The initial spark for The Ming Storytellers, was an intense curiosity for China’s Ming Dynasty. It came in 2006, upon reading Gavin Menzies’ visionary 1421 – The Year China Discovered the World. An image of the Middle Kingdom which I had never once imagined, suddenly rose from nothingness, with its cosmopolitan cities, global trade, majestic fleet, eunuch admirals and even its feared secret police – I experienced an epiphany. Oh, I had read novels set in China, mostly those depicting China’s exchange with the West in the late Qing Dynasty, or else those that highlighted the sufferings brought upon by the Cultural Revolution. But of the Ming Dynasty, this expansive period nested between Mongol rule of China and the Qing Dynasty, I knew little about. I became obsessed with creating a story set in this world, a tale through which I could at once time travel, indulge in research, and satisfy a burning curiosity. The passion grew from there. As I mentioned in my Q&A with Unusual Historicals, when you start to delve into the forbidden world of Beijing’s imperial palace, there are many female secrets to unravel and dark political worlds to explore. I savored this journey.
Admiral Zheng He is the main male character in The Ming Storytellers. I chose to imagine, for him, a forbidden romance with an imperial concubine, because while translating my Vietnamese genealogy from French to English, I had once read, with particular interest, of a similar clandestine love affair between eunuch and concubine. I also learned that Emperor Zhu Di, one of the rulers of the Early Ming Dynasty, arrested several concubines for such affairs. These inspirations informed my romantic plot while also adding a degree of plausibility. Zheng He’s personal life fascinated me since it had never been fully recorded. I felt that it was therefore perfect for the realm of historical fiction. I could, with my narrative, merge historical fact with speculative history and perhaps do better justice to the story of a man who was so far only defined through his naval achievements.
For me, it was important to depict the real Zheng He and not just the naval figure in history texts. I sought to psychologically account for my rendition of him through the events that had shaped his life. For this reason, I incorporated a poignant childhood scene in which he was forced to undergo castration. This was not some cheap thrill, thrown into the narrative for shock value. It was, instead, an explicit reminder to my reader about what it would have meant to be a eunuch. I wrote of Zheng He’s childhood sufferings so that he would no longer be a distant admiral figure, but rather, a human being.
A final reason for my venture into The Ming Storytellers was an affinity for the sea. I’ve long had a secret wish to have been born a man in past centuries, one who could govern a ship and explore new lands. Love of the sea may be a hereditary streak – my family has strong ties with the ocean and this is well embedded in my psyche.
On the Vietnamese side, my ancestors hark back from China. They were ship merchants from the coastal city of Fujian. From the French side, as far back as the 16th century, my ancestors were Breton sailors. They included ship captains, corsairs and a Commandant- several were made Knights of the Legion of Honor. We can also count, much to my shame, a slave trader based in Nantes. Jean-Baptiste Candeau owned a plantation in the Caribbean, and would regularly sail to West Africa and then as far as Guadeloupe with his grim cargo. Jean-Baptiste is a constant dark cloud in my mind and was the inspiration for one of the characters in The Ming Storytellers.
There were other influences, including James Michener’s Hawaii and Caribbean – novels I have read multiple times and which created a desire in me to craft a tale with great human scope, and one which acknowledged the many cultural influences that have shaped China. I am indebted to writers like him.