Someone Put Japanese Names in the China-Coded Fantasy Fiction I’m Reading. Why Am I Surprised? (not a rhetorical question)

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of anglophone (i.e. originally written in English) fantasy fiction set in pseudo-China. The prevalence of Japanese-sounding names and obvious analogues for Japan strikes me.

The first question is: why do so many anglophone fantasy writers put (pseudo-)Japanese in their (pseudo-)China?The second question is: why do I find this surprising?

Since I am a thousand times better at reading my mind than reading other people’s minds, I’ll start with the second question.

Before I learned Mandarin, I read a few fantasy novels in China-coded setting (such as Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep). However, the overwhelming majority of speculative fiction I’ve read with any kind of Chinese setting has been wuxia, xianxia, xuanhuan, and qihuan originally written in Chinese. Since ‘wuxia, xianxia, xuanhuan, and qihuan’ is a mouthful, I’m just going to lump them all under ‘fantastical fiction’. Thus, in my mind, fantastical fiction written in Chinese sets the standard for what I expect for a fantasy story set in (pseudo-)China.

Guess what: references to Japan, Japanese people, or recognizable analogues are rare in what is written in Chinese.

I cannot recall one reference to Japan or Japanese people in any of Jin Yong’s wuxia novels. What I remember are references to: Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols, Tanguts, Miao, Russians, Portuguese, Manchu/Jurchens, Khitans, and Bai. I’m sure I’m forgetting some ethnic groups. (Some of those ethnic groups are so little-known in English that my spellchecker flags them).

I recall a few brief references to Japanese people in Gu Long’s novels (note: I haven’t read every Gu Long wuxia novel). The protagonist of Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero by Zheng Feng interacts with Japanese people and even spends some years (off-page) living in Japan; that is the most blatant reference to Japan I have found in fantastical fiction originally written in Chinese.

So when I encountered one fantasy novel after another in a China-coded setting with blatant references to a Japan-analogue (Descendant of the Crane, The Poppy War, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns) my eyebrows were raised.

Looking at that list of ethnic groups which appear in Jin Yong’s fiction, I see a pattern: they are all ethnic groups which are officially recognized as ethnic groups of China, would almost certainly be recognized if they were not currently assimilated into other groups (Khitan, Tangut), or are a major ethnic group in a special-administration region (Macau/Portuguese). Yes, ‘Russian’ is one of the officially recognized ethnic groups of China. Jin Yong constrained himself to ethnic groups which are included in the 20th century conception of China… which excludes Japanese. Clearly, not all 20th century wuxia writers (*cough* Gu Long *cough*) avoided mentioning Japanese people, but the focus was on the peoples of ‘China’ as understood in the 20th century.

That raises another question: what about Koreans? Koreans are also an officially recognized ethnic group of China. Koreans have had a big impact on Chinese history. The only wuxia novel (or any other work of Chinese fantastical fiction) I recall with Koreans is, once again, Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero by Zheng Feng. Heck, one story arc takes place in Korea, one of the major characters is Korean. But why only that novel? My only answer is… too speculative to share in public.

Getting back to books written in English…

The reason The Poppy War has a Japan analogue (Mugen) is obvious: it’s inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, including the Nanjing Massacre. The reason for including (pseudo-)Japan and Japanese names in Descendant of the Crane and Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is not obvious.

My speculation is that, other than China, Japan is by far the most visible East Asian culture among English-speakers. To serve an English-speaking audience, these writers code the not-Chinese ethnicity as Japanese, and the neighboring country an archipelago with a Japanese-sounding name.

People writing in English conform to the mental maps of East Asia shared by a preponderance of English speakers, in which China and Japan loom large, and other ethnic groups (including ethnic minorities within China and Japan) are hardly visible. These novelists write to their reader’s expectations. I’m an oddball because I’m a native English speaker who has considerable exposure to a different way of mapping out ethnic geography in East Asia.

To be fair, The Poppy War also has ‘Hinterlanders’ who seem to be coded as Uighurs, albeit Uighurs from the era when they practiced shamanism and not Manichaeism or Islam (or maybe they are intended to be pseudo-Mongols, or an amalgam of Central Asian ethnic groups). The Poppy War also shows cultural/ethnic diversity within Nikara (pseudo-China) by showing cultural differences between the north and south, including colorism towards the darker-skinned southerners.

Again, where are the (pseudo-)Koreans? A few fantasy novels in English based on Korean culture/history are in my long TBR list, but I have not read any yet. I have read translations of a few fantasy stories written in Korean, but none of them were set in (pseudo-)Korea. The presence of pseudo-Japanese without pseudo-Koreans… to me, it’s conspicuous.

Also… Vietnamese? The only Chinese fantastical fiction novel I can think of which has a story arc in Vietnam and some Vietnamese characters is, surprise-surprise, another novel by Zheng Feng (specifically, The Fantastic Theft of the World).

Though Korean pop culture is becoming more popular among English speakers every year, that awareness does not seem to have penetrated the English-language reading public. Hence, the disproportionate presence of pseudo-Japan versus pseudo-Korea.

I want to point out one major exception: the Dandelion Dynasty series by Ken Liu. An ethnic group which is Austronesian-coded is featured (Austronesians inhabited southeastern China prior to the arrival of Chinese-speakers, and are the indigenous people of Taiwan), as well as an analogue for the Xiongnu (whose ethnic origins are a historical mystery). This is a different map of ethnicity within Chinese society from any other work I’ve discussed. It makes sense given that it’s based on late Qin/early Han China.

You could argue that fantastical fiction written in Chinese should not be my default for how I imagine fantastical East-Asian settings. But, for better or worse, that is how I read. Thus, seeing East Asian settings which have pseudo-Chinese and pseudo-Japanese and no other ethnic groups (no pseudo-Korean? no pseudo-Miao? no pseudo-Manchu?) breaks my suspension of disbelief. Ironically, seeing how East Asia is depicted in fantastical fiction written for anglophone audiences (which theoretically includes me) helps me better understand my own mental map of East Asia.

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