368 pp., $19.95 (paperback)
Way back in May I promised to review Manchu Palaces, a novel by Sinologist Jeanne Larsen, first published in 1996 by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. I guess readers could consider this an anniversary review since the book is twenty years old this year. I suggested to Dr. Larsen that her novels be reprinted in a digital format so that readers could more easily access these wonderful works. That would be a nice way to commemorate the first publication anniversary.
This novel is Larsen’s third in her Avalokiteśvara triptych, each of which features Guan Yin who complicates or moves the plot. The previous novels are Silk Road (first published in 1989, set in the Tang dynasty) and The Bronze Mirror (first published in 1991, set in the Southern Song), but the reader does not have to read these in order to enjoy the story of a young girl growing up in China that is at the heart of each novel. Further, every novel of the triptych has a fantastic, cosmic framework reminiscent of Buddhist jātaka and sūtra structures. Lastly, every novel in the triptych features different types of narrative perspective and voice and a story built with various genre styles, some modeled on Chinese literary genres or scholarly works.
Given such variety of narratives contained within each novel of the triptych, this brief review of Manchu Palaces comes with a caveat. The novel is so elaborate that I cannot convey all of the intricate, marvellous aspects of it in this blog post. Reading this novel is like taking a long trip to a foreign country and having such a profound experience that the souvenirs and photographs cannot possibly accommodate or express the lasting impression. What I can do is provide my favourite elements of the novel and hopefully leave Buddhist Fiction Blog readers wanting more.
But first, preliminaries. Manchu Palaces, set during China’s Qing dynasty, tells the story of Lotus, a young girl and sole heir of a well-to-do Manchu family of bondservants to the emperor. When the reader meets Lotus, her mother has died and yet through her grief she must figure how to navigate family tensions and filial obligations on her journey to womanhood. Her best option for a secure future is to marry well, but along the way she wins a commission as a maid-servant to the Empress Dowager in the Forbidden City, a place that will become her own personal mandala, of sorts. For Lotus’ journey to womanhood also takes a spiritual route affected by her deceased mother Cassia, bodhisattvas such as Guan Yin, and Confucian and Taoist spirits. Both Lotus and Cassia will transcend their current states if Lotus can only find a misplaced white Tara statue and its thirty-six lost companion statues that form their own mandala.
Whenever I am presented with such an engaging opportunity for imaginary travel in Asian time and place, I am almost always on the lookout for one thing: what is “distinctly Buddhist” in this narrative? The jacket cover of Manchu Palaces actually uses the phrase “distinctly Buddhist perspective” to describe the way Larsen examines human loss and human folly. And I think this perspective is achieved, remarkably so, within the context of the Qing dynasty Chinese setting.
Let me explain why I think it is remarkable that anything is highlighted as “distinctly Buddhist” during the Qing dynasty era. The Manchu-led Qing dynasty was notable for its multicultural population, in part due to its military and political sweep across the Asian continent from Mongolia to Tibet that brought other Asian ethnic groups into the Chinese fold. Europeans and Arabs were also trickling into the Chinese societal landscape through missionization and trade. So during the Qing dynasty, the Chinese religious milieu was made up of Confucianism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, various forms of Shamanism, popular folk traditions, Christianity through missionaries, and even Islam. I’ve probably overlooked the presence of other religions in this list (such as Hinduism in small pockets of China), but you get the idea. Yet Larsen achieved a “distinctly Buddhist perspective” by using the Buddhist concept of rebirth to help drive the plot and steer Lotus and her mother Cassia on their respective journeys. In a scene that describes Cassia’s journey through the popular folk tradition/Taoist underworld of Mount Tai, Larsen intertwines the fate of Wu Ming, the creator of the lost Buddhist statues, with Cassia’s fate. The scene takes place in an underworld courtroom presided over by The Lord of Mount Tai, and as a bailiff presents the next case, we read:
“Yessir. Sorry, sir. It’s certain, ah, ecumenical aspects that have truly complicated the case, sir, as much as all these questions of motive and effects. That’s why I’ve held off, pending clarifications. Certain Buddhist . . . personages have been inquiring into the situation. Seems they’re chiefly concerned about the mandala statues for some reason, sir. Want them reunited, sir, and delivered to their intended home in the Five Crest Mountains. Word came from Avalokiteshvara—”
“Guan-yin’s in on this?” Great bulging eyes roll as exasperation washes over that green face. “Well now. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Mustn’t forget that.” Lord Mount Tai chortles, though Cassia’s not sure she sees the joke.
[Lord Mount Tai considers sending Wu Ming to clean up the mess he made and reunite the statues.]
“And I believe,” he adds, “I can leave it to my Buddhist colleagues to decide whether the collected statues are to be consecrated in that temple at Five Crests anyway, or what. Given the desecration. Imagine!” . . . . He raises his oblong gavel. “You are condemned to return to earth and see that all those statues of yours are gathered up and taken—”
“Oh let me, let me!” With those words, Cassia dashes forward from her nebulous location . . . . “I believe, your Majesty, that I know already where one of the statues is . . . ”
[Cassia and Wu Ming are sent back to earth as ghosts to achieve their mission]. Manchu Palaces, pp. 91 – 93.
What Larsen has managed to do in this scene is imagine the syncretism of Chinese religions in a way I could never have envisioned until reading her novel. For years I have struggled with getting my head around just how Chinese ancestor veneration worked in conjunction with Buddhist concepts of rebirth into other realms. This imagined account highlighted Buddhism’s role in Qing dynasty culture while maintaining the integrity of syncretism among Chinese religions.
Moreover, Buddhist interdependence must be at the heart of the structure of Manchu Palaces, because the plot is highly intricate. Sometimes I had to backtrack in my reading to make connections or ensure I didn’t miss an important piece of information because of the many narrative threads that are well interwoven. Still, Larsen knows how to situate a reader. Many times in the novel she switches narrative perspective, from third person to first person, and back again. Sometimes in a third person narrative voice the reader is addressed as “Reader” or “kindly reader”, thus forming a coy meta-narrative hinting at the creative relationship between author and reader. And her prose is so silky and such a pleasure to read that the need for review was a minor trial. I was always quickly soothed with paragraphs like this:
“A warm breeze comes up like a blessing from the Southern Sea. Surely this much is true—call it delusion, call it karma, call it free will and human perversity, call it the zigs and zags of narrative complications or tangled chains of psychological cause and effect: Neither storyteller nor incarnate being travels an easy straight-line road” (Manchu Palaces, p. 223).
The various narrative perspectives and different narrative voices give the novel a breadth and depth that reflect Larsen’s own dynamic acuity for Chinese culture, history and literature. Manchu Palaces is categorized as a fantasy due to the cosmic elements of the plot, but perhaps due to its narrative perspectives and voices, I read the novel as a work of historical fiction that brought past eras and unfamiliar locations to life. Manchu Palaces will be well received by any reader looking for an engaging story that could fall into the genres of Women’s Writing, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, and of course Buddhist Fiction. Better yet, if you want to go on a trip to China and don’t have the resources to leave your current situation, just pick up this book here.