Continued from Part 1.
I want to bring up Chen Changsheng’s thousands of swords again, the material item which he has in the most surprising quantity. Those swords are quasi-conscious. They have (very limited) agency. Without someone to wield them, they can, with great difficulty, take a very restricted range of actions independently, which means that on their own they don’t do much but might occasionally do something. When they are being wielded, they can choose whether to assist or resist the wielder, so they are only useful to Chen Changsheng when they are willing to go along with him. They also form memories.
On top of all that, the swords can fly. That is how Chen Changsheng can use 1000+ swords at once in a fight – he is conducting/coordinating them rather than physically moving every single one with his hands. You can see a clip of this in the live-action adaptation and you can also briefly spot in in the 5th season opening of the animated adaptation.
This is far from a new idea in Chinese xia fiction. It’s a trope of wuxia that swords just might have a bit of a life of their own, shaped by how they have been wielded in the past. Being xuanhuan rather than wuxia, Way of Choices gets to push this old trope in a much more fantastical direction.
What does this have to do with Marie Kondo?
Many people have noticed that Marie Kondo is a Shintoist, and she says in her first book that she was a Shinto shrine maiden for a while. As articles like this point out:
Kami are Shinto spirits present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects. At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort. I could consider a spatula used to cook my eggs with the wonder and mindful appreciation you’d afford a sculpture; someone had to invent it, many human hands and earthly resources helped get it to me, and now I use it every day. According to Shinto animism, some inanimate objects could gain a soul after 100 years of service ―a concept know as tsukumogami ― so it felt natural to acknowledge them, to express my gratitude for them.
In the world of Way of Choices, this is similar to how swords become quasi-conscious. They only develop a level of awareness after being wielded by great warriors for a few centuries. (Obviously, all of Chen Changsheng’s swords are secondhand, since he hasn’t been alive nearly long enough to bring a brand new sword to quasi-consciousness).
The world of Way of Choices is not based on Shintoism. But as articles like this point out, there are other Asian cultures, such as some (all?) Hindu cultures, which also have animist beliefs about material objects:
The reception to Kondo has made me realize how bright the line is between the animist and the — let’s call it concretist. The East and West, if you will. I grew up Hindu and learned early on that everything, even a chair, houses life. Certain items get major billing; if you touch a book with your foot by mistake, you ask forgiveness of it. Animism imprinted on me hard. In a practical sense, I think it’s made me an ecologically minded, sensitive person. I believe that everything is interconnected and matters. (Kondo gave me the tools to manage the other side of animism, which can lead to hoarding.)
China historically has had lots of contact with both Hindu cultures and Japan, as well as its own folk religious beliefs which accept various degrees of animism. Though the world of Way of Choices clearly a pseudo-China, technically it’s not China and doesn’t have to be historically/culturally accurate to China. Though swords seem to develop something like the Shinto notion of ‘kami’ as they are connected to their wielders, they are treated as a special category of material objects. Most material objects don’t develop awareness/will, even after centuries of use, in Chen Chengshang’s world. Nonetheless, I find it an interesting overlap.
There is an idea floating out there of ‘be a minimalist so you can be a maximalist’ i.e. be a minimalist in all of the things which are less important to you so that you can put more time/energy/money/etc. into being a maximalist in what is important to you. This isn’t quite what Marie Kondo recommends, but it’s fairly close.
Chen Changsheng is an extremist of ‘be a minimalist so you can be a maximalist’. Even though he is very economically privileged and could afford to live a very luxurious life if he were interested, he prefers to keep his lifestyle habits (clothing, food, etc.) very plain and simple. Except cleanliness is very important to him, so he is a maximalist in that regard (at one point in the story, a character is able to identify which room is Chen Changsheng’s bedroom because it’s the one without a single speck of dust). But he’s not perfect in his regard – at the beginning of the story he’s a teetotaler (alcohol is a waste of time/money/etc.), but later on he develops a bit of a alcohol abuse problem because he’s under too much stress.
But the main thing Chen Changsheng is a maximalist about is extending his life past the age of twenty. He cuts out as much in his life as possible which doesn’t contribute to him living past the age of twenty. For example, he’s noted for not holding grudges – that has less to do with him being a nice guy, and more to do with him not wanting to waste precious time on getting something as useless as revenge (though on rare occasions, he will be so offended that he figures that revenge is worthwhile after all). He also (again, with rare exceptions) refuses to let other people’s mockery/derogations/etc. get to him because he doesn’t have time to worry about other people’s bad opinions of him. He is very clear about his goal, and he is willing to ditch a lot of things which most people wouldn’t ditch because he need to either become a god or altar his fate (which is considered even harder than becoming a god) within just a few years.
And that brings me to the final theme I want to mention – mortality.
Given that Chen Changsheng has a terminal and incurable disease which is supposed to kill him before he reaches the age of twenty, a lot of the story is about mortality. The novel often contrasts him with other boys who believe that their deaths are very far in the future. Having his mortality shoved in his face since he was ten years old is a large part of why Chen Changsheng has a ‘minimalist to be a maximalist’ mindset. He’s a minimalist when it comes to clothing, because clothing doesn’t save his life, but he’s a maximalist when it comes to swords, because swords save his life multiple times.
This essay explores the implicit theme of death in Marie Kondo’s books. A book which is famous for discussing death and decluttering in a much more explicit way is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margeta Magnusson. But it’s actually a pretty widespread idea in discussions of managing accumulated possessions. I recently read Secondhand by Adam Minter, in which he investigates, among other things, how items are cleared out from the homes of deceased people. He says that the people he interviewed who work in the home clearout industry say that their work has caused them to keep fewer material items so that less stuff will stick around after their deaths, and Minter himself says that the best decluttering advice is to thing seriously about what will happen to all of your stuff after you are dead.
This isn’t the same as Chen Changsheng’s position – he is so focused on not dying young, no matter how slim his odds are, that he isn’t too concerned about what will happen to his material possessions after he dies. He is concerned enough about what will happen to his body that he makes some arrangements in that regard, but that is mainly because his body (specifically, his blood) is far more valuable than any of his material possessions (yes, even the thousands of swords), that who will get his body is a much bigger deal than who will get his stuff. On the other hand, the fact that he has his mortality shoved in his face because that he doesn’t have much motivation to accumulate material goods, since he is unlikely to have much time to benefit from them.
I admit that this is one of the weirder posts on this blog, and I have no idea who would be interested in reading something as wacky as this post series. If you somehow managed to read this to the end, I hope it was worth your while. Thank you.