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.

7 thoughts on “Fantasy Worlds and Real World Commentary

  1. I haven’t read this book, but the problematic writing of race in fantasy has been something I have noticed quite a bit. Although a lot of fantasy worlds include non-white-European-cast inspired cultures, they almost always tend to be the represented as the other – either the threat to the peaceful whiteness of the main character’s world, or otherwise the strange, somewhat more barbaric culture that is always treated with suspicion. Even where there are positive things about non-white inspired cultures, they tend to play out along very orientalising lines. It really bugs me that a lot of fantasy writers just don’t seem to think about this sort of thing very much when creating worlds. It can’t be that hard – Avatar: the Last Airbender manages it brilliantly!

  2. Pebble

    I have a long-standing love of her works and having someone write about fantasy cultures beyond the tired old generic is wonderful, but the execution often leaves me feeling… embarrassed. The way the fantasy cultures are so clearly transplanted and renamed fantasy versions of real-world cultures; the over-earnestness, perhaps.

    Since I’m not American or British, the standard/default fantasy protagonists whom readers are supposed to identify with are often jarringly foreign in their habits and attitudes. Stories that include people with non-generic US/UK ways of life, even when they’re less like me than the standard characters, make me feel like there’s room in that fantasy world for all sorts of people, and some of them may be a bit like me.

  3. Bryce of Adelaide

    I have no qualms about authors exploring real world issues through science fiction or fantasy and, in fact, I think the medium has a lot of advantages for doing so. (Sacrilege, the UK crust/thrash metal band, are an excellent example using Tolkien’s works to address modern issues). Problems arise, however, when it is done in a ham-fisted, overtly allegorical manner (especially with “pallette-swap” worlds where every culture has a real-world equivalent). It also doesn’t help that so many fantasy authors love to simplify things down to good vs. evil. It has always bugged me that, say, elves are always good and orcs always evil.

    In terms of settings, the European-style worlds of Tolkien, Arthurian legend and Forgotten Realms Dungeons and Dragons have been done to death. These settings invariably collapse into orientalism and other problems when they deal with non-European cultures. I don’t have any problem with anglo authors writing Wuxia etc. as long as it’s done well. Better, however, is when they come up with something completely new rather than just following the “Europe+Orient+Orcs” trope. I mean, look at Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance: a completely original world without having to have a fantasy Asia, fantasy Arabia, fantasy France, etc. and without real-world ethnic traits either.

    (Ursula Le Guinn apparently does this well too, but I haven’t managed to track down any of her Earthsea stuff yet)

    1. kejumonyet

      Oh, my first post didn’t turn up…
      Gah, that’ll learn me for writing an essay in the comment box 😦

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