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.


Sunday, March 17, 2019


I wrote this for Ben's birthday a few years ago, and was reminded of the conundrum of gift-giving and party-planning and emotion-expressing this weekend as we celebrated our wedding...

The giving of gifts is easy and natural for some people (or so I am told during our most recent in-service meeting). There are, apparently, personality types whose primary strength lies in their ability to know just what gift to give under what circumstance. Their closets are teeming year-round with anticipatory gifts, little (or large) nuggets of just-the-right-thing saved for just-the-right-time. They give gifts to demonstrate affection and gifts to show gratitude, concern, or appreciation. These people, without pause or consternation, are able to procure ostentatious gifts, bribes, and sincere demonstrations of love -- whatever is required -- with ease, economy, and facility. 

I am not of that breed.

Gift-giving is a laborious process for me. Every angle must be analyzed. What does proposed recipient need? Want? What would he or she like? What untoward or unintended thoughts might be communicated with this gift? That one? 

I realize, in theory, the process of gifting something to a loved one should be easy: Identify a shared interest. Ask yourself what you might like if you were in your recipient’s skin. Is the intended gift-receiver not already in possession of said object? Good. Proceed. 

But not all loved ones are enamored with commercially available objects. Some intended recipients are actively hostile to receiving cheap material goods produced by overseas, underage, slave labor.

Now what you have is a question of time.

One cannot give what one does not have. And so the conundrum arises: In order to demonstrate sincere affection for a loved one who is uninterested in crass material goods, one must have time. Time to create something lovely, plan some party or gathering that is sufficiently demonstrative but not overly sappy, paint a character watercolor that doesn’t just flat out suck.

And yet, the god of time-allotment managing my life is a mean and stingy bastard, particularly these days. (I’m not poor anymore, so I have to submit my pound of flesh somehow; it seems if I am to pay off my student loans in this lifetime, the currency will be blood and sleep as measured in time. But I digress.)

So, I perch upon the precipice of needing a gift for an eternally cherubic and friendly loved one who is actively antagonistic toward cheap plastics, who already has everything he might possibly want, who, when it comes to needs, is basically a self-sufficient feral cat. 

He’s already has his shots. We did that two years ago… Before his first China trip…

How do you say “Thank you, I love you” to someone who means to you what breath means to body, or what flesh is to bone, or what peanut butter is to jelly? How do you package up all those feelings in paper and tie them off with a cheap satin bow? How do you even propose to purchase (or create) a physical embodiment of the affection you feel for a person who gave you a Han Dynasty replica sword with which you can slice off the tops of milk jugs as if they were room-temperature butter? With whom you can watch hundreds of hours of subtitled martial arts series? With whom you can create worlds within novels? With whom you can traipse continents? 

With whom you can read Chuck Tingle?

Or Fanny Beaverly?

It’s not really possible. And time is running out, as it tends to do. But this is my attempt, sallow and thin as it may be.

Happy birthday, my beloved.

Magic Beyond Middle Earth -- Slideshow and Notes

Slide Show Lecture Notes