Set in the final years of the Yuan Dynasty, THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS revolves around Wang Meng—a low-level government worker and gifted Chinese painter. Too astute to believe in an artist’s autonomy from society, and yet too devoted to his art to treat his job with requisite seriousness, Wang is always between two lives—never fully committed to one pursuit.
We follow Wang as he travels through an empire swept up by the Mongol invasion’s upheaval. In his wanderings, he encounters, among many memorable characters, other master painters of the period; a fierce female warrior known as the White Tigress who will recruit him as a military strategist; and an ugly young Buddhist monk who rises from beggary to extraordinary heights.
John Spurling captures the detail and specificity of fourteenth-century China in this expertly researched historical novel. He endows every description with the precision and depth the real-life Wang Meng brought to his paintings. It is a novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama, and in its seamless fusion of the epic and the intimate, THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS achieves a truly singular beauty.
An interview with John Spurling
When and Where Did You First Get the Idea for a Book on Wang Meng?
On Wang Meng specifically, from Michael Sullivan’s indispensable book on Chinese landscape painting – Symbols of Eternity. But the reason I read that book was that in 1963 I saw an exhibition of Chinese paintings at the V&A Museum, with an introduction by Sullivan, and from then on always wanted somehow to explore what it was about such paintings that so excited me.
Have You Always Had a Fascination with Chinese Literature and Art?
My fascination dates from even before the show at the V&A, stimulated by Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poems, by Mahler’s setting of Chinese poems, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), and by J.L.Borges’ short story The Garden of Forking Paths, which I used as the title and part-inspiration for one of the chapters in The Ten Thousand Things.
How Would You Like to Imagine the Movie of the Book?
I would leave that to the director, but I know which director I’d like to re-imagine it – the incomparable Ang Lee.
Do You Have a Favourite, Scene or Character in the Book?
It would have to be the scenes with Wang Meng’s fellow-artist, the humorous eccentric Ni Zan, and those with the fierce female bandit-chief, the White Tigress, but also perhaps, late in the book, the chapter called ‘A Chapter of Happiness’, which still makes me as happy as when I wrote it, and the scene with the new Ming Emperor in his imperial garden at Nanjing.
What Do You Think the Average Westerner Could Learn from Wang Meng and the Chinese More Generally?
Maybe that neither time nor distance nor technological change alter the basic pains and pleasures and dilemmas of being human. But on the other hand that national cultures and histories differ enormously from one another and remain over the centuries, especially the Chinese – even in a superficially global culture like ours today – consistent and peculiar to themselves.