Preface to the Chinese translation of ‘Taming Poison Dragons’

Twenty-five years before I ever dreamt of a poison dragon I was a student of literature at Oxford University – and a passionate lover of poetry. One of my great pleasures was wandering the medieval streets of that beautiful city in search of secondhand bookshops where I could find poetry from every corner of the world translated into English. On such an expedition I discovered a slim volume that changed my view of literature and, ultimately, my destiny. Its title was: Poems of Wang Wei.

That small book ignited a big passion. Soon I was reading every Chinese poet I could lay my hands on, from The Book of Songs (Shijing) to Yuan Hung-tao. The pictures created by those poems blew around my imagination like wind-borne seeds: a world of spiritual peaks and eternal mountains, mirror-like lakes, labyrinthine walled cities and jade bamboo forests. Of fascinating men and women, warriors, poets, courtesans, beggars, heroes, tyrants – and ordinary, entirely recognisable people, too: concerned parents and children, the old and young trying to live well in difficult times. A vanished world, lost to millions of Chinese people, let alone an idealistic young man from Yorkshire whose only word of Chinese was Dao.

I have long believed that all human beings, regardless of culture, race, nation or epoch, share far more than divides them. So it was no surprise Chinese poetry gripped me. Nor was it a surprise when, twenty years later, I picked up that same volume of Wang Wei and felt compelled to write a novel about a fictional Chinese poet, Yun Cai. It felt utterly natural, as though I belonged to his world.

Who was he based on? No one poet in particular. Perhaps Yun Cai was influenced by the deep, abiding humanity and desire for social justice of Bai Juyi. Perhaps his career faintly echoes Su Dongpo. He became, to me, entirely his own person. As I hope he will become for any Chinese reader who honours me by following his adventures.

Through the process of storytelling they became dramatic, perilous adventures indeed, spanning war, murder, reckless love and the complexities of family loyalty and affection. Above all, the timeless dilemma of how power is abused. Yet for all the drama in this novel, Yun Cai’s adventures are touched by the calm quest for wisdom in a floating world that first enthralled me when I read Wang Wei as a young man. A quest that defines and defies all people everywhere.