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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Tongwan City

Gao Jianqun

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To purchase Tongwan City

Title: Tongwan City
Author: Gao Jianqun
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng 2013)
Length: 259 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Tongwan City - US
Tongwan City - UK
Tongwan City - Canada
Tongwan City - India
  • Chinese title: 统万城
  • Translated by Eric Mu

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Our Assessment:

B : gets a bit too creative at times, but solid historical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 14/10/2013 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his novel ambles back and forth through time, leaping from one event to another to produce an astonishingly compact epic tale. Nevertheless the book provides an exciting entryway into the complex and relatively obscure history of ancient China." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tongwan City is an historical novel of early fifth-century China. Two figures -- whose paths crossed once in real life (and also in the novel) -- are the focus: Helian Bobo (381-425) -- "If the entire history of the Huns is a book, Helian Bobo is its last chapter" -- and Kumarajiva (334-413), the Buddhist monk famed for his translations of Buddhist scripture into Chinese.
       At one point, the author (who is kind of intrusive -- but inconsistently so -- in the narrative) writes:

     As much as the author would like to recount the story of the legendary monk, this book will primarily address Helian Bobo, the last king of the Huns, as well as the city he would one day build.
       As the title of the novel suggests, the book does lead to the building of Tongwan City -- "a city meant for fairy tales" -- but Gao takes his time in getting to it, and even if much of the build-up centers on Helian Bobo, the saga of Kumarajiva also gets a lot of space (indeed, shortly after Gao announces he's going to focus on Helian Bobo he instead switches over entirely to chronicling, at considerable length, Kumarajiva's story).
       While Tongwan City is basically a chronological life-account of these two figures, Gao both passes over large stretches of their lives and also has no compunctions about revealing details about later events early on. Admittedly, this is historical fiction, so the conclusions are all foregone, but given that at least Western readers are unlikely to be familiar with the details of what happened to them it's a bit anticlimactic to learn early on that Tongwan City was Helian Bobo's "swan song", and that the ruin that now is:
Tongwan City serves as the only landmark left in the floodplains, and the only large-scale evidence of the Huns' existence.
       (The cover photograph, of the ruins, at least gives some impression of what it was -- but the book could have also used one or several maps to help orient readers: Gao gives some detailed information about geography, but readers not familiar or comfortable with Chinese geography will likely be rather at a loss.)
       Helian Bobo's story is a pretty gripping one: the young boy who is the lone survivor when his hometown is attacked and his close family-members all killed; the girl he meets while escaping (yes, there's fairy-tale romance, too -- though in her case with a nice twist); his narrow escape from death at the hands of the relative he hopes will save him -- and then his quick. impressive (and often cruel) rise to power. Okay, some of it is a bit silly -- "He was a towering seven feet tall" by age sixteen -- but Gao keeps things moving so the story never bogs down much in the more unrealistic elements.
       Kumarajiva's path -- beginning with that of his parents -- makes for a solid story too. Yes, there's also some requisite silliness, such as a monk washing away his sins:
She saw as the monk reached his own hand into his chest. His chest opened up, and he took out something that looked like intestines and stomach. With great tranquility, he rinsed the organs in the water as if they were from a sheep or cow.
       Indeed, the novel switches back and forth frequently from accounts of basically known historical events to Gao's often very imaginative rendering of a variety of detailed scenes (relevant and incidental).
       Overall it does make for a good potted history -- even if Gao also can't keep himself from telling readers the significance of his characters -- usually ahead of time, as when he explains early on:
     Historians agree trhat the arrival of Kumarajiva in Chang'an was a landmark event in the spread of Buddhism to China. Kumarajiva's thirteen years proselytizing in China helped Buddhism to spread deep roots in the Chinese soil. He played a major role in elevating Buddhism to a status of recognition and popularity on par with Confucianism and Taoism.
       The Prologue has the author meet his two subjects, and this apparition of Helian Bobo suggests:
All it takes is a proper guide, and you can travel through history like a roundworm wriggling through a man's intestines.
       This is perhaps not the image readers want to start off with -- and not quite how Gao then proceeds, either (fortunately). Indeed, in its short, fast chapters Tongwan City proceeds more in zig-zags (and leaps) than any sort of wriggling.
       Chang'an -- "the most populous metropolis in the entire eastern hemisphere" at the time -- is nicely presented, as is then Helian Bobo's dream of his own massively fortified city. The building of Tongwan City -- including a creative way of fortifying the building material (using sticky rice !) as well as the rather extreme measures the "bloodthirsty maniac" Ali, in charge of construction, takes to ensure quality control (as well as what happens to all the workers killed in the process ...) -- make for a good story too, even if it proves to be a bit anticlimactic.
       Guo occasionally gets too sidetracked in explanations, rather than just telling his stories. There's little need for details such as:
     People of this time were small. Men were, on average, only five-foot-four, and women were shorter, based on bones excavated from the Banpo Neolithic settlement.
       He gamely tries to tie this in with his larger narrative, for example (wondering about those excavated bodies: "Were these men and women the founders of Chang'an ?"), but they're really more of a distraction than anything else -- as if there were moments when he just isn't confident enough of his story-telling abilities and wants to remind readers that he's really studied up on this.
       The weird author-interruptions -- and there are some very weird ones -- add to the strange feel of this historic fiction, which isn't quite as neat and polished as most contemporary Western fare, but the ride is wild and interesting enough to hold the reader's (sometimes bemused) attention. Gao has a bit of a problem with priorities -- there's more about sweating horses than most readers will feel the need to know in this context, for example -- but there's a lot of good material here, and its packed into a relatively compact space (thankfully, in this respect it's unlike Western historical fiction, which likely would take far more expansive form).
       Tongwan City offers lots of interesting bits of history, and while the writing is uneven (about as all over the place as one would imagine possible) it's lively enough to be consistently engaging. Readers are unlikely to come away feeling they've gotten anything resembling the whole story, but they've gotten a good ride and a good glimpse.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 January 2014

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Tongwan City: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Gao Jianqun (高建群) was born in 1954.

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