‘Dark and grimy beauty’ of Beijing evoked in fantastical novel based on history

Susan Barker, author of The Incarnations

Susan Barker, author of The Incarnations

‘Dark and grimy beauty’ of Beijing evoked in fantastical novel based on history

02 September 2014

By Jemimah Steinfeld

British novelist Susan Barker’s latest book The Incarnations takes the reader on an epic and fantastical journey through Chinese history. It was compared in The Independent to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and provides a snapshot of China both past and present. Here she speaks to Asia House about seeking inspiration from her own rich cultural heritage, China’s troubled past and her love-hate relationship with Beijing.

You have an English father and a Chinese-Malaysian mother. Can you talk a bit about that and how that has influenced your work?

My background influenced two of my novels, The Orientalist and The Ghost and The Incarnations, which were set in Malaysia and China respectively. My mother was born and lived in Malaysia before emigrating to the UK in the 1960s.  The Orientalist and the Ghost was written partly to learn about Malaysia’s colonial and post-colonial history. My grandfather was originally from China, but emigrated to Malaysia before World War II, and the writing of The Incarnations was motivated in part by a desire to learn about the country of my ancestors.

Your novels are all set in different parts of Asia. How do you decide which countries?

My first novel, Sayonara Bar (2005), was set in Japan because that’s where I happened to be working as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher when I first started writing fiction. I wasn’t interested in writing autobiographical fiction. I wanted to write about the new culture and the people I was living with – about Japan basically, and so Sayonara Bar grew from there. The Asian settings of my second and third novels were less circumstantial, and my approach more intentional. I wanted to learn more about the history, politics and culture of Malaysia and China and that curiosity was the starting point for both books.

 The Incarnations is remarkable in its historical sweep. How did you choose the themes in the book?

There are five historical stories in The Incarnations. In order to choose the eras I fictionalised, I read books that gave an overview of the last two millennia of Chinese history, from the Qin Dynasty to Chairman Mao. When I encountered a historical incident or figure that I found fascinating, for example, the Mongol Invasions in 1214 or the Jiajing Emperor, I deepened my research into that subject, and creative ideas for plots and characters surfaced from my notes.

Thematically, I was interested in the cyclical nature of Chinese history, for example how incumbent political parties have in the past risen to power before being usurped by a challenger through revolution and war. I wanted The Incarnations to capture how this process has recurred generation after generation, causing conflict between individuals, religions, ethnicities and nations.

Were there any Chinese dynasties or periods of history you wanted to cover, but were unable to?

I am fascinated by the Hongwu Emperor who founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Hongwu was an orphan and former beggar from Anhui province, who eventually became leader of the military force that overthrew the Yuan Dynasty and sent the Mongol rulers back to Mongolia. I attempted to write about Hongwu’s extraordinary rise to power, but struggled to find his voice and so abandoned the story. There may a second attempt one day.

Your characters are all very complex, with many being both villains and victims at once. Were there any you particularly related to?

I think people in general are psychologically complex. We are all morally compromised and flawed. Though cab driver Wang Jun (the protagonist of The Incarnations) and an anonymous letter writer are soulmates (in a very literal sense), because of the innate flaws and weaknesses of character that recur life after life (the will to dominate, jealousy, wrath and self-interest), they inflict damage on each other. Many of the characters also live through difficult times, such as famine and war and the reign of brutal dictators. At times like these, when survival is at stake, morality takes a backseat. I do relate to most of my characters. They are reckless and unwise but I understand why they make the destructive choices they make.

The past lives of Wang are incredibly bleak, especially when he was a Ming Dynasty concubine for the Jiajing Emperor. How much of that is based on reality versus fantasy?

Though some of the past incarnations are based on actual events, I do deviate from historical facts. As a fiction writer I don’t feel constrained in the same way as an academic. I was able to take inspiration from history and then spin my own tales. The past incarnations are roughly one part historical research and two parts imagination. The stories were also influenced by Chinese folklore and subsequently veer into surreal and fantastical terrain.

The Sixteen Concubines story, about the attempted regicide of the Jiajing Emperor, was based on actual events. Jiajing, the 11th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, was a sexual sadist, torturing and sometimes murdering his palace concubines.

In 1542, 16 of the concubines crept into his bedchamber and attempted to strangle him with a silken cord. However, the assassination plot was thwarted and the concubines executed by slow slicing or ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Though the assassination attempt actually happened, not much has been written about it, and I had to fictionalise a great deal, inventing all the characters, their ways of thinking, the relationships between them, and so forth.

As for the present day, the characters’ lives really resonate with the confusion and difficulties of modern China. Can you say a little bit about these struggles today, specifically for young families in the nation’s mega cities?

Wang Jun is a very disaffected and passive character. Like some people in modern China, he feels there is endemic corruption at every level of society, and is cynical as a result. He’s a man without ambitions because he’s disillusioned by the status and materialism most people aspire to, which he sees as the result of bribery, cheating and other moral compromises.

The Wang family are under pressures common to working-class families in Beijing. Both Wang and his wife Yida work long hours in low-paid jobs to pay the rent, and their daughter Echo is in a highly pressurised education system that prizes conformity over critical thinking and imagination. But they struggle on because they don’t see any alternative or believe that they have much power to change their circumstances.


Wang lives in 21st century Beijing. Why did you choose that city specifically and this time period?

Wang’s story is set in 21st century Beijing because I wanted to write about modern urban China and the impact of the rapid social and economic change on ordinary people. I choose Beijing because of its historical and political significance. Beijing was the first place I lived in China and it’s the city I have the strongest emotional connection to.

Beijing also appealed to me aesthetically – the pollution, the ring roads, the construction and masses of people. Beijing is not a very liveable city, but there’s a dark and grimy beauty to the capital that I wanted to capture in my book.

The Incarnations took six years to write, longer than you expected. Can you explain a bit more about writing in a country that constantly changes and is so varied past and present?

I got around the problem of writing fiction set in a rapidly changing country by temporarily setting the narrative in pre-Olympics Beijing. This allowed me to disregard any changes that occurred post-Olympics. Otherwise I would have been constantly redrafting the book to accommodate them.

In The Incarnations, you really get a sense of Beijing – it sights, smells and sounds. If you could describe the city in one sentence, what would it be?

Ah, this is so difficult! This is going to have to be a string of adjectives I’m afraid: exhilarating, polluted, traffic-congested, bureaucratic, chaotic, stress-inducing and captivating.

Finally, so far it’s been Japan, Malaysia and China – where will your next adventure take you and indeed us the reader?  

I am still figuring that out. I finished The Incarnations in January 2014 and I’m waiting for new inspiration. I’m thinking about experimenting with genre fiction – either horror or fantasy, but I may change my mind by next week.


Don’t miss a unique musical performance by the monks of the Zhihua Temple in Beijing at Asia House on 6 November 2014. This event is being performed in collaboration with the British Museum, and coincides with the Ming: 50 Years that changed China exhibition, which will be held from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015. For more information click here.

To read about the recent boom in contemporary Chinese art click here.

Have you considered becoming a Friend of Asia House? For more information click here.