The Sounds of Very Old Things

When I think of China or Chinese culture, my mind inevitably goes to music. While there are a couple of ancient instruments, my favourite has to be the Erhu. Few things sound as haunting and beautiful as the Erhu in the hands of a master practitioner.

The sound of the Erhu is also something that sounds unmistakably Chinese, even to someone who does not know that an Erhu is a two-stringed, bowed musical instrument. For this reason, if I have to choose an item that to me represents the China’s ancient culture – I would have chosen something that represents the Erhu. Alas, I could not find such an object in the short timeframe I had at my disposal. I did however find this!


This is earthenware depicts a kneeling musician playing the Se (瑟), a very old form of Chinese zither – or Guzheng (古箏). Not to be confused with the Guqin(古琴)! The kneeling figure was part of a set, representing a troupe of musicians along with two dancers. They were found in the grave of a prince, presumably so that they could perform for him in the afterlife. The excavation occurred in 1989-1990, from Prince Chu’s(楚王) tomb at Tuolanshan(驮篮山), Xuzhou(徐州市), Jiangsu(江苏省). Music was a big part of court rituals, and the number of performers made available depended on a noble person’s rank. The earthenware itself dates from ca. 206 B.C. to 9 A.D. Western Han Dynasty.

The Se is sometimes said to be an older and larger version of the Guzheng, but what is the difference between the Guzheng and the Guqin? Well, for a start, the Guqin is smaller, has fewer strings and a deeper sound. The Guqin has also been considered a favourite of scholars and have been connected to persons such as Zhuge Liang (Kongming), and Confucius. Below is a dramatization of a moment out of the screen adaption of Romance of the Three Kingdoms from 2010. Here, Zhuge Liang performs his empty fort stratagem with the aid of a Guqin.

Now, if we were to listen to a performance of a Guzheng, we can both see and hear the differences in sound. Yet they both have the same unmistakably chinese feeling the Erhu has. Historically, the Guzheng is not, however, a female only instrument – or a “girly” instrument. Those notions are probably derived from current day popular culture i.e. Wuxia and fictional historical palace dramas.

One of the reasons I chose this earthenware figure, which was seen on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is because I have seen it so many times in popular media and fiction. For me, it represents not only what once was, but also something very modern. That it is beautiful to listen to does not hurt either! To me it is not strange that this instrument has been around in one form or another since the warring states period, and I do not think it is going to disappear anytime soon.

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Words to Unburden a Heavy Heart

Sleep is a curious thing, especially when insistent thoughts won’t let you close your eyes. It takes a bit of time for the mind to catch up with the heart, especially when it feels this heavy. You mean so much to so many of us, you always will, death does not change that. I have been trying to put into words what you mean to me – but no matter how my thoughts churn and my heart insists, it is too hard.

This has always been my way, awake, lingering until everyone else is asleep (as they are now). I need the quiet in order to hear my emotions. It has not sunken in yet, but I feel a heavy weight pressing down on my ribcage. There is also intermittent sorrow, but it comes over me in waves that pass too quickly for me to latch onto them – to process.

I try to remember, I try to summon the many memories I have, but something will not let me. Instead, the memories come to me as I sleep. When sleep finally finds me it is deep and heavy. I have nightmares,  but they are unrelated and without connection to my memories of you. I see you between them, as if you’re reminding me to breathe.

Sometimes I barely notice when the words find their way onto the blank pages in front of me. Other times I have to force each one out. Tonight, they do not come easy. There is a part of me that wants to cry, even scream.

I think of everyone whose lives all began with you or were touched by yours. I think of my brothers, and my father, and his brothers, and my cousins. I think of my mother too, and my maternal grandparents. But most of all I think of my grandfather, your husband, my dad’s dad.

I am choosing to see all of the sorrow I am picking up as the true measure of how loved you are. It is difficult for me, to be around everyone. I get so overwhelmed. Yet I imagine we all find sleep with warm tears, heart in throat, and insistent thoughts.

We love you, Farmor, always.

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When we were kids in the car (while dad drove and mom slept)

Could it be? Has it truly been twenty years? The memories seem to match the feeling. Some things are different, but that’s how these things usually go. Youngest brother is driving, dad is sitting here in the back (on my left) listening to an audio book while resting his eyes. Middle brother is carrying the conversation, all the while setting the mood with dulcet tunes and handpicked songs. 

I imagine we must look a little comical, father and three sons – all of us just a little too tall to sit comfortably in any car. Mom had to pass this time, but i am sure she would have loved to come.And so would we! (Even though she would undoubtedly snore <3).

We remember the same things, but tell our story in different ways. We share the laughs, and the nostalgia too. 

The world beyond the car is sound asleep. The hour creeps toward 02:00. We are all awake, eager to reminisce perhaps. Remembering the many trips to our grandparents’ house – always arriving late at night after many hours in the car. Middle brother mentions the clock in one of dad’s old cars, and the memory of our grandparents’ driveway returns. The image and sounds come with surprising lucidity.

Much have happened in twenty years, and some things have indeed changed. In many ways, so have we. No matter how different we might be, though, we still share the same love – and joy.

I know we count ourselves among the fortunate few – and if you happened to sit in the car with us…

We would count you in too.

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Book Cover Pet Peeve: Hooded Figures

Did a Google search. Notice something?


I do not know what the deal is with hooded figures on book covers. I really don’t. Right now, they are a plague. I have seen so many books with more or less the same damn cover. Whenever I see a hooded figure on a book, aside from cringing internally, my kneejerk reaction is assuming this book is going to have either these as the protagonist:

  • I-am-a-tormented-assassin-warrior-man
  • I-am-a-mysterious-powerful-awesome-over-the-top-mage

Sometimes a combination of the two. As far as advertising goes, spot-on. [Insert tirad of curse words here]. But there are a number of reasons why it grinds my gears.

Are the above mentioned tropes bad? Well, they can be but they do not have to be. It depends on what the author has done with them. However, one of the most glossed over details of the hooded cloak is that if you are wearing one…

Your peripheral vision is null.

I agree edna! No Capes! Hoods!

You cannot see ANYTHING beyond the straight line right in front of you, and sometimes not even that if the hood is pulled low. A hooded figure making their way through a crowd would at most see a bunch of boots and legs. So, unless your mysterious protagonist can somehow see through solid textiles via magical means – ditch the hood. Not to mention that having your hood drawn that low would be more likely to draw just the kind of attention your character is likely trying to avoid. If your character is only concerned with hiding their face, great! Hood All the Hoods!

On the other hand, if we are only after the mysterious flare, I am sure there are much better ways of going about it. Be a little creative! Give your character a cool hat or something. That way, the characters will actually be able to see where the hell they are going.

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Look Further Than Your Own Back yard

In my personal experience it has been difficult to study fantasy without considering history. Perhaps not strange, given that most western authors seem to set their work in something spun out of a fantastical medieval Europe. Not to mention the amount of borrowing that has been done from Norse mythology. That said, there is so much more to the genre than “Eurofantasy” and history is not the enemy here, no, I consider it a great ally. What better way to open our eyes to something new than looking at the history of someplace foreign?

As far as storytelling goes, there are a number of very old stories that have been retold time and again. In fantasy I suppose that would mean the Tolkien-esque stories, high fantasy paired with that sense of wonder brand of magic. To be frank though, I am no longer interested in stories about The pretty Elf of the Woodland realms with AHmazing archery skills or the burly Dwarf under the mountain with a bad Scottish accent.

(I haven’t forgotten about you either, Mr. tall-dark-sexy-brooding-mysterious-hooded-assassin-protagonist. Nope.)

By no means are these stories bad! *cough* They have their place and their audience, and that is awesome. For them. No, seriously.

What I would love to see, is that more authors in the west (read esp. Europe, the U.S. and Scandinavia) would study other cultures and be inspired by them. Show better representation! The main characters do not all have to be 2o-something white males. Add a bit of spice! But don’t go all dune on me, or actually, why not? Let’s travel the universe. Better yet, I would love to see more fantasy work translated from other languages available in the local stores. Well, just seeing more fantasy in the stores at all would make my day!


Then again, perhaps I am wrong! Perhaps there is plenty of novels out there and I am just looking in the wrong places. But seriously though, let us all look a bit further than our own back yard.

More cultural diversity in fantasy!
In my mind, there is no better genre for it.

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Iron shackles, calloused hands,

Rowing, drums, and splinters.

Sky-sent fire, ancestors rumble,

Spear and howls,

Rain and thunder.

Lives, lived and lost.

But fragments still linger.

I am as we were, as they were as I am.

What use have we of gods? 

We who came before.

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There are times when I need to be alone,

When even the noise of nothing in particular,

By someone very specific,

Which I have come to love ~

Become too loud.

The moments are rare and far between,

But every once in a while,

I need absolute quiet to smile.

We have learned, she and I,

To communicate, and in spite of my need for silence,

We always talk.

Respite comes only after,

And disaster never follows.

So do as she does, and as I do too,

Fear not confrontation,

It can be very good for you.

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