A powerful story of love, sacrifice and survival set in China during the early years of World War II, Library of Legends is a gentle, magical surrealist fable about a land where enchantment may be waning but one can still catch a glimpse if one looks for it.
Hu Lian is a second year scholarship student at Minghua University when the Japanese bombing begins. Her mother sends a letter advising Lian that their home in Peking is no longer safe and that Lian’s college in Nanking is in danger as well. She asks that Lian meet her at the Unity Mission School in Shanghai but Lian arrives at the train station just as another round of bombing begins. She survives but is dazed and disoriented after the attack, horrified by the death she sees all around her. Fortunately, fourth year student Liu Shao (Shaoming) and his maid Sparrow were also attempting to catch the train and they help the shell-shocked Lian get back to the university. That evening Lian looks out her dorm room window and sees a young, glowing woman raise her hand to the stars in greeting. Convinced it is a vision brought on by the syrup of poppies given to her by the school nurse to help her sleep, she returns to bed.
As the days pass, Lian learns that there will be no train to Shanghai for her. She must join a convoy of more than a hundred students, faculty, and staff on a thousand mile walk to Minghua’s wartime campus in Chengtu. It will be an arduous journey but one that will carry not only the students to safety but the university’s 500-year-old collection of myths and folklore known as the Library of Legends. It was this selection of books, all that is left of the famous Jingtai Encyclopedia, that had drawn Lian to Minghua. Each student will carry one book; they will read and study it as time permits and write a term paper on it once they reach their destination. Lian’s volume is titled Tales of Celestial Deities. As she skims the text she slowly realizes she might have seen one of these beings through her dorm room window.
Lian, whose family carries a dangerous secret in their past, has long been wary of forming attachments, and is known to the other students as quiet, scholarly and shy. The close proximity of the march has her slowly letting down her guard, and befriending the vivacious Yee Meirong, and starting a cautious flirtation with her handsome savior from the train station, Shao. Yet there is danger for her even in this tentative camaraderie. Among their number is the spirited Wang Jenmei, an ardent communist, who uses the impoverished villages and emaciated peasantry they pass as examples in her passionate speeches urging her fellow students to bring drastic change to the nation’s politics and help turn China into a more equitable, modern culture. Meirong and Shao both find her arguments compelling, but Mr. Lee, the director of student services, makes it clear to Lian that he sees it as her responsibility to keep her friends from Jenmei’s influence. It would be especially embarrassing if Shao, whose wealthy family is connected to the highest levels of government, joined the communist party. Such an event would result in Lian’s own secrets being made public.
As the students and hundreds of other refugees flee the coastal cities of China another grand exodus starts to take place. The gods and celestial beings begin to leave Earth as the Queen of Heaven declares the gates to the immortal realms will soon be closed. Both journeys highlight the beauty of a culture on the brink of change and the promise of a future which might be less magical but will be no less bright for the millions who call it home.
The author does an absolutely marvelous job in this story showing – through Lian, Shao, and Sparrow – the rich scholarly heritage of China while acknowledging that the system which gave rise to such refinement also repressed hundreds of thousands. The Chinese love of education and learning serves as a wonderful bridge between the past and present and is also used to tie the mythical beings of the tale to the mortal lives they have touched and influenced. As the Library passes through over a thousand miles of China, the spirits of water, air, and earth are awakened by its presence. They are able to hear the Queen’s message from a member of the convoy, a star hiding in human form, and be advised to return to their own kingdom.
Ms. Chang uses the march not only to highlight unique Chinese cultural aspects but to help the characters learn some deep personal lessons. Lian, so long closed off from human contact by the secrets she carries, discovers how to love not just Shao but the other students and teachers around her. She becomes a fierce warrior for those she cares about while still retaining her quiet reserve. Shao recognizes the privilege he has been born into and starts to give serious, sincere thought to the best way to bring modernization and equality to a nation desperately in need of it. I loved that their romance fit the time and place they are in; it’s sweet but cautious, careful of family and tradition but not allowing itself to be encumbered over much by antiquated customs and parental expectations.
I also adored Sparrow, the young maid. Her unconditional love, humility and kindness to those around her really showcases that caring means putting the other person’s needs first. She learns her own lessons of patience and trust and friendship as the march moves slowly across the country.
The author has a lyrical, elegant style of writing which lends itself to a deceptively languorous, mellow momentum, allowing for contemplation amidst a lot of action. The story’s seemingly leisurely pace is a soothing foil for the great deal that is actually happening – from the war, to a murder amidst political intrigue, to the exodus of the gods, to the primary romance and the secondary, overarching love story surrounding it, along with the personal trials of Lian and Shao’s families and the dangers of the march. The author, focusing the attention completely on her characters, emphasizes the underlying theme that each large event is really about the people that take part in it. This focus on the players over the thrilling plot is what gives the novel a gentle, thoughtful feel rather than the typical frantic measure that a story this fast moving generally evokes.
The Library of Legends is a lovely look at ancient legends and the wonderful power of mythology as well as a celebration of a country with a rich and fascinating history. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a beautifully written, contemplative read.
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