What I find so exciting and challenging in historical fiction is that it enables me, as both writer and reader, to explore worlds that are real but which can only come to life on the edge of imagination. It's a kind of fiction that allows all of us to enter worlds we have lost. But in entering those worlds, we can experience kinds of intensities deep within us that may, right now, not find such clear expression in our contemporary world.
As the modern world becomes more tightly knit, we come to share a global economy, a globally distributed commercial culture, and increasingly similar ideas about life and living altogether.
The many different ways that people have explored in finding ways to live as a societies and cultures, the immense diversity of ways in which people have examined their existence on the planet and in the cosmos become buried beneath the uniformities of world culture. The past becomes a vast secret repository of innumerable ways of being alive. Of course, much of human experience has been horrific, brutal, unrelentingly cruel, hopeless; at the same time women and men have never ceased to create possibilities of splendor, safety, beauty, truth, love and transcendence. Entering the past through historical novels, we can examine our ordinary, daily experience of hope and fear, love and hate, triumph and loss, loneliness and community, chaos and order in a mirror that is both old and somehow completely new.
I became interested in Zhu Di, the Yong Le Emperor (1360-1424), when Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher who lived in the West, stated that he was an exemplar of a ruler who worked to bring about enlightened society. Study of Zhu Di's life revealed however a man alternately utterly ruthless and completely visionary. At that point, it was evident that to make such judgments based on western moral assumptions would not reveal very much. It was necessary to study the many aspects of Chinese history, philosophy and culture which gave birth to this man and created the context in which he saw himself. After 10 years, I had a superficial understanding that provided enough clues to go forward with the book. One thing was completely clear: in the story of Zhu Di, it is China itself that is the main character.
China is the oldest continuous civilization on the planet. It is continuous in the sense that Chinese cultural and social life has retained the same spiritual and intellectual foundations for 5,000 years. Chinese civilization accepts that its existence in ever changing cyclical time is as decisive as its existence in space.
For more than four and a half millennia, Chinese rulers and thinkers have not doubted that to achieve genuine progress is actually to renew virtues that were perfected and written down in the distant past. In a similar way, Chinese people have considered reverence for and obedience to forbears and parents as the psychological and ethical core of personal behavior.
(This is, of course, shockingly different from our assumptions in the modern West where we often believe we must reject the work of those who came before and go beyond our parents to achieve a new and better world.)
The Chinese have also generally maintained a hierarchical view of humanity's place in the cosmos. Heaven rules over earth and it is humanity that joins the two. In the same way, the Emperor rules over humankind and is the balance point in maintaining both social and cosmic order. His relationship to his people is like that of a father to his children.
Zhu Di took control of China by rebelling against his nephew, but did so because he believed he alone could fulfill the vision of his father (the first Ming Emperor who was a peasant but seized the throne from the decadent Mongol emperors and wished to establish a genuinely Chinese dynasty). It was a brutal campaign with a bloody aftermath. Then as the Yong Le Emperor, he devoted himself to making China a great world power once again. He re-structured the government, the judicial system, the military and the court, renewed the educational system, strengthened trade and diplomatic relations (and in the process built the largest fleet on the face of the earth and sent it out to as far as East Africa), rebuilt the Great Wall, built the Grand Canal, commissioned the greatest encyclopedia ever assembled, and moved the capital to Beijing which he had resigned and re-built, including its great center-piece, the Forbidden City. As a skilled general, throughout his reign, he also rode with his armies on many expeditions against Mongol invaders. His direct mark on Chinese institutions remained for almost 500 years.
To tell the story of Yong Le's reign, to give some sense of him as a person and to provide the context in which he was making choices and decisions was at first overwhelming. I needed to find a lens through which I and the reader could see the whole thing in a manageable way. This stymied me for a long time. Then I was lucky enough to visit Beijing and luckier still to be able to spend several days exploring the Forbidden City.
This huge palace is in many ways the same as it was when the Yong Le Emperor built it.
On one of my visits, I was especially fortunate since there was a yellow windy fog, a kind of weather often mentioned in literature, caused by storms in the deserts to the north. The Forbidden City is usually crowded with tourists from all over the world but especially from China. The weather that day left the palace more empty than usual. (The photos here may a give a sense of that day.)
I wandered in the mist through back alleys, peered through half-open wooden gates into the residences of minor consorts and eunuchs. There was a ghostly feeling to it all. I sensed that the Forbidden City was still haunted, not with the spirits of Emperors and Empresses and courtiers, but with the ghosts of the thousands of servants who had spent their lives there and still longed to return.
With that, I discovered the person who could tell the story: a court stenographer, the eunuch slave, Ma Yun. I heard his voice, and so I began the JOURNEY OF THE NORTH STAR like this:
" I have lived in the heart of the world. Amid many others of my kind, this eunuch slave has hurried silently, day and night, through the vermilion corridors of the Son of Heaven’s palaces to serve his needs as ruler of the world. Despite my utter insignificance, the Lord of Time has been so kind as to use this eunuch slave as one of his innumerable instruments in determining the way of life of unseen millions. "
Should you be interested, the book is available in e-book format at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and many other sites. Thank you.