Saturday, April 6, 2019

Truth Will Come

I am endlessly fascinated by the circles I draw in the sands of my life.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Chinese "Demons"

 During the presentation Saturday, when we got to the point at which Mazu is interacting with the two "demons," (妖怪) Qianli Yan and Shunfeng Er, someone brought up the fact that the word "demon" didn't have the same connotations or implications that it does in English. This is 100% true. "Demon" is not a perfect translation for... probably any of the words that get translated as "demon." At that moment, in my head I was running through the possible Chinese words: 鬼 (ghost), 妖 (goblin,spirit),精灵 (fairy),魔鬼 (literally,magic ghost), 神灵 (could be a god,general spirit, or demon)...
It turns out those two were more like monsters, and they were scary (but not necessarily evil in a Western sense) until Mazu tamed them and they began to work for her. Anyhow, in the process, I also discovered that there are SIX PAGES of possible definitions for the word "demon" in my Chinese dictionary (Pleco). Enjoy the screenshots. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Five Souls in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Photo taken in a temple around Shanghai
summer 2018
As I was researching traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), I stumbled across the idea of a person having five souls. I think that's pretty interesting, in and of itself. But for world building, fantasy writing, and magic-system-making, it's pure gold.

Here are a few articles that touch on the idea:

Here’s one from The European Journal of Oriental Medicine:

From East Earth Medicine Wisdom :

There’s a discussion of just hun and po on Wikipedia:

Ancient Chinese Clothing 汉服

Click on the picture to view the slides from the WORDField table Urania Fung and I ran today.

A Galaxy of Immortal Women — by Brian Griffith

Fantastic book covering a wide swath of Chinese mythology in English with a 15 page bibliography.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Magic Beyond Middle Earth: Learning from Chinese Folklore

Warming Up
Like most worthwhile things, this talk started out with a conversation. My husband, Benjamin Inn, and I were in the car talking about the animated series Legend of Korra and Avatar, the Last Airbender. I had (wrongly) assumed that Ben would be a great fan, seeing as these series had brought together a variety of Asian influences. Spoiler alert, he’s not a fan. And to be honest, I was shocked. Ben’s a mighty contrarian, but he’s usually got fairly well articulated reasons for hating on beloved icons of pop-culture. 

When we got down to it, the root of his irritation was that, in his opinion, they hadn’t actually done much new. For most of the series, we were dealing with the same 4 European elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. And, as much as Ang or Korra needs their team, the real, consequential, events of the story have to do with a chosen one, who is uniquely gifted and uniquely alone — an individual savior. 

In the end, I disagree with his overall estimation of the series, but he does have a point. American fantasy writing has a European problem.

What’s the problem?

We tend to draw on the same Celtic, Norse, and Hellenic mythologies, use the same four elements, derive our beasties from the same old monsters that arise from the same old myths. And more detrimentally, we keep telling the same lone, chosen-one story about a noble savior who became who he/she is because they were born that way. We continue to see individuals as atomized, disconnected actors who live independently of both their human community and independently of basically all other life on earth. All of which leaves us — as writers — trying to create stories with complex, multi-layered problems, and trying to solve those problems with tired reiterations of Thor’s Hammer.

Conversely, Asian mythologies articulate a radically different worldview. Eastern storytelling describes a fundamentally different place for humankind in the world, and for the individual in society. Asian mythos generally focuses on community and team problem solving. The individual him/herself isn’t as important as his or her contribution to the group. And Asian heroes are basically the antithesis of the chosen-one — most heroes are heroes because they work their butts off and they consciously chose (despite all odds) to be nice and help people. And the gods in the pantheons of East Asia are either elemental spirits of wild nature who came into existence long before human beings, or they are human beings who underwent apotheosis by dint of their own hard work and determination

These differences are important because writing speculative fiction and fantasy is one way that we, as artists, hack into the culture and subvert the traditions that limit our ability to interact with the world. 

It’s also important from a pure storytelling perspective because the most fertile ground in any ecosystem is the liminal zone — the space in-between. Drawing from disparate cultures and mythologies opens new pathways and new possibilities for storytelling.

Who the heck am I

I’ve studied China’s history, language, and culture since the late 90s. Between 2000 and 2011 I worked and traveled all over Asia. I’ve lived in Beijing, Taipei, a tiny town called Magong off the Taiwanese coast, and I’ve lived in both urban and rural South Korea. I speak, read, and write at an upper intermediate level in Mandarin Chinese, and I can navigate reasonably well in basic travel Korean. Since 2011, I’ve been back to Asia usually for about a month almost every year, and Ben and I spend a lot of time on research trips in China, Korea, and Taiwan, visiting temples and other historical sites.

For this lecture I will be drawing from my own experience, from stories I was told by friends and elders in Taiwan, China, and Korea, and from published academic research.


The Volta