Fantasy Worlds and Real World Commentary

Emperor Weishu Maorin Guangong Zhian, sixth of the Long Dynasty, of Yanjing, lives in a walled palace. He greets his guests in the Hall of Imperial Greeting; he has beautifully cultivated gardens of flowers and rocks. Those who see him must bow, their heads to the ground, nine times; delicately clothed in silk, fastened with silk frogs. The Master of Presentations is a eunuch. The erhu and the pipa are common instruments; Yanjingyi eat ‘water-reed shoots’ and steamed dumplings with eating sticks. Beside Yanjing lies Gyongxe, a great high plateau, where religions flourish and temples and temple dedicates are most at peace. Premier amongst the religions of Gyongxe is the Living Circle: a religion where one one feels the magic flowing through everything. It is like Qi, says one of the Emperor’s mages. Gyongxe is ruled over by the 298th God-King, implied a reincarnation, who can channel thoughts from gods and other beings.  In Gyongxe they drink butter tea and eat dumplings. Sky burial is an ancient, beloved practice, and though Briar feels disgust as an outsider, he respects their tradition.

It took me 200 pages before I put together what I was reading, because I didn’t want to believe it.

When a rose bush in the carefully sculpted gardens of Emperor Weishu, Eagle of the Heavens, the Leveller of Mountains, wilts with rot, he orders it torn up, the roses set alight, and the gardeners responsible tied up in the middle as the roses burn. His mages are dedicated to him, and his wars, and his closeness to heaven. He is the absolute ruler, and his armies are innumerable, and at their head he is ruthless. Emperor Weishu keeps prisoners; his favourite is Parahan, whose twin sister is Soudamini, who comes from Kombanpur, one of the Realms of the Sun. They speak Banpuri. Parahan is kept with magic chains across his wrists and ankles, and sits on occasion chained to the emperor’s dais.

I love representations of non-white cultures in Fantasy. I’m bored of epic European-based fantasies, reimagings of Arthurian or Greek or Roman or Christian mythos.* So this is great! A world of magic, with these cultural reference points that are familiar to me, that are home to me; or that are completely different but still belonging to someone. It’s great and rich and excellent.

Having taken the countries adjacent to his own, Emperor Weishu, Son of all the Gods, Master of Lions, is moving on to Gyongxe, the spindle of the world. He must have his empire encompass such a point. He has subjugated neighbouring Inxia, and is secretly holding the borders, preventing traders from travelling, and suppressing the Living Circle, this fantasy universe’s calm, meditative religion.

I don’t love Westerners passing judgements on issues they know nothing about; Westerners using our own political situations as the plots for their fantasy worlds; Westerners bringing horrible stereotypes into their fantasy texts, reinforcing these views.

I do not disagree with the heart of it. As an overseas Chinese living in Beijing, I kept my mouth shut on the Tibet issue, learnt the coded key words, and went about my business. I support sovereignty along religious borders, and I definitely have issues with the PRC’s methods of maintaining dominance and control, and the way it’s exterminating real world cultures. I have so many thoughts on Chinese colonialism, and its push into African countries and its railway through Tibet and its suppression of Xinjiang.

But these are complicated issues, with complicated factors and outcomes, and real world impacts. And representation affects that, too.

Borrow our cultures with respect; represent our cultures and our countries with thought and research and interest. Incorporate our fun elements and our bad elements and our mediocre elements. Have fantasy countries that look like China and Tibet and India and Indonesia, and sound and feel like it to us.

I want a less white fantasy landscape. But I don’t want this passing of judgement on a real world issue through a fantasy lens, through a White person’s fantasy lens. I don’t want to see my culture distorted so it is nothing but a stereotype; I don’t want my history disrespected and my culture manipulated so that all is left is a plot point.

I love this author (who I have not named, because she likes to have conversations with her critics and her fangirls like to pile on, but there is all the information here that you need to identify this author and series), and I have read and reread so many of her books. She works hard and works well to build an inclusive universe, that’s not a random European monoculture and is instead full and realistic (across not-ethnicity things, too). And I appreciate that. But this felt like Carthak again: I remember the Emperor Mage, who was so exorbitant and opulent he covered Daine’s bird shit covered clothes with new silk; whose slaves had their tongues removed; who felt he was heaven’s son, and closer to heaven than the gods; who wanted to invade Tortall and all that the protagonists held dear. And it makes me mad and it breaks my heart.

We are more than antagonists in your fantasy world.

(We are more than antagonists in your real world fantasy)

*though Jesus was a black man, Christianity is still primarily a thing associated with the West and with Europe. And of course historically there were black Europeans.

Saturday morning links

Note: Links may not actually be posted until Saturday afternoon

Stuff Stephanie has been doing

Writing!  She has a series of posts about Chinese-Australian identity at Peril, and has written a piece on voluntourism, ethics and actually making a difference for The Toast.

Australia (is terrible)

Australia Day has more violence than any other public holiday!  What this article doesn’t mention is that very few of this violence is directed at white people, which means the current HARD LINE LAURA NORDER stance currently being adopted by New South Wales isn’t going to help in this instance.

This might be time-sensitive, but comedian Aamer Rahman has been retweeting some of the racist hate he gets.


Group dynamics on a female podcast – a bunch of my friends do Verity, an all-women Doctor Who podcast.  Now, I am terrible with podcasts, so I don’t listen to it regularly, but it’s clever and interesting and often very funny.  However, some people (male people) think Team Verity need to be a bit … nicer.

New blog: Intersectionality Times, “a place that hopes to provide a safe space for those of us who are ‘othered’ by mainstream Australian feminism.”

Stealing sexy calendars isn’t Jesus and it isn’t radical – “If your activism involves turning over tables and then leaving them there for minimum wage workers to clean up, please rethink. If your feminism involves “breaking glass ceilings” and leaving other women to sweep up the glass, stop.”  I really couldn’t put it better.

Dear James Delingpole: You are the problem – “Little boys are not universally sociopaths in training: nurturing and love are not exclusively feminine traits. But that’s what they can sometimes become, if, as so many people do, you assume that boys are naturally monstrous, and consequently neglect to teach them the empathy, kindness and respect for others you’ve already decided they’re incapable of learning.”


A Chinese space opera trilogy is coming to the US Anglosphere – this isn’t new news, but I’m reblogging it mostly so I remember.  Also, it looks like some of Liu Cuxin’s short fiction is available in English on Amazon, so note to self, get into that.

I’ve been re-watching Star Trek: Voyager for the first time since … well, since I stopped being a Trekkie, back in the early 2000s.  I’d like to say that I’ve been inspired with meaningful and clever thoughts about the series, but … well, apparently nothing has changed since I was 14.  Except that I’m playing a fun game of, “Did I actually watch this multiple times, or did I just memorise Jim Wright‘s review?”

But in the same universe, Grant Watson has been watching and blogging about the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Economic injustice

Why your shoes won’t save the world – the problem with “buy one, give one” charity.


Not your Asian sidekick – the fight for diverse identities – an Australian account of the recent hashtag, and why it’s important.

Why I prefer “black” – On identity, race, nationalism and more.  Of note:  I don’t use the term “person/woman of colour” for myself because, from an Aboriginal perspective, this phrase does not carry the same political weight and indeed, to be “of colour” to me is to also be comfortable with people defining my background by those old blood quanta percentages, which I reject.

This is something I try to keep in mind:  although “person of colour” is widely accepted, and generally not considered offensive, it is by no means a universal phrase.  (I had to explain this to an American recently.  It was … challenging.)


How did toast become the latest artisanal food craze?  This article covers a lot of ground, but the answer is basically “intersectionality”.

Also, I am kind of touched by the notion that $4 is a lot to pay for toast.  Bless you, America, but your prices are artificially low.

(It’s not just America.  Mel from Subversive Reader was ranting on Twitter … yesterday?  About $2 baby shirts, and the fact that the fabric alone costs more than that.  As she said, someone isn’t being paid their due, and you can bet it’s not the Australian retail worker at the final point of sale.)


Last week, Melbourne experienced a record-breaking heatwave.  I coped by hiding out in an air-conditioned cinema and watching Frozen.  

I had initially planned to give Frozen the old boycott-by-ignoring-and-basically-forgetting-it-existed, because of that animator’s comments about it being sooooooo haaaaaaaaaard to animate women, because they have to have facial expressions but still remain pretty!  I was like, dude, you work for a company that’s fairly well-known for its animated female characters, I’m pretty sure you can figure it out.

However, increasing numbers of my friends were seeing it, and coming away talking it up as totes feminist and progressive.  My curiosity was piqued!  Also, it was really hot.

And I enjoyed it!  I thought it was a decent movie in its own right, but played with Disney tropes in an interesting way.  And if you  had told me that Disney would do a movie about an agoraphobic princess, I wouldn’t have believed you.  AND YET.

Okay, I don’t think Elsa is actually agoraphobic, or has any other condition that maps to contemporary psychology.  But the way her fear of her magic, and hurting people with her magic, manifests is so close to agoraphobia (and other things — Anna hints that she assumed her sister was obsessive-compulsive) that it felt quite right to me.  Likewise, in finally embracing her abilities, she displays a hint of the femme fatale, making her possibly the most knowingly sexual Disney princess queen yet.

Also, Anna is basically me, if I was a Disney princess.  Except that I wouldn’t go haring off after my sister in a snowstorm, wearing a summer dress.  (Sorry, sis.)

With that in mind, here are some interesting and useful Frozen posts:

7 moments that made Frozen the most progressive Disney movie ever – I try to avoid that kind of hyperbole, because it’s nearly always wrong/oversimplified/ALSO WRONG.  But these were good features!

How Ariel became Disney’s bad woman: a look at Frozen and The Little Mermaid – so I completely disagree with this post’s taken on Frozen, but I really love it for reclaiming the feminism of The Little Mermaid.  IT’S COMPLICATED.

(Having said that, as an adult, I now find it quite sad that Ariel is only 16 when she makes the irrevocable decision to change species and get married.  That’s so young!)

Here I Go (Despair of an Alto) – I can’t actually hit a note or hold a tune, but if I could, I’d be an alto.  So this speaks to me on a very profound level.


summer reading: lady friendly australian crime novels

I’ve recently been reading some Australian crime novels! The standout authors for me have been Katherine Howell and Kathryn Fox. I sometimes refer to them as the two katherines because I get them mixed up, I’m sorry my friends. 

Crimes happen, ladies get attacked and sometimes murdered. We’re talking about crime novels, of course ladies get attacked (Not that I approve of this! And neither does my friend Fi, you can read her opinion on this in Women in Boxes). But unlike most crime novels, ladies are saved, misogyny is discussed, we don’t have to read about the assaults in detail, and excellent women do some excellent work.

The feminism in these books is explicit. In Deserving Death (by Katherine Howell), Detective Ella is talking to the ex-housemate of a murder victim. He was asked to leave the house because he kept asking his housemate to date him. Sulkily, he says: “In movies, the guy who’s determined always wins in the end. But it’s not true.”

“That’s because it only works in movies, Ella thought. In real life it’s called stalking.”

I shrieked when I read this line. It’s so unusual to have creepy, horrible behaviour called out in crime novels.

Kathryn Fox’s protagonist, forensic physician Anya, is so woman- and victim-centric it’s a pleasure to read her stories. In Death Mask, Anya explicitly looks at, researches and talks about pack behaviour in male-dominated team sports, what that means at a greater societal level, and how that reflects on treatment towards women. She talks in depth about the burden placed on the victim in assault cases, emotionally and physically, and although going into it I thought I understood, I appreciated this look at it.

Anya also goes in depth into the science behind forensics, and gathering evidence for assault cases, and it’s excellent to not only have this lady-centric science and scientists, but to use science as a way of deflecting the horror of constant lady attacks. I appreciate it.

Katherine Howell spent 15 years as a paramedic; Kathryn Fox was a medical doctor. It shows, and I love it.

I rarely read crime novels, and I started off reading these for work; but I’m genuinely enjoying them and bought a Kathryn Fox novel to give to someone as a Christmas present. If only all crime novels could be this respectful to women and science; I’d probably read them more.

ETA: Liz talks about the whiteness of the Katherine Howell books at her other blog.