I was so excited to find a copy of this book that I bought it brand new, full price, from an actual bookstore. The Dun Huang documents are my favourite historical finds, an amazing collection of tens of thousands of Buddhist, Taoist and secular documents, written in Chinese and many central Asian languages found sealed in a cave at the beginning of the 20th century. They had been sealed up for almost 900 years and included both printed and hand written works. The find have been an incredible source for the study of Chinese and Central Asian history and religion. However, despite the British Library containing a huge collection of them (including the world’s oldest dated printed book) few people have heard of them. So I was SO excited when I came across this Japanese novel that had been written about them in the 60s. The novel was a fictional account of how the documents came to be deposited in the cave. One of the ideas that historians were debating at that time was that the scrolls had been hidden away because of an invasion (this idea has since been disproved). But this is the central idea of this story. It would be easy to criticise this as a Japanese retelling, in that the only religious documents mentioned are Buddhist and the book focuses nearly entirely on the military aspects of the story. It started very interestingly with a young scholar failing to take his exams and instead having a dream about the situation on the frontier. He ended up going to the frontier and fighting on both sides of the war, discovering Buddhism and hiding the scrolls away from the invading army.
I quite enjoyed this book. The sections on the army and the battles got a little too long. The history was ok, but obviously not how the documents were hidden. The characters seemed not to be that detailed and there were hardly any women. But still it was an interesting version of the story. It ignored a lot of the most interesting things about the documents, that they were printed as well as hand written, that they were in various stages of disrepair, and that they were not simply Buddhist, which sheds further light on the intermingling of religion in China during this period. As the Buddhist monastery contained many rare Taoist scriptures. In fact all references to Taoism had been stripped out, down to the fact that it was a Taoist priest who discovered and sold off the documents at the beginning of the 20th century, he was mentioned by name, but not his religious affiliation. It should definitely be read as fiction not as history, but as fiction it was quite good. The pacing seemed a bit strange, if it had been a longer book this would have probably been more annoying but as it was quite short that was fine. I think it would be interesting to read a more recent Chinese novel about the events, but despite its shortcomings I still enjoyed this....Continua