I Love Wuxia and Cultivation Novels, So Why Do So Many Chinese-Inspired Fantasy Novels Written in English Turn Me Off?

Why am I still into wuxia ten years after it first sucked me in? What do I find so appealing about wuxia and, to a lesser degree, xianxia/xuanhuan? And why can’t I find it in original English-language works?

This year, I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese-inspired fantasy novels originally written in English. I’ve wondered if any of these novels capture the qualities which attract me to wuxia/xianxia/xuanhuan. The answer is no.

A few years back, I commented that The Grace of Kings is firmly western fantasy (and Ken Liu says the same). I still see it that way. That is despite the fact that it pulls much more from Chinese language literary traditions than most of the Chinese-inspired fantasy I’ve been reading in English. R.F. Kuang also asserts that her novels belong to the ‘western fantasy’ tradition, and she’s another novelist who pulls more from Chinese history/culture/literature than most of the Chinese-inspired-fantasy-in-English writers.

What am I looking for? Not western fantasy. When I was an adolescent, I read a ton of western fantasy, but at some point, I split ways with the genre. Nowadays, when I see ads for fantasy novels, my default reaction is boredom. That surprises me, to be honest.

Some Chinese-inspired fantasies (or fantasies which combine Chinese inspirations with other East Asian cultures for a pan-East-Asian milieu) are basically western fantasy novels which swapped the European names and settings for Chinese (or other Asian) names and settings. People wanting to write/read that is fine, but it’s not what I want.

R.F. Kuang dislikes that so many people recommend The Poppy War to people who like The Grace of Kings because those are two different reading experiences; she claims that people make those recommendations because they have such a reductive view of Chinese (diaspora) writers that they dump them all into a single subgenre, as if ethnically Chinese writers can’t write multiple genres/subgenres. R.F. Kuang questions the entire notion of ‘Asian Fantasy’. Though my thoughts are not identical to hers, I’m also finding that the more I explore ‘Asian Fantasy’ the less I like the label. I see it, at best, as something one must use/endure for effective marketing. (Marketing to other readers that is; it’s a terrible way to market to me).

In this recent post I looked at one thing which might make me lean more towards wuxia & adjacent genres and away from western fantasy, but I think that’s only a small part. In fact, it’s so small that dedicating an entire post to that might have blown it out of proportion.

What I would really like to see in English something that makes me feel the same way the wuxia and wuxia-adjacent books written in Chinese make me feel. Just changing the names and settings of a western fantasy story doesn’t cut it.

Do I want to recognize Chinese culture in my reading? A little. I enjoy recognizing references. But if that was what I was driving me, I should also have a strong interest in Japanese-inspired fantasy. Which I don’t.

I speak some Japanese (though I’m far from fluent), I spent six months in Japan, there was a time when I read a LOT of manga, etc. If I was looking for recognition of familiar cultural features, Japanese-inspired fantasy should attract me too. It doesn’t.

While looking for Chinese-inspired fantasy novels, I run into a lot of Japanese-inspired fantasy novels, and I am just as disinterested in them as the medieval-European-inspired stuff.

So cultural markers, whether it’s surface level things such as names and locations, or even deeper things such as allusions to Chinese literature, aren’t what draws me. So what is it?

What I’m looking for is something more like The Black Trillium. Since that novel was published over five years ago with many loose plot threads and still doesn’t have a sequel, I can’t recommend it. But I’d rather have a novel with an wuxia sensibility set in Canada than a western fantasy novel set in (pseudo-)China.

You know what I’d love to see? An wuxia novel set in Ancient Greece between the disintegration of Alexander’s empire and the Roman conquest. Stoicism and Epicureanism flourished because they gave people hope that, even they could do nothing to improve their failing governments and it was only a matter of time before the barbarian Roman enslaved them, individuals could still enjoy satisfying lives. Also, most free adult males had some martial arts experience/training. That period has so many parallels between the fall of the Song Dynasty/Mongol Invasion and the fall of the Ming Dynasty/Manchu Invasion that many wuxia tropes would transfer nicely.

For years, based on reading fantasy reviewers, I’ve seen that when fantasy readers express an interest in ‘Chinese fantasy’, they do it by… looking for western fantasy books written in English with a Chinese setting. And then they praise it for being ‘unique’ and ‘original’. It rarely occurs to them to read Chinese books in English translation. (Also, as someone who has read over a hundred novels in Chinese which have Chinese or pseudo-Chinese settings, I am far past thinking that Chinese-inspired settings are ‘unique’ just because they are Chinese-inspired). It’s as if they are trapped in a tunnel of western fantasy, and though they claim they want something different, really, they just want western fantasy with Chinese flavoring, not cultivated primarily from Chinese culture.

Perhaps I am no different. After all, I just said that I’d love to see wuxia set in Ancient Greece. Maybe I am asking for a shallow ‘Ancient Greek’ flavoring to ‘spice up’ my wuxia without deviating from traditional wuxia in any profound way. As opposed to, say, looking for a novel deeply rooted in Alexandrian-era Greek culture.

And maybe I’m making it look like black and white when it’s really shades of grey. Many speculative fiction novels in English have been influence by Chinese-speaking cultures to varying degrees, just as many speculative fiction novels in Chinese have been influenced by English-speaking cultures to varying degrees.

If, for example, some Chinese Americans wants to see themselves in western fantasy, and specifically in western fantasy, not subgenres which originated in China, I have no problem with that.

Meanwhile, it seems to me that most of the people who read Chinese > English translations of xianxia/xuanhuan novel don’t do it because they want to pour ‘Chinese’ sauce onto their western fantasy stories, they read the translations because they were like ‘hey, cool story, I like this, more please.’

I’m coming to the conclusion that… I should just read stuff written in Chinese. Finding wuxia/xianxia/xuanhuan which really feels like wuxia/xianxia/xuanhuan in Chinese is easy. I have some more Chinese-inspired fantasy books written in English on my to-be-read list. After those, I’m probably going to stop looking, at least for a while. I’m glad I read what I read and became familiar with what’s been published in English since The Black Trillium came out, but it’s not what I hoped to find.

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