The new series that I’m starting with this post features Yi Huang’s Dragon War in the Wilderness (黃易的“龍戰在野”). From what I’ve read so far, that reference to dragons isn’t likely to be to some high fantasy monster but an imperial war, but I’m not that deeply into the story. The series runs 18 volumes, was published in 2014, and was a huge bestseller from what I understand, more than 10 million copies sold according to the packaging. I’m going to try to cover two or three of those volumes this time since the volumes aren’t that thick. Each volume comes wrapped with a beautifully drawn note card. Here’s the card from the first volume:
Volume one can be purchased here, and I believe this page has a list of later volumes toward the bottom:
The covers for all of the volumes are done in a traditional brush style that is very appealing. Here is the cover of volume 1:
The series covers the part of the Tang Dynasty in China (roughly the 7th through the 9th centuries) when Empress Wu Zetian, Emperor Zhongzong and Emperor Xuanzong ruled. The first volume begins with Empress Wu on the throne with her one son, then known as Li Xian but later famously known as Emperor Zhongzong, the target of assassins. The names of these historical figures are obscure in the book since the author prefers their more personal names rather than the names they are known by in Western history. Because Wu Zetian has become so famous with her name in reverse, I’m going to stick with the Chinese order for all of the character names just to avoid headaches. Here is some background on Emperor Zhongzong:
This book requires quite a bit of explanation of the historical situation and geography, so most of this post will cover that rather than the actual story. Here is a map of Tang Dynasty China, courtesy of China Highlights:
The assassins seem to be connected to the Uighur region, and the action with them begins out in a snowy plain that is also described as a desert. The Gobi Desert is actually known for its cold and occasionally has frost and snow, so this isn’t outside of the realm of possibility, though I don’t think at this point the location has been named explicitly as the Gobi. There are a number of wilderness or desert areas in the modern Xinjiang region that may not be considered part of the Gobi that could be where the story is referencing.
The main assassin that we are introduced to is Longying. He and another assassin Faming try to enter the east palace in disguise and assassinate Li Xian, but they fail due to the intervention of a relative of the prince, who injures Longying. Li Xian goes to report the attempted assassination to his mother Wu Zetian, while Longying and Faming flee to safety. A talented woman named Wanwan nurses Longying, then the men go on a journey through a snowy desert plain. This part of the story flies by very quickly with only a few paragraphs or sentences for each detail.
The assassins eventually reach a campsite with 500 soldiers in the mountains near an old abandoned fortress built in the Han Dynasty. The leader of the men is Ding Fumin, a Huihe, who would be known today as a Uighur. All of the soldiers have a lot of military experience, but none are over 30. Given the time frame, it appears we are talking about the Uighur Khaganate:
The location of the fortress and camp is not far from 庫魯克塔格山 (the Kuruk-tagh Mountains), though most of the specific information I can get on this region is in Chinese. It is definitely set in the Xinjiang region and is connected in various sources to the Lop Desert, the Dzungarian Basin, the Tarim Basin, and the Taklamakan Desert. Here is the best description I can find of it:
This map gives you some idea of the region of Asia we’re looking at a little better. The Lop Nur, the Tarim Basin and Taklamakan Desert are labeled here.
Map Courtesy of Kmusser
The Turkic kingdoms in this area had become vassal states due to military campaigns that established Tang suzerainty in the early part of the dynasty. This seems to be the backdrop to this story, though what year the story takes place is unclear so far. I may have to revisit some of the historical background once we get deeper into it. Needless to say, things were probably unsettled politically and militarily during that time in the region.
Once the assassins join the soldiers at the campsite, Ding Fumin stands at the fortress’ sentry post looking over the Peacock River and sees an administrative city on barren land from that vantage point. This region is under Huihe control and a “wicked king.” The particular tribe was the Xueyantuo:
A few cities that come up in the conversation is Gongyue City, which I can’t find any historical reference to, and Guizi City (龜茲城), which happens to be an important historical site:
The second half of chapter 1 features a chummy talk between Longying, Ding Fuman, Lin Zhuang, Feng Guoting, and Mi Niantian, all of whom appear to be soldiers at the campsite. They discuss plans to raid a Huihe village, how to get troops safely through a mountain pass in the region and other military tactics. They also review intelligence gathered by one particular source named Suoge. Their talk is interrupted by guards, and the band disperses around Peacock Lake, though Longying seems happy at the arrival of one particular person.
Part one of a five part series.