He received his academic education at Yale, Cornell, and the University of California and was ordained a monk in an official ceremony at the Chun Yang Daoist Temple in Guangzhou, China. His work has appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Parade, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, WebMD, Fox Business News, and numerous other websites and newspapers. His more than 20 award-winning non-fiction books and novels of magical realism focus on philosophy, history, compassion, and culture and have been repeatedly optioned for film in both Hollywood and China. From 2010 – 2013, he hosted the hit (reaching 60MM households) national public television show Longevity Tai Chi with Arthur Rosenfeld. The American Heart Association profiled Yun Rou as an inspirational resource in 2016. Monk Yun Rou began his formal martial arts training in 1980 and has studied with some of China’s top Chen-style tai chi grandmasters. In 2011 he was named Tai Chi Master of The Year at the World Congress on Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine. In July 2014, Yun Rou joined the heads of the five tai chi families on the dais, representing American tai chi, at the International Tai Chi Symposium in Louisville, Kentucky. He teaches in Southern Arizona, South Florida, and around the world.
How did you come up with the idea of Mistress Miao? Where did you start from?
In addition to being a writer and an ordained Daoist monk, I am a 41-year martial arts practitioner and teacher. I specialize in Chinese internal styles such as taijiquan, baguazhang, and xingyiquan. Traditionally, taiji has relied upon a spear system invented by a woman, Yang Miao Zhen, who developed spiraling techniques to make her spear play more accurate and powerful. She was so successful that her system lived on long after she died and was used by the legendary general Xi Ji Guang against invading Japanese pirates and also to defend the Great Wall. Yang herself became a famous ruler of a portion of northern China during the Mongol incursions and the Southern Song Dynasty, one of the few female heads of state in Chinese history. Even so, she is relatively unknown. I became fascinated with her while learning her spear system, which I practice daily. There is very little biographical information available about Yang—her love life, her beauty, and her ability to defeat all comers is about the size of it—so much was left to my imagination. The more I thought about her, the more I loved her and wanted to give her literary life.
Who and what influenced you as an author?
I had a sickly childhood. Books gave me an escape from suffering and I read constantly. I was initially entranced by Tolkien and the world he created in LORD OF THE RINGS, then moved on to fantasy and science fiction as many kids did in those pre-streaming days. At the age of 9 I declared I wanted to be a writer. I was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE, a book full of chivalry and knights. I remember telling my father that a writer was like a god in deciding who lives and who dies, who marries whom, who is rich and poor, sick and well, strong and weak.
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I was first published in national magazines like VOGUE and HOUSE AND GARDEN in the US back when I was an undergraduate at Yale University, studying the Russian literary classics in their original. Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, and Tolstoy were early influencers. After college, I fell under the spell of crime fiction and spent years in that genre. I wrote some well-received detective novels and even sold a series to CBS television back in 1990. After Thomas Harris wrote SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, all crime writers were challenged to delve deeper into the darkness in a way I could not reconcile with my burgeoning spiritual path. DIAMOND EYE, a novel about a United States Postal Inspector who uncovers a snuff-film ring was my last foray into the category crime fiction. I turned to magical realism in the tradition of the Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez after that. In magical realism, the writer does not have to build a world like a writer of fantasy does, but rather inserts magical events into a world that is real and recognizable. That juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic can powerfully underscore the true nature of reality. Writers like Mark Helprin, whose A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR might just be my favorite of all Western novels, do so to great and memorable effect and have been important influences on me.
Where does the interest in the Chinese culture come from?
I was a seeker even as a young boy. When I caught a turtle on a river in Connecticut, I envied the creature the ability to see both above and below the waterline, to understand what was going on in that world down below as well as in the world above, my own world. I rendered the spiritual nature of that early questing in my recent release, TURTLE PLANET, which is a form of modern spirit writing. I was always interested in knowing what was really going on beneath the surface of life and I turned to great teachers, including those whose volumes peopled the bookshelves of my philosophy-devotee mother. I read some of the giants of Western philosophy but those from the East resonated more with me. Even though I couldn’t understand books on Zen or Laozi’s DAODEJING I had the sense that there was something special there for me.
My father was perhaps the most famous heart specialist in the world for three decades or so, with the result that our Manhattan apartment was frequented by the people who ran the world: princes, kings, queens, captains of industry, scientists, and other thought-leaders, artists, Hollywood stars, and more. I noticed that although these folks possessed everything we are all taught to want—fame, power, money, beauty, influence—most of them didn’t seem particularly happy. Seeing them made me wonder if I was being sold a bill of goods about what was important in life. I wondered whether I was also being sold a bill of goods about society, religion, capitalism, nationhood, and more. All that wondering led me back to the Asian classics.
At the same time, the New York City of my childhood was a rough place. Gangs roved the streets and picked on kids like me. I was routinely mugged, followed, and harassed on the way to and from school. My sense of helplessness was enhanced by having grown up in a second-generation Holocaust survival family and having lost so very many relatives to Hitler. I really wanted to be the kind of person (as childish an ambition as it now seems) who could not be forced to do anything against his will. When Bruce Lee appeared on the big screen and David Carradine’s TV show KUNG FU aired on the little one, I began to fantasize about being able to take care of myself, to no longer be a victim, and to repair my ailing health. I became interested in Asian martial arts, and through them found better access to philosophical teachings. From there it was just a tiny jump to a fascination with ALL of the traditional Chinese culture.
What was the hardest part of writing Mistress Miao? How long did it take you?
In a few of my recent novels, YIN – A LOVE STORY, THE CROCODILE AND THE CRANE, MISTRESS MIAO, and the forthcoming YANG, I make ancient times and traditional ideas relatable by alternating between past and present in the narrative. This requires a lot of attention to detail and flow so that the reader doesn’t get lost, and, I hope, some artfulness in seamlessly weaving together themes, tropes, and plot points. It’s a challenging literary format but it really chips away at the intellectual and emotional distance between the reader and times long past. I spent a couple of years on MISTRESS MIAO and am happy with the way it came out. I believe readers will find it a unique story and Miao herself as an unforgettable character.
Who are Salomon and Lulu? What is the connection between the fate of the characters and the past and the present?
I riffed on the historical Yang Miao Zhen so as to create not only a martial arts master but a sexual omnivore who is both open to adventure and committed to finding the soulmate she reportedly had in real life. In Yang’s modern incarnation (Daoist and Buddhist themes both abound in my books) those appetites and proclivities are reprised a woman named Lulu. Solomon is her husband. When disaster befalls their new marriage, he steps up, willing to do whatever it takes to save the life of his wife, even if that means traveling to China and putting himself very much in harm’s way.
How much of you and from your personal life can we find in the book?
More than I wish was the case, I’m afraid. When I was a medical student, my wife at the time was brain-damaged and paralyzed in a car accident that happened in front of me. Details of her experience, her suffering, and the roles of those around her inform my portrayal of Lulu’s trials and the feelings Solomon has during that difficult time. On a happier note, I’d like to think that my descriptions of the martial arts sequences, including Miao’s training, are richer, more textured, and more accurate thanks to the decades I’ve spent in my own martial pursuits. My travels in China, too, added verisimilitude to my descriptions. I know that my spiritual studies helped me to render a world in which concepts like reincarnation and shamanism play a prominent role in the proceedings.
What is your next project?
I’m very much enjoying working with Earnshaw Books on these Chinese-themed projects. The level of enthusiasm and support I get is the best I’ve enjoyed in a long writing career. Now that I’ve penned a few of these works of magical realism and twin, complementary worlds, it might be time to engage some pure Asian fantasy. I’m imagining the sort of story that gets made into some of the fantastic TV offerings coming out of China right now, the best of which are based on fantasy novels. I’m excited at the prospect of world-building in the vein of George R.R. Martin’s GAME OF THRONES but in a fictionalized, Asian-flavored version. Perhaps even a series. Stay tuned!
Featured image by Angela Alvarez
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