… There once was a time when the Chinese could just make up stories and write them down.
They didn’t have to be afraid of enemies attacking. They could make gardens instead of forts. They could walk out at night without any weapons and look up at stars.
Master Chen calls it “peace.”
It is hard to think there really is such a thing. I find it easier to believe that a warrior can fly through the stars in a magic chariot. However, the history books and Master Chen all say peace really existed.
Princess Redbird, to use her Chinese (Han) name is the second-eldest child of the kind and queen of the Hsien, one of the many peoples living in the Great Forest in what today is southern China.
The good news is that the Chinese colony in the Great Forest is currently cut off from the rest of the empire, as the emperor deals with rebellions and more northern threats, meaning that the Hsien have a high level of autonomy and are in little immediate danger from imperial expansion.
The bad news is that without the impending threat of the Chinese, the Dog Heads and other neighbouring tribes have renewed their feuds with the Hsien, and are launching increasingly aggressive raids.
As I tend the injured, I find myself missing school more and more.
I think I see a little of what Master Chen was talking about. Civilization isn’t just big cities and statues and things. Civilization is being able to walk to school by myself without an armed escort of six warriors.
That much I can understand.
And want. (p. 122-123)
Princess Redbird, 16, is studying under Master Chen at the local Chinese colony. The first and, at the time of this diary, only person among the Hsien to be literate, Redbird balances the demands and cultural norms of both worlds – and their respective fears of the other. The Chinese view her as a savage. The Hsien fear her Chinese education has made their princess soft. Redbird is scholar, ambassador, and interpreter between the two worlds – and, when occasion demands, warrior and ruler as well. She struggles to imagine the concept of peace in a world where feuding is normal and honourable.
Despite the downpour, they brought back Father and his men.
The Dog Heads have taken their heads.
I go crazy when I think of Father’s head rotting in some Dog Head cave.
The Dog Heads are savages who should be crushed like so many maggots. I hate Dog Heads. I don’t care what Master Meng says, I want them all dead. Then I’m going to do to them what they did to Father. (p. 137)
With her father dead, Redbird’s older brother, Little Tiger, takes the throne. But Little Tiger is immature and prone to bullying, which doesn’t go over well with the rulers of other tribes.
To his last breath, Master Chen was still the teacher. He pleaded with me, “You will want revenge. But the dead are not important. It’s the living that count.” And then with a sigh, he died.
Great-Uncle Sambar gave me his own poncho to wear. And when I had trandlated my teacher’s last words, Great-Uncle Sambar shook his head. “If someone takes your hen,” he said, “you take one of his. And if someone kills your cousin, you kill one of his family. It only makes common sense.”
Is Great-Uncle Sambar right? Is feuding part of our very natures?
Or is Master Chen right? Are we capable of more than killing? (p. 159-160)
Set during a tumultuous period in southern China’s history, Laurence Yep’s Princess Redbird – whose people later installed as ruler in place of her brother, and who as queen maintained peace with Imperial (Han) China, with the Great Forest nations, and who also rode to war during her long reign – records the culture clash between her two worlds as she pursues the wealth of ideas in her beloved books and wrestles with peace and the war erupting. Redbird’s notes on the different perspectives of the Hsien and the Han open reader’s eyes to the diversity of Chinese peoples and cultures, and to the abundant exchange of goods and ideas in this region around 531 CE, as he writes of her longing for more information and stories of the world and takes on more and more responsibilities, demonstrating great initiative, capable leadership, and personal courage.