Empire, Nation, and Time
By Andrew YangMarch 6, 2016
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
BENEDICT ANDERSON, in Imagined Communities, suggests that the novel is a product of national culture. Through the simultaneous unfolding of multiple plotlines involving multitudes of characters existing in “homogeneous empty time,” the novel creates a nation and its people. The novel’s readers become aware of history as a communal experience, occurring in multiple places at once. The Grace of Kings is novel about a nation experiencing revolution as it transitions from one form of empire to another. The world-nation it depicts moves from a conventionally traditional form of empire to one that incorporates postmodern elements. As Grace depicts this revolutionary transition, it moves from “messianic” time to more stable forms of homogeneous, empty time. In this way, it depicts the formation of a global nation-empire, benevolent to its populations yet hierarchical in structure.
Current reviews classify The Grace of Kings as epic fantasy, in the tradition of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and as part of the Western fantasy tradition exemplified by both A Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. Reviewers have lauded Grace as both an epic of revolution and as a revolution of the epic genre itself. The novel is set in a fantastic world named Dara, with carefully explained secondary laws in technology, ecology, and social organization. It employs an ensemble cast and narratives that shift quickly across character and locale. Although characters reminisce or speculate frequently, time passes in the narrative in a strictly linear fashion. The novel has a distinct beginning and end, as well as anxious foci on prehistory and providence.
I must define four of my key terms: In contrasting “traditional” and “postmodern” empire, I follow Paul James and Tom Nairn who suggest (in Globalization and Violence) that traditional empire is a territorial state entity extending from a central imperial hub, exercising “extensive hegemony” over local denizens in “one or more of the domains of economics, politics, and culture.” Such denizens in turn labor for the imperial center itself. My definition of postmodern empire comes from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire, which describes postmodern empire as an aterritorial regime in which authority is decentered, existing in forms of abstracted “exchange,” “production,” “communication,” and “enquiry.”
My description of “messianic” versus “homogeneous” or “empty” time references Benedict Anderson’s description of the nation, which in turn draws upon Walter Benjamin. Homogeneous time is associated frequently with modernization and routine. It is measured through clocks, calendars, and the like, and it is considered “empty” because it can be filled with any number of events of varying importance. Conversely, messianic time is revolutionary. It is experienced in terms of immediacy, violence, epiphany, and contradiction (e.g., violence for the sake of peace). According to Andrew Robinson, it focuses on large events that “explode” established perspectives. Within fiction, homogeneous, empty time occurs within the simultaneous unfolding of multiple plotlines involving varieties of characters and locales. These plotlines coalesce into an imagined community, organized by the quantified, measured passage of time. Messianic time, meanwhile, focuses far more on exposition-climax-denouement cycles of action, centered upon transformations in thoughts, societies, power structures, and the like. While The Grace of Kings emphasizes a messianic, revolutionary mode of narration via imperial change, the text settles into a more homogeneous, empty narrative by its conclusion to establish the rightness of its new empire.
The Grace of Kings begins with an empire that is explicitly traditional, with the entire territory of its secondary world under the rule of one man, Mapidère. Mapidère’s empire emphasizes persistently the “might and authority” of his mother nation. Nobles are relocated, and those who question the emperor’s will are executed or maimed. Massive imperial projects create slavery and fracture cities and families alike. At the same time, however, his empire unifies the seven previously warring states of Dara and aims to “transform the world” for greater prosperity.
The second empire in Grace of Kings restructures imperialism in far more cautious and benevolent ways. Kuni Garu, who becomes Dara’s Emperor Ragin by the end of the novel, begins humbly as a bandit with no titles. Over the course of time, Garu gains powerful allies, raises armies strong enough to overthrow Mapidère and others, and wins the hearts and approval of numerous communities. Bandits, townships, nobles, states, and even Dara’s gods each come to praise his leadership as he manages to unite “all of Dara” and create “one” people.
On the one hand, even after Garu’s revolution, social order in Grace remains heavily focused on hierarchy and rank. Cogo Yelu, the second most powerful man in the new empire, calls the collective citizenry of the empire “unruly children,” and builds a “luxurious and extensive” palace for himself. Garu’s general, now a queen, punishes and rewards her subjects according to their treatment of her in the past. Guests at Garu’s coronation ceremony include generals, bandits-turned-generals, dukes, princesses, the empire’s previous hegemon, and captains.
On the other hand, Garu’s rule focuses more on the needs of the ruled, the will of destiny, and the preservation of power itself. Once Garu overtakes the imperial capital Pan, he wins the hearts of its citizens and maintains control over the surrendered imperial troops, making his own rule feel like “the spring breeze after a winter of frost.” Reflecting upon the cruelty he and others faced, he resolves to “complete the dream of Emperor Mapidère” to unify Dara, but “avoid his mistakes” in centering his empire around himself. The novel takes great pains to depict Garu’s rise to emperor as a combination of fate, opportunity, and the needs of individuals and masses alike, not just Garu’s willpower and ability. As he rises in power, he wonders, “I think I have power but perhaps power controls me.” Power in Grace is ultimately multidirectional and decentered; characters rise and fall in rank, and they travel frequently between nations and territories. Without specific loci or institutions, power becomes abstracted in a nexus of intrigues. In Garu’s empire, differences between ruler and ruled become much less distinct than before.
The Grace of Kings, however, is not just a novel representing imperial shifts of power. It is also a narrative which employs rhetorical techniques to depict one empire as oppressive and another as fair. Immediate, event–based time “explodes” the institutions of Mapidère’s empire, while simultaneous, quantified time settles the institutions of Emperor Ragin. The Grace of Kings not only narrates a series of events spanning different characters and territories; it also compresses such events into a single nation-world that must be considered as a whole.
Messianic time occupies the greater portion of Grace’s narrations. That Grace’s major events are revolutionary is an observation neither subtle nor complex. As Dara grows increasingly dissatisfied with Mapidère, a series of rebellions arises. The rebel armies change leaders and then score a decisive victory at Wolf’s Paw against overwhelming odds. Garu captures the imperial capital Pan, and then another leader takes over Pan to become hegemon, who Garu eventually overtakes as well. The text describes each event with immediacy and suspense; leaders and important figures die or change roles suddenly. Characters experience brief epiphanies during which they recognize their roles in much grander, older paradigms than their immediate situations. In the Battle of Wolf’s Paw, for example, one character sees and is commanded to ride a fleet of Crubens — mythical creatures of immense size, almost never seen. The character’s jaw drops without his noticing, and he suddenly feels himself “a hero from the old tales.” Such revolutionary events are also explicitly violent. When the rebels’ greatest warrior tears his way through the imperial armies at Wolf’s Paw, for example, the narrative grows lavish with grisly detail:
Réfiroa [his weapon], seized by a battle lust of his own, opened his mouth wide and tore out chunks of flesh from the flood of infantry, shaking the red foam from his mouth. Mata [the warrior] was soon completely covered in crimson gore.
When the general of the imperial army dies, birds take his carcass away “to eternal rest in the heavens” with his homeland’s god. Such moments in the text focus purely on raw sensation, emphasizing characters as larger than life and larger than themselves. They violently upend established order in the most obvious of ways. All the while, such violence remains emphatically and ironically for the sake of peace.
Nevertheless, events in Grace never move completely away from quantified measurements of time. Each chapter begins unerringly with dates measured not just in dynasties, but calendrical months and years: “the eleventh month in the third year of the Reign of Righteous Force,” “the third month in the first year of the Principate.” The text does not reveal who created such organizations of time, and the accuracy or justness of such organization does not come into question. By the final chapter of the novel, the story of the nation-empire of Dara settles into multiple sub-narratives, occurring simultaneously across Dara’s corners: Kuni Garu in the west; his prime minister in the east; his principal general in the south; his chief advisor in the north. As the empire settles into peace and prosperity, named characters establish themselves in rank and benevolence. “Simple, poor” towns receive aid during bad harvests, and cities become stable enough to allow “private academies” to open and young scholars to “debate philosophy in bars.” Peace allows the citizens and main characters to become mobile across distant tracts of land. This multiplicity of events “fills up” the final moments of the novel, and it establishes a calendrical routine to be followed beyond the narrative. In accordance with Benedict Arnold’s interpretation of homogeneous, empty time, the end of Grace establishes a nation as much as it does an empire.
Revolutionary and calendrical time both serve to establish a nation-state that in The Grace of Kings becomes an empire ruling over an entire fantastic world. With this established world-empire, readers in turn are allowed to wonder over details such as plot intrigues, characters, technological and ecological marvels, and so on. What readers are not allowed to wonder, however, is whether this world-empire itself is necessary in Grace or whether alternative sociopolitical formations might serve the world better. Under such assumptions, the novel’s own national identity and the stakes it claims in our own sociopolitical world come to the fore. The Grace of Kings is an American novel, by an American writer of Chinese ethnicity. It borrows a period from Chinese imperial history, but displaces this history onto an imaginary world American readers can identify with immediately. Under such real sociopolitical allegiances, one wonders: How does the novel appeal specifically to American nationals? To the culturally Chinese? To those who consider themselves both? Does The Grace of Kings claim empire is still necessary for Americans today? That we live in inequality and intrigue in many ways still resembling imperial China? Such questions are dark, but important to ask. Empire in The Grace of Kings, though enticing, reflects an imperial presence far more real but far less enticing in the real world of Chinese and Americans today.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. 2nd rev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.
Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2000.
James, Paul and Nairn, Tom. Globalization and Violence, Vol. 1: Globalizing Empires, Old and New. London: Sage Publications, 2006.
Robinson, Andrew. “An A to Z of Theory | Walter Benjamin: Messianism and Revolution — Theses on History.” Ceasefire Magazine. Friday, November 15, 2013 15:20. Accessed Sunday, November 1, 2015, 5:59 PM. https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/walter–benjamin–messianism–revolution–theses–history/
Andrew Yang is a Lecturer at University of Michigan–Shanghai JiaoTong University Joint Institute, Shanghai.
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