Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Library of Legends by Janie Chang, a real and mystical journey set in war-torn 1937 China

A university is more than a group of buildings. It encompasses the breadth of the knowledge of its faculty, staff, and students, as well as the information held in its extensive collections. These resources will remain active and vibrant even when the buildings are inaccessible.

All this came to mind while reading Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends, after the past three months of remote work and online education. The historical situation depicted in the novel is completely different than the coronavirus pandemic, of course, but these same themes are echoed.

In 1937, with the Chinese city of Nanking under attack by Japanese bombs during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the administration of Minghua University decides to evacuate the campus and relocate to Chengdu, an inland city over a thousand miles west. Among the people making the long trek on foot are Hu Lian, a 19-year-old scholarship student; Liu Shaoming (Shao), a handsome upperclassman she admires; and his servant Sparrow Chen, a young woman who’s more than she seems.

To preserve their country’s priceless cultural heritage, the dean, Dr. Kang, asks each student to carry a volume of the Library of Legends, a centuries-old encyclopedia that records Chinese myths and folklore. They read them along the way, enhancing their worldview while attending academic lessons in formal classrooms, where and when they can, and in group lectures as they walk.

While most of the story takes place during the journey, it’s far from a standard road adventure. The interactions among the travelers drive the story. Mingling elements of ancient myths with a realistic wartime setting that transverses central China, The Library of Legends is a thoughtful literary novel with a strong, multifaceted plot based in history (the author’s father and uncle were student refugees like Lian and Shao). The group, self-dubbed “Minghua 123” for the number in their convoy, encounters dangers from above – Japanese aerial attacks – alongside travel hardships and threats from within.

Already concerned about her mother, who is traveling alone to Shanghai, Lian is blackmailed into spying on her fellow students by someone who knows her family’s secret. She also worries that Shao will be persuaded by an attractive classmate into attending Communist meetings. Enriching the novel further, divine beings from the Library of Legends, some disguised as mortals, become awakened, and some play roles in the ongoing events.

Original and unpredictable, The Library of Legends is an enlightening tale of arduous determination, romance, and family heritage that’s also rich in cultural details. (Of note: the publisher's blurb reveals parts of the plot you may want to discover for yourself.  Just a heads up if you prefer being surprised.)

The Library of Legends was published in May by William Morrow.  Read more about the novel's historical backdrop in the author's piece for Time Magazine: The Risky Journey that Saved One of China's Greatest Literary Treasures.


  1. Divine beings from the Library of Legends? I'm in!

  2. I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel.

  3. I have never heard of this book! It sounds like a wonderful read. As the adult librarian at my library, I most definitely will be putting this on the To Be Ordered list! Can't wait to get my hands on this!

  4. Excellent, I'm glad the review brought it to your attention! We can start ordering books at my library next week (when the next fiscal year starts) and I have a large cart of titles ready to go :)

  5. I love reading about history, and discovering things I didn't know. Although I have heard of the Sino-Japanese Wars, I had no idea about the the evacuation of the universities or the Library of Legends. I will be sharing this post on Twitter to inform my fellow history buffs and genealogists.

  6. Great, thank you!
    Here's some information from the author's website about the real encyclopedia the Library of Legends is based on.