The 17th century was a period of great upheaval in most of East Asia. In Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) was struggling to unite the country after more than a century of turmoil and civil war. He finally reached his goal in 1615, when he torched Osaka Castle and defeated the last bastion of potential opposition. His heirs ruled until 1868.
Meanwhile, on the rugged terrain north of the Korean Peninsula, a local chieftain, Nurhaci (1559-1626), was forging a powerful confederacy of Jurchen tribes, soon to be known as the Manchu, which went on to establish its own dynasty, the Qing. In 1644, one of Nurhaci’s ablest sons, Dorgon (1612-50), led an army through the Great Wall near Beijing. This marked the beginning of Qing dominion over China. It lasted until 1911.
There was unrest further south too, in the East China Sea, where the Zheng, a family of freebooters with roots in Fujian Province, was building its own maritime empire. Its most famous son, Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), better known in the West as Koxinga, was a colorful swashbuckler. Born to a Japanese mother in Hirado, an island off the west coast of Kyushu, Chenggong is still celebrated for expelling the Dutch from Taiwan. Adding to his aura — at least in the eyes of Chinese nationalists — he also spent years harassing the Qing, on land and at sea.
These were volatile and picaresque times. But they also provide boundless material for a novelist. Little surprise then that Ryotaro Shiba (1923-96), who devoted his entire career to historical fiction, chose this period to anchor his final novel, published serially in Japanese in 1987, “The Tatar Whirlwind.”
Shiba’s hero is Katsura Shosuke, a proud samurai of low extraction from a Hirado family with vague ties to East China Sea pirates. One day, he meets Abiya, a castaway who turns out to be a Jurchen princess, a great-niece of Nurhaci. The straitlaced Shosuke has little interest for the world beyond his island, but as a child he had learned Fujianese, a Chinese dialect, from his grandfather. And so he is chosen by his daimyo, the lord of the Matsuura clan, to bring Abiya back to her homeland.
As it turns out, there is more than mere altruism in this decision: Before Japan restricted contact with the outside world in the 1630s, the Matsuura largely derived their pelf from international trade. Shosuke’s lord thus wants to learn more about the Jurchen, who happen to control much of the trade in ginseng, a highly valued medicinal root, and see whether a commercial relationship is possible.
Shosuke’s peripatetic journey lasts years. He crosses paths with Nurhaci, Koxinga, Dorgon and many others, experiences the full glory of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) before its fall and rides into battle with Manchu bannermen. To his evident pleasure, Shiba frequently pauses his narrative for long historical digressions. These slow the plot down, but there is no better and more enjoyable way to learn history.