Things to Read - China - From Mongols to The Nobel Prize

Because we spent this summer road tripping around the country (for better or worse), a good friend lent us The Great Courses: From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History, which I highly recommend (especially if you're a big dork, like me, who misses school); great lectures without tests or papers = wonderfulness. Anyways, after listening to over 18 hours of Chinese history, I became a little obsessed. I wanted to learn more about the periods and people that fascinated me the most. I began by purchasing Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. Prior to this summer, I never quite recognized Marco Polo as a real person, rather, I thought of him as a swimming pool game we'd play as kids (wasn't that so fun - yelling "Marco!" and hearing "Polo!" and over and over again?). Anyways, Marco Polo's biography makes for some amazing reading.

Polo's father and uncle spent his childhood traveling as merchants between China and Venice. In 1269, when Polo reached 15 years of age, his uncle and father returned home for a short while and decided to bring the young boy on their travels. Polo's stories of life along the silk road bring to life visions from Arabian Nights (rather embarrassingly, I couldn't stop listening to the Aladdin theme song while reading it, much to the great amusement of my children).

After journeying through the oasis towns of the Middle East [most of which no longer exist], the group made their way through the Taklimakan "Desert of Death" where Polo wrote of hearing "sounds, sometimes of singing, sometimes of wailing, and it has often happened that travelers going aside to see what these sounds may be, have strayed from their course and been entirely lost, for they say they were the voices of spirits and goblins." Polo also documented unusual towns where "[i]f a stranger comes to [a man's] house or lodge" the man instructs his "daughters, sisters, and other relations to do all that the stranger wishes." Apparently the custom was common in villages where people intermarried to preserve assets and bloodlines, as nomadic strangers helped to refresh a depleted gene pool.

Eventually Polo's group made their way into the heart of the Chinese empire, run by Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). After introducing themselves to the great leader, the threesome spent seventeen years in China, servicing the Khan. Marco's stories of Kublai's home, Xanadu (just like the Olivia Newton John song), dazzle with details of magical albino horses and collapsible, portable summer palaces. Further, Polo tells wondrous tales of Quinsai, "the City of Heaven" (now known as China's city of Hangzhou), which he describes as "the greatest city that maybe be found in the world, where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in paradise." (Yes, I really really want to travel there one day).

In fact, Polo told of so many fascinating people and places that Europeans doubted his sincerity, "he was seen, initially, more as an entertainer and fabricator than as a historian." Nor did they believe him for the next 500 years. Finally, in 1824, a French linguist compared Polo's tales to Mongol and Chinese documents and realized that Polo presented a "strikingly accurate report" of eastern life.

Shortly after I finished reading Marco Polo's biography the Nobel Prize Committee granted this year's literature prize to the Chinese author, Mo Yan. The decision met with some controversy as this may be the first time the committee awarded the prize to an author embraced by a communist government (unlike famed Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei, Yan works within the system).

Anyways, when I learned that Yan's books were free on Kindle with an Amazon Prime membership (I think this deal has ended), I decided to read The Garlic Ballads: A Novel, hailed by the New York Times as a "raw, brilliant, and eventful" novel depicting "the small person's battle against capricious authority, both of the corrupt state and of family tradition", sort of like a Chinese Grapes of Wrath (the Chinese government banned the book).

On the upside, the Garlic Ballads may indeed be one of the best books I've ever read, wow, can Yan write, every sentence comes alive on the page, even in translation. For example,

"Gao Yang looked at the sinking sun, whose rays were growing gentler and friendlier by the minute. He knew that the comrade policeman were by then dipping steamed dumplings in the vinegary, garlicky sauce . . . [w]hen they finish their meal, he reminded himself, they'll come out to put me into a shiny red van and take me . . . where will they take me? Wherever it was, it had to be better than being shackled to a tree, right? But who would say? Actually it made no difference what happened, as he saw it. 'The people's hearts are made of steel, but the Law is a forge.' If I'm guilty, there goes my head. Another breeze rose up, rusding the leaves of the poplars and carrying the brays of a distant mule, which chilled the nape of his neck. He forced himself to stop thinking about what might happen."

On the downside [as demonstrated by the above quote], this is possibly the most depressing book I've ever encountered, half way into the novel all hope is basically lost, but still the peasants keep going, tortuously slogging on as the details of their suffering continually worsen.

Anyways, the book was so good that I'm hoping to read more by Mo Yan, but I'll need long pauses between his novels in order to maintain any sense of happiness or faith in life and the human condition.

After finishing the Garlic Ballads, I returned to the Mongols' fascinating period of (almost) world domination with The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, which also makes for for great reading (though Marco Polo's biography covered much of the same background information). Apparently Ghenghis Khan's sons weren't worth much, so the Great Khan had his daughters rule the most strategically important parts of the empire, yet history has erased the majority of their legacy. I still haven't finished the book (I'm only about 25% in) but I'm enjoying it so far.

So that's what I've been reading lately. What about everyone else? Any good books to recommend?

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