As Buddhist scriptures have it, when Gotami, the Buddha’s foster mother, asked for ordination from the Buddha, he refused. The Buddha’s cousin and disciple, Ananda, intervened: since, according to the teachings of the Buddha, women were capable of achieving awakening, they must be let into the monastery. The Buddha, outsmarted, let the women into his fold but he also dictated that the women will have to live as second class citizens, subordinate to the monks.
Yu Miri in her novel The End of August tells an extraordinary tale: the saga of her Korean family and the story of their nation. Her story spans space and time, giving voice to both the living and the dead. It is a tale of Korea, from the brief, failed attempt to stand at the end of the 19th century as an empire against Imperial Japan, through the colonial period that ended with Japan’s surrender in the Second World War in 1945, to the postcolonial period that came to a close at the end of the 1970s. Settings range from her ancestral village in colonial Korea to Japan’s wartime continental empire in Manchuria and occupied China to Japan. Characters speak Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, some of them switching from one language to another as circumstances demand.
One of the great works of Chinese literature, Kingdoms in Peril is an epic historical novel charting the five hundred years leading to the unification of the country in 221 BCE under the rule of the legendary First Emperor. Writing some fourteen hundred years later, the Ming-era author Feng Menglong drew on a vast trove of literary and historical documents to compose a gripping narrative account of how China was forged.
Although they certainly did trade indirectly via merchants traversing the Silk Road routes across the Asian continent, one of the most fascinating historical what-if tropes is whether ancient Romans and Chinese ever actually met. In Silk Road Centurion, a Roman centurion named Manius is taken prisoner by Asian tribesmen fighting for the Parthians, which leads to an epic quest to gain his freedom and return home.
Chinese Jewish connections go back a millennium, probably first during the Song dynasty when Persian Jewish traders traveled along the Silk Road and reached ancient Kaifeng, as Erica Lyons writes in her author’s note at the end of her new picture book, Zhen Yu and the Snake, illustrated by Reina Metallinou.
Shah Hussain was a 16th-century Punjabi Sufi poet based in Lahore. His kafis, (mostly) short rhymed poetry with refrains, referring to the relationship between God and devotee with metaphors of lover and Beloved, or Murshid (literally, the master but also a metaphor for God as well) and mureed (disciple), are sung and relished even today as rhapsodic expressions of love, longing, and devotion. Considered scandalous by clerics as well as by people in general for his relationship with Madho, a Brahmin boy who became his devotee, he is today venerated as Madho Lal Hussain at his dargah (tomb) in Lahore with Madho buried by his side. Sarbpreet Singh’s new novel The Sufi’s Nightingale turns to this mystic and his strange love story that challenges gender and religious boundaries erected by the people of his time while redefining what it means to be in love.
In his 1994 speech accepting the second Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to a Japanese author, Kenzaburo Oe claimed that, in the history of modern Japanese literature, “the writers most sincere and aware of their mission were those ‘post-war writers’” who “tried with great pains to make up for the inhuman atrocities committed by Japanese military forces in Asian countries.” He went on to describe more contemporary writers as “a youth politically uninvolved or disaffected, content to exist within a late adolescent or post adolescent subculture.”