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. Continue reading

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.’ Continue reading

Revenge & Survival Fantasies > Power Fantasies

Revenge fantasies, fantasies of surviving in the face of imminent death, not power fantasies, appeal to me.

I’ve tried to read I Shall Seal the Heavens (ISSTH) by Er Gen (here’s the English translation of the novel), and I think I got more than a hundred chapters into it, but…for me, it was a chore to read. Yet it’s a really popular novel, which means it engages a lot of people other than myself.

I was reminded of this when I recently read (the beginning of) A Thousand Li: The First Step by Tao Wong. The first few chapters drew me in, I thought the protagonist’s situation was really unfair, being injured by the bully-young-rich-dude and almost dying because of the injury, and all of that. But once the protagonist joined the cultivation sect and studying, my interest flagged, and I did not read the book (following my new practice of Not Finishing Books). I noticed, at the end, that Tao Wong said that ISSTH was one of his main influences.

These aren’t the only novels I’ve tried reading in what I will dub the ‘ISSTH/A Thousand Li’ vein, I’m just using them as my examples because a) ISSTH is the best known of this type and b) A Thousand Li: The First Step is the one I most recently tried to read. What puts novels in this vein, at least to me, is if they are primarily about the protagonist cultivating/developing magical powers/whatever the heck awesome skills mainly so they can excel in that, not because of strong external pressure. Continue reading

Book Review: “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” by Zen Cho

After watching this review, I was just curious enough about “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” by Zen Cho that I decided to read it myself. So what did *I* think?

What Is This Novella About?

In Malaysia, there is a group of Tang (i.e. Chinese-Malaysian) ‘bandits’ running around, trying to survive as the authoritarian government oppresses Tang people. After they rescue a nun at a coffeeshop from sexual harassment, the nun insists on joining them as they travel to deliver their, um, “black market rice”.

Can you be more helpful in telling me what the Novella is about?

Okay. When I wrote this book review, I used Libbie Hawker’s formula for writing book blurbs (which I think is helpful for writing spoiler-free summaries in book reviews, not just selling books).

That formula (with answers for “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” is) :

Who is the main character? Tet Sang

What do they want? To stay alive and to stay with the group of bandits. Except, near the end (as in, within the last 10% of the novella) it turns out that Tet Sang wants something different that came out of the blue for me.

What or who stands in their way? The bandits are wanted men and the Protectorate’s people are hunting them.

What will they do, or what must they do, in order to get what they want? Safely deliver the goods and get paid.

What is at stake if they fail? They get captured or not paid enough money to survive as a group.

That does not sound like such a bad story.

It doesn’t, but I think Libbie Hawker’s formula tends to flatter stories (probably because it’s supposed to sell books). One of the problems is that it’s not actually that hard for the bandits to evade the Protectorate’s people. Even when their plan falls apart, somebody gives them good advice, and all they have to do to get the money they need and avoid capture is to follow the advice.

Is following the advice hard?

No, following the advice is totally doable. Continue reading

Why Qing Dynasty Clothing Isn’t the Best at Communicating the Idea of ‘Ancient China’

Xena: Warrior Princess is nominally set during the time of Hercules (i.e. before the 8th century B.C.), but in practice, the TV show is all over the place historically. Thus, when Xena travels to ‘Chin’ (i.e. China), um, they don’t wear clothes that people would have worn in 8th century B.C. China, or even 8th-century A.D. China. Since I’m commenting on the clothing and hair only and nothing else, I think it is sufficient to skim this clip rather than watch the whole thing.

For anyone who has the slightest clue about historical Chinese clothing, the clothing is glaringly anachronistic. More anachronistic than the European clothes that Xena: Warrior Princess characters wear? Perhaps not. But I think there are reasons that these particular anachronisms were chosen. Namely, it is bloody obvious that the characters are wearing clothing from the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 A.D. to 1912. When I first saw that Xena clip, I found it jarring that they were dressed in the style of the Qing dynasty.

To anyone who has watched a bunch of Chinese historical dramas, these costumes practically scream ‘Qing Dynasty!’

To see an example of a Chinese historical drama set during the Qing Dynasty which has an English character (wearing period-appropriate clothing), check out this video. (That Englishman also sometimes wears Chinese clothing.) That gives you a rough idea of what type of European clothing corresponds to the time of the Qing Dynasty.

The reason this is glaringly obvious to anyone who has paid even the least amount to historical Chinese clothing is that the Qing dynasty represented a major change in Chinese fashion. No matter how little the costume designer for a Chinese historical drama cares about historical accuracy, they will make sure that the costumes in a Qing dynasty drama will look approximately like the clothes people wore during the Qing dynasty, and that historical dramas set before the Qing dynasty will feature costumes that look really different in order to avoid confusing the audience. It’s the same reason that Hollywood costume designers wouldn’t have actors wearing togas in a drama set in 18th-century France, or petticoats + corset + panniers in a drama set in 1st century A.D. Rome, unless there was a good reason for a character to be wearing a toga in 18th-century France, or petticoats + corset + panniers in 1st century A.D. Rome. Continue reading

My Favorite Novels Which I First Read in the 2010s

I spent a bit of time thinking about what were my favorite novels which I read for the first time in 2010-2019.

To make this list more interesting, I’m only putting in one novel per writer. I’m also including fanfiction novels and novel-length narrative poetry. I’m not including any novels I which I had read before 2010 and re-read in the 2010s. And I’m not claiming that these are the best novels I read in the decade, just that they are my personal favorites.

Rather than trying to make up my mind with which novel belongs in 5th place, or 7th place, or 9th place, I’m just going to order them by original publication date in the original language. With serial novels, I’m ordering them based on the year that the first installment was first published, though I also know the year the last instalment was published. Continue reading

Let’s Put KonMari and Way of Choices Together (Part 2)

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? Continue reading

Let’s Put KonMari and Way of Choices Together (Part 1)

I read three books close to each other in time which made a strong impression on me Way of Choices by Mao Ni, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and Deep Survival by Gonzales, Laurence. Even though they belong to totally different genres, and are aimed at different audiences – Deep Survival is mix of stories of deadly or almost-deadly experiences mixed with an analysis of the psychological differences between survivors and non-survivors (this is an example of one of the true stories profiled in the book), Way of Choices is a Chinese xuanhuan novel, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is about home organization – there is a surprising amount of overlap in their themes.

I’m going to leave out Deep Survival for now, and just focus on The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (KonMari) and Way of Choices.

So you’re going to KonMari Way of Choices, eh?

What does that mean?

It means you’re going to declutter everything in Way of Choices that doesn’t spark joy for you.

No, I’m not going to do that. I don’t like using ‘KonMari’ as a synonym for ‘decluttering’, and I’m also not trying to ‘declutter’ Way of Choices.

C’mon, that novel is over 4000 pages long, there has to something in there that doesn’t spark joy for you.

It is true that there were some things in Way of Choices which did not spark joy for me, but that isn’t the purpose of this post.

So what is the purpose of this post?

Exploring the thematic overlap between the two books. Continue reading

Switching Languages While Reading Coiling Dragon

I found this post that I wrote a few years ago in my drafts. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it before. At the time I was reading the English translation of Coiling Dragon it was still freely available, but now it’s only available via Amazon/Kindle.

Over many months, taking many breaks, I read Coiling Dragon by I Eat Tomatoes. Sometimes I read it in the original Chinese, and sometimes I read the English translation by Ren Woxing (yes, seriously, he calls himself ‘Ren Woxing’, that’s a bit like calling oneself ‘Tom Riddle’ or ‘Anakin Skywalker’, I think that’s why the translator’s name is often abbreviated to ‘RWX’). I read quite a bit of this novel during multiday hikes (only in the original Chinese, because I don’t have the English translation on my ebook reader).

It’s a really trashy and fun novel (or at least it was fun for me, your mileage may vary). It required relatively little intellectual effort on my part. The English translation was particularly low effort for me to because that’s my native language (and that was why I was bothering with the English translation at all – if I took this novel more seriously, I would have insisted on reading / listening to it strictly in Chinese so I would know exactly how the original writer phrased things).

This is the first time I’ve ever read a novel while frequently switching languages. That made the novel more interesting than if I had read it in just a single language.

Sometimes a new concept would come out, and I would wonder how that concept would be described in the other language, and then I would find out. For example, in the novel there are three levels of deities – 下位神, 中位神, and 上位神. If you can read Chinese, then you know those literally mean ‘low position god’, ‘middle position god’, and ‘high position god’. Those terms would sound pretty terrible in English (especially since they are frequently used), so instead the English translation labels them as ‘demigod’, ‘god’, and ‘highgod’.
Continue reading

My Plot Bunnies Run Loose

This is a submission for the September 2019 Carnival of Aros “Aromanticism and Fiction”.

I’ve written about aromanticism and fiction multiple times on this blog before. Here are some examples (with the caveat that these posts are 2-7 years old and may not reflect my current views):

“WHAT THE HELL: An Aromantic (Moi) Thinks There Aren’t Enough (Villainous) Alloromantic Characters in Fiction”
The Valley of Life and Death: An Wuxia Novel with a Female Protagonist who May Be Aro-Ace
An Aromantic Reads Wuxia
Female Characters – Without the Romance
An Aromantic Reader and Fictional Romances
Aces Become Sex Gurus; Aromantics Become Romance Gurus; (& Bonus Mini-Linkspam)

Almost all of the above posts – and any other posts I’ve written about aromanticism in fiction – have been written as a reader/critic. I suppose that since I have written fanfic with aromantic themes, I could write from that perspective instead, but I don’t feel like it right now.

Therefore, for this post, I am going to RELEASE SOME PLOT BUNNIES! Continue reading