Tongwan City

Written by Eric Mu (trans.) Gao Jianqun
Review by Viviane Crystal

On “a stage of great tumult… numerous heroes, beauties, and other fascinating characters made their spectacular and often dramatic debuts” in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD. This is a novel about two key figures representing the formidable political and spiritual world of the tribe who created and developed TongwanCity, located in northeast China. One was a Hun general and the other a Buddhist monk from India.

Helian became king of a city haunted by turmoil and destruction. This son of the great Chieftain of the West, Xiongnu, was a man hardened by a brutal childhood and the distrust rife in the “turmoil of the Five Tribes and the Sixteen Warring Kingdoms,” a harshness he later and frequently employed in battle and in ruling Tongwan City. He believed that fear would keep those he ruled compliant and obedient. Such rigidity did not stop him from being intrigued and impressed by the compassionate Buddhist monk, Kumarajiva, who taught a simpler form of Buddhism welcomed across all of China.

Tongwan City reads partly like a novel, a history book, and a collection of legends, fables and allegorical tales, a most unique presentation that isn’t easy reading but is mesmerizing after one becomes accustomed to the shifting writing patterns. While the multiple characters are somewhat difficult to follow, it is well worth the effort to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Huns who were strong enough to defeat and rule China for a brief period. Tongwan City is a notable contribution to understanding the history of a nomadic tribe transformed into a civilized people who toppled warring kings and created a lasting metropolitan wonder.