Category Archives: Reading is Essence 開卷為本

The Secrets of the Phenomenal Hua Qiangu (花千骨)

I have a confession to makeI love Hua Qiangu (花千骨). And I am not alone. Not by a long shot. Why? Read on.

The “Best” Success in TV History

Hua Qiangu (花千骨), aka The Journey of Flower is arguably the best success in Chinese TV history. According to local news source, the show-adapted from the published novel of the same title by Fresh Guoguo(Fresh果果)- has not only done well in traditional TV reception, but was reportedly played (watched) online with over 20 billion clicks. It has become a phenomenon in China: an mobile MMORPG of the same franchise was made and reportedly has a monthly revenue of millions; the female actress Zanillia Zhao Liying (趙麗穎) playing the female lead Hua Qiangu (nicknamed Xiaogu or Little Gu )has a latest smartphone named after her-小骨pro (Xiaogu pro) which also reportedly sells very well.

Xiaogu pro, named after the story’s protagonist Hua Qiangu

The Story

**Spoiler Alert**

The story of Hua Qiangu follows the tragicomedy of the female protagonist Hua Qiangu, whose mother died at her birth. She was born with the blood that poisons and kills flowers (Gu means bone in Chinese and derives a meaning of corpse in classical Chinese, thus the name Hua Qiangu literally means death of a thousand flowers). She was haunted by ghosts and spirits since childhood. When her father died, she seeked to learn magic and become enlightened- to protect herself from ghosts. She met Dongfang Yuqing (東方彧卿) on the way to Chang Liu(長留), a dominant sect devoted to the Taoist way of practicing and meditating to become an enlightened person (修道), or Xian (仙) in Chinese. Dongfang gives her an amulet to protect her from being haunted on the way. The amulet, blessed with magic with a drop of her own blood, later transforms into a caterpillar spirit (靈虫) that protects her and she named the spirit Sugar (糖寶).

Qiangu is accepted as the only disciple of Bai Zihua (白子畫), the sect leader and the most powerful Xian in the universe, after striving very hard for the championship in the annual Sword Contest (仙劍大會) held in Chang Liu, one that resembles The Voice of China (a popular singing contest reality show in China, modelled after America’s got Talent) in which the masters choose disciples they favour after the latter perform. It is revealed later that Qiangu is born as the Fatal Challenge/Karma (生死劫) of Bai, which means her existence would eventually harm Bai, or even kills or maddens him. Having that knowledge in advance, Bai tried to kill Qiangu in her sleep but was stopped by his conscience as Qiangu is innocent. There begins the ill-fated love between Bai and Qiangu, with the latter falling in love with her master and teacher soon and hiding the forbidden feelings.

The plot comes to its turning point and climax when Bai is poisoned in a battle for protecting Qiangu, gradually losing his power and dying. In desperation to save her beloved master, Qiangu accidentally discovers that her blood, albeit poisonous to flowers and other living things, can curb the poison in Bai’s system and prolong his endangered life. To Bai’s reluctance and anguish, she begins to feed Bai her own blood to save him. However, the ultimate cure can only be acquired by collecting and reuniting the Ten Ancient Artefacts (上古神器), the ultimate prize chased after by every Xin master and disciple, as well as all demons and dark cultists-as the reunion will allegedly unleash the Ultimate Ancient Unharnessed Power (洪荒之力) which will grant the one in procession of all the Artefacts the literal power of God.

With the help of ShuoFeng (朔風), a fellow disciple in Chang Liu and good friend, Qiangu collected nine of the ten Artefacts, only to find that ShuoFeng is the reincarnation of one of the pieces of the last Artefact-The Flame and Water Jade (炎水玉)-which is the key to saving Bai’s life. ShuoFeng turns himself back into his original form to fulfill Qiangu’s wish and love. Qiangu finally saves Bai, but is then hunted by Chang Liu and the sects akin, as one of the sect leaders of the “righteous” (正道) is assassinated and Qiangu becomes the suspect by collecting the Artefacts, guarded by various sects and their leaders.

The Unique Universe and the Enticing Love and Suffering

Did you enjoy the story? I sure did. (and yes I deliberately leave out the ending for you to find out and enjoy for yourself.) And similarly millions of Chinese did. Because this is not just another story of love with struggles and contradictions and suffering-as all famous love story goes-but one with deliberate, sophisticated and mature construction of characters as well as the universe it is set in.

The universe of Hua Qiangu may look novel to the western audience (not sure if there is any at the moment) with its rich traditional Chinese culture such as 修道 (meditating to become enlightened) , 上古神器(Ancient Artefacts), 靈虫(animal spirit), 生死劫(Challenge and Fate), but these are all rooted in the Chinese audience-all descendents of traditional Chinese philosophies, notably Taoism and Buddhism. Loss in translation granted, I hope my so-so translation of the plot still suffices to retain and convey some of the charms of the story as well as its culture-I just cannot stand the outrageously wrong and over-simplified version of the story found on Wikipedia under the title The Journey of Flower , which literally deprives the story of its unique features and beauty.

Mediocre Plot Carried by Fantastic Characterization and Good Acting

All being said, and despite the popularity of the show, its plot was repeatedly criticized for the clichéd and cheesy love and conflicts easily found in its counterpart in the genre. Pacing is at times slow, almost unbearable; and the story seems to lack the profoundness “classics” process-and the lessons to the audience. To all that I will not deny as a fan, but I believe all these combined do not overweigh the overall charm of the story and the show, primarily due to the fantastic characterization(thanks to the original writer of the novel) and good acting(thanks to all main leads as well as supporting actors and actresses).

There are no flat main characters you can easily find in the story. Consider the protagonist Qiangu. Throughout the story she seems to be a sweetheart with all her innocence and kindness and right amount of righteousness. Every male character she meets fall under her charm-including an Emperor, the leader of the dominant dark cultist sect, and leader of a secret organisation which knows the secrets of everyone. Yet we learn from the events and her suffering that there is more underneath the pretty and innocent looks-something may even more enticing and attractive than what is perceived on the surface.

Then consider Bai. Made as the most powerful Xin and leader of the dominant righteous sect, he seems a rather flat character-even boring, one may say. Yet early on we are let on to glimpses of the richness of the character, when he accepts Qiangu as his disciple, knowing that harm is in the way, and everything he cares about-the fate of Chang Liu, his possibility to become enlightened (in the ultimate way), his own life-may be destroyed by this one single act. And there is one memorable scene which I believe marks the level of richness of this character:

In this scene, Bai just punished Qiangu in the public to justify for Qiangu stealing the Artefacts, crucifying her and swording her himself-one hundred and eight times- with the sword DuanNian (斷念, literally forfeiting feelings) he gave her as a gift which she treasured. But the penalty is more-eighty one Xiao Hun Ding (銷魂釘, literally soul-destroying nails) are to be put to her. After and while she suffered seventeen of them, and lost consciousness, Bai announced he, as her master and teacher, will take the remainder of punishment-a total of sixty-four nails which would destroy almost all the power he had gathered over thousands of years. And he did. Wow, no matter so many fall for him.

The Acting

I have not watched Zhao Liying before this, so there is no comparison. But her performance is undoubted a product of both talents and hard work. This I can grant you-from the sweet innocence to the ultimate determination and profound sadness (toward the end), there is one and only one Qiangu on screen and she is played by Zhao Liying. No one else.

Wallace Huo is equally brilliant in portraying Bai with his gait and aura of a sophisticated Xin, a sect Leader as well as the emotions and turmoil of a troubled teacher caught in the love for his only disciple and responsibilities of the most powerful man in the world. Huo has been an actor I like, with his appearance that best suit the roles set in classic China.

Universal Charm of Entangled Love

I do not believe the phenomenal success of Hua Qiangu is by any means a coincidence. Besides its unique elements I attempted to lay down above, the story’s main theme-entangled love- resonates with the comparable success of contemporary stories such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. And perhaps that would apply to the old stories too, if only they can be seen in such light, somehow.

p.s.: Am I the first one to write such a lengthy piece in English about Hua Qiangu?

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How do you start e-reading?

First, congrats on considering how to start reading e-books! Many people to this date still disregard reading electronic books as something inferior/not worth the time /less ‘noble’ than reading books on paper—biased, if not ungrounded at all. And they have zero benefits with regards to acquiring the habit of reading itself.

Owning an electronic device built for the sole purpose of reading is one of the most effective way to get one into the habit of reading. And that’s prime in this age of distractions, where sitting down to read a book is easily compromised by instant messages, social media notifications and the inconveniently acquired habit of checking your smartphone every two minutes.

If you are any serious about building a habit of reading e-books, I cannot recommend enough for you to buy a Kindle. There are several reasons. First, the device is built for reading, with its e-ink screen that guarantee the least burden for your eyes in any read lasting longer than fifteen minutes, compared to a normal LCD screen of the smartphone/ tablets. Second, the Kindle comes with one the biggest e-book distributors on earth —Amazon, with its well-developed complimentary services and a  mature readership who can share experience both in using the device as well as where you can find free books. Last, I personally find the Kindle (I only own a Paperwhite gen 3, so judge for yourself)a sleek and solid build.

As for finding books to read when you start, your own interests should be the most reliable guide. Pleasure, learning, and inspiration have been my three pursuits as regards to reading, but that’s just me. Fiction, nonfiction, biographies. history, economics, technological material—start with anything you could jump at, anything that interest you when you are browsing on the site. Download a sample and have a taste; read the reviews, but above all, read the whole thing if you find it any good.


Just a click away from finding your potential great read feels good

Start reading, and keep at it. Drop anything that becomes a burden, and pick what provides pleasure, and you will hardly be misguided.

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How does one become better at reading?

How does one become an excellent reader? Many readers may ask.

Well, it really depends on what you consider “an excellent reader” is. Since I cannot, and should not define what “an excellent reader” means to you,  I’ll offer my recent expereince as a reader instead.

I read for several reasons:

1. Pleasure

Contrary to what many may perceive, I read mostly to derive pleasure from the activity. I’ve tried other ways. I’ve bought books that “should interest me”. Books that “I will benefit from”. Books that are really “well-written”. Books that “would change your life”. All of those are good reasons to read. But there is one problem. You actually have to pick up the book you bought (or take out your Kindle and find the book pushed to wherever it is by so many others you downloaded), and read it. And it’s not as easy as you think when you buy/download the title. Having a good e-reader like Kindle helps. But in the end it is the pleasure you derive from reading the first words that keep you going. The first words then become first paragraphs, then a chapter, then chapters, then half of the book, and so on.

So my advice is this: before you decide you would really devote time to finish a book, do the inspectional reading as suggested in the classic How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Read the book cover. Read the content page and the titles. Read the preface, the index and the first and last paragraphs of the book. Then decide. It has saved me a lot of time and from a lot of distress for not reading the books I am supposed to finish.

My most typical read of this sort recently is Eleven Minutes: A Novel (P.S.) by Paulo Coelho. I finished it within 3 working days.

2. Learning

I also read to learn. One of my top 5 themes as defined in the Strengthsfinder 2.0 test isLearner. And I prefer to learn from reading words and instructions than hearing them from someone I can see and touch. I don’t know why. I’ve even be told by my high school teacher that I “turned to books (or the Internet) instantly when posed with a problem.” And I agreed the second I heard it. Learning from words has always seemed more natural to me, perhaps because I learn from what I analyze and understand and generate-not what I am told. I suggest you do the same.

On progress under this umbrella: Mastery by Robert Greene, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

3. Inspiration

This may sound a bit corny. But every now and then we need inspirations. When our juice is running low, or nearly out. Whenever I feel stuck-and we all do-I read. I will surf on Amazon and Quora and sites I go to. I will locate booklists or even seek them out proactively. Then I will try reading something strange and exquisite. And I will be inspired and rejuvenated. For example, I found Eleven Minutes (completed) by seeking out erotica on Quora. I found the Sandman by Neil Gaiman (finished Volume One and well onto Volume Two) by searching for superheroes. This is where you should listen to you own inner voices and follow them . You will be dumbfounded-in the best possible ways.

I am not as well-read as I would like to consider myself. But that’s all right. I hope my experience helps. Happy reading 🙂

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What a Kindle Kindles

My Paperwhite the first day unboxed

Why would anyone want a Amazon Kindle—a gadget that enable you to do nothing but reading? Well, I do. And I am confident there are many out there like me. Because the Kindle kindles.

Refound Interest in Books
For one, it kindles my refound interest in books. You see, I used to like reading so much. When I was a kid I would not listen to teachers who failed to interest me with their uncreative lessons. But what can you do, sitting in that uniform chair like everyone else in the identical classroom? Well, you can always use a drawer. It’s your reliable friend, a comrade. All through primary school and into high school, I would read my Jin Yong wuxia novels for days (ok, hours maybe). I finished all fourteen of them well before I went to college.

But then, before I realize what happened, it changed. I changed. For a whole semester in college, I did not manage to finish one single book on my own. I still read the required readings and all, but it was different. Suddenly I lost interest in the thing called books. It was too inconvenient. Too much work. Too heavy. Too unimportant compared to other things I wanted to do.

Then came the Amazon Kindle. I remember the urge to buy one the moment I noticed it the first time. The mobile had too small a screen. And it was way too much burden to the eyes reading for just half an hour. And where do I find books anyway?

The Kindle, as it was sold on the Amazon page, solves it all. It is light as a paperback—the read people carried to a plane and finished by landing. It could store thousands of books. And where do books come from? You just search on Amazon’s stock of hundreds of thousands of titles and download them with a magical click of the finger. Then BOOM! Before you know it, you are reading the title you thought of/came across moments before.

Withheld Passion for Knowledge
I don’t know about you. But I’ve always known that I longed for knowledge. Knowledge of why—why are people, myself included, so unhappy?— of how—how do I find freedom (and a girlfriend)? and of what—what is happiness, anyway? None of the lessons I went through my entire schooling experience told me the answers. Not a clue. And there was no one I could ask.
So books seem the only way. And with a Kindle, and a Wifi (or 4G) connection, it all seemed possible. I bought a paperback copy of the Chinese translation of Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness back then. I was interested. But I never finished it. Maybe it’s the translation. But probably more because of the weight. It looked like a brick, and weighed and occupied space like one. But hey, I have got the Kindle now. For one-third of the price I bought the paper translation copy, I downloaded the digital copy into my Kindle. Within two weeks, I finished it. It was such a great read. And then I wanted more. I learnt so much from this man, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. And just moments after my personal feat, I bought The Basic Writings of Betrand Russell, too. The Kindle literally kindles in me the withheld longing for knowledge and wisdom—from those same physical and technical barriers that I trust must have withhold many a potential bookworm like me.

Most Wanted Peace of Mind
Today I experienced what I believe a mystical state of peacefulness. I was reading Joseph Campbell’s masterpiece The Hero with a Thousand Faces, on a ferry that carried me towards home. It was a short ride. I downloaded the e-book into my Kindle Paperwhite during a break between work, with a whim that just popped out in my mind out of nowhere. I got so used to the routine now I almost did it unconsciously —search, 1-click order, wait. On the ferry, slowly venturing through the prologue and onto the first chapter, I realized that the fifteen minutes passed without my consciously knowing it. I mean, normally my mind strayed so much — did my girlfriend just texted me/let’s take a look at Facebook/ I got to watch this on Youtube! But not today. For the whole fifteen minutes I was on another plate. There was nothing but my mind, the words and the meanings. And the Kindle of course.Without it the possibility of reading something as heavy and as distant from daily life would almost equals zero. And the concrete feeling of peace while reading must tell something about the reading experience.

Disclaimer: Amazon should have paid me for this. But no, I didn’t have any connection with them except I am such a loyal and good-looking customer.

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