Gao Jianqun, Tongwan City
Sometime in the early 5th Century CE, a Xiongnu chieftain named Liu Bobo declared his people a nation, crowned himself king, and cultivated a reputation for remarkable cruelty. As much legend as history, Liu Bobo, who changed his family name to Helian in his glory, spread fear abroad, conquered China, and destroyed anyone who crossed him. But his fame exceeded his person; Helian Bobo’s real accomplishments were lost to history.
Chinese novelist Gao Jianqun’s historical epics self-consciously channel the stylings of medieval romances, but infused with strong praises of individualism and liberty. Though highly regarded in China, with multiple awards and valuable state subsidies, his works remain largely unheralded internationally. This, apparently his first novel translated into English, could reverse Gao’s global neglect; it’ll certainly challenge readers eager for literature that resists hip Caucasian commercializing sameness.
Gao crafts a complex, generational epic combining historical facts regarding Helian Bobo, where facts survive, with ancestral mythology and new speculation. Whereas history recalls Bobo’s cruelty, exceptional amid an era when warfare and savagery were common, Gao charts Bobo’s arc of transition. How, he asks, did one man become so violent that, in times when brutality was commonplace, his extremes became noteworthy? Gao’s answer is complicated.
A gentle child known for his easy tears, Liu Bobo arose from nomadic herdsmen lacking a homeland. When ancient enemies sacked Bobo’s community and slaughtered his parents, Bobo began a years-long trek through shattered Sixteen Kingdoms China, a period of constant warfare, political instability, and lawlessness. Desperate to recover the boyhood stability he lost in one brutal night, Bobo becomes general, then warlord, then king of all he surveys.
The Xiongnu, believed by some (including Gao) to be cousins of the European Huns, were China’s longstanding enemy; China built their Wall to contain the Xiongnu. Herein, Gao, or perhaps translator Eric Mu, use the terms Xiongnu and Hun interchangeably. Claiming descent from both a Han princess and Xia warriors, the Xiongnu kingdom arose quickly, conquered broadly, and collapsed overnight. Six years after Bobo’s death, the Xiongnu were no more.
Unsatisfied with legends of unmatched cruelty, Gao creates a wholly original narrative of Bobo’s transformation. Born soft-hearted, loving animals and women, his era quickly hardened him when he needed to fight to survive. Gao’s Bobo becomes a general when Chang’an’s emperor, the truest Chinese ruler, invests him with power. But when Chang’an betrays him, Bobo’s learned penchant for vengeance impels him to attack his former benefactors.
Gao’s narrative rejects linear, immersive storytelling favored in creative writing classes. No “willing suspension of disbelief” for him. Frequent philosophical discursions, hops into 21st Century speculation, and broad historical context, keep readers aware of Gao’s consciously created prose. He’ll readily stop whatever story you’ve grown invested in to jaunt merrily down some historical cow path. Gao doesn’t let readers vanish into his narrative, instead constantly reminding us: we’re consuming art.
To achieve this effect, Gao liberally mingles fictional narrative, with its love of sensory detail, dialog, and action, with exposition techniques cribbed from nonfiction. Here, he’ll immerse us in Bobo’s difficult emotional journey, creating the illusion of being there alongside our doomed anti-hero; next, he’ll jerk the narrative away, lecturing bookishly on medieval Chinese history. Though ultimately fictional, Gao’s story ultimately isn’t what Western readers would call “a novel.”
Thus, Gao has two audiences. Chinese readers, and those familiar with Chinese tradition, will recognize elements of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other ancient literature. Western audiences, to embrace Gao, will require greater openness to new experience, and must not expect this tale to resemble familiar paperback techniques. Western readers, like world travelers, should prepare themselves for intellectual heft, historic discursion, and some level of artistic alienation.
Maria Tatar notes scientific research that proves readers have difficulty with more intellectually complex novels. It wasn’t just you; that consciously intricate reading you did in college really was difficult to keep focused on. Gao challenges readers, disdains fitting into marketable categories, and creates a novel profoundly, inarguably foreign. Not everyone will appreciate his Gordian prose; airport readers and bedtime aesthetes will find themselves easily distracted.
For the right audience, Gao’s story resists market-driven sameness that has so badly muddled Western reading. His story is daring, difficult, and anything but safe, leading readers into truly distant lands. Gao’s Bobo is familiar enough that we share his journey, but foreign enough to threaten our cozy expectations. And the brutality ringing down the halls of Bobo’s mythological fortress, Tongwan, is shocking partly because it’s so real.