This place may be a temple, but that scent in the air awakens a thousand and one memories in my mind.
The History of the West Wing is based on a classic Chinese play by Wang Shifu. It’s a simple love story, but one set in an earlier era among exalted people, which gives both the writer and the artist a chance to flex their muscles: the writer can play with the intense restrictions placed on male/female interaction among the upper class in China during the Tang Dynasty, and the artist can lavish every page with gorgeous paintings of period costumes and architecture.
Normally when I consider a manga, or manhua in this case (since it’s from China), it’s the story that catches my attention first and foremost, but the prime attraction to The History of the West Wing is the art. Guo Guo’s art is full-colour — lush, delicate, and beautiful. There are a large number of full-page pinups in this volume, both interspersed through the story and in a chunk at the end, and while I’d normally resent this as a blatant form of padding, in this case it just gives me more opportunities to enjoy Guo Guo’s art on a bigger scale.
The story is one of those tales that’s old enough that the characters’ motivations are a little muddy by modern standards (at least, modern Western standards). The closest equivalent I can think of to the situation the main characters Pianpian and Chen Yuqing are in is the elaborate-etiquette-bound Imperial Japanese court depicted in The Tale of Genji — not surprisingly, since the Heian-era Japanese aristocracy copied as much as they could from Chinese culture. Thus it is that the beautiful Pianpian is betrothed to a man she has never even met, because his status is appropriate to the status of her family; thus, too, Chen Yuqing gets her attention by writing an impromptu poem on her handkerchief, which her servant delivers to her. But the story is rather more eventful (and rather less creepy) than The Tale of Genji; Chen Yuqing’s efforts to win over Pianpian’s family are heartfelt and touching.
That aside, the characters in The History of the West Wing are a little flat, as is often the case with pre-modern literature, and as I read it I had a feeling that I was missing something. It’s not a sequel or part of a series, but it has undeniably sprung up in a culture about which I know very little, and while the story stands alone, the setting — being the real-world Tang-Dynasty-era China — is unexplained. I wanted to know more. For instance, why does Pianpian live in the west wing of a Buddhist temple? What are the Imperial exams that Chen Yuqing’s father wanted him to take? What is Xiaoyue’s status as compared with Pianpian’s?
While the spine of the story makes sense without that knowledge, it’s a bit unsatisfying. As it stands, this translation of The History of the West Wing gestures in the direction of a wealth of culture and history that it never explains — giving me enough to make me curious, and to make me aware of what I was missing, but not enough to satisfy me.