Bronze Mirror + Manchu Palaces

Bronze Mirror
Manchu Palaces

Jeanne Larsen

Henry Holt 1991, 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
Bronze Mirror (set in the southern Song) and Manchu Palaces (set in the Qing dynasty) are independent novels, but they form a tryptych with the Tang dynasty Silk Road and have a similar structure. At the core of each is a first-person story of a young girl growing up; this is set within a fantastic supernatural frame and elaborated on through fragments modelled on different scholarly and literary genres.

Bronze Mirror takes place in the Southern Song capital of Lin-an, soon after the loss of northern China to the Jin. It follows the affairs of the maid Pomegranate and her mistress Phoenix, who has to contend not only with her mother-in-law but, when her husband is sent to serve in the far south, with a sadistic brother-in-law. Events come to a head when fire destroys part of Lin-an and the family end up as refugees.

In Manchu Palaces Lotus, a daughter in a Manchu family who are well-off but bondservants of the emperor nevertheless, is struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother. She has to deal with the internal tensions and conflicts within the family — until she is drafted as a maid into the service of the Dowager Empress, when she enters the Forbidden City and has to cope with its machinations.

There are exceptions — a hunting expedition with the emperor, a district magistrate dying in southern China, court scenes in the Celestial Heaven — but both novels largely take place within women's domains, in the "inner quarters" of domestic life. They explore the dependence of women on their natal families and their sons, tensions within extended families, and religious (largely Buddhist) belief and practice, both in ordinary life and in pilgrimages and monasteries. Larsen never resorts to exposition, however, even with the features of Chinese life that are unfamiliar to Western readers; and some feminist elements are never anachronistic either.

Both novels have comic supernatural frames, involving gods, goddesses and ghosts. At the court of the Yellow Emperor, Pomegranate's story is fought over by the Silkweb Empress and the courtier Tsang-jieh, competing to tell stories to the court — and some of the Empress' goddesses-in-waiting have ideas of their own, while the Lady Guan-yin threatens them all with a karmic burden unless they resolve the story they've started. Within this framework, however, the core story of Bronze Mirror can be given an entirely natural reading. The fantastic elements in Manchu Palaces are less elaborate, but also more directly involved with Lotus' story: two ghosts are charged with helping her reunite the thirty seven statues of a stolen Buddhist mandala and return them to a temple.

Short pieces in various genres expand and elaborate on the central stories. Bronze Mirror has pieces modelled on Ming short stories; Manchu Palaces offers invented accounts of Manchu China by Western visitors and modern scholarly writings on the period (written by people with names very similar to "Jeanne Larsen").

Both novels may disappoint unwary readers: they start as more traditionally structured stories, but their complexity increases as they progress and their endings may be unsatisfying to those who like linear stories with closed plots. But their conception is original and elegantly executed, and they offer both a different way of looking at the historical milieu in which they are set and some great entertainment.

May 2005

External links:
Bronze Mirror
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Manchu Palaces
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- Jeanne Larsen - Silk Road
- books about China + Chinese history
- more historical fiction
%T Bronze Mirror
%Y Bronze Mirror + Manchu Palaces
%A Larsen, Jeanne
%I Henry Holt
%D 1991
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0805011102
%P 337pp

%T Manchu Palaces
%Y Bronze Mirror + Manchu Palaces
%A Larsen, Jeanne
%I Henry Holt
%D 1996
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0805011110
%P 342pp