The making of a novel

How the Secrets of Jin-shei came to be

The Secrets of Jin-shei is my signature novel. It has been published in 14 languages all over the world and I still get fan letters about it several years after publication.

It started out as ten characters quite literally searching for a plot. The first extant “synopsis” for the novel consists of no more than character sketches for ten little girls, firmly situated (in my head) in a broadly Oriental and very specifically Chinese context. But this was not going to be real China. It was going to be a fantasy. It was going to be a story about the lives of these girls and how they grew into the women they became.

That was it.

And then, completely independently of all this, an Internet friend, Carol Schmidt, sent me a URL for an article in the LA Times on the 15th of April: “China’s Mother Tongue is Dying.” Generations of Chinese women, apparently, passed down a unique form of writing that was kept away from men, a language called nushu, and now the last woman alive who grew up using nushu as an organic language taught to her by her mother is 95 years old and when she dies the language will die with her — it will become no more than a dead thing being studied in language labs by scholars and historians. On the pages of this woman’s notebook is written “the woeful story of a girl trapped in an unhappy marriage, a common lot among women in rural China. But the tale is not what attracts attention. It is how Yang recorded it: in a unique form of writing invented and passed down through generations by the women of Jiangyong — and kept apart from their fathers, husbands and sons.”

My characters stirred on the page on which they had been captured, sighed.

I started doing a little research on nushu on the Internet, and very quickly came up with a scholarly study by an Emmie Tang who mentioned that it was not uncommon for girls to “bond together” in a sisterhood-type relationship with other girls/women who were not their own blood kin, and that such sisters, even when separated by marriage, perhaps, by the length and breadth of China, used the secret language to communicate with each other.

My characters rubbed their eyes, sat up, and looked at me.

I researched some more. I discovered a page on Chinese cultural studies, which offered lessons on how a well-bred young Chinese woman should behave, and immediately printed it out to have a list of rules all of which at least one of my characters could break. I came across a gem of a book on an academic site, Court Life in China by Isaac Taylor Headland, which provided me with snippets of everyday life and living of an aristocratic Chinese woman; with descriptions of Peking and its streets and its bazaars; with a hint about marriage customs and childbirth customs and funeral customs; with a short biography of that dragon lady of Chinese history, the Dowager Empress.

One of my characters stood up and said,

“That would be me.”

“Sit down,” I said. “Shut up. I’m working. What is your name anyway?

So I went researching Chinese names, and one by one the women stepped off the page when their name was called and stood looking at me expectantly. Yes, they were here. Yes, they were alive and breathing and named. Yes, they knew and understood the concept of the secret language and the sisterhood with which they were all to be bound. But what on God’s Green Earth was their story?

I did some more research.

This is when things started to get a little scary, because everything started falling into place so easily and so well. A key plot element turned out to be immortality, so I researched alchemy — and you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out that there was a whole literature out there on Chinese alchemy — complete with elixirs, which plants you could use to get the necessary elements like mercury or sulfur, inner and outer alchemical transformations, and it was all tied in to the precepts and principles of Tao.

So I went to the library and researched Tao. They had nothing on it. Everyone in this place is a Buddhist, it seems. So I went to the bookshop and bought a book on Taoism, as well as a modern interpretation of the original Tao of Lao Tzu by Ursula LeGuin. The book on Taoism gave me one of the key ideas that turned into the rape of Nhia by Lihui — this “sexual alchemy” was apparently practiced by adepts of the era.

The more I read about Tao the more complex my own world became. I delved into a mythology encyclopedia for the mythical figures of the story of Tao, the disciples, the adepts, the sages, and found lots of teaching parables associated with them. This, too, found its way into Nhia.

Somewhere along the line I acquired a book called Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. This was a treasure trove of ideas — the precepts of Confucianism, how a concubine was bought and treated, and how her children fitted into hierarchies, the structure of city life — and even the Beggar Guild, which apparently was a real entity (I of course took the concept and ran with it, transforming it into something rather different in the process, but it was there, waiting for me). I read up on I Ching and its links to fortune telling and astrology, and wound up creating a brand new system of my own — ganshu.

There was also one other thing — a beautiful poem about the ages of a woman, about who and what she was aged ten, twenty, forty, eighty, one hundred. Among the first things I wrote for Jin-shei were the poems by Qiu-Lin about the ages of the human being (and by extension the world) which found their way into the book as banner identifiers for my sections (Liu, Lan, Xat, Qai, Ryu, Pau and Atu), so finding this was a vindication of my instincts about how this society was put together and functioned.

In a second-hand bookshop I found the last of my treasures — a battered but still beautiful copy of the National Geographic coffee table book Journey into China, full of glossy, fabulous photos of those improbable Chinese landscapes shrouded in mists — and, something I immediately stickied for future reference, a photo of a drinking vessel made out of a human skull.

By this stage I was wading deep into my story, and all of this research was adding more and more currents which I could feel swirling around me. My characters had taken over the story, and were constantly coming up with new demands for information. I revisited the web to search for more material on alchemy, on Chinese wedding rituals, on dress and hairstyle.

I started writing the novel on May 8, 2002. I had to leave the story unfinished as I took a two-week trip away from my computer in August, but when I came home I dived right back into it, and wrote “The End” on September 12. Four months, almost to the day, to write 187,000 words (which is what the first draft came to; during revisions, like Topsy, it grew…).

Researched as it was being written, written in white heat of passion, this is a story that insisted on being told. It left me with a gloriously complex and detailed world, and a vivid cast of characters whom I began to miss almost as soon as I closed their “book.”

Except that they aren’t quite gone from me, they never will be.

We are, after all, jin-shei.

( You can buy ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ here )

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