The Ten Thousand Things opens with a bookseller’s advertisement for itself, stating that it was translated from a manuscript rescued during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. And it ends with two ‘imperial notes’, explaining how the manuscript, written in 1385, was preserved by successive emperors of China for hundreds of years but considered too subversive to be read. This classic framing device perfectly encapsulates the extraordinary novel inside – its huge sweep of time, its artful mix of fiction and history, its debate between the conflicting claims of art and power. I’ve never read anything like it.
Wang Meng was, as the second Imperial Note says, ‘one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty’: that is, one of China’s greatest painters during the period of Mongol rule. His history, as far as it is known, was just as it is here – grandson and nephew of