My first novel, The Lacquered Talisman, is based on the first 53 lines of the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming. It is a text unknown in English beyond a few Ming experts, which is a terrible shame. I hope to bring this document – a rare example of an autobiography by a former peasant in China’s late imperial era – to English speakers through the text translations on this blog, and also through the medium of historical fiction.
Earnshaw Books will publish my novel in early 2020, and it is available now for pre-order.
I also hope to use this blog to publish translations of texts important to the Ming founding, starting with the Huangling Bei.
My own background in Chinese dates to my teenage years at Minneapolis Central High School, where I had the great fortune to be able to take Chinese classes from Margaret Wong, a legendary language teacher who inspired countless students to learn more about China.
In college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1980s, I majored in Chinese language and literature, and again benefited from great teachers. I took language classes from Joe Cutter and Clara Sun; literature from Wilfried Spaar and Joseph Lau; history from Yu-sheng Lin; political science from Ed Friedman; and was introduced to Classical Chinese by Tsai-fa Cheng.
Over the years, have been able to live and travel in China, working fresh out of college as an English language teacher in Jiangxi Province, and (in the 1990s) as a newspaper reader for the Beijing bureau of the Associated Press. The latter assignment was a fabulous job for which I received cold cash to read Chinese newspapers and circle whatever I considered noteworthy – why did I ever leave that job? For my master’s degree, I studied journalism at the University of Minnesota, working with Chin-chuan Lee, and learning about the press in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Most of my career has been spent in journalism, including a decade with a small family-run weekly newspaper, the Monticello Times, and a project to help launch an on-line community newspaper in Davidson, North Carolina, DavidsonNews.net. I currently live in Madison, Wisconsin, where my husband and I both work at our alma mater. We are attempting to fledge our two teenagers, who grew up thinking it perfectly natural to have books written in Chinese stacked up all over the place, and dictionaries of 12-volumes treated with reverence and affection.
When I was trying to decide on the topic for a novel set in imperial China, and was leaning toward a tale set in the late Han Dynasty, it was my husband, Joe, who said “forget about the Han,” and pointed me toward the Ming. He handed me the first volume on the Ming Dynasty in the Cambridge History of China series, I started at the beginning, and never made it past the founding. That is because the story of Zhu Yuanzhang’s rise to power is as good as it gets. The plague! The Mongols! Buddhist monks! Red Turban rebels! Concubines! Pirates! This story has it all. My introduction occurred when Joe was in the doctoral program at the University of Minnesota, and hit the trifecta of Ming Dynasty historians in having as his advisors Ted Farmer, Romeyn Taylor and Ann Waltner. Once I settled on a novel about Zhu Yuanzhang, I was able to pester all three to answer my many questions about Zhu’s rise to power. I treasure having them as mentors and friends.
Above all, my inspiration for writing historical fiction has been my mother, who loves good stories but cannot read Chinese – and unfortunately too few of the tales from the Great Ming are available in English. Toni Morrison is famous for saying, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” In a similar fashion, I wrote my first novel because I wanted my mother to read it.
As the Tang poet Meng Jiao wrote, speaking of his debt to his own mother:
Who can say how the heart of the young plant / can repay the sunshine of spring?