The history and the ethnic composition of the population of the interior of Asia are plenty complex. Keeping track of who is ethnically what and following the leadership of what king(dom) is rendered more difficult still by the multiple names. On top of that are the shifting romanizations of the various names.
It is fairly obvious that the region of what is now northwestern China romanized in the Wades-Gilles system as Tun-huang, the romanization used as the title for the 1959 Japanese historical written by Inoue Yasishi (1907-1991) is the same as Dunhuang in the pinyin system. From the documentary miniseries “The Silk Road,” I knew that the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas” are also known as “the Dunhuang caves,” but the usual name in contemporary Chinese is “mogÆ’¢o.”
It is also fairly obvious that Uyghur, the Turkic people who had lost control of the area in which most of the novel takes place, is the same appellation as “Uighur” in the book (who are Buddhist, not yet Muslim). But it is less obvious that “WéiwÆ’†”º’er” names the same people.
The Han Chinese protagonist of Inoue’s novel, Chao Tsing-te fell asleep while waiting for his name to be called for the last cut of imperial examinations held in the Song dynasty capital Chang’an (Xian). In very melodramatic fashion, the failed candidate came into a possession of a pass written in a script he could not decipher, though the characters look like Chinese ones. Rather than wait three years for the next imperial exam, he decides to go west and learn the language.
To make a long story short, Chao does learn the language, and comes to be in charge of translating Buddhist sutras from Chinese into “Hsi-hsia” (Tangut, the language of the Western Xia kingdom that was nominally a vassal of the Southern Song). Because of his literacy (in Chinese, then in “Hsi-hsian” now Romanized “Xi-Xian”) and his fearlessness, Chao Tsing-te becomes a trusted lieutenant of the Han commander Chu Wang-li, as well as an intellectual companion of the Han kinglet Yen-hui.
There are epic battles among Buddhists. Muslims mounted on elephants do not show up, though the Han good guys foresee invasion from the southwest (and the area of what is now Gansu province was Islamized both before and after the Buddhist Mongols from the north conquered it). There is not one but two great loves for a Uyghur princess that contribute to fervent enmity for a governor who forced her into concubinage. And there is a very mercenary Silk Road trader from a deposed ruling family with whom Chao Tsing-te travels four times. The first two take Chao to and from learning Hsi-hsian), the last two provide a story of how the vast trove of scrolls found early in the 20th century came to be walled in within one of the Thousand Buddhist caves of Dunhuang nine centuries earlier. Inoue even provides a plausible explanation for the mix of written materials (what were rare Buddhist manuscripts in the eleventh century with administrative documents, Daoist manuscripts, and Nestorian Christian documents).
I did not learn much about what life on the frontier of the Song was like nearly a millennium ago, and am puzzled at the start date of 1026, since the Tangut writing system was not created until 1038 (on the orders of Jingzong (formerly Li Yuanhao; he cast off his Chinese name, this is not just another confusion induced by differing romanization systems), who at the same time dubbed himself emperor of Da Xia (Song officials eventually bribed him to give up the title “governor” instead while de facto paying rather than receiving tribute). The shifting condition of Han Chinese, who had recently been subservient to Uighurs and would become subservient to Tangut (Hsi-hsian in the book) and the spread of Buddhism in central Asia are accurate and made interesting in this fiction’s solution of the mystery of the trove of scrolls in the Dunhuang caves.
What Inoue’s novel is most like is a segment of The Romance of Three Kingdoms (written by Luo Guanzhong during the 14th century, spanning centuries and including more than a thousand named characters), which is set eight and more centuries earlier and further south, but also features shifting fortunes, fearless warriors, and civilian populations recurrently forced to flee.