Library of Legends by Janie Chang (William Morrow and Co. 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
In her latest novel, The Library of Legends, Janie Chang blends Chinese history with fantasy elements, adding a dash of romance.
Set in 1937 China, the Japanese aerial attacks begin to close in, forcing students at Minghua University to flee from Nanking to Chengtu. They carry with them the Library of Legends, a 147-volume record of myth and folklore from the Ming dynasty, 500 years ago. A priceless treasure, the Library of Legends brought students far and wide to Minghua, including Hu Lian. Lian is an introverted scholar fascinated with the historic tomes. Throughout the 1000-mile journey, Lian is torn between locating her mother and her duty to her school. She soon finds herself at the center of controversy when one student is murdered and another arrested. Knowing she must escape, Lian chooses to travel back to Shanghai in hopes of finding her mother. Along the way, she uncovers a special connection between the Library of Legends and two of her companions.
The novel’s historical influence is evident in several real-life events from the fall of Nanking to the Siku Quanshu. Like Chang’s fictionized Minghua University, the real-life Zhejiang University housed a 70,000-volume encyclopedia of Chinese literature, Siku Quanshu, and for safety moved the books inland using various modes of transportation, including students. The Chinese dedication to the preservation of knowledge is woven throughout Chang’s narrative. The importance of education is not lost even in a time of war: “Out of China’s five hundred million people, we can recruit enough soldiers,” he said. “But China has only forty-three thousand university students. Students, you are our nation’s treasure….If we lose you, we squander our future” (179). Lian’s characterization is the human example of this value.. She remains dedicated to her studies, working on her literature term paper even as she heads away from Minghua’s security.
Although Chang’s novel focuses on the true tragedies of war, especially for refugees, the novel’s fantastical connection to the Library of Legends adds a whimsical balance. As the students travel across China, the volumes awaken the immortals and guardian spirits. Professor Kang, Minghua’s Dean of Literature and classics authority, helps spread the message to the mythical beings, as he is one of the few privileged enough to see them: “When the creature turned around, it had become a woman. She stood swathed in silvery silk, shining out from dark rock walls like a pillar of glacier ice” (72). The students’ journey to Chengtu parallels the spirits’ exodus to the Kunlun Mountains, acknowledging a new China is upon them.
The Library of Legends offers a unique view into China during World War II. Instead of soldiers, Chang gives us students. Rather than a battle for power, the heroes and heroines fight for knowledge. Spirits abound, and books come to life. As Chang’s novel demonstrates, all hope for the future lies in education.
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