Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tongwan City by Gao Jianqun - a book review

The Hun King and the Buddhist Monk in ancient China

The mention of a Hun King would bring the name of Attila to most people’s minds. However in Tongwan City, Gao Jianqun tells us the story of another Hun King ‘Helian Bobo’  in the same time period as Attila, who established a large empire and created a magnificent new capital city in record time in present day Mongolia. While Attila was challenging the Western civilization, Helian Bobo was rocking the foundations of the Eastern one. From a penniless orphan, Helian became an emperor in a couple of decades. And within 6 years of time and the labor of over 100,000 people, his capital - the Tongwan city was brought to life in 419 AD. Thousands of people died during its construction and they were buried in its walls.

During this time period, China and Mongolia was heavily influenced by Buddhism from India. So enamored had the Chinese Kings become with Buddhism that they sent an army to India to bring by force one of the most well known Buddhist monks of that time – Kumarajiva. It is said that over 30,000 of his followers also accompanied him to China.. Kumarajiva spent the rest of his life in China translating all the Buddhist teachings to Chinese. Though Helian Bobo and Kumarajiva do not cross paths much (except for a brief meeting once) their stories are intertwined in this tumultuous period of China and Mongolia.

The Hun lifestyle was a migratory one with the horse as their main support. Their culture and philosophies are brought to life in this book. There are not too many historical fiction books on the ancient Chinese period and hence readers will find this book provides a window to that past. The writing style is brief and crisp and different from the normal English prose that we are familiar with. However as you get into the novel, it becomes more familiar and you will enjoy the gripping story and unforgettable characters.

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