Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette
Tian closed his eyes and thought about Yangzhou, with its teahouses full of indolent scholars arguing with singing girls about rhyme schemes, with its palatial mansions full of richly-robed merchants celebrating another good trading season, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants happily praying for the Manchu Emperor’s health. Did they know that each day, as they went to the markets and laughed and sang and praised this golden age they lived in, they were treading on the bones of the dead, they were mocking the dying cries of the departed, they were denying the memories of ghosts? He himself had not even believed the stories whispered in his childhood about Yangzhou’s past, and he was quite sure that most young men in Yangzhou now have never even heard of them.
Now that he knew the truth, could he allow the ghosts to continue to be silenced?
What is heroism?
There is a conversation midway through the story between the titular characters about heroes from the past, how people are never just one thing, and, though it is left directly unaddressed, how much strength is required for an "ordinary" person to push down all of his fear just far enough so that he can stand up and act. It is only a small section, and it likely plays out in any number of stories written as long as stories have been told, but it is absolutely vital and Ken Liu plays that scene perfectly.
I don't know if this is the central point that Liu is making with "The Litigation Master and the Monkey King", or it has to do more with facing history with honesty, or if it is something else entirely, but this is what I have latched on to. No matter what else this is a story about, this is a story about heroism and doing something that is right, to hell with the personal consequences.
It makes you question.
It makes you question, not just history, but also the present.
I was curious, having read this story, how much of the historical events referenced had actually happened. They had. Perhaps not the exact story of Tian Haoli, but the massacre happened. The document referenced is real. These are details that reader knowledgeable of Chinese history would not have to question, they would understand the references. Western readers without that background can be stunned by those referenced events, but there is actual history referenced here.
This is a difficult story to read, and the closer to the end, the more emotionally wrenching the act of reading becomes.
Tian sat down and closed his eyes. “I’m just an old and frightened man, Monkey. I don’t know what to do.”