The Taming of Mei Lin

Jeannie Lin – Guest Blogger: Deep Culture versus Surface Culture

I feel like I’m introducing a star and am just a wee bit giddy. By now you’re all familiar with “The Taming of Mei Lin.” I’m delighted that the author, Jeannie Lin, has agreed to do a guest blog today!

Victoria and I belong in a group that she started for authors of Asian novels and we often discuss issues specific to writing Asian characters and subject matter for an English language audience. One of the tricky challenges is how to represent the cultural background of the characters authentically.
Something I always keep in mind when writing any character is the idea of deep culture versus surface culture. It was something first pointed out to me in my teaching program and it’s a good way of deconstructing what really makes a culture distinct.
Surface culture refers to the things that are outwardly visible and more easily identified by observing people from the culture. The clothing, the food, and the customs. These are the immediate things that come to mind when we think of other cultures. For Tang Dynasty culture, examples would include the silk clothing and hair styles. It would include etiquette such as bowing. Even folklore and mythology are part of surface culture.
Deep culture is harder to detect. These aspects go down to the belief systems that members of the culture hold common. You may start to get a feel for it after spending an extended period of time within a culture. Examples of this would be ideas about death and family. In Asian culture, it’s not uncommon to speak about previous lives or next lives. We even do this in everyday conversation of a non-spiritual nature. 
It can be as subtle as the concept of time. For example, it’s understood among Asians that if you get invited to a wedding at 5pm, everyone knows not to show up until 7pm and, if lucky, you’ll eat around 8. Westerners have a very different concept of time. In Western culture, it’s respectful to be on time if not early.

Of course there are individuals within each culture. People who go against the grain know they are going against the grain, and it should show in their character. When I got married, my mother specifically told guests to observe “American time”. Mom is a business woman and hates it when people don’t respect schedules, but she also understands this cultural aspect, as shown by how she admonished my wedding guests!

When it comes to writing a historical novel, surface culture is easy to throw out there. We can dress them in embroidered silk robes. Put carvings of dragons in bas relief over temple walls. We can have our characters bow and observe proper status.
Deep culture is how writers truly create authenticity. If we describe these beliefs explicitly, then it feels unnatural, as if the book is lecturing rather than storytelling. The challenge is subtly weaving details of deep culture into the characters’ internal thoughts and emotions as we create their world view. No matter what your character’s ethnic background, this infusion of deep culture is what convinces readers that they are living, breathing people. This is true of Regency England, or the American West, or Tang Dynasty China.
When I’m reading a historical, this infusion of deep culture is more convincing than clothes or dates or facts and ultimately—way more satisfying.
Jeannie Lin writes historical romantic adventures set in Tang Dynasty China. Her short story, The Taming of Mei Lin from Harlequin Historical Undone is available September 1. Her award-winning debut novel, Butterfly Swords, will be released October 1, also from Harlequin Historical. Join the launch celebration at for giveaways and special features. Visit Jeannie online at:

The Taming of Mei Lin – Outtakes

Last post I promised to share one of the many points in this story that had me chuckling, so without further ado, I’ve chosen a scene that follows closely on the last one. Mei Lin comes to see Shen Leung, but she doesn’t have a strong plan in mind:
     The scent of her hair assailed him. Orange blossoms mixed with something mysterious and feminine.
     “You smell nice,” he said dully.
     She said nothing. All he did was turn his face the slightest bit and his cheek brushed inadvertently against hers. Smooth, cool skin.
     He inhaled. “You wore perfume to come and kill me?”
     A ribbon of tension rippled through her, but nothing for him to be alarmed at. Yet. She took a long, shuddering breath before she spoke.
     “I wasn’t coming here to kill you at first.”
     “No?” He couldn’t help himself. He burrowed into the space above her shoulder.  His lips brushed her neck. Just enough to still be accidental. He hoped.
     “I first thought I would…I came her to…” She let out a sigh, defeated. “I thought I would seduce you.”
     Fierce, hot lust slammed into him. He stiffened and hoped that the quilt was strategically wedged between them.
     “But when I saw you, I realized I had no idea how to seduce a man. So I thought it would just be easier to kill you.”
     Laughter erupted out of him.

Me, too.

The Taming of Mei Lin Review

A local corrupt magistrate has proposed marriage to Wu Mei Lin and it’s not an honorable proposal, but an offer to make her his second concubine. Though it will buy her family a certain amount of freedom, Mei Lin can’t do it. She promises she will marry the man who can best her in a sword fight, never foreseeing the number of brutes her estranged suitor will send against her and her family. Then one day a handsome stranger comes to town….

I really enjoyed this story, but not just because of the quality of writing or plotting or anything “writerly,” and not because the author is a friend. My enjoyment was for personal reasons.

Like Mei Lin, I have the same problem with my hair never staying out of my face. Neither Mei Lin nor I have ever felt particularly pretty, either.  And then there was the following scene. It comes at the end of the hero and heroine’s sword fight:

     “You’re good” he said.
     She parried and twisted his blade aside. “I don’t need you to tell me.”
     He grinned and pushed her further until she had to fight for balance. She wasn’t done yet. Boldly she ventured closer to where his longer blade would be less effective. Most practitioners weren’t comfortable there, but Shen Leung found her rhythm and flowed with her. The edge of his weapon broke through her guard.She stepped back, knowing it was too late.
     But he missed.
     The blade whistled past her ear. She stared at him in shock while he regained his stance and prepared for another advance.
     She had him. It had nothing to do with skill. They were closely matched in training, but there was so much more that went into a fight. The honorable Shen Leung was unwilling to hurt her. He didn’t realize it yet, but the battle was hers if she wanted it.
     With her new confidence, she could see all the openings. A warrior had to be ruthless and strategic. That was what she had been taught. He became a series of targets in her eyes. All she needed to do was catch another moment of hesitation and she would break through.
     And once she won… what then?
     Someone else would come. Another one of Zhou’s henchmen now that he was bent on revenge. Or maybe no one would ever defeat her or care to approach her with a serious marriage proposal. She’d have nothing but this speck of a town and the noodle stand. Shen Leung’s arrival had broken through the clouds. She might never feel this way again about anyone.
     They said he was a good man, a just and courageous one.
     She decided then. She met his attack edge on edge, loosening her grip slightly with the impact of their blades and the strength of his next attempt wrenched the hilt from her grasp. A collective murmur went through the crowd when her sword fell to the dirt. For a second, it almost seemed they had been cheering for her. Supporting the local madwoman.
     Shen Leung’s sword darted forward to stop just shy of her throat. She grew still beneath his gaze. He regarded her with admiration and something else, a fire she’d never seen before.
     He rested the tip of the blade gently against her collarbone, almost like a caress. “Do I need to draw blood, my lady?” he asked softly.
     He had already pierced her, deeper than he knew.
     It was Wang who broke the standoff. “Claim your prize, Master Shen!”
     The blade fell back. The exertion of the battle began to sink into her along with the oppressive heat of the afternoon. She wanted to wipe the perspiration from her face, but she didn’t dare move. She didn’t dare breathe as she watched Shen Leung’s reaction.
     “Take your bride,” Wang said. “From your battle, we can see your wedding night will be quite an adventure.”
     His cronies hooted with laughter. She considered blackening both of Wang’s eyes and perhaps breaking his nose as well.
     “Don’t be ridiculous, brother Wang,” Shen Leung looked embarrassed when he glanced back at her. “There will be no wedding.”
     Her chest squeezed tight. Heat rushed up her neck and flooded her face while he bowed once more. The noble swordsman didn’t want her.
     “Thank you for the match. Lady Wu is a formidable opponent.” He turned to leave. The cronies chanted their congratulations and ushered him toward the taverns to celebrate.
     Mei Lin was left alone, her sword fallen in the dust. The curious eyes of the townspeople bore into her while the cruel sun beat down upon her back.
It’s one thing to be sought after without wanting the attention. It’s quite another to make your choice as to where you will go and with whom, only to find out you’re unwanted. I’ve been in that situation and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. At the end of this scene which is also the end of Chapter One, I had wet cheeks. In short, I had a strong character identification within a few paragraphs. And isn’t that one definition of quality writing?

The fight scenes are filled with realistic action and the love scenes are tastefully done, but after the opening scene, what grabbed me most unexpectedly about this story was the humor. I noticed I smiled a lot while reading, which is always something I cherish. Making me smile or laugh aloud is a far more difficult trick than making me cry and Jeannie Lin accomplished both. I’ll share one of the fun situations tomorrow, so make sure you tune in. (I typed it up today and ended up re-reading the entire scene because it still makes me laugh.)

In closing, I wish more time had been given over toward character development and showing us the world these characters live in. Not because the story lacked those things, but because I could have happily lived there far longer.  Fortunately, this was the first of at least two Jeannie Lin adventures set in the Tang Dynasty. “The Taming of Mei Lin” is the romance of a character who also appears in Jeannie Lin’s “Butterfly Swords,” but you don’t have to read Mei Lin’s story first; just make sure you do read them both. “The Taming of Mei Lin” is available from (via kindle), E-Harlequin, and on the Nook. “Butterfly Swords” will be in bookstores on October 1st, but you can order it from now.

Finally, make sure you head over to Jeannie Lin’s blog for other book and story coverage and to her contest page (select the linked picture to the right) for upcoming opportunities to win all sorts of prizes including twin butterfly swords!

Coming later this week, a guest blog from Jeannie Lin, author of “The Taming of Mei Lin” and “Butterfly Swords.”