Exploring Chinese Fantasy

I firmly believe in the benefits of reading widely, across not only genres but also cultures. There is great value in venturing outside the familiar and having our ideas and sensibilities challenged. This Reddit comment thread brought up the lack of translated fantasy novels, and why it's not easy to find non-English recommendations. So here's a post I hope will spur some interesting discussion.

While I haven't kept up with modern Asian fantasy à la Ken Liu and R. F. Kuang, I have read some Chinese literature while growing up, and I can offer some examples that might interest fantasy readers hoping to dabble in non-English fiction.

Some disclaimers before I begin: I'm not a literary expert. Asia is huge, and I'm only focusing on Chinese fantasy here. I've only read the original Chinese versions of the following works, so I can't vouch for the quality of the translations.

Genre definitions are always contentious. Here, I take fantasy to mean "stories that are unlikely take place in our world", which leaves out classic historical fiction such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber. I urge you to check them out nonetheless.

Oldies but goodies

Why classics? Well, because they've been around for a while, there's a good chance you'll find a translation or two in your preferred language. Also, classics are classics for a reason - for better or worse, they're the surviving representation of the past, and their stories have retained enough relevance to weather the passage of time.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en

Journey to the West is one of the Four Great Classic Novels in Chinese literature, along with the three I mentioned above. Set during the Tang dynasty, the Monkey King, which has roots in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, goes on a quest with a Buddhist monk to retrieve the sutras. Accompanying him are a pig warrior1 and a deity-turned-river-demon-turned-monk2.

Wikipedia has a list of notable translations; W. J. F. Jenner's has been praised in particular, an excerpt of which you can find here.

The Investiture of the Gods by Xu Zhonglin

Written during the Ming dynasty, this is a mythologised portrayal of the dawn of Imperial China. The last tyrant king of the ruling Shang dynasty faces an uprising, in an ensuing series of epic battles against earthly and heavenly forces.

As far as I know, there are two English translations: this one is more recent, and this one seems to be more difficult to find.

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling

This collection of folk tales features ghosts, demons, fairies and all manner of mythical beings dropping in on the everyday lives of humans. Beneath the surface of these stories about love and lust, the author, a disillusioned bureaucrat, slips in critiques of the rich and corrupt.

Herbert Giles' translation is freely available at Project Gutenberg, but has been lampooned for its prudish editorialising. Penguin has a more recent translation. Words Without Borders has a free excerpt from yet another translation.

Jin Yong and wuxia novels

Jin Yong's stories are near and dear to my heart, and he sits next to Tolkien in my personal pantheon of authors. Jin Yong is the pen name of Louis Cha, a Hong Kong writer who popularised the modern wuxia genre. His novels are a terrific blend of drama, martial arts, and a touch of mysticism, all set against historically accurate backdrops. They are epic in scale, spanning lifetimes and distant borders. Add to that prose that is poetic but accessible, and you have the makings of a masterpiece. The wuxia genre has been a part of Chinese literature for a long time, but Jin Yong single-handedly breathed new life into it with his literary chops and his skilful use of genre tropes.

There's action and factions aplenty, and the stories revolve around martial artists and a myriad of secret societies, sects, and cults. Wuxia is low fantasy: aside from the admittedly superhuman abilities that characterise fight scenes, the characters are decidedly human, and the stories focus heavily on their emotional struggles. There are no supernatural elements, and none of the overt magic of the xianxia subgenre.

Far from being popcorn fantasy, these novels possess a rich depth of culture and philosophy. We also see timeless themes such as the nature of good and evil, loyalty, heritage, love, family... the list goes on. Jin Yong was remarkably progressive in his portrayal of women, especially since his stories were all published in the 1950s to the 1970s. Female protagonists and villains alike are thoughtfully depicted and feature prominently.

WuxiaSociety provides a comprehensive overview of Jin Yong's novels, as well as fan translations for most of them. Of his 15 books, five - or four and a half, more accurately - have been officially translated into English. The Legend of the Condor Heroes is the latest to get the treatment; there are four planned volumes, of which the first two are published.

Closing thoughts

Unsurprisingly, we've barely scratched the surface of Chinese fantasy. Liang Yusheng and Gu Long were famous contemporaries of Jin Yong, and I'm sure you've noticed the current proliferation of translated webnovels. If you read sci-fi, you've likely come across Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang, as well as many short story writers. As I alluded to earlier, fantasy is alive and kicking outside of the Anglosphere, and I hope we see more well-made translations.

Day 12 of #100DaysToOffload


1 Yes.

2 Yes.

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