Victor Cunrui Xiong
Airiti Press (2014)
Reviewed by David K. McDonnell for Reader Views (05/16)
Article first published as Book Review: ‘Heavenly Khan’ by Victor Cunrui Xiong on Blogcritics.
“Heavenly Khan” by Victor Cunrui Xiong is a historical fiction novel of the rise and reign of the first two emperors of the Tang Dynasty – Li Yuan, and his son Li Shimin, in the 7th Century (using the Western calendar). Some historians consider this period a high point in Chinese civilization and culture, although it was certainly not devoid of wars, carnage, and intrigue. The book tracks the rise to power of Li Yuan, stepping into a void created by the fall of the prior ruthless regime, and the decades-long reign of Li Shimin.
The book bills itself as historical fiction, but it is somewhat difficult to determine where the history ends and the fiction begins. The history is, no doubt meticulously researched, as one would expect of a university history professor with an impressive curriculum vitae. The fiction might only be the extensive dialogue between the principal players, used to flesh out and explain the factual circumstances. As fiction, I feel the book would benefit from more of the usual elements of a good story. Further character development of the two emperors would give the reader greater insight into the events and challenges they faced. There are thousands of other characters in the book, but they are merely the various people encountered along the way by the two emperors. There is not a typical plot in the fictional sense, but rather a recitation of the events that occurred during the lifetimes of the two men. As well, the book doesn’t end with a climax as in a fictional story, but with the death by natural causes of Li Shimin.
“Heavenly Khan” is much better as pure history. It tracks, in detail, the first half-Century of the Tang Dynasty, and provides the basis for understanding how the dynasty was created and how it lasted so long. But here too, in my opinion, the book is a difficult read. The book cryptically describes many historic events, like “There was a battle in the west” followed by “a rebellion in the east”, and “an agricultural failure in the north,” which, more clearly defined, would have provided the reader with a greater understanding of what was really going on. I also think readers would benefit from a picture of what life was like for the ordinary Chinese, or how the emperors’ reaction to any of these events changed anything for the Chinese. Doing so would lead to a better understanding of the many anecdotes regarding the emperors.
The book is at its best in its explanation of the “enlightened sovereign” and the “rule by benevolence.” This is done in the various dialogues between the emperors and their wisest advisers, but also in witness of the emperors’ reactions to matters within the empire. These are simple notions. People will respond to law and discipline and obey out of fear, but absent respect, will revolt when driven to desperation. An enlightened sovereign will listen to the opinion of all those around him, but a vacuous sovereign will listen only to his favorites. A benevolent sovereign will not overburden his subjects with taxation or overly punish transgressors, and, on the flip side, protect his subjects from adversity, whether from outside invaders or natural calamities. These were lessons not well learned in Western Civilization at the time, and not thoroughly practiced in modern times, but to a significant extent put in place by the first two emperors of the Tang Dynasty. “Heavenly Khan” by Victor Cunrui Xiong succeeds in bringing these concepts to life, through the examples of Li Yuan and Li Shimin.