Taoism, Buddhism and Dasein – Monk Comes Down the Mountain


In 1946 Heidegger and the Chinese academic Paul Shih-yi Hsiao collaborated on a translation of the Tao Te Ching. Hsiao withdrew from the project after translating 8 of the 81 stanzas of the classic citing anxiety over Heidegger’s departures from the text. Carman and Van Norden remark that this was somewhat usual behaviour from Heidegger who felt little need for textually loyal interpretation of any texts. Heidegger, for his part, expressed exceptional love for and philosophical affiliation with D. T. Suzuki and said he felt this Zen theologian and philosopher captured the essence of his philosophy.

Considering these two different accounts we should be careful with mapping any sort of one-to-one relationship between existentialist thought and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Taoism but likewise we cannot ignore that parallels exist.

I also want to briefly discuss why I’m talking about Buddhism and Taoism together here. Principally this is because both Buddhism and Taoism are essential to an understanding of Monk Comes Down the Mountain. He Anxia, the protagonist, is a Taoist monk. His principal moral guides throughout this film are a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot and a Taoist recluse. Buddhism and Taoism are different but not necessarily opposed. They are different but non-contradictory and have had an influence over each other. Particularly you can see a Taoist influence on the writings of the Chán patriarchs such as via the focus on formlessness in the Flower Sermon. The Chán focus on the insufficiency of language to communicate the dharma largely echoes the Tao Te Ching when it says,

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

Whether we look at the Buddhist sense of Dharma or teaching or the Taoist sense of tao or way of being we encounter this fundamental argument that the absolute thing being taught is not entirely communicable from within language – it’s insufficient. However the Flower Sermon is not a universal Buddhist text – it is, in fact, rather explicitly restricted to Chán and its successor Zen. Here it’s important to reflect on how Buddhism, in specific, is non-monolithic. Rather Buddhism has always been rather syncretic, responding to and interacting with local intellectual life. Chán is one of two principal schools of Buddhism that arose in China (along with Pure Land Buddhism) and both were in deep dialog with Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Folk Religion from the moment they arrived on the scene.

In the 2015 Chen Kaige film Monk Comes Down the Mountain this interrelated nature is brought front and center as it plots the journey of a junior Taoist monk who, after being asked to leave his monastery, goes on a search for teachers who include a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot, a Taoist recluse and an opera star.

This is a strange film. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising as Chen has a history of writing and directing movies that make unusual choices. A strong prior example is the critically divisive 2005 fantasy film The Promise which contained stunning and irrealist costuming and set design to frame a story that remains focused on Chen’s perennial topics of sexual desire and its relationship to masculine friendship. These topics are present in Monk Comes Down the Mountain in spades but with an added twist of a focus on and exploration of the master-student dynamic that is central to the Chinese monastic experience and, via a transitory action from that monastic setting, martial arts fiction.

Some of the strangeness comes from a deeper-than-average formal adherence to wuxia structure. Wuxia novels were often quite episodic as a result of their golden age being dominated by newspaper serials. Each episode in a character’s story had to both fit into the overall arc and also be a cohesive tale about that character that could fit into the column inches available for it. But setting a wuxia story in Hangzhou in the 1930s is an interesting deviation since the mid-20th century period that marked the greatest output in the genre was also marked by a desire to look back into the pre-Republican past while most contemporary kung fu stories either followed this same trend or were set in the present. The period between the end of the Zhongshan Incident and the 1970s is at best a loose sketch with a small number of portrayals of Ip Man, Huo Yuanjia and his fictional pupil Chen Zhen standing in for the breadth of the jianghu during the early 20th century. In fact the premise of the Once Upon a Time in China films was largely that Wong Fei-hung‘s generation was the last blossoming of the age of martial arts heroes. But this movie does away with that and suggests, instead, that the heroes were all still there, secluded in temples, performing in operas and playing at gangster just as they had always done just somehow rendered almost invisible by modernity: just acrobats, monks and gangsters in the eyes of the world. Diminished.

In the world of this film no amount of neigong will protect a hero from a bullet in the back.

Another avenue for strangeness is the singular performance given by Wang Baoqing as the protagonist He Anxia. Wang characterizes his monk as a figure whose emotional map is dialed up to eleven. When he is happy (and he is a happy sort so this is often) he grins with his whole face, capers and laughs maniacally. When bored his whole body sinks into objects, his face droops, eyes almost shut. When angry He Anxia is outright and effectively homicidal in his wrath. Wang’s characterization of He seems to be hinting that being raised since infancy in a monastery has left He without normal emotional filters. He is unable to restrain these impulses of various passions because he never experienced enough to even realize he had them. This impulsivity extends into the script.

He’s first mentor upon leaving the temple is another former Taoist monk who abandoned the clergy and became a doctor out of lust. He was so desirous of a beautiful woman he encountered that he changed his whole life to be with her. He’s an older man though and so to support his desire he pays his younger brother, an apothecary, for aphrodisiacs. He isn’t aware his wife is having an affair with his younger brother but He Anxia spies on her while out on an errand and sees her in tryst with the younger brother; he confronts her, tells her she should tell her husband.

She assumes he has told the doctor and comes clean only to learn that He Anxia, just as impulsively as when he’d chosen to follow her, has not told the doctor a thing. The doctor persuades her to break off the affair with her brother which she does but the brother gives her a poisoned aphrodisiac which kills her husband before resuming his affair with her.

The film is clear the wife doesn’t realize the medicine is tainted.

He Anxia murders them both, locking them together in a boat and sinking it to the bottom of West Lake. He watches the light fade in her eyes as she drowns and then flees to a Buddhist temple seeking some understanding of whether what he did is good or evil.

Later he is drugged by the son of a gangster who believes his father has murdered his own best student (he has) and who believes He Anxia has information (he does). The drug loosens He Anxia’s tongue and he tells the other man, “I want to fuck my master’s wife.”

Later in the film He Anxia comes into the orbit of Zhou Xiyu – a recluse who lives alone in an abandoned Taoist temple. It transpires that Zhou is the former martial brother of the pupil-killing gangster and He’s actions reveal to the gangster that his xiongdi is still alive. The gangster, played by the delightfully hammy legend of Hong Kong cinema Wah Yuen is obsessed with maintenance of the family line and the martial line in one. He has never forgiven his father for teaching Zhou a powerful martial art and not him and so he goes to beat the secret out of Zhou. He fails; Zhou is by far the stronger fighter. But after he leaves Zhou is shot in the back by an unknown assailant. He hovers at the border between life and death. He Anxia brings his new teacher to the same abbot whose advice he sought after killing his last teacher’s unfaithful wife and begs the abbot to aid his teacher with his passing. The teacher reveals he needs to see one man before he dies and the abbot reminds him he can see him in his heart. Zhou agrees and sees a man who is a stranger to the audience smiling beatifically down at him before dying.

This man is the opera star Boss Zha – who is revealed to be Zhou’s former lover. The two met as soldiers some years previously and Zhou saved Zha’s life during a beautiful scene in which they embrace on a bridge as shells explode around them. They retreated from the world together to practice kung fu and when they eventually departed vowed eternal loyalty. Zha finding justice for his lover’s death marks the conclusion of the final episode of the film and brings He Anxia’s story to its conclusion. The film ends by saying in a voice-over narrative, “Only by experiencing good and evil can you truly appreciate the way… The true heart can hold all things, the mountains, plains and rivers and an eternal cosmic universe.”

It’s really only in this moment that all this strangeness, this lumpy, uneven and deeply odd narrative of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, selflessness and selfishness becomes clear. He Anxia’s moral development depends not just on a naïve man learning to do good things but rather of an empty vessel filling up with all the thickness of the world. He has to experience everything. And now we’re ready to talk a bit about Taoism, Buddhism and Existentialism.

In Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point? In everything I have done or said up to now, I seem to recognize these two forces, even when they work at cross-purposes… But if one forgoes a part of what is, one must forgo being oneself; one must forgo living or loving otherwise than by proxy. “

The true heart can hold all things; learn how to braid with white thread and black tread a single cord stretched to the breaking point. There is an echo here. Taoism recognizes that the world is absurd. Certainly this film does. In a minor episode a beautiful young woman approaches He Anxia and tells him he is her savior. It transpires she has been unable to bear a child – the husband is probably to blame but nobody wants to admit that. She has been praying to Guanyin at the temple for a son and the goddess used to grant sons but in the last several years the goddess has stopped and nobody knows why.

On the strength of this chance encounter with a stranger He Anxia goes to the Abbot (the same one who guided him through his guilt over his murder, the same one who will later ease his teacher’s passing) and asks why the goddess has stopped granting sons.

The abbot tells him that during the tenure of the previous abbot the monastery allowed men to hide in a secret room beneath the temple to Guanyin. When women came there to pray for a son one of the men would bring her down and help her to conceive one. The abbot says he didn’t think this was appropriate decorum for temple and he locked the secret room. This is why the Goddess stopped answering those particular prayers.

He asks the abbot for the key and the abbot asks why. He says he wants to help a woman and the abbot says yes. He Anxia promises the woman never to see her again after helping her solve her heir-problem. It’s all absurd. The woman is a stranger. She comes to He Anxia by chance. She is the first (and in the film only) person he is physically intimate with. She leaves his life just as suddenly as she entered it and then she becomes an absence in his life.

Sartre situates nothingness in absence. In Being and Nothingness he brings forth the example of a friend to be met at a restaurant. “I say, ‘he is not here.’ Is there an intuition of Pierre’s absence, or does negation enter in only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak here of intuition since to be exact there could not be an intuition of nothing and since the absence of Pierre is this nothing. Popular consciousness, however, bears witness to this intuition. Do we not say, for example, ‘I suddenly saw that he was not there.'” Sartre says that the absence of his friend is marked as an aspect in the fleeting faces of all those people who are not Pierre. Being is composed of all these absences marked by the sudden and shocking intrusion of presence when the absence is negated. “the negative judgment is conditioned and supported by non-being.” For Sartre, these early pages of Being and Nothingness are built around the argument that the being of a thing is ontologically primary. That our ability to assign appearances and essences to a being depend first on the presence of the being which is composed of an infinite series of all appearances and dis-appearances of it. The nothingness that marks the absence of a being is also part of that being.

It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world.
In it all sharpness is blunted,
All tangles untied,
All glare tempered,
All dust smoothed.
It is like a deep pool that never dries.
Was it too the child of something else? We cannot tell.
But as a substanceless image it existed before the ancestor.

The Tao Te Ching interprets the Tao as an empty vessel, an uncarved block, a void to be filled. The Way is a being that contains within it all its own nothingnesses; it is, in fact, a nothingness from which all things emerge. For the Tao Te Ching this aspect of being fruiting out of nothingness isn’t merely an ontological process whereby our understanding of what an object is not is a unified part of our understanding of what an object is. Instead it’s a metaphysical nothingness that gives birth to all things. Nothingness is within all things because all things arose from nothingness.

There’s a sense, in the phenomenological existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre that the presence of other objects to a being is an intrinsically shocking thing, almost hostile. But at the same time a subject cannot help but encounter other beings. We are within the world. This is Dasein – this sense that to exist is to be tossed about in a maelstrom of becoming and of appearances. In Nausea, Roquentin describes sitting under a Chestnut tree and says, “I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me.” This direct encounter with the being of the other shocks him but at the same time it digs into the ground against which the word, “tree” or the description of the root, “black,” rests. There is this rupture of the tree being too much, too solid. But being-in-the-world is inescapable. We are not cartesian mind-imps observing everything through a screen. We are buffeted about by being and the vicissitudes of life. Language fails Roquentin in the face of a true encounter with the tree. As Zhuangzi says, “those who understand, do not say. Those who say do not understand.”

This idea – that language creates a barrier to an encounter with the real – remains the point where Heidegger breaks from Taoism and from Ch’an. Both of these older ontologies look at the inability of language to capture the paradoxes and contradictions of being in the world and say that language is the problem; an object must be taken in whole and no words can carry enough meaning to communicate even the smallest object in its entirety. Heidegger, instead, ties himself in knots attempting to describe these phenomenological problems.

Sartre gets closer at times and more distant to this anti-linguistic frame. In Nausea, under the Chestnut Tree, he captures the inability of language to describe being in a true sense. “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as Laozi puts it. But even then he returns to the complex formulae of phenomenology in a vain attempt to describe the eternal Tao.

Monk Comes Down the Mountain is a story about the absurd and paradoxical nature of life. Its character, in his wild irrealist mood swings and strange, twisting, life story lives a life every bit as absurd of that of Roquentin, refusing to write his book in a coastal town that doesn’t exist. But being a Taoist work, Monk Comes Down the Mountain understands that the only way to truly and fundamentally apprehend being in all its paradox is to take it all in, to recognize the completeness of being and of the failure of language, even filmic language, to represent it in its wholeness. Recognizing its insufficiency to the task the film, instead of tying itself down in a complex phenomenology, allows its story to drift to metaphor and parable that is purposefully inadequate but is beautiful and strange nonetheless.

Heidegger failed to translate the Tao Te Ching and for all he tried to insert himself into the lineage of Zen he failed at that task too. No nazi can understand the sermon present in a smile and a plucked flower. Nausea fails too and so does Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Nothing can represent being; no work of art can present an essence to being in all its thickness. The essence is contained within the object of being along with its absence. It is but a part of a far greater whole. But where Heidegger’s Dasein gestures in the direction of the field, and where Nausea brushes against its surface, Monk Comes down the Mountain capers and dances, flashes a manic grin and throws itself about in acrobatic maneuvers. Camus said we need to braid with white and black thread stretched taught to the point of breaking and so must the Monk but even this misses the mark. He Anxia doesn’t braid with white and black thread; he is the white and black thread. His heart contains an eternal cosmic universe.

History and lineage in A Hero Born – Book 1 of the Holmwood translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of the unexpected impacts of the Coronavirus crisis of 2020-21 has been the delay of certain expected book releases. Originally I’d intended to read all four volumes of the recent translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes back to back and then to write an essay after completing that effort. Then I discovered that the fourth volume had been pushed back from a March release date to an August one… on the day I went to the store to buy it. Needless to say I put it under pre-order. However I did decide I’d space out my reading of the volumes to allow me to better keep up with my theory reading and to allow me to read a few other books that I have planned essays about (look for essays about A Wizard of Earthsea and a return to The Invisibles in the intermediate future – I want to make some revisions from my too-surface Hegelian read of the latter work.)

I have previously read Legend of the Condor Heroes via fan translations. In fact, while it’s quite rough around the edges, my essay about Hong Qigong was a test balloon for much of what I’ve been trying to do in this space recently.

Writing about Jin Yong was also my original introduction to literary criticism and represents my earliest attempt to work in the field. I frequently refer to Jin Yong as my favourite author, and this isn’t empty hyperbole. Legend of the Condor Heroes is one of the greatest works of fantasy literature written, and the sprawling text provides vast opportunities for engagement and assessment. I want to start by providing the most basic information: A Hero Born is the first of four volumes within this translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes – this volume was translated by Anna Holmwood and she was either the translator or the editor for each subsequent volume. There are other translators involved in the project, but I will be referring to this edition of the overall work as the Holmwood translation throughout as a matter of expedience. I will make sure to name other credited translators when I review future volumes of course.

This volume covers the Condor Heroes story from its start to the escape of Yang Tiexin and Bao Xiruo from the palace of Wanyan Honglie. This also means that this book does the heavy lifting of introducing the principals (Guo Jing, Huang Rong, Yang Kang, Mu Nianci, Wanyan Honglie, Ouyang Ke) but aside from allusions and the repeated appearance of Huang Yaoshi’s student, Mei Chaofeng, the Five Greats are absent from the story. The ending-point feels well-chosen. There was never going to be a spot in the first quarter of this novel that wouldn’t have seemed abrupt, but the conclusion of the action at the palace is a strong choice for where to leave off.

Holmwood proves an excellent translator; she has a sharp eye for prose and, most importantly when translating Jin Yong, seems to understand the purpose that underlies some of his odder structural choices. Many adaptations of Jin Yong’s work (such as the 2017 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes) will gloss over Jin Yong’s frequent asides, and re-order events in order to bring characters into the story more quickly. We want to see Huang Rong and Guo Jing interacting faster, so we put those scenes before the failed attempt of Ouyang Ke’s retainers to steal his horse: that sort of thing. Happily Holmwood does not do this. The end result is a text that might prove a challenge to people who are accustomed to either linear structures or the in-media-res – flashback – climax structure preferred in English and American fantasy but, if you can get past the structural alienness of the text, there is an incredibly rewarding book on the other side.

Holmwood’s translation is a welcome upgrade from the era of fan translations; but comes with a welcome call-back in the form of illustrations from a past Chinese edition of the book. If you are a reader either of fantasy fiction or a fan of Dumas, Scott, and other 19th century romance-adventure authors (to whom Jin Yong owes a deep debt) then I would heartily recommend this book. But I suppose there’s not much point in me trying to hype a new translation of the best-selling fiction book of all time. So let’s, instead, turn our attention to the question of how Jin Yong’s book creates a sense of the self in opposition to Descarte’s Cogito.

What is the self anyway

The Guo family must have descendants.

Let’s start with the super-nutshell version. Descartes was pretty much the OG skeptic. And he systematically tried to demonstrate that anything was beyond the possibility of doubt. In the end Decartes could find only one thing that he could not doubt. That there was a self who doubted. This idea, that the ability of a subject to be conscious, became the ground upon which most modern liberal conceptions of self are based. We like to think of ourselves as being singular, atomic, individual.

You might have noticed that I regularly state, “we are dividual” and various other formations of the same throughout my prior writing. This is not some strangely pervasive spelling error but is rather one of the two approaches of attack to the idea of the cartesian cogito. You can attack whether the cogito is, in fact, one thing or many things. If we imagine the subject that doubts not as a solid kernel of identity but rather as a frothing process of force, potential and change then we problematize Descartes. This helps to restore the validity of self-doubt, which became a topic of significant focus for early existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also raises the specter of nihilism since, if we cannot even be certain that the cogito that thinks is an accurate approximation of our self, what can we be certain of?

So that’s one way to attack the cogito – to question whether the self could be divided into multiple components – but there is another thing you can do to the self to break the hold of the cogito and that is to situate identity as being part of a process that is larger than the single person. In this case, the boundaries of the self dissolve into that of the community. As John Mbiti put it, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” While this viewpoint is most often expressed through the ideas of Ubuntu philosophy, this also is the form of self that Jin Yong presents in this text.

An example.

In the first chapter of the book, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin have encountered the Taoist priest Qiu Chuji who has just completed a mission to murder and ritually mutilate a government official who sold out the Song to Jin invaders. As you’d expect from a person currently carrying a man’s head, heart and liver in a sack, Qiu is feeling a bit paranoid and so when Guo and Yang invite him to come and have a drink with them (they’ve noticed his kung fu and think he seems cool) he assumes an ambush and picks a fight.

Now the book has informed us already that Guo and Yang are patriots and the descendants of heroes. Yang, in particular, is descended from a retainer of Yue Fei, so when he starts fighting with Qiu, the Taoist recognizes the way he fights as being his family’s famous spear technique. As Qiu comes to this realization, the action shifts from the fight (literally mid-movement) into an extended description of Yang’s famous ancestor, including his achievements in battle and his heroic death:

He gave his life for his country on that battlefield. When the Jin army burned his body, over two jin1 of molten metal flowed into the mud beneath him. After that battle the Yang family spear became famous across China's great planes.

The recognition Qiu is able to give to Yang is not because of his own merits. Or at least it’s not entirely because of his own merits. Qiu recognizes Yang is a good spearman. He is appreciative of Yang’s ability, but what tells Qiu that Yang is probably not an agent of the Jin come to ambush him isn’t the quality of his spearmanship but its lineage. Yang isn’t Yang Tiexin the man; he is Yang Tiexin the descendant of a heroic soldier, and the father of Yang Kang who is not yet born. His identity is a node in the ongoing flow of history. It may have its singularity in the moment, but its significance as an identity is superseded by the collective identity of the Yang family and the Yang spear pedagogical lineage.

Obligation and history

This pattern continues to repeat throughout the story. Whenever a new person is introduced, especially when that person’s physicality is introduced, it will be coupled with the history of their family or of their school. When Guo Jing’s eventual teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, are introduced, Jin Yong provides the following introduction to one of them:

In ancient times, the two southern kingdoms of Yue and Wu were long at war. The King of Yue, Gou Qian, kept himself ready for combat at all times bysleeping on a bed of straw and drinking from a gall bladder. But the Wu army was universally acknowledged to be superior, mainly due to General Wu Zixu's strategic prowess, learned under the master tactician Sun Tzu. One day, however, a beautiful young woman, accomplished in the art of the sword, arrived in Jiaxing, then located just inside the Yue border. One of the kingdom's highest-ranking ministers, Fan Li, asked if she would teach them her skills so they might defeat the Wu. So it happened that Jiaxing came to be the home of this particular sword technique, passed from master to disciple, generation to generation. 

Just as in the first example, this aside, which is actually a synopsis of Jin Yong’s Sword of the Yue Maiden happens mid-way through a physical movement which is intended to tell us about what the character (Han Xiaoying) but diverts temporally from the narrative to tell us, in brief, why her lineage matters. This is how she is introduced because she is the product of that lineage and the one upon whom it rests to pass that lineage on into the future. This is how we can understand who she is.

And this gets at the specific relationship that a subject in the present of this story has toward the past and that is continuity. When Guo Xiaotian is killed during Wanyan Honglie’s kidnapping of Bao Xiruo, Qiu’s first (and honestly only) thought is that the Guo family must continue. He is so obsessed with preserving the life of Guo’s widow, and more importantly the unborn child she carries, that he bursts into a Buddhist monastery, wrecks up the place and then picks a fight with the heroic Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, all just to ensure that Li Ping delivers her baby in safety. And when he realizes she’s gone missing he proposes the famous bet with the Seven Freaks that holds within it the very same relationship of obligation to history and to the future that positions identity.

Specifically he proposes that he pursue Bao Xiruo (and the unborn Yang Kang) and the Seven Freaks will pursue Li Ping (and Guo Jing). Should either he or the Seven Freaks find their child alive, they will train the child in their martial arts. Upon their eighteenth birthday, they will each bring their pupil to the same place to have a martial arts match (the Seven Freaks and Qiu are evenly matched and uncertain who is the stronger martial artist) after which, if both children are boys they’ll be sworn together as oath brothers and if one is a boy and the other a girl they will be married, thus ensuring the continuation of the Guo family, the Yang family, the teachings of the Seven Freaks and the teachings of Qiu Chuji, regardless of the outcome.

To Jin Yong, history is not a thing that happened in a past. Rather history is a fluid process that every subject is enmeshed within. We all move within history, molded by the situation of our times, becoming the people we are as a result of decisions made long before we were born. The decision of a general in the Spring and Autumn period to ask for the help of the Yue Maiden in his dynastic conflict gives rise to Guo Jing as much as the murder of his father mere weeks before he was born in the heart of a Mongolian snowstorm. Yang Kang’s eventual refusal of the lineage of his dead heroic ancestor, his willingly assuming of the position of Xiao Wangye (little prince – the son of a prince to be specific) within the Jin, isn’t immoral because there is anything fundamentally evil about the Jin. Jin Yong problematizes that quite well in the sequel which inverts the alliance patterns between Jin, Han and Mongol. It’s immoral because it is a severing off of Yang Kang from that flow of lineage. He is not part of the history of the Jin. His insertion of himself into that history, escaping from the history of heroic last stands of the Song dynasty Han in the process, is a selfish betrayal as sharp as any of the cruelties he visits upon Mu Nianci in time.

The Materialism of Jin Yong

History intrudes upon the narrative of A Hero Born constantly. And this history informs the people of the story, their places in the world and the decisions that they make. The central section of A Hero Born details Guo Jing’s childhood on the steppes of Mongolia and his eventual growth from a stubborn, honest and generous child into the youngest general of Ghengis Khan and the heroic himbo that we all know and love.

This episode of the story is one of the parts that interfaces most directly with a sort of historical fiction and it demonstrates the other very important relationship which Jin Yong has to history. History might be a present force which a subject is obligated to but it isn’t mystical. Jin Yong’s conception of history is classically materialist; it is the product of the social structures, the alliances and economies, that underpin it. Throughout the Mongolian chapters, the Jin are a constant threat. They are anxious about the boisterous, mobile and war-like Mongolians and are particularly anxious about Temujin, a modernizer who has been attempting to unite the rival clans of Mongolia. The Jin dispatch Wanyan Honglie (because of course it’s him again) and another prince of the dynasty to give Temujin a formal rank within the Jin empire and effectively to reinforce the empire-client relationship between the Jin and the two clans that Temujin has the greatest pull over.

However, the Mongols prove resistant to flattery, proud and scornful of bribes and honeyed words, and it becomes clear that Temujin is building up a force of capable generals and so instead the Jin decide to sow dissent between Temujin and his closest allies.

This plot comes to fruition with an attempted wedding party massacre, only the future Ghengis Khan proves a bit harder to catch than certain Starks we might remember, and Temujin, his closest retainers and Guo Jing end up encircled upon a hilltop. During the siege, a parlay occurs and we get the following exchange:

Jamuka rose to his feet. "you surrendered in the past when you were weaker than you are now. You give the spoils of war to your soldiers, telling them it belongs to them, not to the whole tribe. In this, again the clan leaders say you do wrong. It's against our traditions."
"But it pleases my young fighters! The clan leaders claim they cannot keep it because they want it for themselves. Such traditions make the fighters angry. Who do we need more? Brave soldiers or greedy, stupid clan leaders?"
"Brother you have always acted alone, as if you didn't need the help or advice of the other clan leaders. You have also been sending messengers to persuade my soldiers to surrender and join you, promising them riches, that the livestock won't be shared among all the people of the tribe. Do you think I was blind to what you have been doing?"

Jamuka is Temujin’s oath brother, and he’s speaking to his brother from the position of historical tradition, which Temujin will disrupt with his, strategically effective, economic revisions. But think for a second of the ridiculousness of a pause in a battle in Tolkien so that the rival generals can get together and have an argument over the distribution of horses and sheep. History is a force that subsumes the individual and it is a force that is driven by the material conditions of life. The fracture that the Jin exploit to drive a wedge between Temujin and Jamuka is economic. The dispute between these two historical figures is one over the distribution of soldiers, their place in society and the obligations those soldiers have to society. History is this vast material thing that binds us all together, it is the fabric out of which people are formed.

Guo Jing is a bundle of obligations that predate his birth. He is obliged to his family, to continue it and to carry forward its traditions. He is obliged to his teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, to be a good person, a strong fighter, an exemplar of their teachings. He is obliged to Yang Kang to marry them if they’re a girl or to become their brother if they’re a boy. He is obliged to Ghengis Khan for taking in his family. After the failure of the marriage alliance between Temujin and Jamuka, Temujin betroths his daughter Huazheng to Guo Jing and this becomes yet another obligation. Guo Jing is all of these competing strands of history, bound into a knot of perspective, coincidence and desire, and sent out into the world. Then he meets the daughter of Old Heretic Huang who demonstrates how these various obligations create antinomies and how the discovery of how to reconcile these contradictions leads on the path to heroism.

1: A jin is a Chinese measure of weight approximately equivalent to a half-kilogram. Please treat distinctly from the Jin (the Jin dynasty) or Jin Yong (the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, which roughly translates to “golden trifle”). Isn’t Chinese a fun language?

About that Iron Fist thing

I hesitated to write this post. As my hand hovers over publish, still I hesitate. Because I’m not sure the world really needs an attempt at a think piece on cultural appropriation from a white writer. To some extent I fear that this article might be seen as apologia, and it’s really not intended in that vein. But ultimately, I have some thoughts on some things I’ve seen, culminating with the Iron Fist casting thing and I don’t think I can express them in the brief space allowed on Facebook or Twitter.

So here goes.

I write martial arts stories. In general I’m a fantasist in my writing and I’m one who has a lot of the same influences as other fantasy writers: Dumas, Scott, Tolkien, LeGuin, Zelazny. But being a martial arts author specifically I’m also influenced by a few authors that might not be so well known: Luo Guanzhong, Shi Nai’anWu Cheng’en, Jin Yong. And what’s more, I wear the influence of their books on my sleeve just as openly as the influence of LeGuin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, Scott’s IVANHOE or Dumas’ COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. (Jin Yong is himself a fan of Dumas and so that influence ends up impacting me twice.)

Now that means that my stories play with Chinese tropes as often as they do British and French ones. But I’m also somebody who recognizes the problems posed by cultural appropriation and colonialism. I’m well versed in the damage of yellow peril narratives and orientalism in genre fiction. A bit of cognitive dissonance there. I’m aware of that.

The thing that makes appropriation and influence extra complex is that, unlike the orientalist view of monolithic cultures, people within a culture may have vastly different opinions on things surrounding their culture. When you add diasporas and cultural interaction within migrant populations into the mix that becomes even less clear which is how you get situations of kimono manufacturers in Japan targeting external markets at the same time that people of Japanese descent in the USA ask people to please stop using their ancestral dress as a costume. Because, you know, people are people shaped by personal experience everywhere, and how much comfort you have in living aspects of your inherited culture without fear of censure probably impact your desire to export elements of culture.

I suspect Canadians are more sensitive to the idea of cultural export than average, living as we do next to the biggest cultural exporter in the world. But the United States is far from the only cultural exporter. Britain, France and the other old colonial powers play that game, of course. Meanwhile the film industries in India and China and the music industry in South Korea have all begun targeting export markets aggressively.

A lot of this can be viewed through a Conflict Theory lens as a consequence of relative power; a film studio executive in Mumbai has a lot of it while the child of Indian immigrants getting bullied because her lunch smells different from bologna on white bread does not. It’s likely within that lens that they’ll develop differing views on how outsiders interact with their shared material culture.

Tropes are part of material culture. In fact they’re a huge part of material culture. Tropes present a shared vocabulary for understanding how to decode literature. Literature often becomes how cultures come to understand themselves. So in a way tropes are the basic building blocks of shared cultural understanding.

So using tropes from another culture is a big fucking deal, and can be a minefield. Some things to consider:

  • When you use the trope do you understand what it stands in for and how it connects to other tropes?
  • Are you perpetuating a harmful stereotype with your deployment of those tropes?
  • Are you showing respect to the culture that owns those tropes?
  • Is there a vast power differential between your culture and the parent culture for the tropes you intend to use? (EX: It’s not ever going to be appropriate for white people to mine First Nations tropes you know, since we were actively engaging in genocide against First Nations people within living memory and since they still represent the most repressed population in North America.)
  • Have you done your research? Seriously, do your bloody research.
  • Do you understand why you want to use these tropes? Is it a good reason?

So let’s look at Iron Fist.

Bill Everett got in on the martial arts movie craze in the US early – he says before Bruce Lee put out his first film (and he probably means before the theatrical release of the Big Boss in 1971 which means he was probably watching one of the late 1960s era Shaw Brothers / King Hu films, which included some true masterpieces like COME DRINK WITH ME, so right on for him being a fan.

In the 1971, Nixon and Mao hadn’t yet normalized relations between the USA and China, so what media there was came out of Hong Kong or Taiwan. But by the time Iron Fist hit comic stands in 1974 that had changed, and China was huge in American consciousness. Writing accessible stories that deployed tropes from China could be seen as reasonable. But it’s unfortunate that, along with those Chinese tropes, the author inserted the Orientalist trope of the white guy who goes to an exotic locale and becomes better at exotic stuff than the locals.

Marvel did some interesting stuff previously with Shang-Chi, who could be seen as a critique of Yellow Peril narratives, if somewhat accidentally, so Iron Fist was a bit of a step backward.

But the Iron Fist / Power Man team-up was kind of ground breaking in its own way and I’ve generally been content to see the Iron Fist comics as effectively benign. The aren’t an ideal way for white audiences to interact with Chinese tropes (I’d rather we got more works in translation instead) but they’re not that harmful either.

So we’re getting an Iron Fist show in the MCU and there’s been something of a three way debate over the casting of Iron Fist. This debate breaks down approximately like this:

  • Iron Fist should be played by an Asian actor because the MCU has been unwilling to give major roles to Asian characters. Considering the background of this character and the extent to which he’s built from Kung Fu movie tropes it’d be fitting to race-bend him.
  • Iron Fist should be played by a white actor because the character is white in the comics.
  • Iron Fist should not be played by an Asian actor because he’d be yet another Asian ninja character in a shared universe of film and TV that includes Asian characters, and actors of Asian descent portraying aliens only either as hand-to-hand combat specialists or doctors. Casting Iron Fist would act as a release valve for the MCU to improve the diversity of its lead casting.

I tend to support the first of these three positions. Arguably the biggest role in the MCU played by actors of Asian descent is in Agents of Shield in which Melinda May is a breakout character and in which we have Chloe Bennett (previously when discussing this issue on Facebook I forgot to mention her and felt a need to highlight her now) playing Daisy Johnson, a multi-talented hacker / spy / inhuman super-power. Still, arguably Phil Coulson is the actual lead on Agents of Shield. After Season One, Daisy was largely relegated to supporting lead status, a position that Melinda May has always been in. (Seriously can we just add May to the Agengers? Please?)

The same situation arises in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Dave Bautista (who is half-Filipino) plays a supporting lead as Drax the Destroyer. OTOH almost every MCU product includes a white lead. Certainly that’s the case for Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Ant Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Guardians of the Galaxy and Agent Carter. I’ll give you that you could look at Agents of Shield as an ensemble cast in which Daisy and May play very large roles.

About the only thing to say positively regarding the second position is that white / black partnerships were rare at the time that Iron Fist teamed up with Power Man. Other than that, no, I don’t care. Race-bending is a thing that happens these days and just because the character was created as a blond guy doesn’t mean he has to stay blond. It’s not integral to the character of Danny Rand aside from as it relates to his relationship with Luke Cage.

The third position I have some sympathy for. The only thing I’d argue is that while it’s true that Daisy is basically the only named character played by an actor of Asian descent in the entirety of the MCU who is neither a martial artist first and foremost, nor a doctor, the population of the MCU is largely composed OF doctors and martial artists of one stripe or another, race notwithstanding. I’d say that it’s kind of sad that, for all its flaws, the MCU has done a better job of diverse casting than average for Hollywood. After all, we live in a world where this movie and this movie were both greenlit in close proximity to one another.

I certainly agree that the MCU could do a MUCH better job. And I’d much rather see either an Amadeus Cho fronted project or a Shang-Chi project come into the MCU than Iron Fist. That said, I understand why we’re getting Iron Fist instead.

I think casting Iron Fist as white is a missed opportunity. Iron Fist – the comic – is a harmless enough bit of trope stealing, especially considering both when it was inspired (at a time where the only contact the USA had with China was largely kung fu movies coming out of Hong Kong) and the context of the creator writing the comic as a reaction to how much he loved Hong Kong film. But this isn’t 1974 and it certainly isn’t 1971 anymore and standards have changed. The MCU has overwhelmingly allowed their properties to be fronted by white actors – and will continue to do so until Black Panther comes out.

Iron Fist, drawing, as it does, from the vast well of wuxia tropes, a well which is much more accessible if you do your research today than it was in 1974 would have been an ideal place to put an actor of Asian descent front and center.

You know, like they did in Into the Badlands.

The best show on TV.

Go watch Into the Badlands right now.

Um… what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Iron Fist. I hope that Marvel uses the show to highlight race relations through the Rand / Cage connection. Frankly BLM has brought a lot of stuff to the forefront of public consciousness that it would be good to give space to in pop culture. Establishing a friendship between Luke Cage and Danny Rand, in 2016, in the city of Eric Garner, and doing it in a way that demonstrates just how vast the gulf is between the privilege Rand enjoys and what Cage must endure could make for interesting television. But that’s the only even half-way compelling reason I can see to release an Iron Fist show and to cast Danny Rand with the same guy who played Ser Loras.

Refusing to let our enemies define us: the lesson Hong Qigong can teach us in the 21st century

ouyang feng fights hong qigongThere’s a section of Legend of the Condor Heroes / Eagle Shooting Heroes where most of the major characters are travelling across the East China Sea and in the process destroy several boats, lifeboats and rafts.
This section operates largely in broad-stroke morality, juxtaposing the murderous Ouyang Feng and his obsessively rapey nephewson Ouyang Ke against the stolid but dutiful Guo Jing, Huang Rong, who mostly just wants to be left alone to grieve and who wants to not have to avoid Ouyang Ke’s increasingly horrific advances on her, and their highly principled mentor Hong Qigong.

How many ships does it take to cross one sea?

The sequence begins when, following his engagement to Huang Rong, Guo Jing prepares to depart for the mainland from Peach Blossom Island, along with Hong Qigong and Zhou Botong.

Zhou Botong, who likes Guo Jing a lot but who likes causing trouble more, stirs up trouble between Guo Jing and his future father in law, Huang Yaoshi: a polymath who suffers from a host of psychological issues including an inability to handle anger in the slightest, and suicidal ideation.

As a result of this they aren’t sufficiently warned that the boat they’re on is an intricate death trap, designed by Huang Yaoshi as the instrument of his eventual suicide. It gets out to open sea and then begins collapsing.

Ship 1 down.

Ship 2

Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke had also come to Peach Blossom Island. Ouyang Ke wanted to take Huang Rong as his wife – this is creepy as all hell since he’s literally twice her age (he’s about 30 while she’s maybe 16) and since he’s previously made several aggressive advances toward her, all of which were quite thoroughly rebuffed. Seriously man, NO MEANS NO.

Anyway, having failed to convince Huang Rong’s father to give him her, the Ouyang family have decided to slink back off to their homes in some snake infested corner of the western hinterland.

However they see Guo Jing, Zhou Botong and Hong Qigong struggling against a sharknado (seriously) on the ruins of their sunken ship, and Zhou Botong and Guo Jing have something Ouyang Feng wants – so he rescues them.

It becomes clear that Zhou Botong won’t give Ouyang Feng what he wants so he manipulates the pranksterish old man into jumping back into the ocean, expecting him to be claimed by the waves. He then concentrates on extorting Guo Jing into giving him what he wants.

Guo Jing resists attempted poisonings, nighttime assaults, and a mass of snakes that would make Indiana Jones very unsettled.

And eventually it seems like Guo Jing is going to relent. So, of course Ouyang Feng immediately plots to murder everybody not named Ouyang basically immediately. And he does so by burning down the ship…

That he’s on…


This ends up with Hong Qigong fighting him on the burning deck of his ship, while Guo Jing and Huang Rong (who arrives during the chaos and whose own ship becomes unavailable because her crew are shits) manage to secure the lifeboat.

A burning sail drops on Ouyang Feng and Hong Qigong does something inexplicable.

He saves the bastard.

Of course Ouyang Feng immediately stabs him in the back.

One boat, one island shipwreck and one raft later…

Everybody ends up shipwrecked on the same island. Hong Qigong is seriously injured from his fight with Ouyang Feng and Guo Jing and Ouyang Feng are nowhere to be found – believed at the time to be drowned.

Ouyang Ke begins trying to rape Huang Rong immediately. And she does a GOOD job of fighting him off. His first attempt, she stabs him in the leg, giving him a huge gushing gash.

The second time, she manages to use a set of armour that’s like mithril covered in needles to rebuff him.

The third time (you think he’d have got the message by now) she almost drowns him.

The fourth time (seriously, I said this guy was a creep) she drops a ten-ton boulder on his legs, pinning him where the inevitable tide WILL drown him, but only after half a day of excruciating agony.

So of course that’s when his dad turns up.

The long and short of it is that the good guys manage to survive Ouyang Feng’s visit to the island, and Guo Jing and Huang Rong are reunited, but the Ouyangs steal their raft off and disappear into the sea.

Of course not before Huang Rong sabotages the raft so that it’ll collapse the same way as ship #1.

They build a second raft and leave the island, heading back toward the mainland, when they hear the sounds of people screaming for help. It’s the Ouyangs, of course.

Huang Rong wants to leave the two villains to drown. Hong Qigong says no. They have to rescue the Ouyangs. Even though they’re both psychotics. Even though they almost certainly (and in fact do) try to murder everybody as soon as they’re on the new raft. And although I disagree with him on the action he chose, I think Huang Rong  was totally right here, I actually feel there’s something very important in the reasoning he uses as to why.

Because, of course, Huang Rong challenges him.

And he says it’s not about the quality of the Ouyangs. The Beggar’s Sect (the organization that Hong Qigong and Huang Rong are members of, the organization, in fact that he’s grooming her to become the new leader of) doesn’t leave people to drown or die.

Of course, Ouyang Feng immediately attacks (Huang Rong has efectively eliminated the threat that Ouyang Ke poses to anybody pretty much ever again, he’s just along for the ride at this point) and, just as with every other boat-oriented fight up to this point he ends up destroying the raft and dropping everybody back into the sea.

Now for all its absurdity (and it’s an incredibly absurd piece of fantasy, which will eventually end with Zhou Botong riding a shark like a horse) there are two things I love about this. And those things are in conflict.

First, I love that Huang Rong neutralizes Ouyang Ke all on her own. It’s a handling of rape that a lot of western books haven’t managed, even though this novel is over half a century old.

Ouyang Ke is a monster. And he gets his comeuppance repeatedly. Everytime he tries to abuse Huang Rong, he fails. And every time he fails he’s punished, by her, worse than the time before. By the time she’s done with him, he’s literally half the man he once was, his legs pulverized by ten tonnes of rock.

But I also love Hong Qigong’s unwillingness to let his enemies define him. He knows, by the time he rescues Ouyang Feng a second time, that his enemy won’t relent, won’t behave humanely. But for all of Ouyang’s monstrosity, he’s a person drowning on a ruined boat. And Hong Qigong follows a set of cultural norms that say “you don’t let people drown on ruined boats. Ever.” And he sticks to that.

Justice sometimes means being true to your ideals even when it might be a bad idea

But I said that there was a lesson here for the 21st century. And it’s not Huang Rong’s lesson – that it’s good to allow your fictional heroines to rescue themselves – though that’s a darn good lesson that a lot of authors should take to heart.

In fact it’s not a lesson for writers at all.

It’s a lesson for leaders and politicians.

In the early days of the 21st century we entered into a war in Afghanistan. The people our armies attacked there certainly acted inhumanely. They bullied civilians. They treated women as property to be used as they saw fit. They attacked indiscriminately at times, even when doing so might be as harmful to them as it was to their targets. The Taliban are, and were then, bad people.

But that doesn’t justify what we did.

Canadian culture in the second half of the 21st century is predicated on certain ideals: that war is cruel and that when our soldiers go abroad it should be as peacekeepers, not war makers; that torture is wrong; that child soldiers are victims; that people deserve due process under the law, that they are innocent until proven guilty.

In the first two decades of this century we’ve violated every one of those principles. Canadians have waged aggressive war. Canadians have sent child soldiers, knowingly to be tortured. Several people have been detained without due process. Declared guilty on a name and a skin colour.

Maher Arar – an innocent man, denied due process, detained and tortured.
Omar Khadr – a child soldier, a victim of the very same people who we called “enemy,” denied due process, detained and tortured.

And many others. They have been wronged. And we have wronged ourselves by allowing it. In the aftermath of something horrible, we decided we cared more about our loyalty to our neighbors to the south, to their anger and grief, than we did to the principles that define us.

In so doing we acted against a pretty awful group of people. But those actions caused us to betray our principles. We violated many of the better ideals that define us. And in so doing we acted with the same casual cruelty that we claimed to be fighting, harming victims and innocent people in our haste for imagined justice.

I’m all for villains getting their just desserts. When Huang Rong crushed Ouyang Ke under that boulder I cheered.

But I also see Hong Qigong’s point, not even so much in the particular, but in the abstract. If we want to be good people, if we want to be upright, it is important that we adhere to what is right.

And doing the right thing, being just, sometimes means the bad guys get away. And sometimes it means more trouble for us down the road when those same bad guys come around again and stir up more trouble.

That can happen. And that sucks.

But when the alternative is becoming the villains of our own story?

You know what? I can’t even really make a pretense of tying this back to the story from here on out. The torture report in the US is being back-paged by bullshit about Sony playing marketing games with a turkey of a movie because the opportunity to do so was handed to them by North Korea.

It’s cyinicism on all sides. The media reporting on the hacks: cynically driving clicks. Sony: cynically playing up patriotism and fear of the other to sell tickets. North Korea: cynically playing up the role of the crazy person to keep their enemies cautious and to feed their own propaganda machine. And the power brokers who own the media over here, cynically back-paging the relevant story, the one about the bad stuff happening in the States, bad stuff that we Canadans were fully complicit in, because they don’t necessarily hold the ideals of justice or uprightness in high regard. Not when there’s profit to be made.

Fuck Sony.

Fuck North Korea.

Here’s the torture report. Spread the word.

CIA Torture Report: "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogat…


Abercrombie, Martin and Magic-Light Fantasy

I’m going to put this up here now, I might include spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire in this post. Stop reading now if that bothers you. There will be spoilers in the very next paragraph.

The last book came out two years ago and so I’m not going to care if you are still watching season three and don’t want to know, for instance, that Jon Snow was stabbed in the back by his brothers and might be dead. After all, come on, if you haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire yet why are you reading the blog of some minor fantasy author?

There might be spoilers for other books, also published more than a year ago, but you probably won’t care, because there’s no HBO tv show about them yet.

I’m going to also say, straight up, that there should be more TV shows based on magic-light fantasy series. After all, they do them in China all the freaking time and although sometimes terrible there’s also some really entertaining television that comes out of the genre.

The blog Wuxia Edge is a great resource for those television series and you should totally read them.

What is Wuxia

I’m going to be jumping back and forth a bit between authors like George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie on one side and authors like Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng on the other. That’s because there is a large precedent for fantasy with a lot of the characteristics that Martin really pioneered in English in the 1990s going back to the early 1900s in China. This is a genre I’m particularly fond of and it is just as influential to my writing as the other newer fantasy authors I’ll be mentioning.

In fact, the Black Trillium is effectively a wuxia story so, yeah, influence.

But outside of a small fandom the word hasn’t spread into North American consciousness beyond the possibility of a suspicion that it involves kung fu in some way. (BTW: don’t get me started that they changed the name of the film linked above to “Dragon” for the NA release. So damn lazy.

In shortest form, Wuxia is a modern genre of Chinese historical fantasy. Specifically it is a genre which grew out of the tradition of stories of youxia, knights-errant, who collectively formed an underworld of bandits and heroes whose conflicts frequently reflected the political struggles of dynastic China.

Wuxia is fantastical within very limited constraints. There is a template of abilities that youxia could access that could easily be seen as supernatural. These included:

  1. Qinggong – “Lightness Skill” was a subset of abilities that allowed the characters in wuxia to make incredible leaps, to move with exceptional speed and to fly.
  2. Neigong – “Internal energy” was a process through which characters could heal themselves or others through the manipulation of energy. They could also enhance their own strength, resilience and the potency of their other abilities by practicing neigong techniques.
  3. Extreme martial skill – This included strength and finesse that crosses the line into supernatural levels, the use of patently bizarre fighting techniques and the ability to wield cumbersome, unlikely or improvised weapons.
  4. Magical weapons – These generally had three characteristics: increased resistance to damage, unnatural sharpness and the ability to enhance the strength of the wielder. They are often coveted.

And that was it. With a few notable exceptions there weren’t other magical elements to the stories, nor were these elements presented as being unnatural. The characters were exceptional but any individual could achieve at least  some measure of their ability through diligence, hard work and sufficient luck.

These magical elements and the societal fantasy elements of the underworld of heroes and villains is what separates Wuxia from straight-up historical fiction. It’s not much. The world of Wuxia is nearly our own. However creating a fantastical element gave Wuxia authors the license to interrogate their own history, their myths and their ideals in a way that would strain the bounds of suspension of disbelief in a less fantastical historical thriller.

By introducing a fantasy element, the authors of Wuxia stories gave themselves freedom to push their social and moral implications of their stories into uncomfortable territory.

This included:

  • Frequently questioning the parental analogy for teachers and leaders which was a hallmark of Confucianism.
  • Questioning the virtue of political and religious leaders.
  • Questioning the nature of patriotism vis a vis the state.
  • Challenging the divide between law and justice.

This is not an exhaustive list.

And this brings us to the magic-light fantasy novels of the post-GRRM English scene.

Before Game of Thrones

Prior to Game of Thrones the majority of commercially available fantasy was a tired retread of Lord of the Rings. (Ok, I’m going to stop right there and make sure to point at the words commercially available I know just as well as you that there were plenty of people like Barry Hughart, Christopher Priest and Ursula K. Le Guin writing innovative and unusual fantasy that was nothing at all like Tolkien between the end of the 1960s and the mid 1990s – but  most of them weren’t widely read and certainly weren’t widely read outside of fandom; that was still the domain of Eddings, Brooks, Anthony, etc.).

There was also a moderately broad view, stoked in part by Tolkien’s loud protestations against allegory in fantasy that fantasy fiction should be escapist adventure fiction rather than trying to comment on deeper matters.

And the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire changed that with the swing of a headsman’s blade. It was evident this wasn’t escapism. What’s more, it really seemed that Martin was trying to tell us something.

This idea – that fantasy didn’t have to equal simple escapism – took off and now we have a much richer genre as the deeper fantasy reaches broader audiences.

Enter Joe Abercrombie.

Questioning the Nature of Heroism

The Heroes is Abercrombie’s second most recent book and it blew my mind. The six-hundred page tradeback abandons any hint of magic (the “wizard” in the book uses politics, threats and three cannons), it abandons an epic scale, confining action to a single valley and it uses a medieval battle as an opportunity to interrogate the idea of heroism.

In the story it presents us with:

  • A boy headed to war for the first time with dreams of being a hero
  • An ancient corporal who survived many previous engagements and who has a terrible reputation
  • An old war leader, weary of the fighting and aching from age and misuse
  • A young princeling with a reputation for loose talk and cowardice
  • A disgraced sword master who wants to die
  • The politically ambitious daughter of the commander of the army
  • A collection of vain and useless generals and lords

And the story invites us to look at the unvarnished actions of these various protagonists as they fight and die over the course of three days and ask whether any of them are heroic.

Is the death-obsessed master a hero for being undefeated in the field of battle when, inside, he’s a bitter and miserable shell of a man?

Is the boy who hides in a closet and kills another boy on his own side one day a hero for saving the man standing next to him on the next?

Is the woman who recovers sixty prisoners and carries a plea for peace a hero when her own friend is dragged off by a brute to a life of slavery and abuse and she does nothing to stop it?

And beyond inviting us to ask what constitutes a hero the story is willing to ask whether heroism is something to aspire to in the first place. Why, in fact, would anybody want to be a hero?

Don’t get in your own way

Magic is fun. I wouldn’t be a fantasy author if I didn’t like putting some in my stories. But here’s where I’m going to make the pitch for toned-back magic. For reasons that should be obvious, Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing have been circulating a lot this week. The best takeaway from them is, in my view, that a writer should not “distract the reader from the story.”

Fantasy frees us to talk about big concepts. It gives license to our audience to suspend disbelief about the little things enough for us to test concepts that might not fit otherwise. It does this, in part, by requiring us to suspend our disbelief about big things like how physics works.

That’s a pretty big risk. Good fantasy is always a gamble.

Antagonists and Villains

Ouyang Feng from the Legend of the Condor Heroes is a pretty obvious villain – his nickname is the Western Poison – but even so it’s his believable motivations and fundamental humanity that make him more than a caricature.

When I was writing The Black Trillium one of the things that I had the most fun with was turning my primary antagonist into a perspective character. It also really shows as I edit the book and look at him compared to the other two key antagonists, who didn’t have the same level of agency and find their motivations are more opaque. (Don’t worry, I’m fixing that.)

Then I started reading The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie and realized it’d be difficult to decide who the antagonists of the story were since he puts protagonists into positions where you just know they’ll end up on opposite sides of the central conflict. There is a certain inflexibility to a heroic story. Even if you try to avoid the more cliche’d elements of the heroic journey, a hero is still a character who the audience must be invited to root for.

Even if the character is Jeff Lindsay’s delightful Dexter Morgan, a psycopathic murderer, he’s still given qualities (charm, humour, and a code that injects a hint of the righteous) that give the audience license to hope he wins.

This is not true of our antagonists and it affords us much greater freedom.

Bad as I want to be

More often than not an antagonist is a bad guy. This isn’t always the case. Sgt. Doakes is very much an antagonist in both the second season of the Dexter TV series and the second Dexter novel. Even so, he’s probably, actually, the good guy – a cop who has a legitimate suspicion that he acts upon justifiably.

And yet his narrative purpose is to present a challenge to the protagonist: in this case a threat who he isn’t supposed to kill. Because Dexter is successfully established as the hero of his deranged stories Doakes becomes an antagonist.

On the other hand, in Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (incomplete fan translation at the link goes by the alternate title of Legend of the Eagle Shooting Hero) , the Ouyang family, Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke are every inch the duplicitous, vile counterpoints to the hero’s blundering virtuousness. Ke, the younger Ouyang, is a rival for the affections of Huang Rong and a notorious womanizer to boot. Feng meanwhile mentors Ke in viciousness. The master poisoner is one of the most feared killers around and his motivations revolve around mentoring Ke and enhancing his power relative to his own rivals.

These people are bad people. But notice, both Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke want things, they have motivations beyond just being challenges for Guo Jing and Huang Rong to overcome. Likewise Sgt. Doakes wants things too. Successful antagonists are, first and foremost, characters and must be treated as such.

Nobody is the villain in his own story

This is the one thing that bothers me about Voldemort, Sauron, (eurgh) Darken Rahl and their “dark-lord” ilk. Nobody sets out to be the villain. It should always be possible to rewrite the story from the perspective of the antagonist and have it remain logically consistent.

In the case of Doakes you could create a crime drama about how he comes to suspect that a forensics expert in the force is harboring a terrible secret. You could describe his growing unease when the arrival of Doctor Danko forces him to work together with a man he rightly suspects of being a deranged menace.

If you were writing a story with Ouang Ke as the hero it’d probably read a lot like a book about martial arts written by the Situation. (Note: I do not endorse reading books written by the Situation.) That might not be a morally welcoming story – the younger Ouyang is a first-class creep and a would-be rapist. But it would still be logically consistent. He wants something: Huang Rong who is a worthy catch as a wife, intelligent, skillful and beautiful, and the heir to a wealthy and powerful man. He has an obstacle to overcome: Huang Rong’s idiot boyfriend and his beggar buddy.

To this extent antagonist and protagonist become mirrors of each other. There must be balance between them developmentally and thematically for the story to work.

This is what I like about Abercrombie – he’s internalized this idea to the point where it’s hard to tell just who the protagonists and antagonists are in a shifting tapestry of morally ambiguous conflict and widely distributed protagonists.

When antagonists are reduced to opaque sources of evil they lose that agency. Sauron is nothing but a shadow looming over the world and, as a result, the real antagonistic clout of the Lord of the Rings comes from Gollum, Saruman, Wormtongue and Denethor. If you remove those four characters from The Lord of the Rings the entire story falls flat and, I’d propose, that the notoriously slow start of the trilogy has more to do with the absence of a clear motivated antagonist than it does with Tolkien’s predisposition to counting every leaf on every tree.

Writing fights

I unabashedly write kung fu stories. It has to do with the fact that one of my biggest influences is Jin Yong. I’m a huge fan of Wuxia and, in fact, have written articles on the topic of the genre previously.

In short Wuxia is a genre of historical fantasy from China. It draws its roots from Chinese folk tales and opera, historical classics like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin, and from 19th century romances, especially those of Alexandre Dumas père.

Jin Yong generally built his stories along the lines of a bildungsroman, as the development of the protagonist is traced from late childhood to adulthood. Other authors used the template of detective stories.

But what gets remembered most about Wuxia stories is that they are kung fu stories. The depiction of superhuman martial skill is the short-hand by which a diverse and complex genre is differentiated from other branches of romance.

And let me tell you, writing fights is hard. A key difficulty is keeping the action moving properly in your head. To write a fight you have to choreograph every player in the combat. You have to be able to keep track of where each person is standing, what they’re doing.

And then you have to be able to lay it out in an orderly fashion. You have to do it in a way that makes it clear what’s going on. You have to do so while respecting the pace of the story, and the pace of the fight. After all, fights happen FAST and if you linger too long describing perfectly what happened you’ll pull your reader out of the story.

At the end of the day there’s no one right way to write fights. There’s a million wrong ways.

I’m interested in your opinion. Please let me know a story you thought had excellent fight sequences, or horribly written fights in the comments.