REVIEW: 18 Cranes: Kaifeng Chronicles, Book One by Robert Campbell
In the late summer of 1630, 23-year old Li Bing writes the provincial level imperial examinations, the first step towards entering the Chinese civil service. He is tormented by a dream of 18 cranes, and as he awaits his exam results he seeks out insights from those around him to help him understand his dream. In the end, he learns more than he imagined.
Dear Mr. Campbell,
I was drawn to read this novella because of the spare yet lovely cover, the blurb which mentioned the Chinese civil service examinations, and the reference to Kaifeng. Having recently looked this up because of another book I read, I had an idea of what the information Li Bing’s grandfather would reveal to him would be. But what else would happen?
The story has a languid, almost dream-like pace which suits the subject of Li BIng’s recurring dream of the 18 cranes – as well as the speed at which most governments run. It is told with an economy of words yet is still full of details of the Li household, the Imperial examination, what exactly was being tested, as well as how and why these elements were important in determining who entered the civil service.
Not everything is shown or told and periods between the exam days are skipped ahead. Bing must marshall his energy and stamina as well as remember what he’s spent years studying. He must also carefully craft his essays in prescribed styles as it seems almost more important to follow proper form than what he writes. More is riding on his results than just entering government service. His potential father-in-law has attached an important codicil to the wedding agreement arranged between himself and Li Bing’s father. Bing’s grandfather also has important information to tell him about family ancestors.
As there are several books in the series, I wasn’t concerned when the story ended. I liked the glimpses of life in 17th century China and that not everything was explained. I probably missed a lot of details but I’ve already had fun exploring one of them. It caught my interest, kept my attention, and I plan on trying the next one to see where it will go and what will happen to Li Bing next. B
One thing I wanted to learn about was something said to Li Bing by his grandfather as Bing was leaving for the first day of the exams. “May you enjoy the spring banquet in an apricot grove.” Finally I found this description of an antique carving.
Apricot blossoms symbolise the Apricot Grove: the Tang dynasty Imperial garden where the banquet for successful candidates of the Palace examinations was held. Swallows symbolize Spring when the banquet was held, and the character itself is also a pun for ‘banquet’ or yan. Apricot blossoms or xinghua and swallows or yan form the saying ‘may you attend the spring banquet in the Apricot Grove’ or xinglin chunyan, which conveys the auspicious meaning of ‘wishing a candidate success in the Imperial examination’.