What Makes a Story Wuxia? The Grace of Kings vs. The Black Trillium

Cover of The Grace of Kings

I recently read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. I enjoyed it.

I was thrown off by this blurb from Wes Chu “Ken Liu wrote the Wuxia version of Game of Thrones.” As far as I could tell, The Grace of Kings is not wuxia at all. Wes Chu is entitled to his opinion, but because I read the blurb before I read the novel, I was looking forward to some wuxia elements, and was disappointed when I did not find them. That is unfair to the novel, because it is very good on its own terms.

To me, The Grace of Kings is a Western epic fantasy which is heavily influenced by ancient Chinese history. And it seems that Ken Liu himself agrees with me. In interviews, he says that The Grace of Kings is ‘Western epic fantasy’ with a ‘silkpunk’ aesthetic, which I think is accurate, and would have given me a better idea of what to expect.

I did not know the premise of the novel before I read it, but I figured out pretty quickly that Emperor Mapidéré = Qin Huangdi, Kuni Garu = Liu Bang, etc. – it is obvious to any reader who has the slightest clue about that era in ancient Chinese history. My classmates in my middle school would have made at least some of the connections, and most of them were not history buffs. (By the way, if you do not already know the history of the early Han dynasty and plan to read this novel, FINISH THE NOVEL BEFORE YOU DO ANY HISTORICAL RESEARCH, because the historical research will spoil the plot of the novel for you).

This was the textbook we used in the middle school history class where we covered the Qin and Han dynasties – though our teacher taught us a bunch of extra stuff about Qin Huangdi, I guess she was really interested in him.

But being influenced by Chinese history does not make a story wuxia, just as the fact that George R.R. Martin was influenced by the War of the Roses does not mean that Game of Thrones is an Elizabethan history play.

To be sure, wuxia is one of the creative influences on The Grace of Kings, but so is Homer’s epics. In my opinion, it would make just as much sense to say that The Grace of Kings is the ‘Homeric’ version of Game of Thrones.

In wuxia, things which stretch or even break the limits of nature as currently understood are quite common – such as a character with superhuman skill – but blatantly magical/supernatural/divine stuff is off-limits. For example, in The Romance of the White-Haired Maiden, the protagonist was raised by wolves, she is so shocked by her lover’s betrayal that her hair turns white overnight, and the only way to restore her original hair color is a flower which only blooms once every hundred years (or was it sixty years – it’s been years since I read the book). Improbable, but it does not require a magical/supernatural/divine explanation. There is just barely enough fantastical elements to separate wuxia from historical fiction, but no more than that (Simon McNeil discusses this in greater length).

In The Grace of Kings, there are gods who are bickering with each other and manipulating mortals. This does not happen in wuxia. As soon as gods are active characters in a story, it is no longer wuxia, it is xianxia or xuanhuan or some other genre. The bickering gods act like they came out of the Iliad, so that is an example of Homeric influence.

This is a scene from a famous wuxia story which takes place in Russia.

Another thing which makes The Grace of Kings ~not wuxia~ is the fact that it is a secondary fantasy. Wuxia (theoretically) takes place in our world, usually in China between the Tang and Qing dynasties, but it can also be set in Vietnam, Russia, Joseon-dynasty Korea, Kazakhstan, 1930s Chicago, 1980s Changhua, etc. Honestly, I am slightly surprised that I have not found an wuxia story set in California, though I am sure it exists somewhere. However, if it is secondary fantasy i.e. set in a world other than ours, it is xianxia or xuanhuan or some other genre.

Cover of The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

Let’s talk more about that wuxia story set in Toronto, The Black Trillium which I blogged about. The characters are all thoroughly Canadian (except the characters from Seattle). Yet it is a story I recognize as wuxia. Aside from the fact that The Black Trillium is set in our world and refrains from blatantly magical/supernatural/divine stuff, what makes it wuxia?

There is a mounty and a hockey player in the Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. Mouty: You are a threat to the Wulin. Young martial artists watch so much ice hockey they no longer train. I must stop your corruption of our tradition by force, sorry. Hockey Player: I will beat you with my Star-Thwacking-Hockey-Stick Skill, sorry.

This is Canadian wuxia (actually, The Black Trillium is nothing like this, I just wanted to have fun with stereotypes).

Another essential element of wuxia is the development of the characters’ specific skills, or at least how they use their specific skills. Usually this means their martial arts skills, though it could be something else, such as making/deploying poison (I read an wuxia novel where the protagonist has to become a master poisoner and then win a tournament where the various poisoners engage in duels where they try to out-poison each other). We see this in spades in The Black Trillium. We do not see much of this in The Grace of Kings. Yes, the characters get wiser, but we do not see them perfecting their techniques. (In great wuxia, the techniques are used as metaphors to give the story a deeper meaning).

For me, one of the most essential parts of wuxia is the opera. A lot of wuxia stories, if you strip away the swords and the kung-fu and the training, are practically soap operas, i.e. ‘someone murdered my dad, and I fell in love with this girl/boy, but her/his dad is the dude who murdered my dad, and if I kill her/his dad for vengeance I won’t be able to marry her/him, oh woe is me’. The personal relationships of the characters come first in the story, even in the wuxia stories which have an obvious political message. While I had some complaints about how The Black Trillium did this, I do recognize that it was at least trying to do this. By contrast, The Grace of Kings puts more focus on the course of history than on the personal relations of the characters.

The Grace of Kings does have a lot of themes in common with Datang Shuanglong Zhuan by Huang Yi. Just as The Grace of Kings is about taking down the Qin dynasty Emperor Mapidéré’s empire and establishing the Han dynasty the Dandelion dynasty, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan is about taking down the Sui dynasty and establishing the Tang dynasty. Just as The Grace of Kings has a protagonist of low-class birth who aspires to become the emperor of China Dara, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan has a protagonist of low-class birth who aspires to become the emperor of China. Just as The Grace of Kings features two sworn brothers who eventually find themselves in bitter conflict because they have different visions for the future of China Dara, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan features two sworn brothers who eventually find themselves in bitter conflict because they have different visions for the future of China, and so forth.

Book cover for Datang Shuanglong Zhuan.

Why is Datang Shuanglong Zhuan wuxia even though The Grace of Kings is not? Pretty much everything I explained above. Datang Shuanglong Zhuan is set in our world (specifically Sui/Tang dynasty China), there is a lot about how the protagonists develop their martial arts techniques, the absence of divine/supernatural beings, etc.

Most of all, in The Grace of Kings, the political upheavals take center stage, and the relationship between the protagonists feels like an incidental part of the story, almost forced. The protagonists consider their brotherhood disposable, so when they have to choose between their relationship and their ideals/dreams, the choice is easy. You could take away the brotherhood in The Grace of Kings, and though the protagonists would have a bit of a change in their motivations, the story would still be basically the same.

In Datang Shuanglong Zhuan, the relationship between the brothers is the heart and soul of the story. Unlike the protagonists in The Grace of Kings, the protagonists in Datang Shuanglong Zhuan do NOT consider their brotherhood disposable, so when they are forced to choose between their relationship and their ideals/dreams, they are really between a rock and a hard place, which is the most compelling part of the novel (if they treated their relationship as disposable, one would simply kill the other, and the novel would be about 4000 pages shorter). Taking the political/historical content out of Datang Shuanglong Zhuan would be a HUGE change, but taking away the relationship between the male protagonists would totally and utterly gut the novel.

This reflects a broad difference between wuxia and Western epic fantasy. Yes, the conditions of the world / the tides of history can be important in wuxia, and personal relationships can be important in Western epic fantasy, but in general, an wuxia story is going to emphasize dealing with intense personal problems, and a Western epic fantasy is going to emphasize saving the world, or at least the nation.

To me, just about everything in The Grace of Kings feels like Western epic fantasy. Even the use of inspiration from non-Western cultures feels like Western epic fantasy; there are plenty of other Western epic fantasies (the works of N.K. Jemisin or Ursula K. LeGuin for example) which do that too.

In spite of being written by a white dude in English and set in Canada, The Black Trillium feels way more like wuxia than Western epic fantasy.

Of course, I’m not the official arbitrator of what is real wuxia and what is not real wuxia. After all, I disagree with some parts of the TVTropes descriptions/definition, and you have no reason to trust me more than TVTropes. The post reflects my very subjective idea of what wuxia is. An wuxia fan who does not care so much about whether there is a limit on magical/supernatural/divine elements, whether there is skill-building, or whether there is an emphasis on personal relations, but DOES care about whether there are allusions to classical Chinese history/literature, might recognize The Grace of Kings, and not The Black Trillium, as wuxia.

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A New Appreciation for Guo Fu

Annie Liu as Guo Fu in Return of the Condor Heroes 1983

Guo Fu is the Hate Sink in Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. She’s not a villain – she’s loyal to her country and her family, she never actually murders anybody innocent (though she tries), and she never sexually assaults anybody. However, she is just about the most unlikeable character who is not a villain. She’s a spoiled brat, she has no humility, and she’s a bully.

Even though I’ve written a lot of other posts about Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, I think I have hardly written anything about Guo Fu before (have I even mentioned her before on this blog?) That’s because I never had much to say. She’s not a total two-dimensional character in the original novel – there are nuances which suggest that Guo Fu is a complex human being (more so than, for example, Dolores Umbridge) – but there are so many other things going on in the novel which are so much more interesting that my attention never centered on Guo Fu’s character.

This is the most famous scene in the novel featuring Guo Fu (yes, she is the young woman with the sword). If you are okay with watching violence and spoiling the outcome of this scene, you can watch how the 1983 TV adaptation handles this scene.

The 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ helped me see Guo Fu in a new light.

First of all, the scriptwriters gave Guo Fu a lot more screentime than she has pagetime (?) in the novel. They even added a whole new subplot to further develop her character. She actually grows and become less of a self-centered brat. Of course, just as in almost every other case where a female Jin Yong character experiences character growth, she does it so she can impress a man she has romantic feelings for, but it still makes her a more complex character.

And that brings me to another point – the scriptwriters make her a little more likeable than in the novel. She’s still spoiled, she’s still a bully, she still does all of the bad things which makes her a Hate Sink character, but she also has more in the way of redeeming qualities. In the novel, it makes sense that multiple men want to marry her because she’s beautiful and comes from a prestigious family, but in the TV show, it seems plausible that men may also want to marry her because they sincerely like her as a person. She even comes off as more charming than her sister Guo Xiang (partially because the Guo Xiang in this TV adaptation is lacking in warmth), which is the total opposite of the novel.

Guo Fu is on the left and her sister, Guo Xiang, is on the right.

There is one instance where, instead of adding to what is in the novel, the scriptwriters made an outright change. That is with regards to Guo Fu and Yang Guo’s relationship. In the novel, Guo Fu and Yang Guo were always in 100% agreement that they did not want to marry each other. When her father offers her hand in marriage, her reaction is much like her reaction in the 2006 TV adaptation, which you can see here.

Compare that to how Guo Fu reacts to Yang Guo refusal of the marriage proposal in the 1983 TV adaptation. She’s really upset. The scriptwriters built up to this moment by showing Guo Fu and Yang Guo having fun together, and showing Guo Fu really warm up to him. Here is an example of such a scene.

Though I like both the way this is done in the original novel and the way it’s done in the 1983 adaptation, I think I prefer the change made by the 1983 adaptation because a) it makes Yang Guo’s refusing Guo Fu’s hand in marriage more dramatic and b) it adds complexity to Guo Fu’s character and c) in some ways in makes more sense (though it other ways the novel makes more sense).

Guo Fu as seen in the opening theme song.

I think the scriptwriters did a lot to flesh out Guo Fu’s character – and then Annie Liu, the actress, took it and ran. She was a live wire. I’m surprised some reviewers consider Annie Liu to be a disappointing Guo Fu, since her performance is one of my favorite performances in the show. Apparently, some people do not like her because she’s not pretty enough. True, she’s not as physically beautiful as some of the other actresses who have played Guo Fu, and based on what’s I’ve seen of the 1995 adaptation, Gigi Fu also did a great job playing Guo Fu, but a) Annie Liu is pretty enough and b) beauty is far from the most important aspect of Guo Fu’s character and c) Annie Liu really brought Guo Fu to life, at least for me.

I never imagined that Guo Fu would be one of the highlights of a TV adaptation Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, but it is so. And this is one of the reasons I watch adaptations instead of simply re-reading the novel – a good adaptations bring out aspects of the story I had not appreciated before.

‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction, Part 2

Read Part 1, where I mostly talk about my own name (and my father’s name). In this part, I mostly talk about fiction.

Last year I read Silappatikaram. I would have to invest quite an effort to remember that name, which is why I had to look it up on the internet instead of recalling it from memory. When I talk about it face-to-face, since I can’t remember the name, I instead use the English title Tale of the Anklet, which I remember easily. And it’s not just the title. Though I learned to recognize the names of the major characters, I also do not recall their names, and I was only able to keep track of the place names because of a very useful map which comes with the translation.

There is nothing objectively difficult about a title like Silappatikaram or the names of the characters, it’s only difficult for me because I am very ignorant of Tamil culture. I’m not used to the sounds of Tamil, and because I am so ignorant of that culture, I do not have many mental associations with Tamil names, thus I do not have enough mental glue to get those names to stick in my mind. By contrast, I can remember ‘Tale of the Anklet’ very easily because that is in English, and if the main characters had been called ‘Glen’ and ‘Patricia’ or ‘Tzvi’ and ‘Anat’ I could remember those names easily because I have a lot of mental associations which would help those names stick (for example, I have cousins with those names). Of course, when I am interacting with Tamil people, I try to remember their names and pronounce them correctly.

A statue of Kannagi, one of the protagonists of Silappatikaram, holding the anklet in her hand. Photo by Balamurugan Srinivasan – originally posted to Flickr as Statue of Kannagi, CC BY 2.0, Link

Now let’s talk about wuxia in English translation.

About two weeks ago, Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Is Born was officially published in English. You can read more about it in this surprisingly good article or in this article (I noticed that, even though the caption mentions Guo Jing, they use a picture that shows Mu Nianci and Yang Kang, not Guo Jing). One aspect of this translation which is controversial is that while some names, such as ‘Guo Jing’, are simply transliterated, other names, such as ‘Lotus Huang’, are translated (and have the name order flipped around).

Deathblade comments on this issue in this video. I recommend listening to the entire video, but if you can’t/don’t want to, here is a summary of his main points:

  • English speakers who are already familiar with wuxia already know the Chinese names of the characters, and assigning weird English names to the characters will alienate them and discourage them from buying the book
  • Translating Chinese names (such as Mao Zedong) into English goes against conventional translation standards; likewise names such as ‘George Bush’ and ‘Paul Newman’ are typically transliterated, not translated, into Chinese
  • This translation is inconsistent; some names are translated, some names are transliterated
  • Names are NAMES, not the sum of the meaning of the characters
  • Translating the names will not help draw any new readers

 

I agree with a lot of what Deathblade says in this video. I agree that ‘Lotus Huang’ specifically is a bad choice and that ‘Huang Rong’ would be much better. If I were working on an official translation of the Condor trilogy, I would translate Xiaolongnü’s name as ‘Dragon Maiden’ but use Mandarin transliterations for the names of all other major characters. (Why make an exception for Xiaolongnü? Because that is an unusual name in Chinese – it does not fit the typical Chinese naming pattern – and translating it into English as ‘Dragon Maiden’ would be a way to convey that her name is unusual). However, I disagree with his final point, that translating names does not help new readers.

A topic that sometimes comes up in English language discussions of wuxia is how to make it more accessible to English speakers who do not know much about Chinese culture. It is noted that many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names, so sometimes it is suggested that assigning the characters English names would make these stories more accessible.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that giving wuxia characters English names does help. I was one time describing the story of a Jin Yong novel, but instead of using the characters’ original Chinese names, I assigned the characters names from sources such as Harry Potter and Star Trek. This made it much easier for my audience to keep track of the characters and the plot, and overall improved communication (I also had a lot of fun giving the Jin Yong characters names from English-language pop culture). However, while this approach is good for informal purposes, it is obviously inappropriate for an official translation.

The reason so many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names is the same reason I have trouble remembering Tamil names; lack of familiarity. I myself find it much harder to remember a Chinese name if I only know it from transliteration than if I know the Chinese characters. That is because Chinese characters can serve as mental glue to help a name stick in my mind.

It’s also worth point out that all Jin Yong characters have both a Mandarin name and a Cantonese name. For example, ‘Huang Rong’ (Mandarin) is also ‘Wong Yung’ (Cantonese), and there are many fans who feel that the Cantonese names are the ‘real’ names. They have even more names in other Chinese languages – for example, Huang Rong is ‘Oey Yong’ in Hokkien and ‘Waon Yon’ in Shanghainese.

Here is a chart showing the names of the characters in Mandarin, Cantonese (using a different romanization scheme), and Hokien. Even though more people speak Shanghainese than Catonenese or Hokkien, I have a pretty good idea of why Shanghainese names are not on that chart – but I don’t want to digress into Chinese linguistic politics.

One could research every character, guess their native language, and then transliterate their names based on that language. Huang Rong’s native language is most likely the Ningbo dialect, which is closely related to Shanghainese. I can’t find an online Ningbo dictionary, so I am guessing that her Shanghainese name ‘Waon Yon’ is closest to how someone from her native region would pronounce her name. Also, Shanghainese is Jin Yong’s native language, so that is an argument for using Shanghainese rather than Mandarin transliterations for the names of all of his characters – in fact, I think that would be very cool. And someone would argue that, since these novels were originally published in Hong Kong at a time when most Hong Kongers did not understand Mandarin, Jin Yong intentionally chose a publisher in Guangdong (as opposed to publishers in other regions of China) to publish the Chinese editions of his novels, and the original novels once in a while use Cantonese words which lack a Mandarin equivalent, the Cantonese names are most appropriate. Also, some of the existing English translations, including the only English-language dub of any TV adaptation of the trilogy, uses Cantonese names, not Mandarin names. Finally, English speakers tend to find Cantonese names easier to pronounce than Mandarin names, which may very well be why they chose the Cantonese names for that English-language dub. Or, you could reconstruct the pronunciation of Ancient Chinese or Middle Chinese and base the character names on that (actually, to be honest, Huang Rong’s native language might be closer to Middle Chinese than modern Ningbo-Chinese).

Additionally, in the Condor Trilogy, one protagonist is named 郭靖 and another is named 楊過. That isn’t a problem at all if one is reading in Chinese, since those are two obviously different names. However, the Mandarin pinyin of those names are Guō​ Jìng​ and Yáng​ Guò​ – which are also easy to tell apart if one notices that ‘Guō​’ and ‘Guò’ are pronounced with different tones. But without the tone markers, it does get confusing – and I’ve seen people get confused between ‘Guo Jing’ and ‘Yang Guo’. However, their Cantonese names – Kwok Ching and Yeung Kuo – are also easy to tell apart, so this is an advantage of using their Cantonese names in English translation.

You know how I said that, if I were doing an official translation, I would use the Mandarin names? I change my mind. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think there is a stronger case to be made for using Cantonese names, though I still consider Mandarin names to be an acceptable choice (and I will continue to use Mandarin names on this blog).

Likewise, the Japanese translations give all of the characters Japanese names – Huang Rong’s Japanese name is Kō​ Yō​. In Korean, her name is Hwang Yong. In Vietnamese, her name is Hoàng Dung. In Indonesian, her name is Oey Yong (same as Hokkien). In Persian, her name is Ryang Rong. In Burmese, her name is Hun Yôn. In fact, the only official translations which I could find which use the Mandarin names are the Thai translation and the (awful) French translation. I admit that I didn’t check every translation – for example, I could not find her Hindi name or her Khmer name, even though I know her name exists in those languages.

This photo from the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes shows the character (in alphabetical order) Hoàng Dung / Huang Rong / Hun Yôn / Hwang Yong / Kō​ Yō​ / Lotus Huang / Oey Yong / Ryang Rong / Waon Yon / Wong Yung

In short, the Mandarin names of Jin Yong characters are not their One True Names.

(Though I tend to use Huang Rong’s Mandarin name because I encountered her Mandarin name before I encountered any of her other names, and when I read the books I was pronouncing them in Mandarin in my head).

However, one could argue (heck, I would argue) that using any of the Chinese names, even if they are not Mandarin, are better than creating an English name because the non-Mandarin Chinese names are also derived from Chinese culture. And while there are a lot of non-Chinese languages which have their own unique name for this character, they are for the most part modifications to make the name easier to pronounce rather than translations of the name’s meaning.

I think the very best argument against translating the names and using Chinese transliterations (whether from Mandarin or not) is an argument that Deathblade does not bring up at all. It’s the argument which is made in the essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. The heart of the argument is here:

As someone with a non-English name and made a conscious decision to not change my name, seeing these names mean a lot to me and gives me hope that, one day, an individual’s name will no longer be an ‘indicator’ of a person’s character, ability, or degree of belonging.

I want to see characters in books, especially young adult literature, with names like Vân Uoc and Agnieszka and Li Jing and Reshma and Kamala. We need to create spaces that are accepting of name diversity.

And there is a comment on that essay/blog post which goes like this:

When it comes to book, I always get incredibly excited every time I see an Asian or Muslim sounding name, even if it’s not Indonesian names. Just because they’re so rare, you know?hahaha I’m slightly annoyed sometimes that weird high fantasy names are more appreciated than the non Caucasian names because fantasy names aren’t real. Our names are real. Anyway, great post! 😀

In other words, name diversity – including names from real non-European cultures – is good because it helps readers who have non-European names, whether it helps them see themselves in fiction, or it teaches their peers to treat their names with more respect. In my opinion, this is more important than pleasing the existing English-language wuxia fanbase (though some of the people in the current English-language wuxia fanbase ALSO have non-European names), especially since this translation can be especially beneficial for readers in the Chinese diaspora who want more representation of themselves in novels but do not know enough Chinese to read the original books (there is some discussion of this on this comment thread).

There is not enough name diversity in English language popular fiction right now. And one of the most obvious opportunities for increasing name diversity is when one is translating a work of fiction where the characters ~already~ have non-European names. If some of the names are being translated rather than transliterated into English, what message does that send to people who are socially penalized for having non-European names?


Since I have more thoughts on ‘unusual’ names in life and fiction, I may write a Part 3 at some point, but not in the near future.

Why I Find the Fight Scenes in Return of the Condor Heroes 1983 Disappointing

I recently saw the entire 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ (or rather San Diu Haap Leoi since it’s in Cantonese), a.k.a. Return of the Condor Heroes, starring Andy Lau as Yang Guo (or rather Yeung Kuo, since it’s in Cantonese – you know what, I’m not going to try to keep track of the Cantonese names, I’m sticking with Mandarin).

In the Hong Kong wuxia TV shows of the early 1980s, they clearly put a lot of effort into fight choreography, and make it really seem like the characters are making lots of physical contact with each other. Additionally, unlike 21st century wuxia TV shows, there was no CGI in the 1980s, which makes the fights look more ‘real’. A lot of people really like the early 1980s wuxia fights, and I can see why.

So what are my problems with the fight scenes?

The first problem is that it is monotonous. After a while, all of the fight scenes just seem to be the same. Though I have my own criticisms of the fight scenes in newer wuxia TV shows, at least they have more ~variety~ so I do not feel like I am watching the same fight over and over again. For example, in the 2006 TV adaptation of there is the fight scene with umbrellas (is there an umbrella fight in the original novel? No. Do I care? Not really).

My favorite fight scene in the 1983 adaptation specifically is when Guo Jing is taking Yang Guo to the Quanzhen monastery. One of the reasons it is my favorite is that it displays more creativity than most of the other fights.

Another problem is, well, notice that my favorite fight scene in is Episode 3. Out of 50 episodes. Having the most satisfying fight so early in a TV show is not so great.

Take a look at this fight scene in the final episode where they are trying to rescue Guo Xiang. Aside from the weird lighting, there is nothing special about this fight scene. It’s just a bunch of characters using standard fight moves that the viewer has already seen a zillion times by this point. It is as if the fight choreographer was tired at this point and was just phoning it in.

Yet another problem with the fight scenes is that the emphasis placed on them is sometimes out of proportion to how important they are to the story. For example, while I really liked Guo Jing fighting the Quanzhen monks in Episode 3, that is a fight with relatively low plot value. So it is jarring when key fights which have very high plot value are cut short. For example, when Xiaolongnü fights Golden Wheel Monk the first time, it’s a big deal. There has been a lot of plot build-up to this specific fight, and the outcome changes the direction of the story. In the original novel, this fight scene is about 10 pages long. Yet in this TV adaptation, the fight is only about a minute long. It was a let down for me.

I also do not like the 2014 version of this fight. I definitely prefer the 2006 version of this fight over both the 1983 and 2014 versions because at least if feels epic. I also prefer the 1995 version because a) Gordon Liu is the best Golden Wheel Monk and b) it feels like Xiaolongnü is in greater peril in this version than in other versions, which makes the fight feel more exciting.

An additional problem is that sometimes a character is totally beating everyone up in one scene, and then in the next scene they are concerned that their fighting skills aren’t good enough. Or the reverse, in which a character is totally losing against a relatively weak opponent, and then in the very same episode they are winning against a stronger opponent. For example, just before Xiaolongnü gets into that fight with Golden Wheel Monk (which she wins), she gets into a fight with Huo Du, which she loses (by the way, this Xiaolongnü vs. Huo Du fight does not happen in the novel – the 1983 TV show made it up). She has no improvement in her skills between the fight with Huo Du and the fight with Golden Wheel Monk, and it is clear that Huo Duo < Golden Wheel Monk, so this makes no sense. The novel does not have this kind of inconsistency – if a character beats an opponent they were previously unable to beat, it explains how that happened.

Speaking of which, not explaining how the characters get better at fighting is another problem. Okay, there is ~some~ explanation in the TV series, but not enough for the viewer to appreciate the logic of how the characters are developing their fighting skills. In the novel, there is enough explanation that it is interesting for the reader. In the TV show, the explanation is so minimal that it fails to be interesting.

But what I miss most about the fight scenes in the novel which do not come through in the 1983 TV adaptation is the metaphorical meaning and how it is woven into the overall story.

For example, Lin Chaoying and Wang Chongyang were in love with each other, however their romance did not work out, so Wang Chongyang founded the Quanzhen sect created the Quanzhen swordplay, while Lin Chaoying founded the Ancient Tomb sect and created the Jade Maiden Swordplay. The Quanzhen sect and the Ancient Tomb sect continue to have a love-hate relationship with each other, and the relationship gets even worse when Yang Guo leaves the Quanzhen sect and joins the Ancient Tomb sect. There is a whole subplot around Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü studying the Jade Maiden Heart Sutra so they can learn the Jade Maiden Swordplay. It seems at first that the Jade Maiden Swordplay was designed specifically to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, and they believe that Lin Chaoying did it in order to spite her ex-lover Wang Chongyang.

Then there is this fight scene:

Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü fight Golden Wheel Monk to rescue Huang Rong, Guo Fu, and the Wu brothers.

In this fight, Yang Guo uses the Quanzhen swordplay, and Xiaolongnü uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay. This is how they discover that the Jade Maiden Swordplay is not meant to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, it is meant to complement it by covering all of the weak points of the Quanzhen swordplay. Thus, when one person is using the Quanzhen swordplay, and another person uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay, and they love each other (just as Wang Chongyang and Lin Chaoying loved each other), they are invincible. I think the metaphor here is really obvious, and I think it adds depth to this scene. It also helps develop the relationship between Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü.

Does any of this come through in the 1983 TV adaptation? No, it does not. The TV show takes one of the most memorable fights from the novel, and makes it seem like it is no more consequential than a couple dozen other fights in the series.

And this metaphor continues to build. Zhou Botong teaches Xiaolongnü how to have one hand fight the other (a technique which Yang Guo could never learn because he is too smart. Intelligent people can never master the technique, and the stupider one is, the faster one can learn. Xiaolongnü has an average level of intelligence, which is apparently low enough to learn the technique). Once Xiaolongnü has mastered the technique of one hand fighting the other, she is able to have one her hands represent Yang Guo and use the Quanzhen Swordplay, and have her other hand represent herself and use the Jade Maiden Swordplay, so she is an invincible fighter even if Yang Guo is not there. This explains how she can hold out in a fight in which she is badly outnumbered.

Xiaolongnü fights using a combination of One Hand Fighting the Other, Quanzhen Sworplay, and Jade Maiden Swordplay.

It also has a very rich metaphorical meaning, especially in the context that Xiaolongnü believes that she will never see Yang Guo again and is suicidal. She is growing further apart from him in that she is pursuing a way of fighting he could never join, yet the very way she is fighting is a testament to her love for him. She is also becoming emotionally more self-sufficient in the sense that she can experience his love without his physical presence.

The 1983 TV adaptation explains parts of this, but not enough for the viewer to put the pieces together (unless the viewer has already read the novel).

If you’re curious what this fight is like in the novel but cannot read Chinese, you can read this fight scene here (note: I’ve only skimmed a little bit of this translation, so I cannot tell you how good/bad it is).

Is this the kind of thing which is better suited for novels than TV shows? Maybe. Or maybe not. Most TV adaptations of Jin Yong novels don’t delve into the narrative meaning of the fighting techniques. The exception is State of Divinity (笑傲江湖) 1996, which most people who watch wuxia TV shows agree was the best wuxia TV show of the 1990s. During the fights which are key to story development, there is narration of what is happening in the fight, and what that means (sadly, I could not find a clip online to show this). The scriptwriters made sure that, when it is important, the audience would understand what is going in the fight and the intended meaning. The fight choreography in State of Divinity 1996 is nothing special, and it does not need to be special because the script takes care of the most important points.

Am I saying ‘tell not show’? No, I’m not. The 1983 version of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ neither shows nor tells the logic of the fighting techniques and their metaphorical/narrative meaning. Telling would have been an improvement.

Even though it was stripped of its metaphors, the 1983 version of the big fight at the Quanzhen monastery was not bad. In fact, it is one of the best fight scenes in the series. It takes up much of episode 38, which is appropriate, since it is IMO the most important fight scene in the entire novel. It breaks up the fights with little scenes which are meant to GIVE THE FEELS. I think this is good, since non-stop fighting devoid of logic, creativity, or metaphorical meaning would be boring. I dislike some of the mini-scenes the TV show made up (which were not in the novel) to flesh out the fight, and I like some of them. For example, I like this moment. I also like this part of the fight because it was slow enough that the viewer could actually follow the moves and understand the logic of how they were happening.

Still, without the metaphors, I don’t feel the 1983 version lives up to the novel. I do think it is at least better than the 2006 version of this fight. The 2006 version is more faithful to the novel in that it does not add a bunch of new material and follows the novel’s sequence of events more closely, it still lacks the metaphors, and it also fails to have the feeling of the 1983 adaptation.

All in all, while the fights in the 1983 TV adaptation have some good points, they were overall a disappointment for me. They lack many of the things which make the fight scenes so compelling in the original novel.

My Thoughts on The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

Cover of The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

I read The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil.

I first became acquainted with The Black Trillium through Simon McNeil’s blog, specifically this post (he’s also written a follow-up post now that he’s watched Iron Fist).

Anyway, back to The Black Trillium.

It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve ever read in English – that is, unless one chooses to define the term ‘wuxia’ broadly (if you make the definition of wuxia broad enough, it includes Batman, and if you make it even broader than that, then a lot of American superhero stories would start qualifying – though come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero novel). It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve read which was ~written~ in English (unless, once again, one is using a very broad definition). For me, part of the appeal of the novel was seeing how Simon McNeil adapted wuxia jargon and tropes to the English language for an Anglo audience. Sometimes while I was reading the novel I found myself instantly translating what was written back into Chinese and thinking ‘ah ha, I know what that is’ (for example, ‘lightness skill’ obviously means 輕功).

It’s also the first wuxia novel I’ve read which is set in the future rather than the past (or an alternate universe).

Specifically, it is set in a post-industrial future. And one of the protagonists is a barbarian girl from a desert (which does not exist in our time) who learns how to use a sword and goes into scary mysterious tunnels from the industrial era. And there’s a protagonist who is a youth who must learn how to lead a group of rebels who are rebelling against a monarchy. And the current king had usurped the throne. And YET ANOTHER protagonist (antagonist?) is a disgraced son of the king, who knows that his father favors his incompetent brothers over him, and he is planning to prove that he is the most capable ruler and eventually take the throne from his father. And the king’s-son-protagonist/antagonist also has a very close friend who dies brutally and tragically in the course of the story. And there is a lot of sword fighting. And did I mention that there is a search for a mysterious old doctor who is the only one who can treat a particular aliment?

Wait a minute, is this an wuxia novel, or a girls’ comic book?

On the left is the desert-barbarian-girl protagonist, and on the right is the king’s-son-protagonist/antagonist.

No seriously, while that long paragraph accurately describes The Black Trillium, it also accurately describes Basara by Yumi Tamura, which is a shojo manga (shojo manga = girls’ comic book). It has also been adapted into an anime, though I’ve only seen on episode.

Obviously, there are some major differences, such as Basara being set in post-industrial Japan, whereas The Black Trillium is set in post-industrial Canada. With a very broad definition, I suppose one could label Basara as being wuxia, and it certainly uses many tropes which are also common in wuixa fiction, but it does not draw specifically on the Chinese wuxia tradition the way The Black Trillium does.

***

Who destroys the army’s food reserves? I don’t know. I mean, I know it was not the Black Trillium because the novel really rubs it in that THE BLACK TRILLIUM WAS NOT RESPONSIBLE, but who was? For a while I was suspecting it was Sophie of all characters. Was it Brutus? Was it Paul? I don’t feel it really made much sense for Brutus or Paul, to be honest.

Okay, maybe the novel does at some point say who burned down the military granary and I just missed it. If that is the case, then I wish the novel were written in a way which would make that plot detail more difficult to miss.

***

I do feel that The Black Trillium is missing some key things BUT it is pretty clear that the ending is meant to be the launching point for a sequel, and it is very possible that the elements which I feel are missing in this novel are intended for the sequel. After all, this novel is less than 400 pages long, whereas wuxia novels – ESPECIALLY wuxia novels with multiple protagonists/POV characters – tend to run 1000+ pages long. Complaining that a wuxia novel under 400 pages is missing some of the stuff which I would expect to see in a 1000+ page wuxia novel may be a bit unfair.

I am willing to suspend judgement on the things which I feel are missing in the novel as long as they appear in the sequel, if a sequel ever appears.

With one exception.

Before I try to find words for the one thing which I really wish the novel had regardless of any potential sequels, I am going to give an example.

In The Black Trillium, there is a character, the Wizard in Green, who is trying to find his daughter Sophie and bring her back home. Sophie does not want to go home and – this is the part which is relevant – seems to have no love for her father. Not that he displays much love for her either. Granted, he wants her to be alive and safe, but it feels like he is mechanically fulfilling a vow he made to her mother, not expressing his love for his daughter. And it’s not even clear whether he is trying to fulfil his vow to Sophie’s mother just on principle, or whether he has deep feelings on the line.

It’s pretty clear that the Wizard in Green was inspired by Huang Yaoshi in The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (射鵰英雄傳). Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi has a wilful daughter who runs away from home so she can pursue her own goals. Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi goes looking for his daughter. Like the Wizard in Green, the mother of Huang Yaoshi’s daughter has been dead for quite a while.

The difference is that, whereas it’s not clear that either the Wizard in Green or Sophie have strong feelings for any other human being (as opposed to mechanically following principle), it is bloody obvious that Huang Yaoshi has very powerful feelings about both his dead wife and his daughter. When someone tells Huang Yaoshi that his daughter is dead, his reaction is *cough* quite something *cough cough*. And when he is reunited with his daughter who is alive after all, it’s such an emotional scene that I broke down in tears when I read it. And even though Huang Yaoshi’s daughter ran away from home, she still clearly has some strong feelings and attachments to her father, and when ~he~ goes missing, she spends months looking for him.

I’m not saying that the Wizard in Green and Sophie have to have a relationship exactly like Huang Yaoshi and his daughter, in fact I prefer that it be at least a little different. But I would have liked at least one of them demonstrate a strong attachment, negative or positive or a bit of both, to the other. Or if not them, then for other characters to demonstrate that.

I mean, sometimes we are told that Character A is emotionally attached to Character B. For example, we are told repeatedly that Marc Antonelli are best friends, but we never see that. Their friendship is pretty much offpage until Kyle starts suspecting Marc Antonelli, and even then, the ‘friendship’ part of their relationship is only thinly evident. We are told that Kieran is very attached to his uncle, and he certainly tries very hard to save his uncle, but we see very little of them actually engaging in an uncle-and-nephew relationship. And I don’t want to spoil what happens to Kieran’s uncle so, uh, Kieran’s uncle survives-or-dies and – we see very little of Kieran celebrating-or-mourning that (I think a page or two of celebration-or-mourning would have been enough, but we don’t even get that). Savannah never seemed to have much emotional attachment to Boyd before he was in danger, and while she puts a lot of effort into helping him when he’s in trouble, it seems to be more a matter of principle than because Boyd himself is specifically important to Savannah.

And then there is the relationship between Savannah and Kieran. Okay, I’m going to do something I almost never do, I almost can’t believing I’m doing this, but … I criticize this novel for not having enough romance. I think I would have enjoyed the novel more if the romance between Savannah and Kieran had been a lot more serious and deeper. That’s right, the blogger who wrote this and this and this is complaining that a novel – an WUXIA novel no less – does not have enough romance.

Really, the thing which I felt was missing was passionate human connections. It would have been better the novel had put in a passionate human connection via a fullblown romance between Savannah and Kieran than for it to not be there at all. Okay, I would prefer it if it were expressed in nonromantic relationships, but having it in romantic relationships is WAY BETTER than not having it at all.

In fact, I think Savannah/Kyle is a fictional romantic relationship in the worst way. It has all of the amantonormativity of a typical fictional romance (yuck) without any of the rewards of a fictional romance (or at least, none of what I find rewarding, though I think many fans of fictional romance would find it just as unsatisfying as I do).

When trying to describe wuxia to people, it’s easy to say ‘oh, it’s Chinese and has lots of martial arts.’ That’s true, and I often describe it that way myself because it’s so easy. And I like martial arts and violence in my fiction. But what keeps me hooked on wuxia is not the martial arts or that it is Chinese – it’s the psychology of the characters and the passionate, deeply involved relationships. I don’t find the fights or martial arts in Wang Dulu’s novels particularly interesting, yet he is one of my favorite wuxia novelists because of the depth of character and the intensity of the relationships. What stays with me are scenes such as Han Tiefang desperately trying to explain to dying!Lo Xiaohu that he is his son, yet Lo Xiaohu doesn’t seem to hear a word he’s saying, and still (mistakenly) talks to Chun Xueping as if she were his daughter. And then he dies. (Not coincidently, Wang Dulu wrote 言情小說 – ‘sentimental novels’ – before he started writing wuxia).

I suppose this might be another roundabout way of saying ‘The Black Trillium is too short’ because most of the conceivable ways to add the passionate human connections which I feel are missing would increase the word count. However, as I said early, there is a reason why wuxia novels tend to be really long.

***

I read The Black Trillium in just two days. The first 3/4 of the novel flew by. I had to push myself to finish the last fourth of the novel, but I didn’t need to push myself too hard to get to the end.

***

The thought of writing an wuxia novel myself has occurred to me. More specifically, the idea of setting an wuxia novel in post-industrial California has occurred to me, so far in the future that the name ‘California’ is no longer in use. I’d imagine it would have many of the things I like about 大唐雙龍傳 without the things I don’t like (apparently I’d rather daydream about being the next Huang Yi than the next Jin Yong).

I have no intention of actually writing it. Writing a novel takes a ton of time and energy, an wuxia novel set in post-industrial California even more so. I want to dedicate my time and energy to other things.

But if I ever change my mind, I think having The Black Trillium as an example of an wuxia novel written in English set in post-industrial North America will be helpful.

Sixth Year Anniversary Post

As of today, this blog is six years old. To quote the very first paragraph of my very first post on this blog:

I had been thinking about starting a blog for years. However, I never had ‘enough time’ to maintain a proper blog. Finally, I realized that I will never have ‘enough time’ to blog, so if I am going to blog, I have to do it now, when I don’t have ‘enough time’.

Six years later, not having ‘enough time’ still has not stopped this blog. Huzzah!

While I was writing and posting that very first blog post, I was reading the novel Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ for the very first time. Since it was only the second book I had ever read in Chinese, my reading speed was very slow, and since it is more than 1500 pages long, it took a lot of time to read. I spent about 2-3 hours per day reading, and it took me several weeks. On top of that, I was also spending about two hours a day studying Chinese in other ways, such as watching the classic Taiwanese TV show Meteor Garden, so that I would develop my listening and speaking skills, not just my reading skills.

The first time I read this novel, this was the edition I read. I preferred the editions which came in smaller sizes and only about 250 pages per volume rather than the editions with thicker books and fewer volumes because a) the smaller volumes were easier to carry around b) I was not confident in my Chinese reading skills at the time, so being able to complete a volume faster (because it was much shorter) gave me an extra motivation boost.

The fact that I was reading Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ and studying Chinese (as well as working at my job, sleeping, taking care of chores and errands, etc.) was one of the main reasons I did not have ‘enough time’ to start a blog. Somehow, I started this blog anyway.

At the time, I would not have predicted that I would be referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so often in this blog, even six years later. Heck, the post which was published yesterday mentions Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. Meanwhile, I rarely (or even never?) reference Meteor Garden in this blog, even though that was the TV show I was watching when this blog started.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because of the Jin Yong Jolt? Partially, perhaps, but if that were the case, I would probably be referencing The Deer and the Cauldron, which is without question the most WTF???!!!! of Jin Yong’s novels, even more often. Yet I rarely mention The Deer and the Cauldron in this blog.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because I headcanon the protagonist as ace? That definitely has a lot to do with it, but I also have brought up Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in a lot of posts which aren’t about asexuality.

Something about this specific novel really stays with me in a way that few novels do, and it’s been reflected in this blog for six years.

Oh, and I recently watched the 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. That means there are going to be even more blog posts referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in the near future.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 2

The simplest of all beds is the ground. But what is ‘the ground’? That depends on where you are. ‘The ground’ could be soil covered with dry grass, a sandy beach, a slab of flat rock, etc.

While there is no doubt that ‘the ground’ is the cheapest, simplest, and lowest tech bed of them all, there are three main problems. The first problem is cleanliness, though that is going to depend on what ‘ground’ we are talking about, as well as how much one cares about ‘cleanliness’. The second problem is that the ground may be hard and apply a lot of pressure to certain points of the body, which can especially be a problem for side sleepers (and even ground which is initially soft may compact over time). The third problem – and this is the doozy – is that the ‘ground’ is a heat sink. In warm temperatures, that’s not a problem. In cooler temperatures, it’s very uncomfortable, and in cold temperatures, lying directly on the ground can cause hypothermia and death.

This is a photo of the corner of the bedroom where I roll out my goza mats and mattress right before I cleaned the walls (the walls look whiter now than they do in this picture)

The floor of my bedroom is not exactly the ground. It is made of hardwood, is above a basement room full of (unheated) air, which is on top of the foundation, which is on the ground. However, even though it’s removed from the ground, the floor of my bedroom is still enough of a heat sink that sleeping directly on it in cool/cold weather is not going to happen.

Unless one lives in a climate where it is always warm at night, one has to sleep on a surface which is not a heat sink. There are basically only two ways to do this: heating, and insulation.

There are of course multiple ways to heat a sleeping surface. One could heat the air around the sleeping surface. However, it is generally most efficient just to directly heat the sleeping surface, such as in the traditional kang bed-stoves of Northern China and Manchuria (which are typically made of brick or clay) or traditional ondol floors in Korea. When the sleeping surface is heated, one wants a surface which can retain heat for an entire night, hence the preference for brick/clay/stone/etc.

Yang Guo lies on the cold jade bed, and Xiaolongnü prepares to sleep on a rope.

In a novel I sometimes mention in this blog, there is a ‘cold jade bed’ which, though very uncomfortable, will develop one’s nèigōng (inner power). I’m no expert of traditional Chinese medicine or martial arts, but my guess is that the body is learning to resist the heat sink effect of sleeping on a cold stone bed and thus building nèigōng. This is, of course, fiction; in real life this is a recipe for hypothermia.

Jade beds are real. I’ve lain on a jade bed in Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul, though that was in a heated bathhouse. There are also heated kang beds made of jade (which I am sure are extremely expensive).

So that’s heated surfaces. What about insulation instead of (or complemented with) heating?

I know that some people who camp in forests create ‘beds’ out of duff (fallen leaves, pine needles, cones, etc.) which is a very low-tech type of insulation. A higher-tech type of insulation commonly used in camping are portable sleeping pads, which may be made of foam, or inflatable air pockets (essential a small air mattress), or polyester, or any other lightweight insulating material which will insulate even under the weight of human being. If one does not need great portability, and has a wider choice of materials than forest duff, then there are a lot more possibilities for insulating material.

This is the only place I’ve ever done ‘cowboy camping’ (so far). ‘Cowboy camping’ is sleeping outside without a shelter. The white thing in the center-left is my groundsheet, and the silver-yellow thing in the center of the picture is my foam sleeping pad. The sleeping pad was the main insulation I had from the ground this night.

Another thing one can do is to lift the bed up so that there is air between the sleeping surface and the floor. Air is an insulator, so this helps, but if the air flows it’s also going carry heat away as it flows. Thus one either needs to trap the air (this is what an air mattress does, and foam with air pockets does this too) or use an insulator which is not going to flow away.

My new mattress is an excellent insulator. It provides all of the insulation I need to avoid losing my body heat to the floor of my bedroom, and it also does not flow away and take my body heat with it.

That leaves the problems of hardness and cleanliness. And a bed needs to provide something else – support. Most types of ground provide excellent support, but if one is not sleeping directly on the ground, then support may become an issue. While the rope which Xiaolongnü in the picture up there sleeps on is an extremely simple bed, it does not provide nearly enough support, unless one has superhuman qīnggōng like Xiaolongnü (wuxia fiction is not known for having realistic depictions of sleeping technology, okay? Pity, I’d be curious to try out the addictively comfortable bed in Happy Heroes, though it’s probably a good thing that best does not exist since I might never want to leave.)

Generally, firmer surfaces provide better support, and softer surfaces provide worse support. Furthermore, a surface which contours to the body provides more even (and thus better) support, and a surface which does not contour to the body provides less even (and thus worse) support. Ideally, one would sleep on a firm surface which contours to the body.

My new mattress provides a lot of support (which ultimately comes from my bedroom floor) while contouring to my body better than the floor would. However, while I think it strikes a good balance, it’s not perfect.

And as I mentioned in the previous post, because it’s easy to roll up and only about 30 lb (14 kg), it is a very portable mattress.

Why is portability an important feature to me? What disgusting discoveries did I make when I removed the five mattresses which formed my old ‘bed’? What will I do to keep my new mattress usable for years? The answers to these questions will be in Part 3.