May 28, 2009

My Life As Emperor by Su Tong

Last spring my brother and his wife, who is Chinese, went to China for two weeks. An old friend of mine, who had spent several months in China teaching English, asked me if I could have my brother pick up some Olympic mascot merchandise for his collection. He cautioned that in China there is no copyright law of any kind, so my brother had to be careful to make sure he didn't buy any fakes. I was really struck by this lack of copyright law. I guess it makes sense for communism, where everything is owned collectively, but surely it must hamper creativity. Why write a great novel if anyone can copy it and take the credit for themselves with no repercussions?

From the very beginning this book, published in China in 1992, read to me almost exactly like the 1987 Oscar winning film The Last Emperor. And while I hesitate to accuse anyone of plagiarism, I have to wonder if this is a case of blatantly stolen ideas.

In this book, a 14 year old boy becomes ruler of a fictional Chinese empire, enjoying near omnipotence despite his lack of intelligence and maturity. He finds himself being controlled by the women in his family, and commits outrageous acts as much to defy them in some way as to test the limits of his powers. He is the target of numerous assassination attempts. He knows very little about ruling a nation, finding comfort only in his pet crickets and a slave devoted to the point of absolute degradation. In the end this emperor finds himself a commoner after all, poking through the ruins of a palace that was once his, and finding the old cricket jars he owned as a boy monarch. Sound familiar?

In spite of the questionable similarities, I did enjoy this book. It was very well written and engrossing, and I will definitely be looking for more from Tong, although as I read I will wonder about the originality of the content.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't realize that China it was a lack of copyright laws, as I thought it was a lack of enforcing them. Certainly makes you wonder!


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