What I Read during My Southern California Hike

When I first started getting into backpacking, I brought books along to read – and discovered that I did not have time/energy to read them, and they were extra weight. I became one of those backpackers who did not carry books, unless it was of practical use (i.e. a guidebook).

Last year, when I was out backpacking for more than a month, I changed my tune. I did not want to go a month without reading any books at all. Thus, I carried an e-book reader. And I discovered that reading books while on a long backpacking trip is awesome. On short trips (2-4 days) I will be too preoccupied with my new surroundings to want to read, but on longer trips, I need to sometimes give my mind a vacation, and books can do that very well. I find that intellectually demanding books are too much for me when I am on trail, but ‘mind candy’ books work very well. What works best are melodramas with good cliffhangers.

Then, a little more than halfway through my long hike, my eBook reader broke. By then I was so used to having a book on hand to read in camp that I did not want to do without, so I picked up the most interesting paperback I could on my next town stop. That was Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurty. It lasted until I reached Manning Park, where I dropped it off.

During my long hike in Southern California, I decided I was going to take paperbacks. I did not want to break another eBook reader, and unlike electronic devices, paperback books can be used as pillows (which turned out to be very handy). Naturally, I was only going to bring one book with me at a time, and then replace it when I finished reading it.

Cover of Heir to Empire

The first book I brought with me from San Francisco was Star Wars: Heir to Empire by Timothy Zahn. It was perfect. I was already familiar with the main characters (except Thrawn and Mara Jade) because I have seen the original Star Wars trilogy, which made it easier to read, like fanfic when you are familiar with the canon. However, it’s also fun to read, had the right kind of cliffhangers, and was more intellectually stimulating than I would expect from a Star Wars novel. Grand Admiral Thrawn is basically Sherlock Holmes, except he is evil, so this was basically a story about Luke Skywalker/Leia/Han Solo vs. evil!Sherlock Holmes.

I had a wide choice of books I could bring my San Francisco, but once I finished and dropped Star Wars: Heir to Empire, I was limited to whatever paperback books were available in whatever town I was in. This is how I learned about the selection of books available in various small mountain towns in SoCal. And these were the books I ended up with, in this order:

Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
Jack London’s Klondike Adventure by Mike Wilson.

Cover of Danny, The Champion of the World.

With Danny, The Champion of the World, I almost had no choice. I picked it up in Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce. The hiker box which had all the books had been left out in the rain, which meant all of the books were moldy. Danny, Champion of the World had been put in the wrong place, which meant it was spared the rain. I otherwise would have almost certainly not picked a Roald Dahl book. But I’m glad I did. It has been over twenty years since I read anything by Roald Dahl, and it was nice to revisit him. In some ways, Danny, Champion of the World is a very good book, and I enjoyed reading it, but it also has substantial flaws, and I think that is why it is not as famous/popular as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach.

Cover of Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple Sage is the only book I would have chosen to read even in San Francisco where I have an extremely wide choice of books to read. It is not a coincidence that I picked it up in Wrightwood, which has an awesome used bookstore – I had a very wide choice of books there. It was excellent reading for a hike in the southwestern United States. Even though I was hiking through SoCal, and the novel is set in Utah, it resonated with my everyday life – the characters were concerned about finding water, just like I was, they were concerned about slipping off a cliff, just as I was, they kept their eye out for cottonwoods (cottonwoods = water), just like I was, etc. A lot of the characters are also Mormon (it is set in Utah), and I was in the middle of the book as I went through a segment of the PCT called ‘Mormon Rocks’, so that was also thematically appropriate.

Cover of Foundation and Empire

Big Bear Lake also had a used bookstore – ‘Bearly Used Books‘ – but it is much smaller than the used bookstore in Wrightwood, so my choices were more limited. I had a hard time deciding between The Shattered Chain by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Foundation and Empire. The tie-breaker was the fact that Foundation and Empire was slightly cheaper. It has been a very long time since I read any of Isaac Asimov’s fiction, and I had forgotten what it was like. In fact, the very last Asimov novel I had read was The Thousand Year Plan, an abridged version of the first Foundation book, and I had read it in 2003, in Italy (and the Vatican – I distinctly remember reading the book while I was in the Vatican). Methinks I will have to put the rest of the Foundation books on my to-read list.

Cover for Narrow Road to the Interior (translation of Oku No Hosomichi

Bonus: While I was in Big Bear Lake I also read Oku No Hosomichi and a few other travelogues by Basho (in English translation). I did not take it with me on the trail (too big) but it also resonated with me a lot because Basho also travelled a long distance on foot/by horse through relatively wild areas, and had a lot of the same concerns as long-distance hikers today. I’ve also been to a few of the places that Basho describes (Yamadera, for example).

Cover of Perelandra

The wonderful library in Idyllwild sells used books, but unfortunately, most of their books were too bulky to bring on trail, so my options were once again limited. If my choices were not so restricted, there is no way I would have picked Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. Yet, surprisingly, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because it was so freaking weird. Here is the premise: Ransom is a devout Christian, so when God tells him to enter a coffin made out of ice, he obeys. God sends the ice coffin to Venus, and since God works in mysterious ways, he does not tell Ransom much – it is up to Ransom to figure out what the f*** is going on. Ransom then discovers that God has created a new Adam and Eve on Venus, except this Adam and Eve are way more awesome than Earth’s Adam and Eve, which means that if Venus!Eve succumbs to Satan’s temptation, it will be EVEN WORSE than what happened on Earth. However, since Ransom is a mere human being, he is not sure what to do about this. Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis waits for Ransom to come back to Earth (yes, C.S. Lewis is one of the characters in the novel).

C.S. Lewis: I don't want anything to do with your creepy aliens; Ransom: But God told me to go to Venus, so wait for me. And if you die, have someone else wait for me; C.S. Lewis: Okay.

This is a summary of a scene in Perelandra.

While I disagree with C.S. Lewis about a lot of things, I am very impressed with his imagination, and I think it is a shame he ‘converted’ to Christianity instead of plunging into ‘madness’ and following his interest in the occult. If he wrote this kind of thing as a ‘sane’ Christian, imagine what kind of novels he would have written as an ‘insane’ occultist (though I suppose it is possible that if he outright pursued occultism rather than constantly trying to resolve the tensions between his Christian beliefs and his attraction to occultism, his imagination would have gotten less exercise). I also like George D. MacDonald, and appreciated the strong MacDonald influence evident in Perelandra.

Cover of Mountain Fire Momma

Bonus 2: While I was in Idyllwild, I read the book Mountain Fire Momma: One Woman’s Story of Wildfire, Family and the Zen of Survival by Melissa Severa. I started reading it at a restaurant in Idyllwild, and then tracked it down at the library and finished it. It’s a poignant account of a woman with children who lost her home in the floods after the Mountain Fire in 2013. As a PCT hiker, I was very aware of the Mountain Fire because that had severely damaged the trail. Also, the writer lives on Apple Canyon Road, which is where I rejoined the PCT after Idyllwild. It was cool to go up Apple Canyon Road and know something about the people who live there, and to know more about the Mountain Fire.

Cover of Jack London’s Klondike Adventure

My last book, Jack London’s Klondike Adventure, came from the bookstore run by the friends of the San Clemente library. “But San Clemente is nowhere near the Pacific Crest Trail” you say (if you know about California geography). True, but it was on the way between rural!San Diego county and San Francisco, and I stopped there for a couple nights. I was no longer hiking, but I wanted a book to read on the train, since the train ride from San Clemente to Oakland Jack London Square is loooooooooooong (I boarded the 6:56 am train departing San Clemente, and I did not arrive at Oakland Jack London Square until 10 pm – and then I still had to travel from Oakland to my home in San Francisco). And yes, I thought it was thematically appropriate that I was reading a book about Jack London when I was en route to a train station which is literally named after Jack London. I remember when the Jack London Square train station first opened up, I went to the opening ceremony as a kid, I think that is the first time I became aware that Amtrak exists, so it was meaningful for me to finally take an Amtrak train to Jack London Square. But I digress.

A train passes through San Clemente (yes, the train literally runs on the beach).

I got more out of Jack London’s Klondike Adventure than any other book I read on this trip, which is a good thing, because it was the only book I brought home. I had not realized that Jack London had such an interesting life. And now I want to go through the Chilkoot Trail, just like Jack London. However, unlike Jack London, I do not think I will carry 2000 pounds of supplies with me, or stay in the Klondike for a whole winter.

Some of these are books which I would have probably never picked up if my reading options had not been restricted, but in the end, that was an advantage. If I always have a lot of choice in picking books, I tend to pick the same types of books to read over and over again. And while none of these are my favorite books ever, I do think it was good for me to step out of my comfort zone and read something different.

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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.

‘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.

‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction: Part 1

I wrote this post (part 1) in December 2017, and then never got around to writing part 2, leaving this draft to gather dust in the unpublished corner of this blog. However, this is relevant to a discussion that occurred last week, so I finally decided to blow the dust off this draft and post it.


I read the thought provoking essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. I want to write my own reflection on characters who have ‘difficult’ names. But first, as a preface, I want to talk about my own life experience.

First of all, my name is Sara. Legally, ‘Sara’ is my middle name, which means that it appears on some of my official documents, and not on others. It is a biblical name, which means it’s a common name in any society where Abrahamic religions are widespread. I do use the spelling which is less common in the United States (the more common spelling is ‘Sarah’). I also do not use the common American pronunciation – I use the ‘a’ as in ‘father’ not the ‘a’ as in ‘care’. It has proven useful in my life that I use a less common pronunciation and spelling because it allows for disambiguation from people who use the more common American spelling/pronunciation.

However…

If you were to ask me what is the ‘correct’ way to pronounce my name, my answer would be ‘modern Hebrew pronunciation’. The modern Hebrew ‘r’ sound is different from the American English ‘r’ sound (the modern Hebrew ‘r’ sounds like the French ‘r’). However, I don’t expect the people around me to pronounce the ‘r’ correctly, and I will straight up tell them that it’s okay for them to use the American English ‘r’. Heck, when I introduce myself, I usually use the American English ‘r’ to simplify my interactions. In other words, even ~I~ usually do not use what I consider to be the ‘correct’ pronunciation of my name.

I do not want to reveal my legal first name here. However, even before I went to Taiwan, I sometimes chose to introduce myself as ‘Sara’ rather than use my legal first name. This sometimes led to situations where people knew me as ‘Sara’, then they found out my legal first name, and they say things like “hey, ‘Sara’ is not your real name!” (Of course ‘Sara’ is my real name. Though I would not say that a name has to be on a birth certificate to be ‘real’ it is also true that ‘Sara’ appears on my birth certificate).

In Taiwan, I at first introduced myself using my legal first name, since I wanted to conform to what is written on my legal documents. However, my employer in Taiwan asked me to use ‘Sara’ instead of my legal first name because it is easier for Taiwanese people to pronounce. Since I was already used to be addressed as ‘Sara’ I did not have a problem with this, so at my workplace in Taiwan everyone addressed me as ‘Sara’.

I never legally adopted a Chinese name in Taiwan. I have known Americans who did need to legally adopt a Chinese name in order to get something, and if I had decided to settle in Taiwan permanently, I would have probably needed to adopt a legal Chinese name as well. I do have an informal Chinese name, and that is the name I would have use if I ever need a legally recognized Chinese name. I personally never had a problem with this system, and I would have been willing to legally adopt a Chinese name if were necessary. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. However, even though it was never a problem for me, it has been a problem for other people (such as the indigenous people of Taiwan).

Outside of the workplace, how did Taiwanese people address me. I let them choose. If they wanted to call me ‘Sara’ I let them do that. If they wanted to call me ‘Shālā’ (that is the Sinicized form of ‘Sara’) I let them do that. If they wanted to call me by my informal Chinese name, I let them do that too.

Now, my family name…

I have a fairly unique family name. It is so unique that, the first time I ever put my name in a search engine (this was probably around the year 2000) one of the top hits was a fantasy story that someone posted online. That story is long gone from the internet, so now one of the top hits is Wookiepedia – because there is an obscure Star Wars character who shares my name. Yep, I have one of those ‘weird’ names that appears in fantasy & science fiction but not so much in real life (unless you are me, or one of my relatives who shares the same name).

Star Wars – the only major media franchise in the world where characters have family names like my family name.

How did I get such an obscure family name? Well, to begin with, it was an uncommon family name. Then my family immigrated to another country, and adapted the name to fit the local language, and then my mom immigrated to the United States, and adapted the name again. Hence the unique spelling and pronunciation. While I suppose there is now a ‘correct’ way to spell my family name since it’s now consistent across all of my documents (that was not always the case – when I was very young, my family name was spelled on way in certain documents, and spelled differently in different documents), there have been so many pronunciation changes within the last three generations that I don’t think there is a ‘correct’ way to pronounce my last name. Therefore, as long as the consonants are correct (since the consonants have somehow managed to stay the same) nobody is ever going to ‘mispronounce’ it.

To better explain what I mean, I am going to use a hypothetical example. Let’s say an English guy with the family name ‘Smith’ immigrated to a Chinese speaking society. He Sinicized his name to Sīmì​ (斯密) so that it could be written in Chinese characters and was easy for Chinese speakers to pronounce. He had children, and they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ because Chinese was their primary language. Let’s say there was another generation, and a person from this later generation immigrated to North America. Because they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ they use that name instead of ‘Smith’ in their immigration documents.

Yeah, that’s what happened to my family name.

While I do not want to reveal my family name, I will say this. The way it was written and spelled three generations ago could pass for a German name (I’m not sure if my current spelling and pronunciation would pass as German). How do I know? There was a branch of my family who lived in Germany during the Nazi regime, and they survived by hiding their Jewish heritage and passing as ‘Aryan’ Germans. Though they did not change their name, they succeeded, which means it is a name which did not make the Nazis suspicious. However, while that form of the name is more common than my form of the name, it’s still rare, even in Germany and Austria (and in Jewish communities). It’s so rare that we were able to re-establish contact with that branch of the family BECAUSE our names were so similar – the odds are fairly high that anyone with a family name that is even SIMILAR to my family name is some kind of relative.

Then there is my father’s family name.

My father does not like his last name. He does not hate it enough to go through the hassle of a legal name change, but he was determined to never pass on his last name to anyone else. He had an agreement with my mother that, if they had a daughter, she would take her family name, not his. I am their daughter, so that is why I have her family name. However, if they had a son, they agreed that their son would take … his mother’s maiden name. If he were to decide that it was worth changing his legal name after all, I know he would choose to use his mother’s maiden family name.

I don’t know exactly why my father dislikes his name so much. His response is usually ‘I don’t like it because I don’t like it’. But I have a speculation.

His family name is German in origin. It has been partially Anglicised. The partial Anglicization makes it easier for American English speakers to pronounce it, but it is still an obviously non-Anglo name. Weirdly, it now can pass for a Swedish name, which is why some people mistake my father for being Swedish-American (as far as I know, there is no Swedish ancestry in my family).

In the 19th century and early 20th century, German Americans experienced a lot of prejudice. They were more privileged than Italian Americans, but less privileged than French Americans. During World War I there were laws passed against using the German language (for example, some states banned the use of German in school), the Red Cross banned anyone with a German family name from joining, newstands and advertisers boycotted German language newspapers, which caused the collapse of the German language press (before World War I, German was the second most printed language in the United States), things like that. The ‘choice’ offered German-Americans was basically ‘assimilate into Anglo-American culture, and we’ll let you have white privilege, otherwise we’ll punish you.’ That is why, even though more Americans claim German ancestry than ancestry from any other ethnic group (including ‘English’ and ‘Irish’) one hears little about German-Americans these days.

My father’s family had never tried to hide or expressed shame about its German origin (and unlike many German-American families, my father’s family did not adopt an Anglo name), but … I don’t know.

My father’s mother was not German-American, and her maiden name was an Anglicized Scottish name. It is considered to be very ‘normal’ and ‘easy to pronounce’ for Americans. Maybe that’s why my father wishes that he had his mother’s maiden name instead of his father’s.

Anyway, that’s enough about me and my names and my family. In the next part I’ll talk about names in fiction.


And that is the end of what I wrote in December 2017. Part 2 was written in response to a discussion which has been happening online in the English-language wuxia fandom recently, and will be posted here in a few days, and yes, it is about ‘difficult’ names in fiction.

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.

A Tribute to “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else”

The cover of "Very Far Away from Anywhere Else"

Ursula K. LeGuin died this week.

I met Ursula K. LeGuin once when she visited my local library. I did not talk to her individually, but I was in the same room with her, and I heard her speak. I was quite young at the time, and though I had already the Earthsea books and the Catwing books (cats! with wings! I’m not sure why the Catwing books are not more popular), I think at the time it had been more meaningful for my father, who had been reading her novels long before I was born.

Later, when I was in high school, I read some of the Hainish Cycle books, as well as The Lathe of Heaven. I was awed and impressed by The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven, and I also enjoyed Planet of Exile (City of Illusion was a DNF for me).

When I was eighteen years old, I moved out of my parents’ home for the first time and lived in Mountain View. There is an awesome used bookstore there (I hope they are still there), and on a whim I picked up “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Unlike Ursula K. LeGuin’s most famous works, “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” is not speculative fiction. It’s a contemporary story (contemporary to the 1970s, that is). It’s about a teenage boy who meets a teenage girl, and they get along better with each other than they do with anyone else they know. Nope, it’s not an original plot. However, what really stood out to me was all of the subtlety put into the story, especially how they were navigating the social expectations placed upon them, and trying to figure out what they actually wanted rather than following social scripts which did not necessarily work for them.

A moment which I remember especially sharply is when Natalie’s father, who is a conservative and very religious Christian, is assuming that Owen and Natalie ~must~ be having sex, and how his conservative Christian mindset actually encouraged him to fixate on sex.

When I was eighteen, I did not consciously identify as ace or aro, but I was already aware that I was different in some way. I think graduating from high school and living away from my parents raised my awareness of this difference, since I was obviously mature and independent enough to be a girlfriend and it was becoming increasingly improbable that I was ‘just a late bloomer’, yet I wasn’t interested in being a girlfriend.

And that’s when I read this novella.

That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve become fuzzy on the details, so I looked for summaries on the internet to jog my memory (I remember how I felt while reading the story much better than I remember the story itself). That is how I discovered this personal reflection.

I will be the first one to say that The Dispossessed is probably Ursula K. LeGuin’s greatest literary work (not that I’ve read all of her novels, but it’s the best of the ones I’ve read, and a lot of other people seem to point to that one as being the best as well). But reflecting back on my experiences of reading LeGuin’s work in the light of her death, my mind goes back to “Far Away from Anywhere Else” as meaning the most to me. It relates more to how I try to navigate my life than The Dispossessed does.

Though I cannot guarantee that anyone will like “Very Far from Anywhere Else” I definitely recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. I especially recommend it to anyone who is wondering about why people make such a fuss about Ursula K. LeGuin yet do not like reading speculative fiction.