The Ten Thousand Things

Overview

In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity wit this regime—the Mongols, after all, are invaders—he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind.
Wang is an extraordinarily gifted artist. His paintings are at once delicate and confident; in them, one can see the wind ...

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The Ten Thousand Things

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Overview

In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity wit this regime—the Mongols, after all, are invaders—he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind.
Wang is an extraordinarily gifted artist. His paintings are at once delicate and confident; in them, one can see the wind blowing through the trees, the water rushing through rocky valleys, the infinite expanse of China’s natural beauty.
But this is not a time for sitting still, and as The Ten Thousand Things unfolds, we follow Wang as he travels through an empire in turmoil. In his wanderings, he encounters, among many memorable characters, other master painters of the period, including the austere eccentric Ni Zan, 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.
The Ten Thousand Things is rich with exquisite observations, and John Spurling endows every description—every detail—with the precision and depth that the real-life Wang Meng brought to his painting. But it is also a novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama, and in its seamless fusion of the epic and the intimate, it achieves a truly singular beauty. A novel that deserves to be compared to the classic Chinese novels that inspired it, The Ten Thousand Things is nothing short of a literary event.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 01/13/2014
Combining the delicacy of an old Chinese landscape painting with the brutality of Chinese history, Spurling’s novel follows the wanderings of real-life painter/sometime bureaucrat Wang Meng during the last years of Mongol rule through the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. Talk about the best and worst of times! Before peace and prosperity, 14th-century China witnessed Kublai Khan’s domain deteriorating into lawlessness. When the novel opens, Wang doesn’t know that foreign domination will soon end, or that his paintings will inspire future generations. He only knows that he feels compelled to retreat into the mountains to study nature and attempt to capture it with paper and ink. Descended from a great family long in service to their Mongol overlords, Wang struggles to maintain a fragile balance between respect and self-expression, sensitivity to subtleties of honor and practical exigency. He befriends, among others, three artists with whom he will change Chinese art, and a 16-year-old Buddhist novice who will change Chinese history. He assists a fiery bandit queen, as well as the poet who memorializes her as a passive milkmaid. Wrongfully imprisoned during his old age by the regime he helped establish, Wang, as Spurling imagines him, records his life story both in first person and in third, in keeping with his observant, yet personal, painting style. The narrative resounds with the vivid detail and the ever-changing tides of war and politics, art and nature. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“Enchanting . . . Mr. Spurling traverses [the plot of The Ten Thousand Things] without a shred of the grandiosity or portentousness often found in historical fiction. Wang Meng’s fascinating life seems to flow ahead with the grace of a leaf on a stream. He is always richly attentive to the state of the world—and what he philosophically calls its ‘mere tangle of circumstances’—as it passes by.” —Wall Street Journal

“One of the greatest pleasures of this novel is seeing fourteenth-century China come vibrantly alive. The countryside is painted in rich evocative detail and readers will be completely transported . . . It is striking that a novel set hundreds of years ago in China can have lessons that resonate even in our times . . . The beauty of John Spurling’s novel is that it is at once an incredibly detailed story and a sweeping view of the times . . . The Ten Thousand Things is not unlike a beautiful Wang Meng landscape painting—full of intricate gorgeous details that together coalesce into one stunning work of art.” —Bookbrowse

"The great strength of this novel is not so much the plot but the rich detail that sets the reader int he middle of China. As Wang paints waterfalls and witnesses beheadings, Spruling paints an exquisite story of a deeply decent men and his surroundings. Spurling's novel is a work of art in itself. A thoroughly enjoyable literary sojourn by a master of historical fiction." —Kirkus, Starred Review

I was amazed by The Ten Thousand Things, and by John Spurling’s powerful imagination—with ten thousand details, he has brought the ancient Chinese artist Wang Meng to life in beautiful prose.” —Xinran, author of Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love
 
“In this immersive tale of a landscape artist’s life, written with restrained lyricism, John Spurling has also given us an entertaining and insightful study about the art of Nature, and the nature of Art.” —Tan Twan Eng
 
[Combines] the delicacy of an old Chinese landscape painting with the brutality of Chinese history . . . The narrative resounds with the vivid detail and the ever-changing tides of war and politics, art and nature.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
The Ten Thousand Things is a truly remarkable achievement. In writing about the fourteenth-century Chinese artist Wang Meng, John Spurling has evoked a world that seems utterly alive and relevant today. Dramatic, absorbing, tender and profound, Spurling's book is written with a level of exquisite descriptive detail that makes the reader feel as if led into the enchanted and forbidding landscape of one of Wang Meng's own real-life works. Anybody who feels despondent about the future of fiction should read and take heart from this extraordinary and wonderful book.” —Miranda Seymour
 
This is mostly a quiet novel, but a rich one . . . Readers will feel lucky to watch [Wang Meng's] journey and share his thoughts.” —Booklist
 
“This is an extraordinary novel. Spurling brings together his strengths as a dramatist, an art critic, and a novelist. It is an impressive combination that gives a tone of authenticity to his absorbing story and adds to its enjoyment. I look forward to the film.” —Michael Holroyd
 
“Wang Meng is one of the most fascinating figures in Chinese history. In this lucid and brilliant novel, John Spurling uses him as a key character to recreate the end of an empire.  A vivid evocation of a turbulent era with echoes of debates today about loyalty, choices, and artistic integrity.” —Rana Mitter

“Like one of Wang's paintings, this story is a highly crafted masterpiece that cannot be enjoyed in one sitting . . . Even a reader who starts out with no interest in China or Chinese artists will be sure to return to this story over the years, as its truths remain timeless.” —South China Morning Post

“This sweeping novel should be on your bookshelf if you wish to learn more about China’s history and feel the pain of those forced to live under totalitarian rule.” —Historical Novel Society

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-06
With this richly told historical novel, English author Spurling (A Book of Liszts, 2011, etc.) takes readers back to the China of seven centuries ago. Wang Meng is descended from an emperor yet is content to support himself and his wife with a minor bureaucratic post in the Yuan dynasty. Wang's true calling is art. To his wife's chagrin, the middle-aged man would love to spend his days contemplating waterfalls and painting landscapes; she wishes he had more ambition. Meanwhile, the country is in the midst of turbulence and upheaval. Bandits roam the countryside. Wang leaves his home several times, once at the behest of the White Tigress, a beautiful woman who leads a group of bandits. Wang himself is a gentle soul, but he has plenty of sense in devising military stratagems. The great strength of this novel is not so much the plot but the rich detail that sets the reader in the middle of China. As Wang paints waterfalls and witnesses beheadings, Spurling paints an exquisite story of a deeply decent man and his surroundings. One almost feels that the author just returned from the 14th century carrying a notebook brimming with observations large and small. Yet the story moves along when it needs to—it has action, some of it violent—but pauses often to describe some of the 10,000 things in nature. When Wang goes to prison and contemplates endless time, a friend observes that in the long run, "Emperors and shit buckets are all one." Wang Meng was a real person famous for his richly detailed paintings, and this novel imagines the fabric of the last decades of his life. Spurling's novel is a work of art in itself. A thoroughly enjoyable literary sojourn by a master of historical fiction.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781468308327
  • Publisher: Overlook
  • Publication date: 4/10/2014
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 972,478
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

John Spurling is the author of The Ragged End, After Zenda, and A Book of Liszts, among other novels. He is a prolific playwright, whose plays have been performed on stage, television and radio, including at the National Theatre. Spurling is a frequent reviewer and was previously for twelve years the art critic of The New Statesman. He lives in London and Arcadia, Greece, and is married to the biographer Hilary Spurling.

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