What is wuxia, part 2 : some history

Before I delve to heavily into the elements that make-up wuxia, I’d like to take a look back at its history to provide some context.

But first, a caveat : this is obviously a very abbreviated version of the history. I’m hitting the high points to give context, not doing a scholarly analysis of the genre.

As I said in part 1, the code of xia is an important part of wuxia. Part of the code of xia had foundations in real life : the concept of a righteous wandering swordsman, or youxia, was not made-up. While they may not have had the fantastical powers and martial arts as seen in wuxia stories, there was a time when wandering swordsmen & folk heroes were more than just characters in stories. I’ve heard accounts that say that as the more scholarly individuals came to be valued as opposed to warlords, these youxia fell out of favor with the educated classes, but were still highly regarded as folk heroes by everyone else.

Somewhere around the Three Kingdoms era (184-280), we get the source material for the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. While this wasn’t novelized (and made into plays, etc.) until the Ming Dynasty, there are folk versions of the story that have deep wuxia underpinnings. Sun Ren & Liu Bei as star-crossed lovers, Zhang Fei’s iconic shout at the bridge, Gan Ning’s daring night raid, Zhuge Liang’s various genius / insane strategies, Dian Wei protecting Cao Cao, etc. – there are numerous events that have taken on a fantastical air in the retelling, and many can’t be found in traditional literature. Sure, you can read one of the modern re-tellings, but I’m talking about the folklore versions that aren’t written down anywhere. There are even earlier precedents to these, like the attempted assassination of the first emperor, where history and folklore have interwoven, but I can’t sit here and catalog all of them.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), we see several stories emerge that have aspects of modern wuxia in them. Kunlun Nu has a black slave who could leap over walls and buildings (qinggong, or “lightness skill”), and Nie Yinniang, which is a woman who’s trained as an assassin but in an effort to get away from killing people, marries a simple man. Both of these stand out to me because they also feature characters who are still under-represented in media. Nie Yinniang is considered by some to be the first wuxia story, though it wasn’t in novel format.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which is my favorite, saw the release of the aforementioned Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Shuihu Zhuan / Water Margin, which I mentioned in my last post, where I talked about how it enriched the idea of the jianghu, and how sometimes the hero has to live apart from traditional society in order to fight the corruption that plagues innocents. We see similar ideas today in many of our superheroes and their alternate identities. Water Margin is widely regarded as the first wuxia novel, but it’s important to note that the genre didn’t really exist as a separate thing yet – it’s not like the authors set out to write a wuxia.

Side note : Nurhaci, the dude who started the Manchu invasions that replaced the Ming with the Qing dynasty, read Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and supposedly learned a lot about the Chinese mindset and strategies. I’m not saying that’s why he was successful (the Ming had a LOT of problems and was technically already gone by the time the Manchus invaded), but the point is that the dude wanted to learn about his enemy, so he studied their literature.

Wuxia stories continued to be released during the Qing Dynasty, but both the Ming and Qing began to ban art that could’ve been construed as inciting rebellion. Wuxia has a lot of corrupt government officials and heroes challenging social norms and traditions, which made those stories a target. Nevertheless, the stories remained popular with the commoners, but the point is that when artists have to fear their government, it’s hard to push boundaries and do new things with your craft / genre.

After the fall of the Qing, Xiang Kairen became what is recognized as the first wuxia novelist, with his work “The Peculiar Knights-Errant of the Jianghu.” In 1928 it became a serialized 16 part film, “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple,” thus making it also the first (and probably longest) wuxia movie. Sadly, there are no copies of the movie anymore, but it set an important precedent which we’ll return to shortly.

The 1930’s saw the rise of what is known as the “Five Great Masters of the Northern School,” which are Gong Baiyan, Huanzhulouzhu (whose novel “Blades from the Willows” was the first wuxia ever translated into English), Zheng Zhengyin, Zhu Zhenmu, and Wang Dulu (who wrote the “Crane-Iron Pentalogy,” part 4 of which is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). As is standard for wuxia, most of these stories featured protagonists who went up against greedy officials, which earned the ire of the real life government – officials read or heard about these stories and thought “that villain is a cleverly-disguised allusion to myself.” I mean, depending on who it was, they may have been right, because power doesn’t corrupt as much as it reveals a person’s inner self, and most antagonists in wuxia are characters who use their power to exploit people. Meanwhile, wuxia heroes tend to use their power to help people. One of the reasons these stories were always so popular is because they’re often allegories about the abuse of power, so it’s no wonder politicians felt called-out. To put it in modern terms, they were “triggered.” Anyhow, these various administrations enacted bans and censorship, which again hampered the growth and exploration of the genre. Still, these guys laid (or maybe re-laid) the foundations of modern wuxia, because it was about to explode.

What is widely regarded as the “golden age” of wuxia began in the 50’s and 60’s, with the rise of Liang Yusheng, Gu Long, and Jin Yong, known to some as “the Three Legs of the Tripod of Wuxia.” Liang Yusheng and Jin Yong wrote from the safety of Hong Kong, which was under British rule at the time, while Gu Long weaved his stories from Taiwan. These places were (mostly) free from the Chinese politics of the day, which enabled these writers to invigorate the genre with new ideas and new delivery methods – many works were serialized and not produced like a traditional novel. While these stories were huge sagas, their delivery with the weekly paper gave them a “pulpy” feel, and the writers used tricks like ending each episode on a cliffhanger. This a slightly amped-up version of what writers sometimes refer to as “micro tension,” where one uses small amounts of in-scene tension to keep the reader’s interest. When these works were completed and compiled into novels, they had a huge impact on the arts and media. Liang Yusheng’s “White-haired Bride,” Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes trilogy, and Gu Long’s Lu Xiaofeng series became and still are modern fantasy epics which are told and re-told constantly across East Asia.

I should also mention that lacking governmental censorship let these guys do other crazy, brilliant, innovative things. Liang Yusheng wrote poems to help describe martial arts moves and was known for having beautiful prose, Jin Yong’s “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer” and “Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre” series were both thinly-veiled (and suuuper harsh) political allegories, and Gu Long’s works often took on the feel of detective novels.

With the advent of film & television, East Asia was able to capitalize on the visual medium, where the martial arts component tends to shine the most. Probably the most-recognized of these movies were made by the Shaw Brothers out of Hong Kong. 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Five Fingers of Death, and my favorite, Legendary Weapons of Kung-fu, are heralded as classics (well maybe not the last one, but it’s still my fave). In television, popular wuxia epics, like Jin Yong’s Condor trilogy, were produced as a series. Remember how “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” was a 16 part film? The story was just far too epic to fit into one 2 hour movie, as are many wuxia sagas, which is how we get the modern 40-ish episode series. People read these stories when they were children, so getting them on the small screen was a huge treat. To this day, many wuxia stories are re-made in China like we re-make Robin Hood & Arthurian movies, and new ground is being broken all the time.

These days wuxia series have blown-up all over the world – not just in China. A couple years ago, the Chinese series “Princess Agents” achieved unparalleled success, reaching over 40 billion views on streaming sites alone (take that, Game of Thrones!). Modern manga and light novels are dipping into wuxia, some modern anime has roots in the fantastical martial arts of wuxia, and it’s easy to see how the ridiculous martial arts feats in wuxia have influenced Western action movies. Wuxia is still flourishing in print as well, just not in the West – there are countless authors writing it in various Asian languages, many of which deliver it in the same episodic, pulpy fashion that Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng did.

I can hear you now, saying, “well if it’s so wildly successful in Asia, why hasn’t it taken off here?” Ha. What do you think I’m trying to do? But seriously, that’s a topic for another post (or series of posts, kind of like the one you’re reading now).

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What is wuxia? Part 1

At DFWcon this year, when I approached agents and told them what my genre was, I got a surprising amount of push back in the form of “well I don’t know how to categorize it.” This, I assume, is due to several things, but the two biggest reasons I imagine are :

  1. we don’t have a very good thing / genre to compare it to in the West and
  2. people aren’t confident enough in new things / genres

I can’t really help with 2, but I can do a little to help with 1.

The more I think about it, the more this will probably have to be an ongoing series of entries, as it’s a little too large to fit into one or two blog posts. I’ve made other posts on
“what is wuxia” in the past, but this time I’m gonna go deeper and deconstruct  / explain the genre more in depth. For this first post, I’m gonna go with a very very broad, high-level look at wuxia. I’ll go more into detail in further posts, but for now, let’s start with the basics.

There isn’t really a set definition of wuxia. The characters (loosely translated here for brevity) 武 – “martial,” and 俠 – “hero” don’t really have any literary or storytelling connotations. Then again, the words “young adult” don’t either, but when we say “young adult,” we often -think- of a YA stories. The best quick description of wuxia I’ve ever read is that it’s a genre with a focus on martial arts, adventure, romance, and chivalry – M.A.R.C. 

Not every wuxia story has all these elements, but most of them do, and again, this is a very broad definition. If you look at western fantasy in the context of M.A.R.C., many stories fit right in with a few tweaks : martial arts is the magic system, adventure and romance are self-explanatory, and chivalry is the heroes doing the right thing and being, well, heroic.

“Why not just say it’s an Asian YA Fantasy then?” Well, because wuxia also has its own tropes and conventions that set it apart, and many of them are cultural. For example, over here we seem to like the concept of the hero as “the chosen one.” In Asia, that’s not really a thing – heroes are usually born normal and have to work at becoming awesome. That in and of itself is a pretty complex concept that’ll require its own post. That’s just one example, and if wuxia was “the same as” YA Fantasy, I probably wouldn’t be making this post.

Another important convention is that of the jianghu (江湖) and the wulin (武林). The use of these terms vary depending on the author and the time period, but generally speaking, the jianghu, or “rivers and lakes,” is a reference to people living outside mainstream society. It’s not a secret society, nor is it officially organized – part of the purpose and meaning of the term is that there isn’t a corruptible hierarchy. It’s sort of a response to the corruption that can and does occur in mainstream society. Wanderers, artists, brigands, scholars, etc. can be, and often are in the jianghu. The wulin, or “martial forest,” is the society of martial artists. Again, it’s existence isn’t a secret, and these people are often considered to be in the jianghu as well, but not always – depending on the author and story, some characters might be martial artists who live in and support mainstream society.

These concepts aren’t in every single wuxia – while the words and concepts have existed in Chinese culture for a very long time, they have only recently been used in wuxia by name. Still, there is precedent for the idea in many earlier stories of wandering swordsmen and folk heroes. In what some say is the first wuxia novel, Shuihu Zhuan (aka “Water Margin” or “Outlaws of the Marsh”), the protagonists are heroic outlaws whose headquarters is in a literal marsh. The term “jianghu” existed before the novel,  and though Shuihu Zhuan didn’t directly use the term, the reference to it is pretty clear – men & women living apart from traditional society in a self-sufficient organization which fights evil. Shuihu Zhuan is a pretty good example of the martial arts, adventure, and chivalry aspects of wuxia, and the fact that they live in a marsh is both a story device and a clever nod to the jianghu. It’s also important to note that some works use the term almost interchangeably – sometimes you’ll only hear talk about the jianghu, when what they really mean is the wulin.

The romance element has a long legacy as well. Some say that Romance of the Three Kingdoms was the first wuxia story, though it wasn’t really novelized until the Ming Dynasty. There are folklore versions of the story which focus more heavily on the arranged marriage between Sun Ren and Liu Bei, which is meant to cement a political alliance, but the two end up falling in love. This of course causes problems, and the tale becomes one of love and war, filled with chivalry and to some extent, adventure.

The takeaway from all this  is that while there are analogues in western fantasy to compare it to, wuxia still has a lot that sets it apart. That’s it for now, and if you’re sitting there saying “wait, he didn’t even mention stuff like Jin Yong, the Shaw Brothers, the Code of Xia, qinggong, etc.” then firstly, I love you, but secondly, you’ll have to wait for the next post.

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On the Beat

For all the focus on China and writing wuxia I do, I thought it’d be a good idea to talk a little about my own non-Asian influences, because like America itself, I am nothing if I am not an amalgam of cultures. Jack Kerouac’s birthday is today, and he and the Beats rank quite highly in my list of influences.

In 1956, Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” which is often thought of as the work which opened the Beat movement. The City of San Francisco attempted to sue Ginsberg on the grounds that the poem was obscene (it made mention of things such as drug use and homosexuality), and the trial garnered national attention. Ginsberg won, and even today, “Howl” is heralded among the greatest works of American poetry. A year later, Kerouac got “On the Road” published, and that sort of changed everything. The book lacks a central plot, instead wandering around as the theme and title imply. Like “Howl,” the “story” involves drug use, alternative religion, & alternative sexualities. In his winding narrative, Kerouac goes on to explore these things, as well as Jazz, being poor, and the centerpiece of the story – his complex friendship with the amazing but also imperfect Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the book).

In general, Kerouac is like digging through a dung pile you know contains diamonds. I’m critical of his work because I love it, and the most personally meaningful lesson to come out of the Beat Generation is the idea that a thing doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be great or worthy of experiencing. In fact, the Beats tended to celebrate the raw, imperfect, dirty things. “Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better,” Kerouac wrote. I argue that a story must first live & breathe in the author before it can ever come close to the page, and though that internal story rarely matches what makes it to the page (because language isn’t always the best translator), we still read and write great literature. This could be said of any art medium, really.

I think the second big point for me is the idea of exploration – not only in a “getting out and experiencing / gathering empirical data” way, but in trying new things and going new places. The Beats largely disdained tradition and stagnation. William Carlos Williams, one of America’s most highly-regarded poets, advised Ginsberg to stray from classical ideas of poetry, and I think he hit that mark quite well. Kerouac’s rambly, plot-lacking stories strayed from tradition in a similar fashion, as did the drug-maddened and cut-up writings of Burroughs (William S., not Edgar Rice – different dudes). Their styles caused a lot of people to ask questions about art. Truman Capote (not a Beat) said of Kerouac’s style “isn’t writing at all—it’s typing.” A lot of people still agree with him, but the takeaway is that there’s more than one way to tell a story.

People of the time took in Beat literature and changed art and culture as we know it. They went out to explore music, painting, literature, the world, etc. even though what they did and made wasn’t perfect. The “hippies” are regarded by many as the immediate heirs of the Beats, but their legacy infiltrated and intermingled with so much of what we are today that it’s difficult to imagine what our art would be like today without them. And while we can look to the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Hunter S. Thompson, slam poetry, and the cyberpunk genre to see the influence of the Beats, I’m more interested in their  cultural and ideological influences, namely the two points I mentioned above.

  1. celebrate the flaws / mortality of a thing. If we’re gonna examine a hero as a common man, I feel like this is where that actually starts. While Superman is a popular figure who is often portrayed as invulnerable and lacking flaws, I would argue that such a description is ultimately uninteresting. Donald Maas once said that if your hero has to start the story as an invincible badass, show us one way / one thing about that them that’s human and ordinary. Let’s turn and look at Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn is sort of a Superman, and he teams-up with the Hobbits – short dudes who pretty much want to party, eat, and sleep all the time. They’re basically cats. Ok not really (yes really). We learn to love the Hobbits over the course of the story because they’re not invincible badasses who can overcome everything. Aragorn slicing his way through armies of orcs might’ve been a more action-packed story, but watching these ordinary, untrained, less than ideal short guys struggle through Cirith Ungol strikes closer to home, because that’s us in our everyday lives, trying to get out of bed, right?

    This is also, in my opinion, the foundation of what America is – a weird, crazy mishmash of people, cultures, languages, ideas, art forms, etc. We’re not some perfect, uniform people with clean-cut edges. Returning to our analysis of heroes, when “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” came out, Mark Twain caught a lot of flak for his portrayal of Americans as simple-minded, white trashy, and in some cases dishonest. Huck embodies all of those at different points, but in the end, he makes the right moral call, and that victory carries way more weight than it would’ve if he were some brilliant and ultra-capable ubermensch.

  2. Exploration / experimentation / breaking traditions. This has been an idea that’s been circulating around moviegoing circles for a while now – that there are a lot of remakes and reboots, but not a lot of new ideas. You can apply the same argument to all forms of art, philosophy, etc. Whether or not it’s true isn’t the point here. The point is that the Beats thrived on newness, on pushing boundaries, on doing things differently than they’d been done before, and that we’ve reaped benefits from their successes AND failures. Remember how I said Kerouac is like digging through a dung pile you know contains diamonds? Read it and you’ll see, and you’ll see why that statement aligns with this principle. Experiment, try new things, or old things in new ways. You’ll miss the mark a lot, but you might hit a few times too.

    Rolled-up in this is the fact that there are some things you can’t learn from a master. You have to get out into the world and put your hands into the soil. Cook up a new dish, drive that roads you’ve never driven down, see oceans and mountains you’ve never seen, write poetry & prose & stories that you or maybe nobody has ever written. If the end result is flawed or disappointing, look up at the first point and celebrate it anyway. Experience & experiment.

Now the real talk part. The Beats weren’t saints. They did and said some misogynistic & racist things, and I am in no way trying to cover that up, justify, or apologize for any of it. My only advice to the reader is that you 1. do your own research, and 2. examine things in the cultural / historical context. Example : when I tell you the Mongols supported freedom of religion, it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal in today’s world, but back in the 14th century, it was quite revolutionary to allow houses of worship devoted to different faiths in the same city. The bottom line is that yes, there was a dark side to the Beats, as there is with any grouping of human beings. Does that make them worthless villains? That’s up to you to decide.

I’ve also heard the Beats criticized over their love for the raw, un-edited, “un-processed” in that it shows disdain for things like refinement through practice and the intellectual component of craftsmanship. Sure, there’s merit to Kerouac’s idea of “first thought, best thought,” and how language is a mere tool through which we convey the pure, primal story within us, but none of that means you have to cast aside one tool in favor of another. Fun fact : when writing “On the Road,” Kerouac taped a bunch of paper together so he could continue typing with no interruptions. He didn’t stop to edit, just plowed on forward, but in the end, he did edit. He realized that step 1 was to stop kicking the story around in your head and get it out, and while that’s the best first step, he also realized that step 2 was to sit down and fix the parts that didn’t work. This is something I’ve been saying all along – don’t worry about how good or bad your first draft is, just get it onto the paper, BUT also don’t fool yourself into thinking your first draft is publishable.

Kerouac had 30 points of spontaneous prose, some of which are more like arcane riddles or fragments of dreams than advice. Like the rest of his writings, there are some gems in here though.

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
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Enjoy the tea

Scene : Meizhou Island, Fujian. December. Low season for tourism on the island.

Stinky and I had just gotten off the ferry and made it to the hotel, where we were waiting for someone to pick us up & take us into town so we could eat. It’d been a while since breakfast, and we were feeling a little bit of the low blood sugar. Being pretty much the only guests at the hotel / on the island during low season, the proprietor sat with us & prepared tea. He didn’t talk to us, just kept refilling the gaiwan & pouring into these tiny, tiny cups. It’s like he knew what was coming…

Not that I dislike tea, but we were hungry, and we still had the giant temple complex to go explore before sundown. We went through several rounds of tea before I got up and wandered towards the street, but nobody was there. And I really mean nobody – the place is practically a ghost town in the low season. So I shrugged and went back to the tea.

When I say “tiny, tiny cups,” I mean they were almost too small to be practical, I’m talking 20-30 ml at best. That’s not even a mouthful, and if you’re used to American-style mugs / drinks, it’s basically non-existent. I was used to sipping tea (though not out of cups this small), but the size of the cups and the forced waiting taught me one really important lesson : laying claim to my own time.

Unable to do anything but sit & drink tea, we had little choice but to try and make the most of it. Mind you, it was delicious tea (which is a different story for perhaps another time), and the guy’s setup was pretty intense – he had a stone table which had a canal carved into it for the runoff. He had a pretty large gaiwan, which he’d pour into a fairness pot to distribute between us. Nothing about the setup was gaudy, and it contributed to me sitting back and letting everything else fall away. There was us, and there was the tea.

As for the size of the tea cups, imagine you only have a sip of whatever you’re drinking. When all you have is a sip, you tend to really scrutinize the flavor. Depending on what it is, it could have a lot of really complex flavors you’re normally missing out on. Sure, not every drink is gonna fall into this category, but for those that do, you might discover new things you like or dislike. What’s certain is that if you do this, it’ll likely take longer, or maybe MUCH longer than usual, to drink.

You might be asking, “But who has the time for that?” And in today’s busy world, that’s a valid question. When I first sat down to have tea on the island, I was a little annoyed that lunch was delayed, that our trip to the temple was delayed, that we weren’t in motion towards “the next thing,” etc. Yeah, I get it – we’re all busy, we all have a million other things screaming for our attention, things that need doing, things that need cleaning or making or whatever. Internet arguments need to be won. Sites need to be browsed, memes viewed, laughed at, re-posted. Social media – let everyone know what you’re having for dinner. How much of all this is really *your* time?

This was the universe telling us, “Sit down. Relax. Enjoy the tea. Taste it – like really really taste it. Enjoy its floral aroma. When will you be here again?”

So we did our best. We sipped the tea out of the tiny cups, took in its heavy orchid-like flavor, its floral aroma and the hella green tea leaves, the beating of the ocean against the shore, the emptiness of the island, the lazy Fujianese afternoon, because when would we be there again?

And that, my friends, is the real question you should always ask – not “who has the time for that?” but “when will I be here again?”

Tea time on Meizhou Island was an investment in ourselves, and time spent doing that is ALWAYS “your time.” Once back in the states, we turned tea time into a regular thing, and have expanded our tea collection tenfold, complete with a mismatched set of teaware we picked up in Taiwan (some of which was cheaper because it was deemed “defective” by the crafter – a post for another time). I got us an inexpensive gongfu pot off of Etsy (anyone who says gongfu teapots cost you an arm & a leg hasn’t done their research. Sure, teaware made from real Yixing clay is expensive, but all of this is yet another post for another time) and within a couple weeks we were downing all sorts of pu’erh, weird Taiwanese oolongs, tieguanyins of varying quality, all sorts of stuff. I started to think, “I could get a travel set & take the tea ceremony along when I’m out & about writing.”

Here’s where we take it to the next level : that idea is a bad idea.

You probably didn’t think I was gonna go that direction, did you? If you’re passionate about two things, why not combine them? Well, because in some situations, it’ll diminish your enjoyment of both. I can’t imagine being really sucked-in by writing only to stop and try to savor the tea. Maybe you guys have attention spans that can split in multiple directions in such a way that you devote 100% of your faculties to each, but I don’t, and I’ll wager most people are like me in that regard. What would probably end up happening is I’d either pay almost no attention to the tea, or almost no attention to the writing. In either case, I lose.

When I strap my laptop to my back & bike out to a coffee shop / deli / designated writing area, my intent is to WRITE. Sure, there’s often food or mediocre iced tea involved, but that’s for sustenance / hydration purposes. Everything is secondary to getting writing done. Likewise, when I sit down to enjoy tea, I’m doing that one thing and devoting myself to it.

But when I’m trying to do two things at once, I’m basically trying to cram those things into the same moment, and that usually means one of them suffers. It’s sort of the same thing as shorting yourself so that you can keep moving towards “the next thing.” Yes, we should keep growing / progressing / etc. but not at the expense of the things we enjoy.

So what this kind of comes down to is laying claim to your own time and spending it how you want, not according to the world’s demands. I’m not saying, “don’t ever multitask,” just don’t expect to multitask two or more things you really enjoy and get maximum enjoyment out of both. Despite what the world says, there’s no shame or laziness in setting everything else aside to focus on something you’re really passionate about, engaging it fully and with no distractions or other serious projects. When will you be here again? Turn off the TV, put away your phone, fire up the laptop and get some writing done, or dive into a book, or enjoy a tiny, tiny cup of tea.

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Choose “fight”

I’ve been waffling on making this post, because by nature it’s gonna be political, and I know a lot of folks have been conditioned to cut people out of their lives if they don’t agree with them politically. I’m not trying to sway anyone’s opinions on politics because a blog post prooooobably won’t do that, so instead I’m just gonna tell it like it is for a person of color (or half).

Caveat 1: I’m a halfie. Two or three hundred years ago I probably would’ve been killed or enslaved at birth, and to this day, halfies are pretty well demonized in some Asian cultures. If for some reason you don’t think halfbreeds count as people of color, you’re free to believe that. In the end, the most any of us can do is to talk about our own experiences and let others reflect on them.

Caveat 2: I’m often (though not always) guilty of “trying too hard to see the other side,” partly because my work often involves a lot of critical thinking and thinking “outside the box.”

November 2016 I decided to jump genres and do a science-fantasy project for NaNoWriMo. Conveniently enough, there was also a contest run by Fiyah Literary Magazine where writers of color would submit their word counts, best lines, and greatest hurdles for the week. Fiyah is a magazine for writers of African heritage, but in the interests of diversity in fiction, they opened the contest up to all people of color. Man, it was sort of a pleasure to type that sentence.

All of October, I prepped characters, world, timeline, plot points, etc. for my NaNoWriMo project. November hit, and I lagged behind schedule, as expected. I think a writer has to “get to know” their own characters, world, story, etc. and the start of any new project is slow because of that, and that’s ok. NaNoWriMo’s schedule isn’t bad once you get going, but I think a lot of people get bogged-down in that starting phase and just give up because they’re so behind schedule. But I digress.

November 8th was the election, and while I saw a lot of disappointment and sadness, I saw a lot of fear in my friends who were not white, or female, or transgender, or disabled, or homosexual, etc. Twitter and Facebook buzzed with the same sentiments from the same types of people. “Give him a shot,” I thought. “Alfred Nobel was a piece of shit until he realized how people were going to remember him, maybe this guy will get it together too.” See caveat 2.

Even I was a little afraid. While Asians get to fly under the racist radar most of the time, I’m still one North Korean nuclear strike away from being shoved into an internment camp like the Japanese were in WWII. “But no,” I think, “that can’t happen here, can it?” Bitch that DID happen here.

On the writing front, I didn’t get a lot done that night, and I don’t think I was alone. The feeling I got from twitter and my friends of color was that all the progress we’ve made towards equality in the past couple decades was about to be undone, possibly in a violent way. Fiyah sent out its contest updates and the numbers were appropriately depressing. Even lagging like I was, I was ahead of the curve. What was the point, right? Would anyone give a shit what we wrote? The country had given an overwhelming amount of representation to white dudes, and in particular, one white dude who said some pretty caustic remarks about minorities during his campaign – why would anyone give a shit about a person of color’s perspective? “He didn’t mean those things,” people said in his defense. Ok, maybe they were right. See caveat 2.

My crit group was packed the next night, partly because people needed a support group. A lot of them are women, or people of color, or homosexuals, and even the white males among them lean towards a more liberal stance. Even some old-timers we hadn’t seen in a while stopped in to say hi. It was like a great trauma brought people together. Afterwards, in standard fashion, we went out to eat, and there was a moment when I looked around and realized that when the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan was when I would get to see who my friends & allies really were – they were there at the table with me.

The message implied by the election was “you don’t matter,” and I was writing a story about the futuristic version of a half-Korean who was chasing the carrot on a stick of genetic therapy so she could become white. As offensive as that might sound, that’s a real plot line in the story, because in that universe, white folks still control the media and set the standards of beauty. She loses the carrot though – it was how the villain gets her to work for him. The grand federation of humanity and several other races splits because of her actions, and a new “humans-only” club run by white supremacists declares civil war. You can probably guess where my inspiration for all that came.

I kept going, kept writing, and I’m not entirely sure why. Partly because I had a story in me that I wanted to get out, and I’d kinda fallen in love with the protagonists and world. I’m sure the external accountability of the Fiyah contest helped even if only a little. If I’m being honest though, I kind of wondered how much longer I would have a voice for, so I’d better say what I had to say while I had the time.

I think the emotions at the root of that were anger and fear. The only real means of resistance I have are my words and stories, and even if nobody ever reads them, putting them out in the world makes them far more real than leaving them bumping around in my head.

Fiyah numbers came out for the next week and they were still pretty depressing. The Fiyah twitter also posted a lot of “tell us about your story / plot / characters” prompts. Some went unanswered, some had great answers. Writers were still writing. I was too, and I don’t know why. Maybe momentum? Maybe creating art as defiance? Art as eulogy?

Why though? Would anyone give a damn? ScarJo was gonna play Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Game of Thrones doesn’t feature any people of color in leading roles. They’re re-releasing Birth of the Dragon, which is supposed to be about two Asian dudes, but spends a lot of time on some white guy they made up so they could throw him in. Maybe all people really want is the same King Arthur story being re-made into a movie over and over again.

Time rolled on. NaNo rolled on. People invested their hope in things like recounts and allegations of foreign involvement. Fiyah numbers remained low. But there were still numbers.

People of color were still writing.

Why though? I wish I knew. I wish I had one reason I could point to, or a magical and witty snippet of truth which could fill in the blank here. I’m betting everyone had their own answers to that question, but I’m also betting those answers all shared a common root – refusal to simply roll over, give up, and die. Maybe everything comes down to fight or flight reactions, some huge, some microscopic. In my opinion, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you should almost always choose “fight” when art is either your medium or the thing that’s at stake.

At the end of November, more than a few folks finished NaNoWriMo and the Fiyah contest. Some may not have made it to 50k, but they kept slapping those keys and turning in progress reports. For me, finishing was a badge of honor, a personal test, a big middle finger in the face of current events.

Those aliens and non-whites in my story? They band together to defend a planet full of billions of innocent humans, some of which are separatists and would take up arms against them if they could. More than a few white folks stand with the aliens, and everyone gets to see who their allies really are. Differences of anatomy and genetics and sex are set aside for the greater good. Maybe it’s just a dream or a far-fetched fantasy world, but to me it’s an ideal worth writing about, and by “writing about,” I mean “fighting for.”

Posted in culture, diversity, Fiction, NaNoWriMo, Uncategorized, Writing | Leave a comment

Instead of trying to fit in, why don’t you…

So yeah it’s been a while. It’ll take at least another post, maybe two or three, to talk about November, NaNoWriMo, and all the stuff happening with diversity in the face of, well, adversity. BUT, right now what’s on my mind is genre (which sort of segues into diversity).

This last weekend was the DFW Writers’ Conference (dfwcon.org for those of you who are interested in checking out a great conference). I try to attend every year, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made several other posts about it. Sure, part of why I attend is to see other writers & friends I don’t get to see any other time of the year, but there are also great classes, chances to meet new friends, chances to pitch to agents (I’ll get to that), and an all-around sense of re-energizing and re-focusing on writing and the reasons why we write.

Last convention, I had an agent chase me down trying to get a hold of my story. While it didn’t end-up going anywhere (except to reaffirm that there are still problems with it), it did indicate that the times have changed. A couple years prior, I was the one chasing the agents. Also of note, he’d heard of wuxia, so it’s not like it’s something wholly alien. Again, times have changed.

Some of the rejections I’ve gotten on Righteous Mantis said that stories based on revenge and murder are a bit too “mature” for YA. Stinky & I basically opened our pitches with “we write wuxia, which is basically YA fantasy.” While that statement might be true, it’s also true that wuxia is its own thing, in its own category, and one could argue that wuxia has been around a lot longer than Western YA. So I decided that I was done trying to pretend to fit in with the American / Western / “traditional” categories and to just call it what it is – wuxia, and something magical happened.

Language shapes our thoughts, and when you stop trying to force something to fit and instead set it aside and call it what it is, you start thinking of it differently. Wuxia may have similarities to YA fantasy, but let’s step back and remember that it’s rooted in another culture, and that it’s been its own thing for a very long time, and that simply combining Western ideas of YA and fantasy doesn’t necessarily bridge the gap into wuxia. If it did, why not flip it and say “Hunger Games is a futuristic Western wuxia without Chinese people and Chinese story tropes”?

So this conference, I walked in and pitched to an agent, starting with, “I write wuxia.” Much later in the conversation I mentioned how it could maybe fall into YA fantasy, but it was more like an addendum than the main setup. “I write wuxia. It’s a Chinese genre, some could argue it’s ancient, and its hallmarks are martial arts, adventure, romance, and chivalry. The story is about…”

I’ll admit the agent I pitched to was a bit of a hard sell, and that I worked harder to get a request for pages than ever before, but I got a request for pages. Later I attended another So Close, but So Far” session. If you’re not familiar with my previous post, is a sort of small panel where you talk with a few agents about the kind of rejection letters you’ve been getting. I had great success with it last year, and I’ve found them to be highly insightful because the folks who signed up to petition get so much attention. This time around, there were two agents, neither of which repped anything resembling fantasy or anything I might haphazardly try to fit wuxia into. When I told them about wuxia and my story, their jaws dropped and their eyes nearly burst from their heads. We had a great discussion, and then the entire conference took a dinner break, and I’m pretty sure that’s where the magic happened.

A couple hours later, we returned for the “mixer,” where us plebians get to drink, talk to agents, pitch to them, chit-chat, etc. I walked up to one agent to pitch and didn’t get much further than, “I write wuxia,” when she stopped me and said, “oh, you’re the guy. Yeah at least four other agents have been talking about this. Just send me pages.”

Four other agents. I’d think this was a fluke, but it happened again the next day.

I can only surmise that over dinner, someone asked if wuxia was a real genre or if I was just making something up. Maybe they did research, maybe they didn’t, but the end result was this : twice when I went to pitch, I didn’t even get to talk about the characters or the story. They didn’t want YA fantasy version of a half-Chinese orphan girl who goes on a martial arts adventure across Ming dynasty China to avenge the assassination of her adopted father and teacher. They wanted wuxia.

If it weren’t an already-established and long-standing genre, I’m not sure it would’ve worked. Just making up a name to re-brand something usually takes time and saying it over and over again, but the Chinese did that with wuxia a long time ago (actually the Japanese played a part in that too, but that’s a slightly different story). So this post isn’t a recommendation that you should just re-brand your genre in hopes of getting the same recognition and attention. That may or may not work for you, depending on how different your story actually is, but it might help if it fell into another already-existing genre.

And sure, maybe someday in the future, the publishing industry (or whoever makes decisions on what genre is what) might fit wuxia underneath the YA or fantasy umbrellas, but right now it’s unknown enough in America that it’s not. Also, if that ever happens, Ima write a wuxia that’s totally about older folks and doesn’t involve fantastical martial arts. “Detective wuxias” are a thing that already exists and would probably fall outside both those categories. Just sayin’.  :)

I’m Benjamin Inn, and I write wuxia.

Posted in archetypes, Art, China, collaboration, conferences, culture, diversity, Fiction, How to not suck, martial arts, networking, voice, Writing, wuxia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shootings, WCNV, diversity, & you

So Orlando happened. And immediately people started pointing fingers at all sorts of stuff – gun control, Muslims, political correctness, Christians, etc. Some of this was people tapping into their own rage & pain, some was people being defensive, some was people trying to further their own agenda. Show us the thing or idea or policy we can eliminate to stop this from happening again. Show us the path which will lead us through all the illusions and into safety and harmony.

Then we get two days in a row where black gentlemen were killed by officers of the law. Again, people blamed the media, the KKK, various shadowy conspiracies, conservatives, etc (yes, I actually saw blame laid at the feet of all those and more). Then last night, close by in Dallas, some guys retaliated by shooting law enforcement officers. Once again, blame goes flying everywhere, leaving us with nothing but dead bodies and uncertainty about how we got into this situation, and uncertainty about how to get out, but if we can blame someone or something, then get rid of that someone or something, it’ll fix it all, right?

Amidst this whirlwind of shit and death, I became a finalist in the Writers of Color and Native Voices contest (www.wcnvcontest.com). As the title indicates, it was a writing contest for people of color. There was some interesting fallout in the wake of the contest – discussion as to whether X or Y could be counted as a “person of color.” Race, ethnicity, and hell while we’re at it, gender and sexuality are really really complex things that NEED to be and absolutely SHOULD BE discussed. Discussing those things wasn’t really the aim of this contest – the aim was to showcase people of color as artists who may have been overlooked because of their ethnicity, or because the stories they’re telling don’t fall within the normal “white & Western” perspective.

Have I ever personally been denied or shut down because of my ethnicity? Honestly, how would I know? I submit my novel, if for some reason an agent doesn’t like Asians, they could just say “it wasn’t for me” and I wouldn’t know any better. Is this a thing? I don’t honestly know, but the fact that someone’s doing something about it makes me think that maybe it is. I am reminded of a previous agent who once turned down my previous work, “Rise of the Righteous Mantis,” done in collaboration with a close friend. The agent said there were some “historical inaccuracies.” She didn’t cite anything specific, nor her sources. We on the other hand had a friend who is from China, as in “grew up in China, studied English so she could get out, and moved to the U.S. in the last couple of years” read it, and she said it “read like it was written by a Chinese person.” She made no mention of any such “historical inaccuracies” (other than our obsession with sweet potatoes, which wasn’t really thaaaaat far off).

I thought nothing of it at first – when someone tells me “there’s a problem” but doesn’t offer any specifics, I usually see it as a giant red “bullshit” flag. I’m used to this because I get a lot of it at work. Regardless, a rejection is a rejection, and I started to question my own facts and my own story. “Would it be better if we re-wrote it in some fictional universe which resembles Ming China?” my partner asked.

It was an option we very seriously considered, and that fact should offend you.

Do I think I was shut down because of my ethnicity? No. Do I think I was shut down because a white person thought she knew Asian culture better than I did? Yes. If you’re paying attention, you already see how this all ties together.

So back to the present. For part of my WCNV submission I had to write a statement why #OwnVoices is so important. For those of you who don’t know, #OwnVoices is basically a movement which encourages authors of color to write in their own cultures. And before some asshat comes in claiming whites should be included because they’re writing in their own culture, let me say that the point of all this and WCNV is that we’ve had white males dominating our narratives for the last thousand or so years. People have been complaining about how Hollywood is just re-using old themes and re-making old movies, and it probably has something to do with our living in this cultural vacuum where we tell and re-tell the same stories over and over, then pat ourselves on the back for being awesome. #OwnVoices is part of an effort to expand the number and scope of stories which can be told.

Anyhow, my statement went like this :

“If no one makes an effort to represent minorities in art, we’re doomed to an eternal repeat of things like this year’s Oscars, whitewashing in film, and insulting cultural appropriation. An unrepresented population, a people without a voice, is easy to vilify (as we’ve already seen with Muslims), control, marginalize, or destroy. When we see a people’s art, we see their humanity, and identify with it.”

It’s a pretty simple idea, actually. It could boil down to something as simple as, “Holy shit, that guy also cusses when stubs his toe on the couch.” And yeah, I wrote that before all these shootings happened. Am I some kind of prophet? No, I’m a half-white guy looking in on both white and Asian cultures and seeing how people de-humanize the “other.” Having one foot in each culture effectively makes me neither – I’m used seeing the way people look at me like I’m not “one of them.” I rather enjoy my elusive nowhere status, but that’s a post for another time.

There’s a LOT of diversity among humans. I shouldn’t even have to write that line because you folks already know there’s a lot of diversity within your own race / gender / ethnicity / religion / sexuality / etc. Pick one of the above, look around your immediate vicinity, and analyze how the people there differ from you on that ONE point. Needless to say, while all the possible combinations aren’t quite “limitless,” it does make for a lot of potential for originality.

But beneath all those things that make us different (some of which are little more than illusory lines drawn by ourselves), we’re all still human. We have very similar biology to one another. We seek structure and order and build those when we can’t find them naturally (hence civilization, government, and language). No matter the language, we tend to express joy and anger and a host of other emotions in relatively similar ways – for example everyone laughs.

And yet we cling to these artificial lines as if a person on the other side is somehow NOT human. We get into an uncomfortable situation with an unfamiliar person, and fight or flight takes over. We stand on our side of the line and assume we understand the people on the other side, sometimes even if we’re friendly towards them. We see a person of (*insert ethnicity / gender / religion / etc. here*) and our brain loads-up a bunch of stereotypes. We focus on the differences rather than the similarities until we forget the other person is human too.

An example of this can be seen in how many black people are saying, “there’s a problem.” I find the resistance to this odd. They’re effectively telling black Americans, “Your experience is wrong,” as if somehow they’ve stepped into that person’s skin and actually had the experience. I too have had an outsider tell me I was wrong, that there were “historical inaccuracies.”

Amongst the chaos last night, there was a photo of a bunch of people, white and black, forming a human shield around a baby stroller. At the time nobody knew the snipers were after cops, they just knew there were gunshots. These people decided one child’s life was more important than their own, no matter the skin color or other differences at hand. Humans are capable of that kind of magnificence too, but it’s a choice we have to make. I would say it’s our job to look deeper and ask questions – of ourselves, of our stereotypes, and of the people we’re looking at. If we don’t understand someone, instead of disliking, distrusting, or fearing them (or assuming they’re wrong and sending a rejection letter), engage them (in a non-offensive way). Ask them why they wear that thing, what they believe, where they’re from, what’s important to them, what’s the funniest joke they know – remember that everyone laughs. Do they also cuss when they stub their toe on the couch? No? Well they’re better people than I.

In the end you may not like that other person – you don’t have to. But most times at least trying to listen to and understand them turns you both back into humans, at least in each others’ eyes. Is it worth having a five minute or five hour conversation? Only you can be the judge of that, but the real question should be “what’s the price of ignorance?”

Well, we’re seeing that price in the news a lot these days.

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