Once on a Moonless Night, by Dai Sijie

So many ways to begin — first, isn’t this book cover gorgeous? I’ve begun to take an interest in China and Chinese fiction/literature/culture/movies/etc since picking up Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (which also has a gorgeous cover, although I haven’t finished reading it yet) and being enchanted by another culture that called out to me through her poetic prose. The eastern culture of China is far from my own safe in western Canada, yet as Chang described how it felt to be treated as a colonial in Hong Kong, with the culture and people subordinate to the British, I could relate. I’ve read mostly British literature for years now, perhaps all my life. Canadian literature is never as good, I think to myself. I know more about British history than I do about Canadian history. And all this Britishness began to feel slightly samey, stale and soggy as mushy peas. I love female authors like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf, but must they endlessly nostalgically hover over the lost class based British way of life? It wasn’t an innocent past — it destroyed the hopes and families and traditions and cultures of untold numbers of women and men in so many other parts of the world, just to uphold a few people in decaying ruins. Yes, English women didn’t have the rights of English men. But the girls in Hong Kong (or Africa or India or Canada) were reduced to far worse.

So on my next trip to the bookstore, I began to look for Chinese authors and I found Dai Sijie, author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, who now writes from France but was born and raised in China. The story in Once on a Moonless Night reminds me somewhat of a Chinese Possession (A.S. Byatt even wrote a review of it, saying it “is full of tales within tales and worlds within worlds, ranging from ancient Chinese empires through communist China to modern Beijing”), as it’s the story of a quest to find a torn silk scroll that contains an ancient text in an unknown language and there’s also a love story attached. But it is more subtle and unending than Possession, almost like a dream, there aren’t two clearly defined time periods and sets of characters, there are many that weave in and out, or appear once and then disappear. I was often wondering what was true about Chinese history and what made up for the sake of the story. For instance, is the mysterious language the scroll is written in, Tumchooq, real? Did the country it came from ever exist? What about the Frenchman who eventually decodes it? And the last emperor of China, Puyi, and Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty who was a great calligrapher, poet and artist in the eleventh century, what were they really like? And the Empress Cixi and British involvement in China, when did it start, and I realize I know almost nothing about Chinese history and wish I knew much more than that. Towards the end of the book, the development of Chinese culture and language is filtered through Marco Polo’s (perhaps somewhat falsified?) accounts of his travels and the rise of Buddhism, showing the swamp of intertwining cultures and languages in the east that influenced each other, from India to China, and how unreliable what we think we know about history can be.

The book had a modern narrator (a Frenchwoman in love with languages, who studies not only Chinese, but also Tibetan, an African dialect and Hebrew) and as I say, a love story, with a greengrocer named Tumchooq (for the unknown language his father translated) who also has a mysterious connection to an exiled aristocrat and the Forbidden City. It also describes the harsh conditions of the work camps so many, from common criminals to ‘thought criminals’ (which could include famous authors), were sent to, in Mao’s time. Later on the story moves to a quiet Buddhist monastery and printing press in Burma (or Myanmar), where “mango, orange and avocado trees with cocoa pods peeping from beneath them” flourish. As I read, I suddenly wish to see these things (which now thanks to modern transportation, can be shipped from the tropical climate its grown in to sanitized western grocery stores, completely cut off from where it’s come from, just as tea is now seen as quintessentially British but was in fact originally from Asia), as well as the sun coming over the golden roofs of the Forbidden City.

I want to experience a different culture, to smell and hear and learn new things, although perhaps I’m only succumbing to Orientalism, the lure of the supposedly exotic unknown, and perhaps I’m too late for that anyway, as China now is becoming more capitalist and the past there as here is disappearing. Once on a Moonless Night does not resolve these differences between east and west, the past and present, it merely raises the issues and my curiosity with it. Here is the first half of the text on the torn piece of silk that the characters quest to translate and to find the ending to:

Once on a moonless night a lone man is traveling in the dark when he comes across a long path that merges into the mountain and the mountain into the sky, but halfway along, at a turn in the path, he stumbles. As he falls, he clutches at a tuft of grass, which briefly delays a fatal outcome, but soon his hands can hold him no longer and, like a condemned man in his final hour, he casts one last glance below, where he can see only the darkness of those unfathomable depths…

This is the story of all our lives — we are lost somewhere on a dark path, hoping to survive.

{By the way, I’ve changed my blog name from A Few of my Favourite Books to lilac tea, which better reflects my interests and the direction I hope to take this blog in — away from being rigidly in the book blogging mould and more meditative and casual. I’ve been happy to discover that not only is tea a more international drink than I’ve seen it as, but lilacs, my favourite flower, also show up in Chinese literature! So I’ll be sure to share quotes soon.

To those still interested in reading along, thanks for bearing with me while I change things around a bit. I was considering quitting this sort of blogging all together, but finishing this book earlier today showed me that all I wanted to do was discuss it with anyone who might be interested. I don’t want to rush to finish the books everyone in my corner of the internet is reading just to say I’ve read them anymore, I want to look for the books that personally matter to me, so I will likely be less involved online just so I can feel less overwhelmed and more able to read at my own pace and to figure out the other aspects of my life — I’m wanting to watch more movies and see them as a valuable art form too, as well as figuring out my career and what lies ahead on my own path.}