Bedeviled by the Details: Ming Dynasty Edition
Hello, ladies and gentlemen, hellions and rogues, and whatever that person in the purple pith helmet wants to call him-/her-/itself. Your regularly scheduled Diane couldn’t make it today. I’m your substitute hoyden. My name is Jean Marie Ward. I write in many genres, including historical fantasy, and it’s a pleasure to have the chance to discuss some of the odder byways of historical research.
Long ago, at a mystery convention far far away, Sharan Newman opined that the hardest thing about writing historical mysteries was getting her characters across the room. In other words, it’s the simple things that trip you—and your characters. She’s so right.
About a year ago, I started writing about a (relatively) young Asian dragon named Lord Bai. His first appearance was in a story so short and simple, historical period was irrelevant. There was Bai, there was his traveling companion and there was a pig, and everybody was stuck in a field by the side of a dirt road. It could’ve been Anywhere, China, anytime in history, including the twentieth century’s Cultural Revolution. Then people started asking for more stories, stories with specific features such as “pirates and magic” or “practitioners of the world’s oldest profession”.
I decided to fix Bai’s period as the early Ming Dynasty, around 1420. The period featured Japanese pirates, known as the Wokou, harassing shipping in the Yellow Sea, as well as the admiral the Yongle Emperor sent against them: Zheng He, whose seven voyages are the best historical model for the Arabian Nights tales of Sinbad. There were courtesans and prostitutes, farms and manufacturing, and well-developed urban life. Plus, the highly bureaucratized government presents an irresistible opportunity for metaphor, especially for this former government wonk.
Grounding my big picture items was easy. All hail Wikipedia. In addition to copious, well-documented articles on everything from the Ming Dynasty to foot binding, to the embroidered insignia the government’s scholar officials wore on their blue violet gowns, it boasts great pictures of people, places and costumes, most of them available to reproduce under Creative Commons licenses—absolutely essential if, like me, you need visual references for description. Plus, following the internal and external links is the world’s best time sink. When you’re a writer trying to avoid writing (and don’t we all?), there’s nothing better than following the Oooh, the Shiny trail of research to places you never imagined. Plus, it’s free—a very important consideration when you’re writing for small press anthologies paying royalties instead of advances.
But eventually, the deadline looms and the details whip around to bite you. What the hell did a Ming-era pirate ship look like? What was it like to sail on one—or be locked in its hold? Suddenly the links aren’t so easy to find, at least not via U.S. search engines. But you do have two things working in your favor: the conservatism of Chinese technology and China’s desire to portray itself as a friendly and nonthreatening tourist destination.
The last was a big help when I was creating the first draft of Bai’s magic pirate story. In anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympics, China spent a lot of time and money casting Zheng He as a historic goodwill ambassador, to the point of creating a Treasure Voyage theme park in Nanjing, Zheng He’s homeport. When I was drafting the story, the site featured an interactive gallery of the ships which formed Zheng’s fleet. The web site has since changed dramatically, which highlights another aspect of web research: be sure to take advantage of the Fair Use doctrine. Not to be a content pirate, but if you don’t copy what you need for research purposes, you risk it won’t be there when you return.
With China, however, one thing you can rely on is the fact that people have been doing the same things the same way for at least centuries, often millennia. Confucianism strongly encourages an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Take ships. The classic Chinese junk evolved into something close to its present form around 200 CE, and remained the best, most efficient oceangoing sailing vessel in the world until the 20th century. Even in the 21st, the romance remains. There are still folks building and sailing them—and writing about it on the Internet, thank goodness.
While you’re at it, it’s always helpful to keep you’re antenna peeled for other sources of free information. At this point, I should confess I’m a TV junkie. If the History or Travel Channel, NatGeo or PBS are broadcasting anything with an exotic locale or archaeological theme, I’m there. I’ll watch Ancient Discoveries four and five times to wring out every detail…then go check it all out on the web and (whenever possible) my local library, because most TV producers take a freer view of history than Hollywood movies of the 1930s.
Another surprisingly good source of information is fairy tales. The most complete compendium of traditional Chinese folk tales is available in a good public domain translation: P’u Sung-ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Why fairy tales, you ask, I don’t write fantasy. Casting aside the whole “ten plots in the world” thing, can you think of anything which more succinctly represents European attitudes towards male/female relations and time-specific societal norms than Perrault or the Brothers Grimm? The same applies to other cultures. And if you happen to write romances with a fantastic element or need a touch of the eerie to spark a plot, folk tales are your best one-stop shop for a culture’s bugbears.
But even with all this, sometimes the detail you need eludes you completely. I never did write that story about Bai and the world’s oldest profession. One tiny, everyday detail did me in. I couldn’t find an English language source, with a good description or illustration, for domestic heating during the period. You see, I needed to burn down the Forbidden Palace.
Well, it did burn, and I figure my reason was just as good as the much romanticized version presented in the History Channel special on the subject.
Unfortunately, household heating arrangements simply aren’t as sexy as a red-sailed junk. Based on what I could find nosing around Wikipedia and the China History Forum, the Chinese have been using braziers forever, but try to find a picture—or a description of how they dealt with venting the smoke. The descriptions are there, only they’re written in Mandarin. My bad for never learning it, but that doesn’t help me finish the story.
There is one source that could help, one source that is not only time- but site-specific, one source my greedy little paws positively itch to play with: the Virtual Forbidden City. There’s just one problem: my aging computer can’t handle the site. And a new computer costs even more than a good resource library.
Thanks again to the History Hoydens—and you, dear reader—for letting me share my experiences writing about a history and a culture not my own. If you want to read more about me and the strange worlds I inhabit, please, check out my web site at JeanMarieWard.com
Jean Marie Ward
All of these Creative Commons images can be found in Wikipedia:
The Gate of Divine Might in the North Wall of the , .
Zheng He returned from his voyages with numerous wonders, including at least one giraffe, an animal the Chinese of that time identified with a creature of good omen called the qilin.
The luxurious life-style of Ming aristocrats was portrayed by Qui Ying (1494-1552) in a painting known as "Spring morning in a Han palace".
This portrait of Chinese official Jiang Shunfu (1453-1504) displays both the embroidered insignia denoting his rank and the black silk scholar's cap signifying his successful completion of the most advanced civil service examinations.