The Ten Thousand Things. John Spurling. The Overlook Press. April 2014. 400 pp. ISBN#: 9780715649565.
What are the Ten Thousand Things that the artist, government official, and philosopher Wang Meng says are “Mind” at the conclusion of this remarkable story which takes place in 14th Century China? They are everything sublime and temporal, every experience one could possibly experience combined with the exquisite expression of nature through art. Stories abound in this rich text of Wang’s life events and stories others have told him that have really occurred or are tales of Chinese history, mythology, and art. Characters are presented with their highly or poorly developed skills of dealing with the political troubles besetting China at the time and the mix is entrancing.
China of this time is experiencing the attack of rebels on Kublai Khan’s Mongolian rule, the beginning of the movement that will eventually usher in the Ming Dynasty. Wang is so disgusted by what he experiences as a low-level bureaucrat that he escapes to the solitude of the mountains to draw and paint. There he loses the jade ring he inherited from a notable and talented relative; the loss seems to affect his ability to paint and he wonders about the power behind objects and their connection to nature. Is the artist one with all he experiences and expresses?
One tale describes an artist who appears to be almost a madman who throws paint upon paper placed on the floor and dances upon it until what he wants to create appears. After reflection, while watching, Wang sees the genius of the technique and realizes how limited his skills and paintings are. Mind creates through multiple and even unimaginable avenues!
The concept of student and master is explored through multiple stories, revealing the possibilities of openness or closure depending on one’s perception. The same might be seen in the political spectrum; things are not always what may be perceived by participants or observers.
On and on it goes, but what is most remarkable about this collection of tales is the beauty of discovery in each scene, in each painting, in each conversation, in each conflict, and so on. The characters are complex and simple, revealing the overlay of perception and motivation, again not always so clear and sometimes as clear as an epiphany of revelation.
The Ten Thousand Things is a literary masterpiece that reveals classical philosophy and art of 14th Century China; it is bound to be best seller and a classic novel that will remain a timeless work beloved of its many readers.