I came across this while looking through the offerings in Right Stuf's latest Yen Press sale. I had never heard of The History of the West Wing before, but its title caught my eye. Reviews indicated that the story would probably be mediocre. However, I fell in love with the artwork that came up when I did a quick Google Image Search, and Right Stuf's sale price was excellent, so I decided to get it anyway.
The History of the West Wing is an English translation of a Chinese graphic novel influenced by Wang Shifu's play, Xi Xiang Ji. The play, in turn, was influenced by a fable. I know this because Yen Press included a page of background information. I appreciated that page, but later decided I would have liked more. Additional cultural notes beyond the one or two footnotes would have been nice.
Now, on to the story. Chen Yuqing is a wandering scholar. Five years ago, he was in love with Mingyan, the daughter of the imperial secretary, but their relationship ended badly. He now believes that all young noble ladies are haughty and cold. He's the only one who isn't eagerly awaiting the upcoming ceremony at the temple of Buddha the Savior, and the possibility of seeing beautiful Pianpian, the minister's daughter.
However, a chance encounter with Pianpian intrigues Chen Yuqing. He arranges to meet with her in secret, and the two fall in love. Unfortunately, Pianpian's mother has arranged for her to marry Du Heng, the only son of Imperial Secretary Zheng Du. Chen Yuqing must prove his worth to Pianpian's mother and convince her to break off Pianpian's engagement to Du Heng.
I'll start with the good: the artwork is amazing. Guo Guo's linework and coloring is delicate and lovely. The image of Pianpian that you see on the cover is taken from the artwork in the story - this is not one of those cases where the cover art promises more than the interior art delivers.
There are 22 pages of illustrations at the end of the volume (18 full-page works and 2 double-page spreads), and I consider this graphic novel worth it for those pages alone. I wish I owned poster-sized copies of some of them. The story artwork is just as beautiful. The only complaint I had was that characters' faces weren't always very consistent. It was easier to keep track of everyone by noting hairstyles and clothing.
Now for the rest. As other reviewers have mentioned, the story is fairly weak. After spending five years moping over Mingyan, Chen Yuqing fell in love with Pianpian amazingly quickly. As for Pianpian, all it took was a moment or two for her to decide that Chen Yuqing wasn't like all the other men who'd tried to catch glimpses of her. They were a breathtakingly gorgeous couple, and more virtuous than Mingyan and Du Heng, but that was it. Honestly, had the "dropped handkerchief" scene gone a little differently, Chen Yuqing could just as easily have fallen in love with Xiaoyue, Pianpian's maid.
Much of the story's "action" happened off-page. For example, at one point, Pianpian, her mother, and the temple were being threatened by some soldiers. Pianpian's mother promised Pianpian's hand in marriage to whomever could save them all, so Chen Yuqing promptly disappeared and came back with an entire army. Readers were later told that he scaled a mountain in the middle of the night to find that army, but none of that was ever shown. The same went with Chen Yuqing's efforts to prove he'd be a good future husband by finally passing the imperial exams.
This is, at best, a mediocre graphic novel, and the romance boiled down to “two gorgeous and relatively virtuous young people fall immediately in love.” However, I knew going in not to expect too much from the story and instead bought it mostly as an artbook. In that respect, I'm very happy with this.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- The Story of Saiunkoku (manga) story by Sai Yukino, art by Kairi Yura ; The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another historical(ish) romance (sort of) and more beautiful flowing hair may want to give this series a try. I've written about the first season of the anime and the first 9 volumes of the manga.
- A Bride's Story (manga) by Kaoru Mori - Those who'd like another breathtakingly gorgeous historical romance (sort of) may want to give this a try. The story is a little slow-paced, and the premise may give some readers pause (an arranged marriage between a 13-year-old boy and a young woman). However, at least in the volumes I've read, Mori handles everything in a sensitive way. I've written about the first volume.
- The Story of the Western Wing (book) by Wang Shifu, translated and edited by Stephen H. West - I'm cheating, since this was mentioned in the graphic novel's introduction. Anyway, those who'd like to try the play that influenced Sun Jiayu's graphic novel may want to give this a shot.