The History of the West Wing
Sun Jiayu and Guo Guo
The History of the West Wing is a graphic novel based on a traditional Chinese story of the same title. It closely retells a play by thirteenth century dramatist Wang Shifu, which was in its turn based on a ninth century story by Yuan Zhen.
It’s the story of a romance between a young wanderer and the daughter of a government official. Their love is initially forbidden because the young woman, Pianpian, is engaged to another man. But it’s easy to tell from the very beginning that the two will end up together after all. So yes, the plot is simple and more than a little predictable, but there’s a reason why The History of the West Wing is still a charming and very satisfying book: Guo Guo’s stunning art.
The setting and cultural details were what interested me the most about this book, and the artwork conveys them perfectly: the interior of buildings, the scenery, the character’s wardrobes, and even their mannerisms, the way they move, and what this implies in terms of social structure and power dynamics – this regardless of the fact that we never actually see them move. But Guo Guo’s art brings eighth century China to life so beautifully that we almost believe we do.
Because the story is not only set in the eighth century, but also originally from around that period, I was expecting to do some major eye-rolling when it came to gender roles. However, things weren’t quite as bad as I feared: Pianpian doesn’t do much, but she’s not helpless either. Furthermore, and much to my satisfaction, the romance was actually believable.
There was a beautiful scene early in the story that made it more than the tale of a man who sees a beautiful woman and decides that he has to have her: we see Pianpian and Yuqing, the hero, sitting and talking together while taking shelter from a rainstorm The scene is completely wordless, but it conveys so much: the art shows them talking and laughing; we get the sense that quite a few hours have passed in this manner, and we see changes in the way they look at each other. Guo Guo’s beautiful drawings convey this better than I could possibly explain. This one little scene makes the story rise above yet another tale of star-crossed lovers who have never exchanged two words – a kind of tale of which I’ve never been a fan.
Still, I wouldn’t advise going into The History of the West Wing expecting something highly emotional or very complex, one of the reasons being the fact that this is such a short book. But if you’d like a glimpse into another time and place as well as some eye candy, then by all means read this.
Ana is a twenty-something reader, recent graduate and future librarian from Portugal. Read more of Ana's reviews at things mean a lot.