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

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

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

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

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

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Review of The Heretic Peacekeeper by Jeremy Bai

Book cover of The Heretic Peacekeeper by Jeremy Bai

Wang Fan, a peacekeeper in the Third Earth, wants to protect the people from crooks. The worst crooks, he believes, are evil cultivators. Protecting the public becomes rather difficult when-

Hold on, this book has not even been published yet. How come you’ve read it?

I have an advanced readers’ copy. (UPDATE: the book has been published).

So you’re going to do that song and dance about how you got a free copy in exchange for an honest review?



It’s not true. I did not get a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

You got a free copy in exchange for a dishonest review?

No, I did not get a copy in exchange for a review at all. I am under no obligation to review this book. 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

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’.
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Marriage by Time Skip

This post contains major spoilers for Way of Choices (擇天記) by Mao Ni. I’m serious, the spoilers are major.

Content note: brief reference to murder-suicide

In the novel Way of Choices by Mao Ni, the protagonist, Chen Changsheng, and another major character, Xu Yourong, develop a romantic relationship. This is a total non-surprise since the reader learns in the prologue that they have been designated as each other’s fiancé since a young age. In many ways, their romance unfolds in a very typical way, though there are enough surprises to prevent it from feeling too clichéd. Though they break off their engagement for a while (because of misunderstandings and not wanting to get married to someone their elders arranged for them to get married), they reach a point where they have obviously decided to get together romantically after all.

Then there is a ten year time skip. I was actually a bit surprised by this time skip because I expected them to have the ‘obligatory’ wedding scene before a decade-long time skip. As both Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong appeared on the scene after the time skip, I expected to find references to their wedding, or to hear the story of why they were not married ten years later. I found it odd that, chapter after chapter, there were no such references, or even a clarification of Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong’s official relationship. Since Chen Changshen and Xu Yourong are depicted interacting with each other, the reader can interpret how they feel about each other after the time skip, but that does not answer the question of whether or not they are married.

Quite a few chapters later, Chen Changsheng has a conversation with another character which strongly implies that Chen Changsheng is already married to Xu Yourong, though this is not explicitly confirmed. Of course, Chen Changsheng and this other character would already know whether or not he is already married to Xu Yourong, so they don’t need to say it out loud. Continue reading

Bedsharing, without Sex or Romance : Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu in Way of Choices

Mo Yu and Chen Changsheng in Fighter of the Destiny, which is the live action TV adaptation of Way of Choices

There are many things I love in the novel Way of Choices (it’s my favorite novel that I read in 2018). One of them is the relationship between Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu. And one of the things I love about the relationship is that they are a young man and a young woman who are not genetically related yet share a bed – without ever having sex or even being interested in having sex with each other.

What genre is this novel?


Whatever the heck that is.

If you want a clue, you could watch the opening theme song to the live action adaptation (even though it’s not faithful to the novel).

Chen Changsheng is a naive, idealist, honest, wholesome, bookwormish, and gentle teenager with a terminal illness, and Mo Yu is a conniving, cynical, physically strong, and ruthless government official who is primarily concerned with maintaining her (high) level of political power. Nobody would expect these two to become friends – and this is before we get to the fact that Mo Yu wants Chen Changsheng to die (or at least be imprisoned or exiled).

And yet, in spite of the above, they come to share a bed. Continue reading

Nesting Plots in Way of Choices

I recently read 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias. You can get an overview of the 20 master plots here. To some extent, he was trying to find universal storytelling patterns which work across cultures, but he also had some cultural biases (which he sometimes acknowledges). The rationale he gave (indirectly – I’m reading between some of the lines) for some of his cultural biases is that the book is written for Anglophone writers of the late 20th century, and they break the parameters of late 20th century Anglophone culture at their peril. Fair enough. But I’m interested in analyzing story plots, not developing story plots, and some of the plots I want to consider aren’t from 20th century Anglophone cultures.

For example, 20th century English language novels tend to be less than 600 pages long, and 20th century English language movies tend to less than three hours long. Some of the guidelines in the book are based on these restrictions in length, in particular the guideline that a story stick to one dominant plot pattern because there is usually not enough space to support multiple plot patterns. He also recommends that the cast of major characters be kept very small for similar reasons. However, he also admits that 19th century Russian novels did not always follow these particular guidelines because they had the space to be more expansive.

While I was reading this book, I was also reading Way of Choices by Mao Ni (I read it in Chinese; it has also been translated into English). It isn’t just over 600 pages long, it’s a few thousand pages long. Since that was the novel I was reading at the time I was reading 20 Master Plots, I naturally tried to see how it fit with Tobias’ plot guidelines.

You know how I suggested that different cultures tend to produce novels of different lengths? Chinese language literature tends to produce much longer novels than 19th century Russia (though there are also short Chinese novels), so Way of Choices is in no way an anomaly. This list at Wikipedia used to be a total joke because it excluded Chinese novels, now I see it has been updated to include a few Chinese novels, though there are still glaring omissions – how the heck is Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan not on there? It’s about 7000 pages long – I know, because I read the whole thing – it was published in a very traditional manner on physical paper, it was one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 1990s so it is in no way obscure…


Tobias claims that any plot can be summed up by a single core question. I can think of some counterexamples, but the basic question of Way of Choices is obvious: will Chen Changsheng (the protagonist) survive his youth? In the prologue, we learn that Chen Changsheng has a disease which will kill him before he reaches the age of 20 – unless something else kills him first. If that weren’t bad enough, his blood has such an irresistible aroma that most animals (including most humans) will try to eat him if they get a whiff, so he has to be very careful about shedding his own blood. Generally, Chen Changsheng is obsessed with finding a way to not die young.

Does the whole novel follow a single dominant plot pattern? In my opinion, no.

The first 60% of the novel does have a dominant plot pattern – what Tobias called the ‘quest’ plot. The object of Chen Changsheng’s quest is to find out how to change fate. At the beginning of the novel, he is fated to die young. Therefore, in order to not die young, he has to change his fate. Only three people in all of history have changed their fate, and his quest is to find out how they did it. This has great personal meaning to him, if he attains his object (the means to change his fate), it would dramatically change his life (he might not die young). And he picks up a lot of wisdom along the way, particularly concerning the value of life, how to cope with the prospect of death, and whether or not fate is a real thing.

Yet within that dominant pattern, there are numerous plot arcs, and they generally take other patterns. They are essentially smaller plots nested within the dominant plot arc. Tobias says that this can generally only be done in a minor way, and if a novel is only 300 pages long, he’s probably right, but Way of Choices ain’t that short.

For example, the Zhou’s Park arc follows the ‘Adventure’ master plot. Chen Changsheng doesn’t expect to find much to help him in his quest (changing fate to save his own life), but if he figures that if he is going to die young anyway, he would like to do some more traveling and see more places, and he might find some cool treasure in Zhou’s Park. That is why he chooses to go there. The Zhou’s Park arc is about exploring an interesting place and having interesting events happen (and many people/creatures/things trying to kill Chen Changsheng), and not much about character development. And just as Tobias suggests that ‘Adventure’ plots tend to have a romance subplot, Zhou’s Park is where Chen Changsheng has his first seriously romantic experiences.

Another plot arc is the Su Li arc, which follows the ‘Pursuit’ pattern. For a change, everyone is trying to kill Su Li, not (necessarily) Chen Changsheng. However, Chen Changsheng is with Su Li, and does not want to leave him, so they flee together from everyone who is trying to kill them. There is constant tension with regards to whether they are going to be discovered, caught, and killed by their (many) pursuers.

Of course, there are more plot arcs which follow other patterns described by Tobias, but I think these examples are enough to explain what I mean by ‘nesting’ plot arcs.

However, I said only the first 60% of the novel has the ‘Quest’ plot as a dominant narrative. What about the rest of the novel? The basic question (will Chen Changsheng survive) remains the same, but about 3/5 of the way through the novel there is a plot twist which twists the plot so dramatically that it completely changes the dominant plot pattern. After the super plot twist, the dominant pattern is what Tobias calls an ‘Underdog’ plot. Perhaps one could say that the whole plot has ‘Underdog’ as its dominant pattern, it’s just that Chen Changsheng and the reader did not know that for the first 60%.

This part of the novel also has plots nested within the overarching ‘Underdog’ plot. For example, Chen Changsheng’s close friend, Tang Thirty-Six, is being kept as a captive/prisoner, and his captor is waiting for favorable circumstances to outright kill him. Naturally, Chen Changsheng wants to set Tang Thirty-Six free. This plot arc follows what Tobias calls the ‘Rescue’ plot pattern.

And then there is the final plot arc which, frankly, was rushed. I think it would have been better if the novel had an extra thousand pages or two to fully flesh out the final arc, but perhaps Mao Ni was tired of writing this novel and wanted to wrap it up. It feels like an epilogue in the sense that it seems to be more about tying up dangling plot threads than letting them play out. It’s also the only plot arc in which the question ‘will Chen Changsheng survive’ is not an ever-present backdrop. That’s not to say that Chen Changsheng isn’t threatened with death in the final arc – he is very much is threatened with death – it’s just that not woven into the story the same way (it is hard to get specific without getting into spoilers). This final arc is most similar to what Tobias calls the ‘Discovery’ plot pattern, in that it is about Chen Changsheng finally learning the answers to various questions.

Based on all of the long novels I’ve read, it seems that, to form a plot for a very long story, nesting plots are not strictly necessary, but are a very common way to form plots which can run for thousands of pages (or many episodes of a TV show, or whatever the medium is). And I think this may be part of why I feel that novels which exceed 1000 pages are distinct from novels under 600 pages in the same way that novellas are distinct from novels. If a work of fiction is too short, using nesting plots is impractical, if a work of fiction is long enough, nesting plots is the most practical way to spin a story.