Notes on: historical fiction

My last piece about The Bird in the Bamboo Cage had me thinking about English language historical fiction set in China. Is it as rare as I think? It clearly has a long history in Chinese language fiction: after all, three of the four great Chinese classics are set in a period before they were written.

My wife is a published historical fiction author and, while she was trying to get an agent a few years ago, I did some research into the UK market – what historical fiction got published by the major publishers, which ones were successful, what themes and trends were emerging and so on.

The first thing I learned was that historical fiction as a genre does not stand up to definition. You will find an exception to any definition you try to set. The fact that we in the west distinguish fiction that is ‘historical’ from contemporary seems arbitrary in itself. Is it just fiction set in the past? What about the 80s, is that ‘historical’? What about a bildungsroman that starts in the past and leads up to the present? What about self-consciously literary fiction set in the past? What about classics that weren’t set in the present when it was written – is A Tale of Two Cities historical fiction?

It even seems to mean several things to different people. Some agents rejected my wife’s first novel because there wasn’t enough action – well there’s not a lot of action in Wolf Hall or The Leopard. To one part of the market it means swords, sandals and battles; to others it means courts, plots and intrigue; and each one is marketed to different readerships. The Other Boleyn Girl and Sharpe have very little in common aside from not being set in the present, yet both are called ‘historical fiction’. As a term it seems to be a very malleable marketing tool, and little more.

The other thing I learned is that my instincts were right: people in the UK want to read about Romans, Tudors and the Second World War. Between them they seem to account for a huge chunk of the market. Not coincidentally, these are possibly the only three topics that everyone who has had a history lesson at a British school would know about – too much ‘Hitler and the Henries’ is a common criticism of history teaching. People clearly like the familiar when it comes to their reading. From speaking to friends, it seems that this is particularly true for those who dropped history as a subject early on at school but have discovered an interest later in life. Clearly the thrill is not just being entertained, but being able to dive into a comfortable world and learning a little bit more about it.

Being me, I kept a special eye out for any English language (or non-Chinese language) historical fiction set in China and, again, my suspicions were confirmed. Either very few people are writing about Chinese history or they are, and it’s not finding an agent, publisher or market.

China nerd that I am, this is an enormous shame. The market for Ben Kane, Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow would surely lap up the Warring States, An Lushan, the Ming-Qing cataclysm or the Taiping Rebellion? Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir’s fans would surely enjoy the imperial court? And China is full of second world war thrills and horrors, from Shanghai spies to the CCP / KMT double-crossing, not to mention the horrors of Nanjing and Unit 731.

It does seem that some level of familiarity is essential for finding a market, and British knowledge of Chinese history is very poor. But if you look at books about China that have broken through to the mainstream, whether Wild Swans or 1421, they do often introduce elements of Chinese history to a wider audience – just not through fiction. I always found it interesting that several of Jonathan Spence’s books, for instance, take a ‘readable narrative history’ approach where my instinct would have been to go for a fictional take. Similarly Michael Loewe’s classic Bing, is a fictional portrait of life in the Han dynasty, but reads like its primary purpose is to show the research, not to entertain.

This is probably because of the ‘challenge of the strange’. To quote from Mittelmark and Newman’s How Not To Write A Novel:

When writing any novel set in a world that the reader is not familiar with, whether it is the Land of the Faerie, an alien planet, or the Mongol empire, the writer must do more heavy lifting that he would if the novel were set last year in Anytown, USA… America in 1914 will require a fair amount of embroidery, but not as much as Italy in 1514. China in 914 will require thousands of extra words of explanation of local customs, costumes, buildings etc.

So not only would the author have to do so much more research, they have to work extra hard to make it into a readable, interesting story – something which would not apply to Chinese writers of historical fiction, or of the (small) western audience who would read them in translation and already have some familiarity.

Add in the dread word orientalism and the long shadow of Dr Fu Manchu and you really have a problem for western authors not of Chinese heritage – in a world in which there is a debate about whether authors can write at all from the perspective of a character of another race, no-one would want to be accused of this. Yet it’s incredible how much of it still seeps through, particularly where Chinese characters are just sideshows in opium dens and brothels (hello Peaky Blinders – I love you but no).

It is probably no surprise that a lot of English language China-set historical fiction (especially when written by authors without Chinese heritage) takes a western protagonist through which the ‘world’ can be explained. In the wrong hands this can become a get-out-of-jail-free card for orientalism – your protagonist can observe the ‘strange, exotic’ customs and visit an opium den or two scot-free. And secondly, almost all China-set historical fiction is set in the last few centuries, the history of which Western readers might have some familiarity with, and when Western protagonists might have a reason to be in China.

So I thought it would be worth setting about my hypotheses and looking into English language China-set historical fiction – what genres, settings and stories have been published? Are there any notable trends? This is a little review of the main subgenres of historical fiction and how they apply to China-set fiction. I’ve already included a disclaimer about definitions and boundaries, but for the sake of argument I would arbitrarily consider anything up to Mao’s death to be ‘historical fiction’.

I’ve already said that historical fiction doesn’t stand up to definition – well the subgenres I use to think about the historical fiction market as a whole doesn’t correspond easily to China-set fiction either, but I’m going to use them as a structure to hang my thoughts on. I’ve also decided to overlook the ‘literary’ historical fiction as a genre – it really is more of a marketing tool, and confuses things. Plenty of these novels could be considered ‘literary’.

The first thing to say is that this is of course not comprehensive, and I know I’ve neglected the world of self-publishing in particular. This is light touch – with more time it would be even more interesting to look into how these books portray China, for instance. The second is that I have read embarrassingly few of these, but on the plus side I now have a much longer TBR pile. I have seen hardly any of these in physical bookshops in the UK, and very few are published in the UK by major publishing houses. Most, I think, are US releases only. Clearly the US market for fiction set in China is larger and more imaginative.

And please: tell me what I’ve missed!

Swords and Sandals – historical adventure

I’ve always thought of this as the dominant subgenre by volume, an opinion mostly based on the historical fiction bookshelves at the Charing Cross Road Foyles, but it does seem to be on the wane. While dominated by the ancient world, the ‘adventure’ subgenre really takes up all the way up to Sharpe and beyond. It is action focused, typically encompassing a famous battle or two, with a particular fetish for military minutiae. They exist in series, with regular releases and faithful fans. Think Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane. There’s a special category of naval adventure fiction, such as Hornblower and Patrick O’Brien.

This subgenre seems ripe for a fresh take set in China – it’s effectively the Romance of the Three Kingdoms already. Chinese history is stuffed full of thrilling traditional warfare from ancient dynasties up to the Boxers; readers of this genre love detail, which would make the necessity to portray the setting in detail a positive, not a potential drawback on the narrative. Add to this the fact that many younger readers are now more familiar with Chinese history than ever thanks to the number of popular historical battle and strategy games made or set in China (I should avoid talking too much about gaming – my knowledge of games ends with the Ocarina of Time).

The Mongols seem to be a more attractive proposition for the market, and Netflix’s Marco Polo (which, for the record, commits an even worse sin than its orientalistic tendencies: it’s boring) will have helped find a market. Conn Iggulden is a leading light of the adventure historical fiction genre; one of his book series is the Conqueror series on Genghis Khan (which predates Marco Polo), of which one (Lords of the Bow) is focused on the conquest of the Jin and Western Xia. In the last few years we also have Jeanne Blanchet’s action thriller Forger of Empire.

James Clavell’s hugely successful Tai-Pan and Noble House could arguably fit in this category as an epic Western-eye view of the Opium Wars, but with hongs taking the places of the armies, and other series have set novels in China – I talk about Flashman and the Dragon more below. Amitav Ghosh’s celebrated Ibis Trilogy is a more literary take on the opium trade of the 19th Century, and while it has an Indian focus the historical backdrop is strong and enlightening on China in the colonialist period.

There are some more watery books in line with the popular naval adventure stories – Autumn Bardot’s Dragon Lady about an 18th century female pirate, and Richard McKenna’s classic The Sand Pebbles about the Yangtze Patrol – but these are meagre rum rations for the country of Zheng He and Lai Choi San.

It might be that Three Kingdoms isn’t the text we should look for, but Outlaws of the Marsh. Wuxia is a genre to itself, but there are similarities and echoes in the western tradition of adventure stories. There are plenty of differences – not only the fantastic elements, but I also don’t think of wuxia as being as commercially gendered as adventure historical fiction. Wuxia novels have always had a limited audience in the west, despite the popularity of films, hampered by poor translations (which Maclehose Press is making a valiant attempt to counter), and unsurprisingly very few western authors seem to feel confident tackling the genre.

Sherry Thomas does in her books Hidden Blade and My Beautiful Enemy, which I don’t know. These have female leads and blend action and romance – this is not aimed at Bernard Cornwell fans. Justin Hill and Wang Dulu also wrote Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny as a tie-in novel to the poorly received Netflix sequel.

My impression is that this is a subgenre on the wane, which might seem to explain – the glory days of Sharpe and Flashman are gone and while the genre is healthy it doesn’t seem to be high profile. One genre very much on the rise is Chinese sci-fi and fantasy, and fantasy has always co-existed happily with historical fiction – look at Game of Thrones, which lured in this reader who usually avoids fantasy with its medieval posturing before unleashing dragons and zombies and whatnot. Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasy fiction roams around seeking inspiration and settings from various settings and cultures, and Under Heaven and River of Stars take their cues from the An Lushan Rebellion and the Jin-Song Wars respectively.

Royal Courts

The Royal Courts genre of historical fiction has been in the ascendency in the UK for a while, with The Other Boleyn Girl transcending the romance genre with political intrigue, depth of characters and vivid sights and smells. The Tudors feel pretty tired to me now but remain incredibly popular, with the Wars of the Roses also a well-trodden genre. Surely China, with its centuries of incredible Imperial pomp, should be able to offer an equivalent? The stories wouldn’t have the familiarity quotient that the readership enjoys, but a pulsating romance about Yang Guifei or Xi Shi perhaps, a revisionist take on Empress Wu or Cixi, or intrigue and seduction at the Ming courts – who wouldn’t want to read that? With emperors, courtesans, concubines and eunuchs it is dangerous orientalist territory, but executed well there is so much potential.

And yet there is so little out there in English-language fiction. Anchee Min has written about Cixi in Empress Orchid and The Last Empress.  Weina Dai Randel has written two well-received books about Empress Wu, The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, and Justin Hill has also tackled the Tang Dynasty in Passing Under Heaven. A recent release that I am excited about is Alice Poon’s Tales of Ming Courtesans, released by Earnshaw Books. Last year Nicole Gregory followed the popular trope of fictionalising the court through western eyes in Defying Danger, about Matteo Ricci.

It might be that we need to look a bit deeper as to why the Royal Courts genre is so successful in the West. Could it be that it’s not about kings and queens, but more about recreating the formalities and rituals of bygone periods that are perceived as more graceful or cultured? That would bring into orbit the Downton Abbey style of aristocratic genre fiction, which appeals to a similar market. It is probably no accident that Memoirs of a Geisha found success around the same time as The Other Boleyn Girl. And in the Chinese context it would release us from the imperial court and into the wider world of scholar-officials, knights-errant and aristocrats of Shen Fu and Cao Xueqin.

 Speaking of Cao Xueqin (which I do often, to the detriment of my relationships with friends who aren’t Dream of the Red Chamber obsessives), I’m embarrassed that had no idea that there exists a retelling of Daiyu’s story by Pauline Chen called The Red Chamber. Thinking about the subgenre more broadly also brings into view the historically set works of Lisa See, such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony In Love, which tackle the self-fulfilment of women within the rigid Confucian world of late imperial China.

Twentieth Century

For the UK (and western) market, I tend to think of the Twentieth Century as a genre in itself. The sheer proximity of the period leads to a large volume of fiction, and the distinctive themes (spycraft, modern warfare, global travel) makes the historical fiction oeuvre distinctive from the adventure and courtly genres. It lends itself well to complex multi-character, multi-location, double-crossing stories with a simple historical backdrop of good guys and bad guys.

In China, I think this might be different. China’s twentieth century is messy, and this complexity is a reason why it gets overlooked both in popular perception (when was the last time you heard China included as a WW2 ally?) and in fiction in the west. The grand sweep history from one person or family’s perspective The Last Emperor to Wild Swans is an effective way to explore the history but I only know of Anchee Min’s biographical novels Becoming Madame Mao and Pearl attempting this in fiction.

It’s probably no surprise that Shanghai and China in the 20s and 30s, with the Japanese bombers circling over jazz clubs, is particularly enticing to authors looking for East-meets-West romance and intrigue. Amongst them, John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour set in Hong Kong, John Hersey’s A Single Pebble, A Winter in China by Douglas Galbraith, All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson and Kate Furnivall’s Russian Concubine series take this period as their background, as does Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro in one of his least well-received books When We Were Orphans. The Communist side of the story in this period is less well covered in English fiction, which is a surprise to me given the success of works like Red Star Over China. As well as Becoming Madame Mao, Robert Stuart Nathan’s The White Tiger uses a late twentieth century story to explore the Long March and Mao’s time in Yan’an.

The Second World War in China is well-covered by Chinese writers, but again rarely a topic for English-language authors – often the Western protagonist manages to escape China just in time. JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, drawing on his own experience, and my recent read The Bird In The Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor explore the experience of westerners in Japanese internment camps in China.

Mao’s rule, and the Cultural Revolution in particular, is more fertile ground for English-language fiction. Recently Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take follows one family’s flight from Maoist China. Something Like A House by Sid Smith, like the internment camp novels, focus on a Westerner in China, but in this case a Korean War deserter who makes his home in a Miao village during Mao’s rule. But most of the fiction in this period takes the opposite view and presents fictionalised accounts of real experiences, such as Yuan-Tsung Chen’s The Dragon’s Village; often using it as a backdrop for novels that explore diaspora identities. Some of these have been huge hits: for instance Amy Tan’s Valley of Amazement, Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy (a sequel to 30s set Shanghai Girls), and Madeleine Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Meanwhile Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s was a popular setting for contemporary genre fiction (such as Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy and Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong), for which the proximity to Maoist China is a looming threat.

There seems to be a particular and popular subgenre of China-set fiction that I have never come across in the UK: missionary fiction. I can’t be sure without reading them whether these are primarily Christian books or fiction books with a Christian theme, but I’m not sure that it matters – Shusaku Endo’s Silence is one of my favourite books and could be seen as either. The experience of missionaries in China is one of the most important ways that Westerners came to know and understand China in the early modern and modern period, and so it makes sense that they are at the front and centre of novels set in China, as well as films such as The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, particularly as the political and military changes in China impacted they way missionaries worked. This category of missionary novels could include In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie; The Call by John Hersey, City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell, River of Dust by Virginia Pye and The Keys of the Kingdom by AJ Cronin.

Historical Crime

Historical crime seems to dominate the historical fiction world at the moment – Shardlake, Gunther, Marwood and Lovett, Bruno, Wyndham and many others have been hugely popular. Just as modern crime fiction uses crime to explore aspects of contemporary society, the best historical crime does the same but with a time and setting of the author’s choice. The entire world is open to the author, and readers seem more willing to be taken to unlikely times and places with the promise of a good mystery.

It may be booming but it’s not a new genre, as fans of Cadfael will know. And one of the earliest series was set in China – the Judge Dee series by Robert van Gulik, written in the 1950s-60s, set in the Tang Dynasty, but themselves based on the 18th century Chinese mysteries Di Gong An about the real historical figure Di Renjie. Judge Dee doesn’t seem to have had the extended life that many popular fictional detectives have had (it seems to be quite hard to get hold of copies), but they are the first thought for some people I know when asked about Chinese fiction. Current authors have also taken Imperial China as their basis for crime and mysteries: Elsa Hart’s Li Du series and Amanda Roberts’s series of mysteries starting with Murder in the Forbidden City take the 18th and 19th centuries as their background.

The recent success of narrative crime non-fiction is also notable. Paul French’s books Murder in Peking and Shanghai Noir show that there is a market and an interest, and surely the highest prize here is the detective series set in 1930s China. That would have everything – a broad tapestry, and huge cast of characters from around the world, a volatile political and social background – and I’m amazed it doesn’t seem to have been attempted successfully. Yet.

Honourable mentions

This exercise has also flashed up a number of books that don’t fit neatly into my categories, as I expected. Janie Chang’s Three Souls and Yangsze Choo’s Ghost Bride (now on Netflix) are more ambitious with their settings beyond the human world. I’m not a big reader of graphic novels so I have missed Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, but it looks fascinating and is firmly high up my reading list now. Finally I’m intrigued by Peony by the grand dame Pearl Buck, which seems to be prohibitively expensive. Buck’s books are mostly set (roughly) contemporaneously, but Peony is set amongst the much neglected Jewish community of Kaifeng in the 1850s.

My favourites

Finally, I’d like to share my three most essential works of historical fiction in China. Quick shout-outs first has to go to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, which I’ve excluded by virtue of being written in French but is the Cultural Revolution tale I keep coming back to; and to Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, one of my favourite books and the pinnacle of the westerners-in-China genre, but set at the same time as it was written in the 1920s.

  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

More than just a great piece of historical fiction, this is one of my absolute favourite books from the last decade or so. Classical music in China was a topic I focused on as a student so this tale of musicians under Mao’s rule, right up to 1990, held a particular interest, but it is a captivating depiction of that time.

  • Flashman and the Dragon – George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman is really into his stride by the time he goes to China for the Taiping Rebellion and Second Opium War, meeting Lord Elgin, the future Empress Dowager Cixi, Hong Xiuquan and Sengge Rinchen (‘Sam Collinson’) amongst others. It’s pacey, exciting stuff in a familiar formula – much of it wouldn’t be to today’s taste but Flashman as an antihero can carry it off. It’s great to see the Taiping Rebellion depicted and MacDonald Fraser’s use of first hand sources in his research is effective, even if he isn’t entirely familiar with the language – an extended joke relies on a mis-reading of Wade-Giles whereby Prince I (Yi in pinyin) is mistaken in the third person for ‘I’ in the first.

  • The Ten Thousand Things – John Spurling

This is a highly accomplished work by the playwright and art historian, which won the 2015 Walter Scott Prize. Spurling’s wife Hilary wrote an excellent biography of Pearl Buck – China runs deep in the Spurling household. The Ten Thousand Things is based on the life of Yuan Dynasty artist Wang Meng, who narrates (in the third person) as an old man imprisoned by the first Ming emperor. It has some of the most elegant and evocative writing of imperial China I have read.

Wang Meng (painter) - Wikipedia

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