sole desire in life, seemingly, is to paint. He spends what time he has sat by waterfalls & mountains, transferring their emotion and grandeur to canvas. And yet still, without conscious effort one way or t’other, Wang finds himself tossed between rebel bands like a grenade with the pin freshly pulled. Despite wanting nothing to do with the revolution, he is quickly judged – by affiliation, wealth (or lack thereof), history, whatever – to be on one group’s side or another’s.

I found there was a deal of black humour in this, especially when coupled with the excellent portrayal of the revolutionaries themselves – as the tale as old as time goes, though they all start off with a common cause (to rid themselves of the Mongol dynasty), in-fighting quickly occurs, and the fight against the ruling classes soon becomes a fight amongst the lower. All in all it takes the revolutionaries a long, long time to get anywhere.

Sound familiar?

Spurling’s writing is at all times engaging, which is for the best given the myriad characters, factions, alliances, and places occupying the pages. Avoid racing through this one though, and you’ll not be overwhelmed – it’s still 176,000 family fueds off of Game of Thrones.

I loved the strikingly vivid evocations of ancient China Spurling achieves through not only his imagery, but through a development of the reader’s understanding of Chinese arts, politics, and culture. Imagining yourself as one of the characters in a painting of Wang’s, or as a servant waiting on the new Ming emperor, or a fruit fly drowning in the beer of a travelling peddlar, you learn to appreciate China’s enormity, its beauty, and its ugliness. You might too just feel that you actually are that painted-servant-fruit fly, so immersive is Spurling’s story.

The Ten Thousand Things is a cracking read for anyone even mildly interested in Chinese/Asian history (or arts). I learned a great deal about Confucianism, Taoism(/Daoism), and Buddhism, about Chinese poetry, about the country’s landscape, and a little too about its people (a little in the sense that fictional historic Chinese don’t bear a huge resemblance to their modern counterparts).

My only regret is I didn’t come away knowing as much as I’d have liked to about ‘the ten thousand things’, the idea of Zen and of the essence of life as according to the above. Perhaps I was (I was) too distracted by the chaos of India and my first time travelling alone. I think I really need to read this one again in a calmer atmosphere to get the most out of it.

Still: the story is wonderful, the characters nuanced, the insights into history unique and well-researched. It kept me hugely entertained. Give it a go if you want some solid historic fic., and keep an eye out for the story of the Peach Blossom River – that shit legit will change your way of thinking about the world.

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