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.

Monday, March 11, 2019

startled, drunk, and skinless

taipei is thick and gray at dawn as i
curl into a kind of strange
distance pretending
to be sleep

the intake of you all night
has had its effect

it doesn’t matter that thirty-one years
inform me
or that i know the neurochemistry

i am still startled, drunk, and skinless
at the absence of your touch


I do not want what I haven’t got, 
                                               except that sometimes I do.
Of all the things I might think to long for, of all the experiences I haven’t had that I might write down on wistful to-do lists in long columns of desire, what do I want, but a picture of your face when we were nineteen and skinny and bald. 
I want a photograph of the early afternoon light slinking across the hardwood floor, creeping up the side of the red and gold velvet couch. I want a document of the shadows that played along the beads of sweat at your hairline and across the bridge of your nose. You remember the way May hung across us, heavy and steaming – but we were kids then, and inured to sticky and stink.
That was before the Internet, buddy. That was before digital cameras, because a year later, in Beijing, we took something like 24 rolls of film. 
That was back when memories pressed against paper were expensive.
The word for expensive, and the word for dear is the same in a number of the languages I have contorted my tongue to during this last, peripatetic decade-and-change. 
I want a picture of you, in your just-out-of-high-school body, running around West Campus shirtless, armed with a Super Soaker and reeking of hippy. I want to smell you sitting on the desk behind the moldy whitewashed piano and I want to run my hand across your spiky, freshly-shaved head and feel it come away greasy and salty and stupid and young, heedless and yes, selfish
Because photos aren’t about pretending we were better than we really were.
I want to see you again, before Adam moved to Jerusalem, back when he was crashing parties in his birthday suit and a gorilla mask. Before a reckless driver killed Eliseo and before Stacey killed herself. I want to see you again, the day we burned The Bell Jar with Chris on the front porch because we were sick of our ex-girlfriends getting ideas from Ms. Plath.
I want a picture of you burning Tater Tots on Bastille Day and I want a picture of Arrakis that December when it went up in flames. I want a picture of the stack of dirty dishes you were hoarding under the desk and the ungodly pile of laundry we used to acquire before ever managing to wash it. 
I want a photograph of the night we drank sake and Texas wine in your room and fought viciously over nothing and you passed out downstairs with your cheek pressed into the gravel driveway. And a photograph of my birthday – the one when you hid clues around the room and I had to follow one clue to the next to find my present, a sewing machine, out on the roof ridge. 
But why? Why so greedy for these small items, mere tchotchke to the journey that has been our lives, intertwined? Shall I reduce these unwieldy things to simple shapes, stackable, fileable, flat? 
I want a photograph of you then, to superimpose it over the gray streaks in your hair now. Because somewhere in the calculus of differences I might find the outlines of the ways in which we grew; I might run my fingers through the passage of time.


We didn’t notice the Stars and Bars in the truck’s rear window the first time they passed. 

We were absorbed in whatever ten-year-old girls entertain themselves with as they meander home after school. Maybe it was Brian’s new haircut, or maybe some article in Seventeen Magazine. 

Jackie was overly — I thought — concerned with the kink of her hair; she wanted long, straight, smooth hair. More like mine. Maybe that was the reason we did not see the white truck make a u-turn. Maybe I was telling my beloved best friend that her hair was stunning and perfect the way it was, black and wild like cotton candy. That she should ignore that magazine article. 

Maybe my hand had already been raised to her head, to stroke the beautiful hair or touch the cheek in the way of fourth grade girl mimicking the warmth of a television mother, and perhaps that is why, as the truck popped the curb alongside us, we were close enough already to embrace, frozen in little girl terror.

It was only a moment. The truck’s engine roared close enough for Jackie to feel the heat of it against her arm. The boys, their blond crew cuts, hanging out the window, screaming threats: death, rape. “Nigger lover!” The spit in our hair, slimy and stinking of tobacco. They drove off, as suddenly as they had appeared, laughing. Laughing. Laughing.

We noticed the Confederate flag as they peeled away. The smell of rubber and road, diesel. And then the quiet of the neighborhood sidewalk. The small side street, up until that moment, had felt so ordinary and suburban, so appropriate a space for two children to occupy, giggling or whispering. Now the emptiness of it menaced us, and hand in hand, we searched the road behind us and ahead for lurking dangers, the world now altered. 

Summer 2016, in memory of 1989.


Fireflies in the night of stars
This I remember:
The moonrise beyond the tree line and 
You there
Ambient roar from the nearby road rises in
Doppler shifts through the forest
Wafting its way in reds and blues to the
Kitchen window
There I was
Singing Bob Dylan on the back porch 
It wasn’t dark yet but the
Was approaching us
Like your candle-lit dance from the 

Kitchen to my bed
And I want you
White lace curtains move in the
Rhythm of trees and you 
Sway like clothes on the line
My scream fades and I
Wake up in a Japanese hotel room
And you’re still there
I want you
To come home
And I want you
Like the night I burned your books 
On my back porch

Twenty Years Ago is Longer Than Some Whole Lifetimes

after we burned the bell jar 
on the front porch 
I wrote this

not for

back bottom door sticks 
until I put my hip into the opening of it
I stumble 
a sound stutters from my lip
and if I wore mascara 
my face would be black by now 
cheeks of charcoal
chewing lips contorting sips
of lemonade and black jack
you seem a little nervous grrl 
you seem a little left of steady
my shaky cigarette trips
back and forth from the tray of 
ashes to dust to dust to ash
a pile of what used to be 
between you and me
shivers to kiss
to kiss I missed 
this last goodbye
somehow you passed me by
so now it’s me chewing lips contorting sips 
of Miller's Light remedy 
dancing farcically around that crown of thorns 
you placed upon your head there in that hotel bed
and you laid down
with a bottle of pills 
in a hotel bed
you laid 

Everything Belongs to No One

The eye sees the form of you 
The mind grasps — what to do? 
The heart beats — the music of your name 
The ear clings to your 
Everything belongs to no one 
Everything is changing always
The nose the tongue they take you in 
You linger on my sheets 
I feel you on my skin 
Long after the passing of the 
World we 
I can’t follow my mind this creature 
Leap swing grab pivot new branch 
I, I, I, I for what "I" can describe 
I am the Monkey King 
Split a thousand times 
Close the eyes 
Release the fist 
Silence falls — still all 
The body carries years, years 
Static, carries love, wide 
Carries joy, joy, joy 
Into the dark
Everything belongs to no one 
Everything is changing always

Pattern Recognition

Random scatter plot, they say.
There’s no meaning in the data presented here.
Human life is always grasping at the dark
For patterns that are not there.
But all we are is star dust, self-organizing.
Natural laws pull,
Pull toward the center, 
And from ignorance, desire rises
Like the sun. Every morning.
We are born again in these bodies
That will age, be sick, and die.
And every time,
Every time we forget again.
Time, time may be chords of light,
And you and I may be star stuff 
Organized by desire,
But time, time, it moves on
Whether we see the light 
Or close our eyes. 
Change is everywhere. 
It’s the only constant in the world.
You and I,
Before we expire,
And all the light we are finds
Another pattern,
Let us walk
Away from fear.
We are everything.
All of time lies in our blood.
Our blood is made
In the death of stars. 
We are universal.
We are everything, already.
And I, I am no one,
Just pattern recognition
Taking form, taking feeling.
We are light, brilliant chords of light 
Bound together
For a time, grasping 
At shifting

Just Like a Texan

Yesterday -- was it yesterday? all the days run together for me lately -- Yes, I think it was yesterday, a friend sent me a gif of Wonder Woman. This reminded me of a song I recorded in late 2001/early 2002 called "Comic Book Affair" that would probably violate all kinds of copyright law if I ever made any money off it, which I haven't, so shrug. It was on an album that I recorded on a fancy tape recorder in my first little one-bedroom apartment in Songtan, South Korea. Feels like a million years ago.

Ode To Jet Lag

Nothing comes free of charge
Or consequence
These days we graze continents
Light as fog that winds 
Thin strips around beloved mountain passes then lifts at dawn
We skip over oceans, rivers, deserts in hours
Trips our ancestors measured in months and lives lost
We count in dollars and shitty internet connections
The substance of life becomes cheap
What’s a little lost sleep
But then it comes for us
At 2 AM
Inevitable as death
Jet lag
To remind us that we are still bodies in the world
                                                              Bodies of the world
And the physics of the globe and space and sun 
Work on us
Surely as they form the flora and fauna on which our continued lives depend
We are just skin bags of salty water propped up with bones 
Like the internal frame backpack my dad bought me when I started traveling 
Twenty years ago
We fill ourselves up
And then we break down
The holes are inevitable
As death
Where do you fray
Where do you weaken
How do you mend
Do you become strong
So many choices along the road that may lead to wisdom
So many opportunities to peer into the darkness
Of a strange place
Where we cannot read the signs
Do not know the shape of these trees
Have not yet fallen in love with this landscape
Where we are deaf to all but gesture and gist
Suffering from jet lag
But fearless and free and fierce 
And alive 
In soft bodies
That know, whether or not our digital selves wish to admit it
That nothing comes
Free of charge or consequence
And our today-self 
Is the now-consequence
Of yesterday’s everything
And so today we must choose to live as if we knew
We were drawing up the plans for tomorrow
Every day until 
The inevitable.

Magic Beyond Middle Earth -- Slideshow and Notes

Slide Show Lecture Notes