Tun-huang, by Yasushi Inoue (trans. Jean Oda Moy). NYRB Classics. $14.95, 240pp.
It would be difficult, I think, to name any form of art as international, culturally filtered, often-adapted, regurgitated, or overdone as the American Western. Simply consider that some of the most famous filmed Westerns are based on Japanese films about samurai, shot in locations such as Italy and Spain, and set along vast desert borderlands that straddle two cultures while remaining outside of each.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, Westerns are synonymous with American identity. They are spaces of black- and white-hatted morality tales that elaborate nationalist systems of ethics and values—so stereotypical, despite their hybrid sources, that in some French textbooks every single caricature of an American is dressed in a cowboy hat. The Western is in fact much more than the story of a bunch of macho cowboys running about the land: it is an art form of liminal space, a border between two areas in apparent conflict. In his introduction to Locations of Culture, Homi Bhabha wrote, “These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity.” For American culture, Westerns are just such spaces.
Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-huang is the echo of a Civil War–era Western: one published by a Japanese author in 1959, set in the western territories of early 11th-century China. Perhaps this is the wrong way to approach a novel of such historic scope—Inoue was in no way adapting the tropes of a Western to his setting—but, there are striking similarities. The racist overtones in Chinese attitudes toward the barbarian tribes. Martial outposts that attract civilian traders. Long treks across barren desert lands by traders, pilgrims, soldiers, and criminals. It is not whole, not a re-imagining by any means—but it is more than enough to put American readers in mind of the Old West.
Tun-huang is the story of Hsing-te, a young man who, at the beginning of the book, aspires to become a bureaucrat in the powerful Chinese empire. Waiting for his turn to take the final entrance exam, Hsing-te falls asleep in the garden. His mistake costs him the opportunity for a position in the government, probably for good. As he walks through the city streets, despondent, he comes across an odd scene: a woman from the western His-Hsia tribe being sold off, piece by piece, by a “knife-wielding barbarian.”
She has “agreed to this butchering” for her honor, after sleeping with a man and trying to murder his husband. (This is the first in a series of self-sacrificing women and dream-like sequences in the novel.) Moved at once by empathy and a sense of awe at her courage, Hsing-te purchases the woman whole and releases her. In return, the woman hands over her only belonging, a swatch of cloth with “some strangely shaped symbols, resembling letters”—the newlyinvented script of the Hia-Hsia language.
Hsing-te’s curiosity about this script sends him to the furthest reaches of the Chinese empire, western lands where the loosely affiliated Hsi-Hsia and Uighur tribes jockey with China for control of Silk Road outposts (a situation not dissimilar to the conflict between Native Americans, Mexicans, outlaws, and the United States military during western expansion). Hsing-te’s interest quickly sharpens:
“To Hsing-te the Hsi-Hsia were a mysterious people. In that northern country there must exist some vital, powerful element, a quality that defied definition. He wanted to go there and experience it for himself. His inherent single-mindedness had been unwittingly transformed by the girl into this obsession with Hsi-Hsia, and the course of his life was completely altered.”
In light of the familiarity of the noble savage to Americans, (just think of the films Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans), it is interesting to find a 20th century Japanese author projecting this type of Orientalist fascination back onto 11th century China. One wonders what it reflects about the relationship between Japanese and Chinese culture in the 1950s. Fifteen years after the Second World War, perhaps there is an element of witness to the barbarian cutting the girl apart piece by piece; or anxiety, depicting territories in the midst of civil wars not unlike those which founded the People’s Republic.
Hsing-te’s rapid transformation from interest to obsession over the Hsi-Hsia is indicative of Inoue’s style, which presses a story of epic scale into two hundred pages. He does not linger too long on any event, or any motivation. Goals are set clearly and then pursued. Throughout there is the faint impression of montage. The pace is cinematic. Inoue moves the story forward with a series of discreet, interconnected sections: the early years, the inscription and fighting, the love story, the scholarship, etc. One section is connected to the next with panoramic staging: “When Spring came to Hsing-ch’ing, the town began to bustle. Troop movements to and from the garrison increased noticeably. It was persistently rumored that new military operations were to start against the Turfans. [. . .] Spring came and went in these unsettled conditions, and summer was approaching. One day, Hsing-te was strolling in a shopping area near the South Gate.”
It is striking that this cinematic, Western-esq novel was published only a year before the release of The Magnificent Seven, an American adaptation of Japanese director Akira Kirosowa’s 1954 film, Seven Samurai. That film marked a shift of tone for the genre in the decade to follow. Westerns of the 1960s became darker, conflicted, bloodier, exploring antiheroes who play good guys only by comparison. Part of this was the unbridling of cinema as the Code-censored studio era came to a close, yet these films also quite clearly reflected the anxieties of Vietnam-era America. It is strange to think, however, that these anxieties were expressed in a form that came from a foreign culture, one in the process of American-inflected transformation. The culture of this newly Americanized Japan, perhaps, existed as a borderland where both American and Japanese identities were allowed to coalesce amidst conflict.
Inoue chose to write about the western city of Tun-huang with a purpose in mind. The author was intrigued by archaeological finds in the hills outside of the city, where a series of Buddhist caves are carved into the rock. Sometime in the early 11th century, hundreds of sutras and manuscripts were hidden there for safe-keeping just before the razing of Tun-huang by the Hsi-Hsia. But there are no historical records of that period, and Inoue wished to “fill the gap left by the historians with a novel.”
Damion Searls, in The Quarterly Conversation, writes, “I would say—aware that my own reflections will no doubt seem time bound and off-key in a few decades, not to mention the centuries that are Inoue’s usual time scale—that Inoue’s great theme, spanning his historical, contemporary, and autobiographical works, is how the life you lead is not your real life. What we think of as our personal struggles—our decisions, desires, deliberations, the choices we make and the things we do—are less real, less to be trusted, and perhaps ultimately less important than the wider forces of historical destiny or the cultural past or the way we started to feel as a child, or simply the fact that other people are not who we think they are, and nor are we.”
I have no doubt that these reflections, this comparison, will also be found quaintly ignorant of other factors at play in Inoue. There is no question that mid-century Japanese culture informed American Western films and, by extension, American cultural identity. Just as there is no doubt that the post-war decade introduced American values into Japanese culture in the rebuilding process. This lack of clarity, this inability to locate the exact definition of one edge against the other, is the very essence of Bhabha’s liminal concept.
Tun-Huang is a compelling novel, epic and serious while maintaining its brisk pace. The language is at times clumsy, perhaps due to translation, and the pulp genre rhythm belies its far more serious themes. Tun-Huang presents American readers with two striking ideas. The first is, as Searles writes, that the movement of history on grand scales belittles our petty actions and desires. As American Libertarianism either truly takes hold or makes a last, desperate stand, asserting the poverty of individual choice is more subversive now that it was in 1978, when the book was first published. The second idea, unintended by the text, is that the influence American culture has had on the world returns, inflected and transformed, as a new and often powerful influence. What, in the era of the “War on Terror,” will Americans find reflected back to them? In what ways have we already re-absorbed that influence? It may take decades to recognize.
Daniel E. Pritchard is the Marketing and Promotions Director of Boston Review. He is the editor of The Critical Flame, writes a regular blog titled The Wooden Spoon, and is the managing editor of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics.
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