What Does Being Jewish Have to do with Liking Wuxia/Xuanhuan/etc.?

Ten years ago, if you had asked, “Will you still be into wuxia ten years from now?” I would have blanked at trying to imagine anything about myself ten years in the future said “probably not.”

Nowadays my taste for wuxia has expanded into a taste for xuanhuan and other Chinese-themed fantasy (personally I don’t consider wuxia to be ‘fantasy’, but it’s a trivial hairsplitting of genre definitions, I will not argue with people who say that wuxia is a subset of ‘fantasy’). I don’t spend nearly as much time reading traditional wuxia as I did, say, eight years ago. Yet it’s still clear that, even today, I am much more excited about reading/watching wuxia/xuanhuan/etc. than European-inspired fantasy.

Why?

I don’t think there is One True Answer… but a partial answer is ‘I’m Jewish’. Or more precisely, ‘my specific experience of being Jewish, which is not necessarily the experience of other Jews.’

Medieval Europeans persecuted Jews – my ancestors – a lot. Most medieval European and pseudo-European fantasy stories don’t touch on that, which is great. The persecution did not stop in medieval times – even today, in some European countries, Jews are more likely to be targeted for violence than the average citizen. It’s not something I consciously think about when I’m reading/watching medieval pseudo-European fantasy… but I have a faint, lingering unease. It’s so faint that I didn’t notice it until it was gone.

East Asia has no history of systematically persecuting Jews. Yes, there are examples of East Asian governments oppressing Jews, but compared to what happened in Europe, what East Asian societies have done is nothing.

Some Anglo-centric speculative fiction subgenres are set in places without histories of systemic oppression of Jews. Space opera, for example. These days, I have more fondness for space opera than any other subgenre of speculative fiction predominantly produced in English. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s not.

It took me spending two years almost completely cutting English-language fiction out of my reading life for me to feel the difference.

Living in Taiwan reinforced that feeling. A woman I knew was attacked for being Jewish in San Francisco, and I’ve heard about other incidents. The odds that anyone will commit violence against me because I’m Jewish in San Francisco are very low, but as Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking Fast and Slow, the psychological difference between ‘very unlikely to happen’ and ‘not going to happen’ is huge. In Taiwan, violence against people for being Jewish is at the ‘not going to happen’ level. And Taiwan lacks the weight of centuries of persecution of Jews. Moving to Taiwan made more of a difference in this regard than I expected.

I heard Taiwanese people make ignorant remarks about Jews. These remarks entertained me. I don’t expect Taiwanese people to know much about Jews, and their ignorance was innocent.

That extends to wuxia. Wuxia can be set anywhere on Earth, but usually centers China, especially Imperial China. Imperial China (specifically the Tang and Song dynasties) treated Jewish subjects as well as they treated their other subjects.

Wuxia does entail the oppression of other ethnic groups. For example, Jin Yong’s wuxia novels are so stridently anti-Tibetan that, the first time I read them, I wondered why he had such an axe to grind against Tibetans. As a non-Tibetan, I can brush off anti-Tibetanism without feeling hurt. If I were Tibetan, my reaction would be…. different.

The Tang and Song dynasties did not always treat ethnic minorities well. Right now, I’m reading a book about the Uighur Empire as depicted in the Tang dynastic histories. There was bad blood on both sides, but they also formed multiple strategic alliances. The Uighur/Chinese relationship was extremely complicated, made even more complicated by Tibetans, Sogdians, and other ethnic groups who held power along the Silk Road. Sometimes, the Tang Dynasty acted unjustly, such as banning Uighur and Sogdian merchants from dressing like Chinese people, then expelling some of them and forcing them to separate from their Chinese wives, or massacring Uighurs who had not wronged the Chinese. To the extent that the Tang rulers treated Jews better than Uighurs/Sogdians/Tibetans/etc. it was because the Jews were not a threat. The Uighurs did sack Chang’an and Luoyang multiple times and treated the residents brutally; Tibetans likewise; a Sogdian general (An Lushan) almost toppled the Tang Dynasty (the Tang would have fallen without Uighur military support). Jews in Tang China could do none of that.

This is not just ancient history, the PRC government is oppressing the Uighurs right now on a scale the Tang Dynasty never attempted (content warning: forced sterilization, rape, torture, internment).

So, wuxia/xuanhuan/etc. have just as much of a background of systemic oppression of minorities as medieval-European-based fantasy, I am just personally further removed.

Representation is important (there is a ‘Jews in Space’ tag on Archive of Our Own for space opera fanfic with Jewish characters), but the opposite can also help; not being involved. Not in a ‘we’re going to totally ignore your existence even where you exist’ way (such as writing about a ‘United States’ in which everyone is white, not just in enclaves which actually are all-white, but across the society, despite the real United States not being all-white), but in a ‘your historical baggage is not relevant to this context’ way.

During the Passover seder, the boiled egg symbolizes that oppression makes us (the Jews) stronger. That’s a large component of Jewish culture – enduring persecution has meaning because it strengthens us and shows our virtue. It’s a culture for survivors, for processing trauma in a certain way. But sometimes, it’s nice to let go. For me at least, even the most wish-fulfilment, blissful, fluffy depictions of Jews in fiction don’t 100% shed that. They don’t shed it as thoroughly as martial artists having adventures in East Asia.

Because human societies around the world are messy and have painful legacies, I don’t think it’s possible to write fiction which does not touch on someone’s painful legacy. But getting away from one of your own painful legacies is nice.

4 thoughts on “What Does Being Jewish Have to do with Liking Wuxia/Xuanhuan/etc.?

  1. Interesting thoughts here, given that I’ve produced four novels and a few shorter things quasi-mediaeval Eurocentric Fantasy. Inventing pagan societies with magic is indeed a nice out of having to think about my home country’s still-ongoing fallacies where Jewish people are concerned.
    Anyway, your post is a reminder to never forget any society’s ability to use minorities to create a common foe or destroy said minority for power and/or profit.

    • To be fair, I don’t blame writers of quasi-medieval Eurocentric Fantasy. Perhaps there are Tibetans out there who appreciate quasi-medieval Eurocentric Fantasy because medieval Europe had almost nothing to do with Tibet, thus no complicated history (my dad once read a Sherlock Holmes novel written by a Tibetan, though Arthur Conan Dolye did mention in one story that Sherlock Holmes travelled to Tibet, hence the Tibetan novelist’s interest).

      • I really didn’t read it as blame. But it is an opportunity for reflection from a point of view that hadn’t occurred to me before.

  2. Pingback: I Love Wuxia and Cultivation Novels, So Why Do So Many Chinese-Inspired Fantasy Novels Written in English Turn Me Off? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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