Ancient China Gives Up Its Secrets

Rebecca Wigod, Vancouver Sun

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Lydia Kwa feels at home in Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. She gave two readings there from The Walking Boy, her quest novel set in eighth-century China. And in the long halls cleaving its tranquil Asian landscape, she has been known to practise kung fu.

"It's funny, I've become more Chinese since I've come to this country," says a smiling Kwa.

The fortysomething poet, novelist and clinical psychologist has been in Canada since 1980 and in Vancouver since 1992.

In the garden's grand hall, with Chinese music plashing in the background, she tells me her first language was Hokkien. Growing up in Singapore, she learned Mandarin in school but every other subject was taught in English.

This, coupled with the fact that she earned three university degrees in Ontario, means that she thinks and writes in English.

Yet she urged her imagination across the sea and back 1,300 years to write The Walking Boy (Key Porter Books, 308 pages). She wanted to use as a character China's only female ruler, a fiercely ambitious woman who reigned from 690 to 705 and is variously known as Wu Zhao, Wu Zetian and Nu Huang.

In the novel, Nu Huang is an aging sovereign at once fierce and fearful. She executed her rivals to get where she is, but she's tormented by their "demon souls." She has also subdued her secretary -- a woman with good reason to wish her ill -- by having her forehead branded.

Recently, a reviewer wrote that this mark is too similar to the lightning-bolt scar on the brow of J.K. Rowling's character, Harry Potter.

Kwa was stung. "I must plead ignorance. I haven't had the time to read Harry Potter. I did not know," she protests.

On the other hand, after reading the criticism, she asked herself whether she would have put the mark on Shangguan Wan'er's forehead, had she known about the Potter zigzag.

The answer is yes because a mark on the brow carries a lot of meaning. Nu Huang impairs Wan'er's intuitive abilities by branding her on the spot where the third eye is thought to be.

The book's title character is a sweet, pure youth named Baoshi. His father has cast him out because his sex organs don't look quite right. (Today we'd use the word "intersex," but Kwa writes of his "Two-in-Oneness.")

Baoshi's protector, a hermit monk known as Harelip, sends him on a quest. There are other quests in the novel, all involving arduous travel by foot and by caravan. And there is sex of every description, which will surprise those readers who suppose that earlier epochs were free of such carryings-on.

Kwa, a lesbian, points out that "the whole idea of sexual orientation is a 20th-century Western psychological construct. Way back then, people were involved with each other. They didn't say, 'I'm this,' or 'I'm that.' They just got involved, depending on time, availability, money and privilege."

She says she hasn't projected modern attitudes on to ancient China. Cross-dressing, to give one example, has long been a trope in popular Chinese literature. "Women dress as men so that they have the freedom to travel. Men dress as women to hide away from the people looking for them."

In The Walking Boy, the characters' sexual behaviour is so polymorphous that the book is being used in a University of B.C. course, Topics in Critical Studies in Sexuality.

The novel plunges the reader into an exotic bygone world where alchemists brew up immortality elixirs and ladies-in-waiting have names like Windchime. The nearest thing, perhaps, is The Tale of Genji, the 1,000-year-old Japanese novel by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

Kwa drew from it and also visited Nara, Japan. Its Horyuji Temple was built to emulate Chang'an, the vanished Chinese city, near today's Xi'an, where the action in The Walking Boy takes place.

Kwa's novel is probably hard for some readers to penetrate. It speaks of "Zhongguo" without explaining that that is the Mandarin word for "China." And characters like the empress and her pair of young male lovers are referred to in several ways.

One reviewer complained of a lack of conflict in the story, and some readers may feel that the characters don't develop.

"I've heard from all kinds of readers who have no background in any of this," says Kwa. "If they are open-hearted, they have loved it. They are wanting to be taken on a journey.

"If you mind the strangeness of it all, then I think you're not willing to go on a journey with me."

Because of the antiquity of its period, the story has dignity and heft. Yet, in discussing it, Kwa uses the word "playful" surprisingly often.

"There's a little bit of playfulness in me," she says, referring to the way she has borrowed certain tropes -- such as using the passing seasons to structure a narrative -- from classical Chinese writing.

And she says she is fascinated by how people construct their identities and label or categorize themselves with regard to personality and gender identity.

"I'm very interested in how our minds impose these meanings. I really wanted to play around with that in this novel and do a lot of transgressive crossing of boundaries."

Kwa has self-discipline and grit. When she was working toward her bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Toronto, she lived on $250 a month, and that included her rent.

"I didn't eat very well," she says, laughing, "and I studied through the summer to finish my degree in three years."

She applies the same kind of determination to her writing, working part-time as a clinical psychologist to free up time for literary creativity.

She plans to give The Walking Boy a prequel and a sequel. But first she wants to finish an experimental long poem ("That will make no money") and write a novel set in Singapore in the 1960s and '70s.

She's a practising Buddhist who meditates and does kung fu and aikido. She finds that martial arts have helped her to be attentive. "It's good training for perseverance and building mental strength. I've seen some really young people come to try kung fu classes, and many of them don't last.

"It's not because of lack of strength -- they're a lot stronger than me -- but they don't want persevere or be committed."

No one could question Kwa's commitment or the fact that it is starting to bear fruit.

© 2005 The Vancouver Sun