Note: I've translated Meng Jue's backstory and it's in the comments [Chapter 50 of YZG]
For the past few days, I’ve been deeply engrossed in reading Yun Zhong Ge (雲中歌: Song of the Clouds) – a 6 volume epic of love, political machinations, and growth. All characters feel like complex, real life people that you’re meeting as you journey with them through this book. None of them are cardboard cutout villains or heroes. They each have a good and bad side, some might tread along the path of grey but it doesn’t mean they are evil per se, because in this world, you’d understand their motivations for doing what they did, despite not agreeing with the actions, and sometimes even hating the character for a period of time.
This is Tonghua’s first novel in third person so it didn’t draw me in as much as BBJX did at first. The problem about the third person narrative is that even though you get a bird’s eye view of the entire story, you aren’t inside any particular character’s head, reading his/her thoughts, living his/her life. Later on, it doesn't matter any more as you get swept along for the ride, hurting, loving, smiling, crying along with these beautiful characters.Tonghua crafts this story with amazing detail, seamlessly referencing poems and songs from the Han Dynasty, bringing the sights, sounds and even tastes of the Han Dynasty alive.
"Who can understand my overflowing grief and pain?"
It isn’t easy liking the central character Yun Ge. We meet her as a vivacious and cute little girl of about 8, sheltered and innocent. When she moves to Chang’ an however, we slowly see the innocence being ripped to shreds as she encounters first love, then heartbreak, finding love again then seeing it wrenched away after a short, but blissful interlude. She grows up, learns about the world – how it can be so filled with darkness yet hope at the same time, learns that revenge will never make one feel better, no matter what crime the offender has committed, then finally, learns to let go. She is smart and resourceful, yet gets herself in tons of trouble almost all the time. An accomplished cook, she uses poems and literary devices to elevate a simple dish into one worth mulling over, literally food for thought. You can’t help but get frustrated with her when she finally meets her Ling gege and gets all into this “I fell in love with another man first, then he broke my heart and I’m now not worthy of loving you because I broke my promise to you” morose mode and her revenge mode? Even worse. I’m sure if she had let go of the past and treasured what she had in front of her, she could have been happy with Meng Jue as she definitely still cares for him, deep down in her heart, despite all the betrayal and hurt he piled on her. Simply because the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.
Liu Fu Ling, or Emperor Zhao of Han, is the noble, kind, self-sacrificing and practically perfect soulmate of Yun Ge. When they were young, they promised themselves to each other and since then, he has been patiently waiting for her to come to him. (Side note: You can’t be too perfect in Tonghua’s world because she has a tendency of killing the perfect characters off. Ruoxi in BBJX, Meng Jiu in DMY). He seems emotionless and only Yun Ge can make him more human, more emotional, returning him the childhood and innocence he lost as a child. Their love story is heartbreakingly sweet and tender, as you realize that being an Emperor robs you of your innocence, freedom and happiness, trapped forever in that chess game with people coveting your throne and the power that comes with it.
Meng Jue is arguably the most complex character in the book. My favourite description of him in the book is ‘humble, yet not lowly’. Despite coming from humble beginnings, he has this nobleman aura. You’ll want to alternate being giving him a big hug and throwing something at his head while reading Yun Zhong Ge. As a reader, you are first introduced to him as a mysterious guy following Yun Ge around, before he sweeps Yun Ge up in a whirlwind romance, and as he hovers between choosing love or power, breaks her heart in the process. He acts as Yun Ge’s voice of conscience throughout most of the story. He truly loves her and despite what she might think, his love for her is even deeper than what most readers see initially. His character is very similar to 4th prince’s character in BBJX. Both firmly believing that they can change the course of fate even if the heavens disagree, ruthless, detached, seemingly cold yet when they love, their love for their woman is deep as it’s sure. In the end, I felt the most for his character and hope that he finds happiness and peace, whether with Yun Ge or without. Also, I don’t believe he died. How can he die so simply? It just doesn’t make sense. In my alternaverse, he doesn't die but eventually finds happiness with Yun Ge. For he and Yun Ge wordlessly promised Ping Jun on her death bed that they will be happy together, letting go of the hurt and betrayal standing between them. Meng Jue once said he doesn't make promises easily for he will always keep them; and everyone knows Yun Ge will keep whatever promise she makes, especially one to her dearest sister and friend.
Liu Bing Yi, later Emperor Xuan of Han, rises like a phoenix from the ashes to become the Emperor of Han. His family was wiped out due to political machinations, but he rises to the throne precisely because of that. He is intelligent, street smart and knows most of the people from the lower classes around town. He gets so wrapped up in power that he later forgets all about the things that matter – love, loyalty and familial warmth.
Xu Ping Jun, Liu Bing Yi’s commoner wife. Although she can’t read or write, she is smart, resourceful and a good wife to Liu Bing Yi. Her love for him never wavers, it only grows. She grows from someone who was suspicious of Yun Ge stealing Bing Yi away to someone who learns to trust, who realizes that there are some things in life that just cannot be forced, even if you fight tooth and nail for it. She remains true to her core values and commands respect despite her low birth.