My short story on a 14th-century uprising

Spittoon Collective, an arts group based in Beijing, is featuring my short story, “Stirring the Yellow River,” this month on their website. Of course, I wish I could actually go to Beijing and hang out with book people, but having a group like this offer my story, along with an illustration, a Q&A, and even a commentary, is the closest I can get to a writer’s dream come true in the COVID lockdown era. I’m so grateful!

(Illustration by Kerry Dennis)

“Stirring the Yellow River” is my fictionalized version of the 1351 uprising that launched the Red Turban rebellion, which eventually led to the downfall of Mongol rule over China. It’s a bizarre tale that involves a one-eyed stone man, laborers dredging the Yellow River, and an apocalyptic rhyme brought to life.

This story is also a selection from the start of Book 2 (which I am calling “Red Turban”) in my series of fiction about the Ming founding. I have finished the manuscript for this one, but I’m still tinkering and editing…

As I explained to Spittoon editor Deva Eveland, “Stirring the Yellow River” follows events described in unofficial writings that circulated in the 14th century by authors like Ye Ziqi 叶子奇 in his 1378 essay collection, Master of Grass and Trees  草木子. (These have been analyzed in English by the modern historians Barend ter Haar and the late Hok-Lam Chan.)  

Ye Ziqi was interested in rumors and prophesies and wrote that a certain Han Shantong 韩山童 and his conspirators craftily buried a one-eyed stone man and waited for it to be unearthed by laborers working on a massive river channeling project. A prophetic children’s rhyme, and its connection to the stone man and the uprising, was also mentioned in various accounts, including by the historian Song Lian 宋濂 in the official Yuan Dynasty history, who wrote that, “It all started in the Gengyin year (i.e. 1350) with the children’s ditty told north and south of the river…” Were the rhymes and rumors true? Who can say? They probably contained a mixture of fact and fantasy.

One problem I encountered in writing my own version of this story was explaining why Han and his key co-conspirator Liu Futong 刘福通 were down in the trenches talking with the laborers. The historical records are silent on this matter, and don’t have much to say about the background of either leader. What made the most sense to me was to make Han and Liu fellow conscripts. So each retelling of this story creates its own deviations.

How does this story connect with the Ming founding, which is the focus of my historical fiction? Liu Futong went on to lead the northern branch of the Red Turbans, which a peasant-turned-monk named Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 joined in early 1352. Zhu rose through the ranks and eventually became the most powerful Red Turban in the land. He founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and scholars consider the word “Ming 明” to be a reference to the religious beliefs unleashed in the river channeling rebellion.

Meanwhile, here’s the short story:

Hoping to get Book 2 out in the Year of the Tiger

I recall being in a taxi in China several years ago, I think in Shanghai, shortly before the Lunar New Year holiday, when a pedestrian jumped in the path of our car.

The manuscript for Book 2!

The driver slammed on his brakes and – in the same motion – rolled down his window, so that he could yell at the hapless pedestrian even as we were skidding to a halt to avoid running him over.

“要过年吗?!” (Loose translation: “Were you hoping to live to celebrate the New Year?!”)

The taxi driver’s words were superficially polite but uttered with such vehement anger and sarcasm that they turned into an insult, a seasonal version of, “Get out of the way, you idiot!” I remember – once I recovered from the shock of the near accident – feeling amused by the driver’s aggrieved tone and aggressive wit.

The new moon February 1 on the Western calendar for 2022 marks the start of the Year of the Tiger. It’s a year when I hope to see Book 2 published in my series on the founding of the Ming Dynasty. Under the current title of Red Turban, this volume will cover the tumultuous four years, 1351-55, that turned Zhu Yuanzhang from an obscure wandering monk to a leading warlord contending for control of all of China, and brought the future Empress Ma to his side. The manuscript is currently undergoing edits, but has taken full form and benefited from reader comments (please email me if you would like to receive notifications about it).

So I am looking forward to the lunar New Year, and I intend to channel that taxi driver’s nerve and wit in the face of the anxiety of getting a novel published.

Happy Year of the Tiger!

Crossing the river

Though I’m not into numerology, it did give me pause to realize that one of the key moments in the founding of the Ming Dynasty occurred exactly 666 years ago.

On the second day in the sixth month of an Yiwei year that corresponds to the Western date of July 10, 1355, Zhu Yuanzhang led his newly-acquired fleet from Hezhou, his temporary base on the northwest bank of the Yangzi River. He was headed toward a outcrop on the far shore known as Ox Barrier. One of Zhu’s newest recruits, Chang Yuchun, was the first to make landfall. Chang jumped to the shore, wielded his ax and rushed toward the Mongol troops. Zhu Yuanzhang’s Red Turbans surged behind Chang’s charge and routed the imperial army from their fort in the cliffs. Chang’s attack was so heroic that it is said you can still see his footprint in the boulders above the site of the landfall.

Such are the tall tales told of that fateful moment.

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IndieReader “All About the Book” Profile

Not sure how long it will last, but right now I’m featured on the home page of IndieReader.com. Whoop whoop! My book, the Lacquered Talisman, is among four profiles, and I’m in good company with Suzanne Tierney’s WWII historical fiction, and WG Hladky’s award-winning science fiction.

My profile discusses why I decided to write a novel about the founder of the Ming Dynasty, who I’d pick to play him in a movie, and more. Happy reading!

A herd boy story for an Ox Year

The Lunar New Year for 2021 starts Friday, Feb. 12. Up next in the cycle of the Chinese zodiac animals is the ox.

Since I have been writing fiction about the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty, an ox year brought to mind stories of how the founder started out as a cattle herder.

Collections of stories about Zhu Yuanzhang’s childhood often include a subversive one from his herd boy days. It comes in a few different forms, but always has the future emperor leading his fellow herd boys in eating one of the animals they are supposed to be protecting.

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Why write Ming fiction?

“What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing writing about the Ming founding?”

1944 book on Zhu Yuanzhang, “From Monk’s Bowl to Imperial Power.”

A California-based literary agent once asked me this after I proposed a novel about the story of the fourteenth-century Ming Dynasty founder, Zhu Yuanzhang.

How to reply?

I mentioned that I’m not actually Jewish, but I knew that was not the point of the question. The agent was trying to tell me that he thought it strange to hear the idea for such a book coming from someone who is not Chinese.

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My son, my book cover artist

Structuring a novel is a murky process, but one moment stands out in my mind as key to both my novel, The Lacquered Talisman, and its cover, which was created by my son.

I was sitting on the floor of a bookstore in Boston, flipping through art books about China, when suddenly it hit me: What I needed for my main character was a talisman. And this talisman would be a seal chop. The Lacquered Talisman is about the Zhu family, whose youngest son founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. I needed a tangible item that could symbolize family for my protagonist. Thus the talisman. Continue reading

Five-star review of THE LACQUERED TALISMAN

Here’s a five-star review of my debut novel published August 12, 2020 on IndieReader.com, a website devoted to hybrid, small press, and self-published authors:

THE LACQUERED TALISMAN leads readers from the marriage of the first Ming Emperor’s parents, through his young life, and his years of devotion as a Buddhist monk, to the beginnings of the rebellion that would overturn a dynasty and set him on the throne of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.

Source: THE LACQUERED TALISMAN

So my book about the plague is a victim of coronavirus…

According to my publisher, my first novel is now waiting in some printing queue in China, one small item lost in the general shutdown resulting from the coronavirus. Ironically, “The Lacquered Talisman” focuses on how the Zhu family dealt with the contagion of their era: the plague. When the day comes that I am able to hold a copy of my book in my own hands, I will feel a measure of relief that the current contagion is subsiding. Until then, my thoughts are with all those in China dealing with this crisis.

Here is how Zhu Yuanzhang wrote about the impact of contagion on his family: Continue reading