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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Inoue Yasushi

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To purchase Tun-Huang

Title: Tun-Huang
Author: Inoue Yasushi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1959 (Eng. 1978)
Length: 217 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Tun-Huang - US
Tun-Huang - UK
Tun-Huang - Canada
Tun-Huang - India
Les Chemins du désert - France
Die Höhlen von Dun-huang - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 敦煌
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jean Oda Moy
  • With a Preface by the author (written for the English-language edition)
  • With a Preface by Damion Searls

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Our Assessment:

B+ : often compelling historical fiction that doesn't do quite enough with most of its material and characters

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 8/7/2000 Ludker Lütkehaus

  • "This attention to detail can be off-putting, especially in a work with such an unfamiliar setting, but the narrative drive of this well-constructed fiction compensates for the occasional disorientation caused by unfamiliar proper names. The motivations and emotions of the characters are briskly sketched when they are explained at all, but this is because the focus of the novel is the overall drama of the period rather than the lives of individuals; in its depiction of jewel-laden caravans, desert battles, and burning oasis cities, Tun-Huang is a novel of adventure on a massive scale -- surprisingly so, given that it sets out to explain how a bunch of documents found their way into a cave." - David Barnett Lurie, Daily Mainichi

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tun-Huang is a work of historical fiction, as Inoue Yasushi offers a story describing how the stunning haul of scrolls and texts found in the Thousand Buddha Caves (or Mogao Caves) at Tun-huang (Dunhuang) in China might have wound up there. (The documents were sealed in one of the caves nearly a thousand years ago and only came to light again at the beginning of the twentieth century.)
       The central figure in Tun-Huang is Chao Hsing-te, a scholar who arrives in the Sung capital of K'ai-feng in 1026 to sit for the Palace Examination, the civil service exam that is held only every three years and can lead to a brilliant (and secure) future -- though the competition is tough, with 33,800 candidates vying for a mere five hundred places. Hsing-te, in his thirty-second year, has spent all his life preparing for this day, and after doing brilliantly in all the initial tests just has to take one more, an oral exam regarding political affairs. But while waiting for his name to be called he falls asleep, and misses his great chance.
       What should be a devastating blow isn't; Hsing-te gets over it (absurdly ?) fast, and instead finds himself fascinated by the Hsi-Hsia (Xi Xia), who threaten Chinese primacy in the west. He comes across a piece of Hsi-Hsia writing -- surprising, because they were not known to have a written language -- and remains "haunted by the enigma of those symbols". He resolves to learn more about the Hsi-Hsia and their written language, eventually heading west -- and soon finding himself conscripted into a Chinese battalion in the Hsi-Hsia army. This, then, becomes his life, as he establishes himself among the Hsi-Hsia during a time of great upheaval in these western parts.
       A commander, Wang-li, takes Hsing-te under his gruff wing, impressed by Hsing-te's resilience and willingness to charge along in the near-suicidal attacks he launches -- and he's supportive of Hsing-te's interest in learning Hsi-Hsia. An Uighur princess Hsing-te saves becomes another tie between them, as they seek to avenge what happened to her together, though the turmoil of war makes it difficult to focus on any single enemy or threat.
       Hsing-te remains something of a scholar, and is able to indulge in some scholarship over the years as well. When the city of Sha-chou is to be burned to the ground everything comes together: his contacts and his interest in preserving the incredible holdings of the local temples.
       He figures:

     Material goods, life, and political power belonged to those who possessed them, but the sutras were different. They belonged to no one. It was enough that they should not disappear in flames -- that they should just continue to exist. The mere fact that they survived was of value in itself.
       And so he sets about saving them -- which means hiding them in the caves, which isn't quite as straightforward as one might imagine, since not everyone is similarly convinced of the great value of these documents and it is a huge undertaking in a time of near-panic.
       There are genuine exciting moments in Tun-Huang, including in the battle scenes and the final effort to save the manuscripts, but Inoue also skips over a great deal of detail. Years of Hsing-te's life pass by without much description of his day-to-day existence, and while some of the characters do come very much to life -- especially Wang-li -- there is little in the form of character-development and background: everything is in the here and now, and the story is presented more like a highlight-reel than a gradually built-up historical narrative. The romantic subplot, in particular, feels underdeveloped, despite its promising beginning -- with Inoue making it easy on himself:
     Whenever he thought of the Uighur girl, he was filled with peace. This feeling was not love for a lost one, nor was it mourning; it transcended such emotions, and was more akin to admiration for something pure and perfect.
       A necklace then does keep this story-strand going quite nicely -- but also suggests how much more Inoue could have done with it.
       The historical exposition occasionally also bogs down the narrative, as Inoue's presentation is, in the wrong way, textbook; nevertheless, when he lets his imagination go -- i.e. in the fictionalized parts -- there is a nice flow to the narrative. If somewhat underdeveloped by any standards of contemporary (English-language and European) historical fiction, Tun-Huang does, especially with its fairly dramatic ending, offer adequate rewards. Still, there's certainly too much of a rush to get on with things at times -- the ease with which Hsing-te gets over the crushing of his life-ambition when he sleeps through his exam is simply ridiculous --, with Inoue frequently jumping forward in time, rather than letting events unspool more slowly, and the rich material and ideas could certainly have been presented more fully.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 December 2010

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Tun-Huang: Reviews: Inoue Yasushi: Other books by Inoue Yasushi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Inoue Yasushi (井上 靖) lived 1907 to 1991.

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© 2010-2015 the complete review

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