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Fiction General


by (author) David Rotenberg

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
May 2008
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2008
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With his last breath, China’s First Emperor, Q’in She Huang, entrusts his followers with a sacred task. Scenes intricately carved into a narwhal tusk show the future of a city “at the Bend in the River,” and The Emperor’s chosen three—his favourite concubine, head Confucian, and personal bodyguard —must bring these prophecies to life by passing their traditions on for generations. Centuries later, the descendents of the Emperor’s chosen confidantes observe as  Shanghai is invaded by opium traders and missionaries from Europe, America, and the Middle East. Of them all, two families—locked in a rivalry that will last for generations—will be central to the evolution of the city. As history marches on, locals and foreign interlopers clash and intertwine; their combined fates shaping what will become the centrepiece of the new China—Shanghai.

About the author

David Rotenberg is a professor emeritus of theatre studies at York University, where he taught graduate students for over 25 years. He has released 12 novels which have been published by Penguin, Simon and Schuster, McArthur and Company, St. Martin's Press, and ECW. His novels have been optioned in the past for major motion picture adaptation. City Rising is presently in negotiation with London producers. He I s the founder and artistic director of the world-renowned actor training institute - Pro Actors Lab. His historical fiction novel entitled, City Rising is based on true events and explores the epic stories of the Iraqi-Jews, and the prominent Chinese families of the renowned port city across several centuries. It will be published by At Bay Press in the Fall of 2023.

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Excerpt: Shanghai (by (author) David Rotenberg)

Chapter One
The Ivory Compact

As the late-afternoon winter sun slid behind the towering dark clouds, a shadow swelled across the beautiful but usually desolate foothills of the Green Mountain, the Hua Shan. In the murky light, thousands upon thousands of rebel troops readied themselves to spring a trap that would end the life of the most powerful man the world had ever known, or very possibly would ever know—Q’in She Huang, China’s First Emperor
A village fisherman raced to the far side of a partially frozen upland lake where his prized eels were supposed to be hibernating in their underwater pen. As he approached, the water was roiling and rich with blood. Females had slithered up onto an ice floe and were giving birth while the thicker, more powerful males thrashed the open water as they gorged themselves on their young. The fisherman watched in shocked silence, then turned his eyes upward, toward the darkening sky. Just down the winding mountain path a hunchbacked farmwife smacked the ice from a blanket she had hung to dry on the bamboo stand the night before and was amazed to find that the coverlet, although frozen stiff, was hot to the touch. Farther back in the foothills, a toothless peasant pinched the nightsoil collector’s product between his thumb and forefinger and brought it to his nose. To his amazement, the product was as fresh as the man had claimed it to be. He dropped the human fecal matter to the ground and stared at the night-soil collector. Then he looked to the black clouds, sniffed the air, turned, and ran.
Peasants always recognize the distinctive ozone reek that precedes change.
But as they retreated to their huts and drew their children close to them, none knew the nature of the change that was beginning, not in the foothills with the rebel troops but on the upper plateau of the Hua Shan, the Holy Mountain. Change conceived and brought into being by the renowned Q’in She Huang himself.

* * *
“YOU THINK ME MAD,” China’s First Emperor said in a hoarse whisper. “You—all three of you—think I am beyond my wits. That I was tempted here in the depths of winter to this lonely mountaintop to …” His voice trailed off. For a moment, Q’in She Huang allowed himself to look toward the vine-covered mouth of the cave behind him. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly in a fine line of white mist.
His breath dusted the faces of the three people he trusted most on this earth, his Chosen: his personal Body Guard; his head Confucian; and Jiang, his favourite concubine. What are you thinking now, in your secret hearts? he wondered, then put the thought aside. He knew there was no way to know another’s hidden self. There was no way to find the mind’s construction in a person’s face.
He raised his arms, setting the abalone shells sewn into his silk coverlet tinkling. Then he spoke loudly. “Do you believe that I, who had the Great Wall built, I, who receive personal tribute from the barbarian lands far to the west, from the cruel kingdoms of the south and the arrogant men of the island called Nippon, that I, who united the Middle Kingdom for the first time, am now beyond my wits?”
The Confucian noted the subtle shift in the First Emperor’s language. No longer was he using the immoderate style of the ancient writers. Now his words were succinct and to the point. More importantly, his thoughts weren’t the erratic, unpredictable rantings of a man insanely searching for the secret to eternal life. These were the lucid, considered thoughts of the man who had designed the longest man-made waterway in the world, joining the Yangtze River with Beijing, who had standardized the character writing distinctive to the Black-Haired people and created the Mandarin system of examinations that had led to the world’s first organized civil service. This was the First Emperor he had known as a young man, not the one who had burned Confucians along with their books—a madness that he had witnessed and written about in his private journal.
“Do you believe that I am now infirm of mind—mad? That I brought you here to this barren place in search of some mountebank’s charade, some alchemist’s folly—a stone that would grant me eternal life? Do you believe that is why we now stand here and shiver in the cold while below the rebel troops surround this mountain? Do you believe that of me?”
Yes, thought the Body Guard, that is precisely what I believe. It all began with your madness—your madness within madness. Then its seductive strands slithered beneath the latched door of your chamber and out into the world. For in Q’in She Huang’s madness, his imperial madness, he had somehow eternally bound them all to him. But none of them then understood that. All they knew was his lunacy, his screams for light in the darkness, for them to “Find it. Find it for me now!” And now these new orders. Two porters to be hobbled and then their flesh slashed so that “their blood will bring to light that which will be.”
The sun, almost at the western horizon, broke through the dense cloud cover and instantly banished the gloom. Suddenly the massive clouds were in furious motion, racing away to the north.
Q’in She Huang looked up and marvelled at their speed. Shortly, the sky was perfectly clear—and still, so still. As if some deity had swept it clean with one great breath, he thought. Then a cold wind, all the way from the Gobi Desert, swept up the mountainside and blew the long plaits of his lacquered hair against his cheek, creasing the wind’s sudden howl with a sharp thwap, thwap, thwap.
Jiang, the concubine, wrapped her woven shawl tightly around her, but still the cold entered her, hurt her, like an angry lover. She looked to her last angry lover, Q’in She Huang, and remembered his exacting instructions about the way to reveal a sacred relic. She shivered involuntarily at the memory. More madness!
The First Emperor turned to face the coming cold. “Even nature is in harmony with my intent,” he said softly, and was tempted to smile—but didn’t.
AT THE WESTERN BASE of the mountain, the rebel general’s Mongolian pony stirred beneath him as the desert wind engulfed them. From the desert. Madness wind, he thought.
A tear formed, then fell from his left eye. The malformation of the socket, like that of his father and his father before him, prevented the eyelid from fully covering the pupil. The gusting wind found the point of access to his eye and the irritation always brought tears. It infuriated him.
He turned to his adjutant. “Are our men in place?”
“Yes, General.”
“Their orders?”
“As you commanded, to kill on sight anyone who comes down from the Holy Mountain.”
The rebel general was about to retort that there were no holy mountains but was distracted by the commotion of the horses behind him. The unfamiliar desert wind was frightening the animals. “Hold your ranks,” he ordered. “Every man is to control his horse on pain of death!” Then he bellowed, “Q’in She Huang either freezes to death on the mountain or is slain as he comes down. His infamy dies with him and his followers this night.”
A cheer rose from his men.
As it did, the sibilant voice of the court’s Head Eunuch, Chesu Hoi, whispered in his ear, “There are caves, great General.” Even with the swirling desert wind, the General smelled the jasmine-scented breath of the half-man. He didn’t like the Eunuch to be so close to him, but he managed a smile. The First Emperor’s Head Eunuch had powerful allies at court.
“Your meaning?”
“The mountain’s white stone is porous.”
“The Hua Shan is riven with caves and tunnels, General. If Q’in She Huang has a proper guide, he could perhaps escape through …”
“You knew of this before but—”
“I was not asked, great General. I am, as you have said so often, merely a court creature,” Chesu Hoi said with a barely concealed smile.
The rebel general looked toward the mountain. The sun was setting. The cold seemed to be rising from the ground itself.
He turned in his saddle. His army was spread across the foothills, one great, living thing. With them behind him he was strength itself. China’s new emperor. Then why was he filled with such misgiving? Suddenly he was off his horse and shouting orders and running—running toward the Holy Mountain.
* * *

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