Preface to the Chinese translation of ‘Taming Poison Dragons’

Nearly twenty years ago I lived in London, a young man trying to find his way in the world. My journey to work involved a long train journey and I passed the time reading all kinds of newspapers, books and magazines. One morning I bought a copy of National Geographic Magazine, drawn by a cold, cruel pair of eyes on the cover. The owner of the eyes had a pitiless face, born to command. It was the face of Genghis Khan.

That train journey affected me deeply. I read how Mongol hordes had swept away civilizations that took centuries to evolve in swift, bloody campaigns. How anyone putting up the least resistance was slaughtered systematically. How the entire populations of great cities were put to the sword. How efficient and invincible the Mongol armies were. Indeed, they were a whole nation given over to conquest.

Strange as it might seem, accounts of their exploits filled me with unease, even fear. There I was, a bookish, liberal young man, reminded by a lesson of history that human beings are prepared to eradicate learning, literature, lives and loves beyond count for the sake of raw power. These emotions and thoughts gestated in me for many years before they surfaced in ‘Breaking Bamboo’.

There was another influence. I am an identical twin and that fact dominated my first three decades. It is a peculiar condition to resemble someone so closely you are frequently mistaken for him. Your destinies are intertwined; in order to feel whole, you need to establish your independence yet maintain a fundamental bond. There is a deep drama of love in being an identical twin. So that, too, filtered into ‘Breaking Bamboo’ through the characters of Shih and Guang.

Of course, questions of family must be central to any novel set in Imperial China. I was keen to explore the lives of women characters whose conflicts mirrored those of Guang and Shih. Thus, Cao and Lu Ying entered the stage. A further idea nagged. What if, in a culture where fathers were granted unquestioned authority and respect, that parent was utterly unworthy of loyalty? How should a filial child master that conflict? So Lord Yun joined the other characters in a world falling apart around them.

A final thought. Just as Song Dynasty China and its traditional culture were threatened with destruction by Mongol invaders, modern China faces unprecedented technological and cultural incursions. China is re-emerging as a global superpower and the process must inevitably challenge ancient attitudes and ways of life. I hope the struggle of the Yun family to endure and love and prosper against dreadful odds holds a resonance for modern Chinese people. After all, like the Yuns, they face powerful challenges to their identity.

Yet why should an Englishman who has never been to China and speaks no Chinese feel compelled to write a very Chinese story of courage, loyalty, reconciliation and betrayal? The answer is simple, I think. All human beings share the potential for those qualities, whatever their nationality or epoch. A little imagination makes the bamboo sprout leaves and grow.