by Deborah Shlian and Joel ShlianIt was while my husband and I were traveling through China in the late 1980s that we started incubating the plot for our latest novel titled SHOU (which is the Chinese ideogram for longevity). We had already written and published two medical mysteries. Wednesday’s Child and Double Illusion were based on true events that had taken place in California where we lived and practiced medicine together. However, we felt we were ready to write a larger story, one that encompassed broader themes than we had tackled previously and that could take our readers to locales they might not ordinarily get to see. The Far East? China, Korea, Hong Kong?
All places we had visited became our setting. Not only had we explored these areas of the world, but on returning home to Los Angeles, we had become a host family for some of the many native-born Chinese students at UCLA. Two of these students were especially helpful in elucidating recent Chinese history and culture - especially the events surrounding both the Cultural Revolution and the student democracy uprising. Qing was a brilliant graduate student in mathematics when we first met him. He himself had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution and became the model for our main character Chi-Wen. A second student Hao was an undergraduate at UCLA. Born in Shanghai, he was a decade younger than Qing and the same age as the students that participated in the democracy uprising in 1989. Hao became the model for our student leader, Zheng Tu.
Although SHOU is fictional, like our earlier books it is strongly rooted in fact. Every name, date, street name and historical reference is accurate. Our work is a combination of our curiosity and our experiences as students, as physicians, as travelers and most importantly, as friends of many both American born and native-born Chinese.
Three main intertwined themes exist in the novel. First, we deal with the issues surrounding aging and longevity. In our story, Dr. Ni Fu Cheng, a physician born in China and trained in England, has been researching the secret of longevity (SHOU) his entire life. Although he had the opportunity to leave China in 1949, he opted to stay and help his country. Now 40 years later, as a 75-year-old man he has perfected the elixir. But he suddenly wonders if this discovery might be more curse than blessing.
Through the character of Ni Fu, we explored some of the global and political implications of increased longevity. The typical American born in 1900 lived to be no more than 47; the average lifespan today is 76. Half of all people who ever lived to age 65 are alive today and by 2050, there will be 20 times as many centenarians (people over 100 years) as there were in 1999. How, for example, will the shift towards older voters affect the allocation of resources and tax dollars in the country? Will more be spent on hip replacement and bypass surgery and Alzheimer’s research and less spent on vaccinations, head start programs and education? What about the impact of increased population growth on the environment and the world’s resources? Will more food, medicine, water, and living space be allocated to the aged? And what quality of life will there be for such large numbers of centenarians?
Our second theme deals with modern (late twentieth century) Chinese political history. Discussions with the Chinese students we hosted helped us to understand that much of this history could be viewed in the context of a generational conflict. Its elders have traditionally ruled China and these old leaders were often obsessed with power and consequently, with their longevity. Deng Xiaoping who crushed the student democracy movement with the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989 died in power in 1997, at the age of 95. Many of our student friends viewed the June 4th massacre not only as a political struggle but also as a struggle between the ruling Chinese elders and the increasingly restless, ambitious and politically outspoken Chinese student leaders. This was interesting to us because historically age has been less a basis for civil strife and oppression than say, race, religion, or economics.
These two themes of the centuries-old quest for the secret of longevity amidst the political turmoil and generational conflict in China’s recent past served as a backdrop for our third theme: the cultural differences between American-born and native-born Chinese. Los Angeles has a large population of American-born Chinese. As physicians and as students at UCLA, we knew and became friends with many of them.
Once we became a host family for native-born Chinese students, we were struck by the tremendous cultural differences between the two groups - even within the same generation. We explored this in SHOU by creating what we feel is a moving and tender love story between a most unlikely couple. Lili Quan is a beautiful, bright, very hip and assertive American-born Chinese physician raised in San Francisco and just completing her medical residency. She promises her dying mother that she will travel to China to discover her roots. Lili does make the journey, only to become a pawn in a deadly international conspiracy. While exploring her past, Lili discovers much more - including Chi-Wen, a young, handsome, gentle and very spiritual Taoist who had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution.
SHOU is our most ambitious novel to date. The plot itself is more complex and the setting is international with a historical perspective that required enormous amounts of research. Although the writing style is fast-paced and rather cinematic in the sense that we keep the narrative moving by jumping from one location to another, there is more development of character and place in this book as opposed to our earlier work. At its core it is a mystery and certainly there is continuing suspense, but it is also a romance and a modern historical drama. The book was officially released in May, but has already garnered wonderful reviews and even a nomination by our publisher for an Edgar award. We have been especially gratified by the positive response we have received from Chinese-American readers and look forward to hearing from many more.
Wednesday’s Child by Deborah Shlian and Joel Shlian
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