Sunday, February 24, 2013

What's In a Name

File:King Tang of Shang.jpg
King Tang of Shang Dynasty as imagined by by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin.  Painting is located in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.{{PD-Art}}

When researching ancient Chinese rulers, names can be confusing.  Take for instance Tang, the first ruler of the Shang dynasty, and a major player in Book Two of the Timekeepers Series.  He only became known as Tang after his death, although, we call him Tang in Book Two.  Our cast of characters can be confusing enough without giving everyone multiple names.  Tang’s ancestral name is Zi, his given name is Lu, his courtesy name is Tai Yi, and his temple name is Tai Zu.  When I was researching the topic, I came across the following quote from an Indiana University paper, Shang Kingship And Shang Kinship, “Although the names of the Shang kings may not seem an intrinsically interesting topic. . .”  What?  Of course it is an interesting topic—but probably not to most people.  
While China boasts some of the richest and most detailed records of antiquity, scholars continue to disagree over the exact chronology and accuracy of accounts of the ancient Chinese dynasties and their rulers.   The records may not always match up, but they do so often enough, or close enough, to make a historical fiction novelist feel she’s on the right track.  One of the historical resources of ancient China is the Bamboo Annals.  This vast record begins with the Yellow Emperor (2600 B.C.) and ends with the Warring States Period.  The original text, which was written on strips of bamboo, hence the name, was buried with King Xiang of Wei who died in 296 B.C., only to be rediscovered nearly 600 years later.  Interestingly enough, this burial of the text protected it from an alleged book burning during the Qin Dynasty where all non Qin authored histories were destroyed.  Even grimmer was the tandem event of the alleged burial of the scholars in which a minimum of 460 scholars were buried alive.  The back story on this is incredibly alluring and I’m sure it will be featured in a future Timekeepers book.  
The Shiji or the Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Quian, also date back to the time of the Yellow Emperor.  Sima Quiam produced over 130 scrolls of Chinese history around the year 100 B.C. As a hereditary historian, he had access to source material such as the Annals of the Five Emperors and other Chinese classics.  
Another source for historical Chinese records are the historical oracle bones, Chinese writing on animal bones and turtle shells, dating as far back as the Shang dynasty (somewhere around 1600 B.C., depending on whose chronology you use).  As the Shang dynasty is just getting under way in Book Two of the Timekeepers Series, you can expect to read about the oracle bones as we chronicle the feats of the Shang rulers.
Without a doubt, some of the most useful resources for Ancient Chinese research are The Chinese Classics: with a Translation, Critical and Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena, and Copious Indexes, 5 vols., (Hong Kong: Legge; London: Trubner, 1861–1872).  James Legge was an Oxford Professor of Chinese who translated many Chinese classics, including the Bamboo Annals. Best of all, thanks to Project Gutenberg, Legge’s Classics can be read online at:   
While the practice of laying multiple names on ancient Chinese rulers seems confusing, a twist on the practice usefully lends itself to fictional characterization.  Rather than give one character multiple names, we have given one name multiple characters.  We have fused the character of one our villains with the nefarious ancient Chinese ruler, Ji, the last ruler of the Xia dynasty.  His transgressions helped usher in the Shang dynasty with its preeminent ruler, Tang, and now sets the stage for Book Two of the Timekeepers series.