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Fantasy in Asia

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Today I posted about Fantasy in Asia over at the Enchanted Inkpot. http://tinyurl.com/czedss

But I heard from people who didn't have an LJ account that they couldn't comment so I wanted to have a place here to talk about it too. You don't have to read the post to comment but I did have a bunch of questions I thought I'd throw out there for anyone who wants to discuss here.

What is the reason for commercialization or westernization of classic Asian themes? Is it a belief that only a pasteurized version of these famous Asian classics can crossover? Is it the belief that they are too exotic, too weird, too different for the taste of a broader audience? What appeals to you about the Asian fantasy novels you might have read? What are some stereotypical portrayals of Asia that you would like to see debunked or are simply tired of? What would you as a lover of fantasy novels say to a publisher unsure of the appeal of Asian themed fiction? If you have never read an Asian fantasy themed novel, why haven’t you? And will you now?

For those of you who can't comment on LJ, I'd love to hear your thoughts here!

Thanks.
#1 - April 06, 2009, 08:10 AM
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I read Across the Nightengale Floor, which I think would classify as an Asian fantasy. I loved it. I also read Cloud of Sparrows, which was part Asian fantasy, part reality (set during the time of Japan opening its borders again for foreigners). I love the language, the visuals, the interesting storylines and plot elements.

I really enjoy Asian stories/cultures and would like to see them get more attention in literature. I also love reading "realistic" Asian fiction too, actually. Same goes for film--I love classic samurai films. I love modern/contemporary Japanese films too. But for different reasons--they just appeal to different aspects of what fascinates and captivates me about Japanese and Asian culture. I love learning about the history--and not just the facts, but the myths and beliefs. To me, the fantasy element is more about expressing the myth than the fact, obviously.

I'm causasian. I've never been to an Asian country. And since I'm not overflowing with money, it's likely not going to happen soon. So reading, and watching films, help me at least feel like I can experience some of it, even with the full acknowledgement that it's not complete reality.

But then again, lots of movies and books set in the US aren't exactly reality, either. LOL

Hope that all made sense...

ETA: fantastic post on the blog, BTW!!
#2 - April 06, 2009, 08:24 AM
« Last Edit: April 06, 2009, 08:27 AM by Rhonda »

Thanks Rhonda! ACtually you did raise a point that I completely avoided in my post - which was that it does seem like the elements of Asia that are seen over here are stereotypical. But at the same time I love kung fu and samurai movies also! So it isn't that we shouldn't have those - and if they are popular, so much the better, but I hope that publishers will take a chance on the broader scope of Asia, not just in fantasy but in all genres, because there is so much out there.

And yes the Otori novels are definitely fantasy - the protagonist can become invisible! They call it samurai fantasy!  :dr
#3 - April 06, 2009, 09:24 AM
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Good point, in that it's actually not too difficult to find stuff that's more "stereotypical" of Asia, both in film and literature. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon really brought some of those more lyrical "fighting" movies to the forefront for me. I saw that in the theater and was totally hooked. It opened up a whole new genre of film for me that I hadn't experienced before. From that, I watched more movies like it, then moved into Kurosawa's films.

And now, I'm trying to continue to broaden my horizons, past stuff that's only about samurai, though I have a special weakness/fondness for those types of literature and film.

Maybe even the "stereotypical" stuff can have its purpose--after all, if it draws people to the genre/setting/era/locale, maybe people will start digging deeper into other stuff off the beaten path...? I know I have. And I hope publishers follow suit...I'm actually working on a couple of YA proposals set in Japan, so fingers crossed! LOL. And your idea sounds absolutely fascinating--I'd love to learn more about Korea and read more fiction set there. What a cool idea!! Someone needs to snag it up.

I absolutely adore Asian-set stories. I'm eager to read more!! I can't wait for Cindy's story to come out--I'm practically drooling in anticipation. LOL.
#4 - April 06, 2009, 09:51 AM

Martha Flynn

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Oh man, I've got some uber-angry thoughts about this...but first I need to calm myself down and present them without bad language.  My friends and I rage over this for hours.  (which sounds kinda sad, now that I write it)

I'll be back.
#5 - April 06, 2009, 09:53 AM

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I guess it's because people want to go with what's current, they're not really afraid to defy the mold just capitalize on it. It's been so for many years. Writers and of course Filmmakers have always produced what's popular. In this way they know for a fact that they are going to reach a target audience and attain a "fixed" revenue, in this instance, the possibility of failure will not rely on its content but it's quality.

Asian content is no different. There are certain elements of it these artists believe are not yet ready to be embraced by mass media or the public at large. Because of this they will pump the same generalities knowing for a fact that these elements are tried, tested and true.

I'm a huge fan of Manga and everything Asian. Oh, how I love me some Avatar and the uber popular Naruto! I don't think there is anything to be debunked--who doesn't love the ninja or samurai?-- but I certainly would like to see more mold breakers: those who are willing to bring us something new and unexplored and this spans across all cultures. Maybe you can be a mold breaker, Ello? I'm pretty sure you have something new for us. Something exciting. In this case you should say to a publisher:

For years we have hidden with the dragon, crouched with the tiger, fought with the unbreakable samurai and danced with the blushing geisha. These themes have been overdone, so much so that they are now cliches in Asian Fantasy. Now that we are moving toward the future it is time to explore the unexplored crevices of Asian themes and unearth a new plethora of exciting content that will churn the imagination of millions.     

Okay that was TERRIBLE! But it was on a whim, just wanted you to get where I was coming from.  :laugh

Publishers and Movie Studios MUST publish the untried and untrue otherwise our culture would just be filled with wizards, zombies and the super overused vampires! Be a visionary. Don't be afraid to be the bad apple in the whole bunch. You'll find you're always selected first from the rest.  :shh
#6 - April 06, 2009, 10:49 AM
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WELL said, Tyson!! *applauds* These tropes of Asian literature are at risk of becoming cliche if they are the only ones ever done.

And like you said, I love those tried and true classics too! It would just be wonderful to continue to see more movers and shakers really invigorate Asian literature with some truly mindblowing originality!!
#7 - April 06, 2009, 11:10 AM

I agree Tyson, that's very well said! Bravo! And here's to breaking the mold!!!
#8 - April 06, 2009, 05:37 PM
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Ello, what a great post!  Westernization of Asian culture is a hot topic for me, so I'm going to try really hard to contain this post to literary themes/classics.  :)

To first set some personal context - I grew up in Taiwan and Japan until I was fourteen years old.  I learned Mandarin and English simultaneously, most of my extracurricular activities (e.g. ballet) were taught in Chinese and not in English, and I didn't have access to English television.  Most of my knowledge about Asian folklore is tied to Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese (my family's background) which doesn't represent all Asian folklore by any means.  I apologize in advance for my ignorance of these topics.

As to the reason for the commercialization or Westernization of Asian themes?  I chalk it up to disparity of cultural values.

I'll illustrate with the most well known westernized story - Mulan, as done by Disney.

In the original poem, Mulan isn't portrayed as disobedient or mouthy the way her western counterpart is.  Even though she takes off in her father's place it isn't against anyone's wishes.  The westernized hero myth needs her to fight against something (cultural expectations), but this isn't the case for Asian mythology - Asian culture values its cultural identity and wouldn't make a heroine out of someone fighting against it.

In the poem, Mulan is not singled out as being behind a victory - she was part of the army.  Asian culture doesn't value the accomplishments of the individual over that of the whole as much as Western culture.  But the Disney movie needed the moment where the Emperor congratulated her for its first emotional high point (the second being the reuniting with her family.)

At the end of the poem, Mulan turns down a high ranking post and goes back home, puts on her traditional female makeup and for the most part resumes her feminine duties.  As a result, she's quietly honored by her military counterparts as they did not realize her gender for the entirety of ten years of war.  Could you imagine this ending in a Disney version??  Hells no.

Disney also considers Mulan a "princess" - which is kinda not the point of the whole Mulan poem.

So again - values.  Western = individualism, spunk, saavy.  Hence the rewrite of the poem which really honors a girl who fought for her country, put her country before anything else, for ten years in lieu of any male siblings and then quietly returns home.

This doesn't address my own personal issues with the treatment of women in Asian (or almost any) folklore...but like you said...that's for another day.

To digress to another hot topic - vampires!!  Asian vampire shows were my favorite.  They were this random kind of zombie/vampire hybrid that didn't suck blood but instead took people's souls, hopped around with arms outstretched in rigor moritis, and could be stopped by pieces of sacred paper strapped to their forehead.  Or dynamite.  (Um...I was eight when I watched these shows so forgive any mis-remembered "facts").  But I really think embracing the Asian vampire myth could give the genre that "new angle" editors keep asking for.

Okay..I think I got through that temper intact...yes?

:)
Martha
#9 - April 06, 2009, 11:20 PM

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What a great post, Martha. Yes, I agree that in order to accurately portray any culture, you have to really know what the reasons behind things are. Like Ancient Egypt. I was writing my last book (coming in paperback next month!) I reasearched A LOT of Ancient Egyptian...uh, stuff. They don't have a great deal of folktales or "myths" per se; but what I realized was that their whole religion was based on what happens to you after you die. A sould NOT moving to the afterlife was THE WORST thing that could happen to them.

When I studied Chinese mythology, it was very much a gods-based (depending on if you followed Taoism or Confucionism - I know I spelled that wrong) religion, heavy on the ancestor worship. Ghosts are a big part of that culture, so is honor. You need to understand this stuff before you can write it accurately.

And I love the original Mulan poem. I had to read "Women Warriors: A childhood among ghosts" for a class (author's name escapes me) but it was a terrific look into Chinese-American culture. I recommend it.
#10 - April 07, 2009, 02:46 AM
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This is a really interesting thread!!
#11 - April 07, 2009, 04:02 AM

I'm not a huge fan of "fan" tasy ;) but I love some books that could be classified as fantasy: The Dark Tower series and the Wizard of Oz series. However, I can't think of a specific Asian fantasy I have read; however, I plan to read Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix.

I would like to see more mystical - mind over matter - Asian fantasies, which I equate with the Asian culture - however, I could be wrong and that could be my own stereotype.

Just my .02 - so it's probably worth about that much.
#12 - April 07, 2009, 10:18 AM

Martha, I totally understand why you have to keep your temper in check and good for you for doing so! I myself have done many a moment of this  :grrr when I see stereotypical or just really wrong Asian themes displayed. Mulan is one of those things where I was like half happy that we had an asian themed movie and half mad that they kind of made it a joke with all of the stereotypes. But I ended up bearing down on the happy side only because, we just don't get enough exposure via Hollywood so I was happy to take something good. Although I have had to hear from many an Asian man about what is the deal with Hollywood either emasculating Asian men or stereotyping them in some nerd, kung fu, fob, gangster role. Ok but that is a topic for another day!

I remember my Mom seeing a preview for the memoirs of a geisha movie and she said, "There are so many wonderful Asian cultural heritages and they chose the geisha? Is that all they want to know about us? Geishas?" yeah I understood her pain.  But what can you do. What I do is try to write and add my culture to my writing. martha I know you are doing the same so you go girl!
#13 - April 07, 2009, 02:21 PM
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i'd have to say that my novel is probably "westernized" asian fantasy.
because i'm chinese-american. it can't be helped.
it's an amalgamation of everything--and it's fantasy first.
tho i do use chinese culture and myth as inspiration and a starting
point.

kim--thank you! many of my crit group friends
haven't read fantasy, but they seemed to enjoy my book.
#14 - April 07, 2009, 02:59 PM
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That's an interesting point you make about being Chinese-American, Cindy...and it could apply to Mulan as well.  I don't know the year in which Mulan was composed, but in a lot of ways, today's Chinese are probably as removed from it culturally as westerners are.  The passage of time causes cultural distance and change too...for example, although The Canterbury Tales are written in an English that's (mostly) readable today, there's certainly almost no cultural similarity between England in the 1300's and England today...heck, the culture has changed enough since Pride and Prejudice was written that an awful lot of people just don't get it, and that's just two hundred years old...

Fantasy first--yes!
#15 - April 07, 2009, 03:39 PM
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While Mulan is the most popular example of cross-culture westernization and therefore the most useful for my point, it's technically not a fantasy and I'm aware of that - what I meant to point out is that if the western world *were* to take on and popularize a typically East-style fantasy, it would be westernized to the point where the values imbued in the East-fantasy (country first, family second, individual last - for example) would probably be rewritten in favor of Westernized values especially since most fantasies are hero stories and a traditional Asian hero has very different qualities from a Westernized hero.

Let's even go back to that Jet Li movie - aptly titled for this example - Hero (spoiler alert) - it has very Chinese values in what made the character a hero was not his fighting skill or cleverness or determination - in fact, while he displays these qualities he is considered the villain.  He isn't a hero until the end of the movie, when he chooses death to put the needs of his country over his individual need for truth and justice, because by sacrificing himself he allows China to be united as one power - *that* is the value of an Asian film vs. Westernized film and the movie came out in (quick break for imdb check...) the year 2002 which wasn't that long ago.

I think the point is - there's nothing wrong with the Asian set of values - they're just different - and by re-theme-ing traditional Asian stories into a Western set of values, we lose and devalue the Asian mythology.

Even taking the P&P example - while culture has changed, the themes of Love (don't sell out) and Class (it sucks, is a fact of life, but shouldn't make you who you are) are still inherent in today's Western society.

Ello - I don't know if you remember - but a few months ago after I first joined I was actually sitting in LA's K-town with a group of eight Korean women biatching about how there aren't any decent Asian-themed stories when I saw your website and everyone in the salon gathered around it and were all "ooooh, aahhhhhh." 




#16 - April 07, 2009, 04:09 PM

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God, now I'm terrified of what y'all will think when/if my WIP gets published. Arabian AND Chinese MCs, in LOVE. (Although, frankly, I have no idea how to write romance and that's only a bit of the story line.)

I grew up in Japan (was the only American at my school, which is its own story yet-to-be written), but I hardly absorbed enough Japanese culture to write on it without still wondering if I was staying true to it.

Miyazaki films stay true, in my opinion, to lots of Japanese folklore. Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle both have what Westerners would classify as "unique" outlooks but what Asians would recognize as their own folklore. Or at least so I thought...

I loved Mulan, even if it wasn't exactly right. Each step, even if it's a tiny one, is getting us in the right direction. Cinderella was originally a Chinese story and that got mucked up throughout history but the theme is still there, I believe/hope.
#17 - April 10, 2009, 02:48 PM
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In this case you should say to a publisher:

For years we have hidden with the dragon, crouched with the tiger, fought with the unbreakable samurai and danced with the blushing geisha. These themes have been overdone, so much so that they are now cliches in Asian Fantasy. Now that we are moving toward the future it is time to explore the unexplored crevices of Asian themes and unearth a new plethora of exciting content that will churn the imagination of millions.     


Be still my heart!  This is so perfect.

Substitute for the African Americans:

For years we have hidden in the ghettos, crouched at the lunch counters, fought with the unbreakable stigma of civil rights and danced to rap music with our friends who are destined to be single baby daddies and baby mommas (if the utilities stay on long enough).  Now that we are moving toward the future it is time to explore the unexplored crevices of African and African American themes and unearth a new plethora of exciting content that will churn the imagination of millions!

(other ethnicities - insert own stereotypes)

Trust me - when the people selecting manuscripts have limited views of life outside of their own experience, it's tough. And authors quickly learn that mining someone else's culture and spitting out only the surface details has been a gold mine.  (cough, cough).

Time for a revolution.  Hard to sell a "voice" the current crop of editors don't recognize as authentic.  Put a suburban spin on it and "voila" sterile lore marketed to an unsuspecting public as an innovative idea.  Why else do we see so many new TV shows that are clones and rip-offs of better shows made overseas.  For some Americans that's as close to another "culture" as they get.

Off soapbox now but totally in love with this thread.
#18 - April 10, 2009, 04:41 PM

i don't think there is anything wrong at all with
an asian set of values, BUT as i said before, i'm writing
for an american audience AND i am chinese-american.

it was very enlightening for me, at the very beginning
of writing silver phoenix, when i was telling my mom's
housemate (from mainland china) about the premise of
the story. her take?

you've got a seveteen year old girl? traveling alone?
could never happen. she'd be married. her feet would be bound.
why don't you instead write about a white boy who travels
to china and sees things through his eyes.

her words. i was sort of ASTOUNDED. because in her
mind (fantasy elements aside) my story is simply IMPOSSIBLE.

as a writer, i really do need to have a strong heroine if at
all possible. not a perfect heroine, but one who is gutsy.
it's true, in REAL LIFE obviously, what my heroine does cannot possibly
happen. she'd just stay within the inner quarters, not seen. not heard.

i couldn't write a story like that, as a chinese-american.
i grew up with an amalgam of both sets of cultures, both sets
of morals. and it's what i wrote. i know the importance of family.
the importance of education. of obeying your parents of honoring them.
i also know the importance of romantic love, of following your heart,
of becoming an independent woman.

you see the dilemma?

eta : and there are authors such as lisa see who set out
to write historicals with authentic viewpoints and voices from
that culture and time period. but i realized very quickly that
was not what i wanted to do. a straight historical. i wanted to
write about the impossible--fantasy. =)
#19 - April 10, 2009, 05:00 PM
« Last Edit: April 10, 2009, 05:04 PM by xiaotien »
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Martha - I do remember you mentioned that and I again absolutely heart you for the website compliments by the way!  :love

My father says - there's over 1.5 Korean Americans living in this country who would love to buy korean historical novels that weren't about the Korean War. He told me to self publish and sell it through all the Korean American associations in the country and I would make a killing! He's cute. But he's got a good point and one I would seriously market to if my book ever gets published. A lot of korean american themed books that have been out are just not interesting to the Korean American community because in general they're attitude is "so what?" we're living it too! But ancient Korea? Historical fantasy about Korea? There is no such thing out there right now in the US. I get loads of emails from people excited about my book and wanting to know when it will be out. And I'm like uh sorry still revising - as I smack myself in the head. So yeah, the interest is there.

Amber - don't be scared, be happy! you've brought diversity to your MS. WE celebrate that!!!!

Marissa - this is an excellent point. I'm trying to bring a watered down version of ancient Korean history to a western audience which includes Korean Americans. Because the real hard core stuff isn't really going to translate over to Korean Americans either. When my daughter was little she asked me if she was Korean or American. I explained she was both but that she was American first. And that she could never say she was just Korean because she isn't. It took meeting with many Korean Koreans for her to realize my meaning and how different our thinking could be.

Harriet - I am a freedom fighter in this revolution.  :guns and I'm packing!

Cindy - It's fantasy!!!!! What is she thinking? This is why my book is fantasy also because I have a girl traveling with a bunch of men. It would never happen, but it is fantasy! I don't let the naysayers get to me. And I know you don't either!
#20 - April 10, 2009, 06:08 PM
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Cindy, LOL, your mom's comments are so funny - especially because my mom feels the same way - about ME and MY life, never mind some fictional character.  After we moved to America, I used to not be allowed to drive more than ten miles in any direction from my house.  No joke.  Just to my school or the grocery store (because grocery errands are for daughters, not sons).  We had an intercom system in our house, and my mom would call me across two stories and eight rooms into the kitchen to get her a knife...when my brothers would be sitting RIGHT THERE at the kitchen table goofing around.  She is so ashamed that I didn't take my husband's name.  Uh oh, Ello - here comes my temper re: gender stereotypes in Asia... :jail...must move to another topic....

I'm all about westernized values - and my Asian heroines definitely fall under those set of heroic standards because I was raised on westernized stories, too, and that's what I grew up fantasizing about. 

I hope I didn't make anyone feel like they shouldn't incorporate westernized heroic standards into Asian-heroine based stories.  In fact, I WANT more modern examples of Asian heroines extolling independence and defying gender stereotypes.  This is why we have GOT to get your books in Borders, Cindy!!

I was just trying to answer the original question as to why east-based stories get westernized in the first place - which is that westernized audiences don't relate to the same set of values that make Asian characters heroic in the original stories.  We just wouldn't respect a heroine who gives up true love so make her parents happy, even though that would go over like hot cakes elsewhere. 

Amberlough - where did you go to school???  I was at Seisen...

Martha



#21 - April 10, 2009, 08:21 PM

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Martha: my mom taught English at Seisen junior high, but I went to a local public elementary school (Boyo Shogakko). What a funny connection! We'll have to PM.

I am super excited about this burst of Asian-based books that's about to be put upon the America reader. Aren't you?! :-) Pretty soon, it'll be fairly common, just as common as zombie books.  :drink (<----boba, just for you, Cindy)
#22 - April 11, 2009, 08:22 AM
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Cinderella was originally a Chinese story and that got mucked up throughout history but the theme is still there, I believe/hope.

Actually, I thought it was originally an Egyptian story ("Rhodopis") -- even myths can be shared from culture to culture & that's why I find them (and this thread) fascinating!
#23 - April 12, 2009, 02:30 PM

well, i don't care what anyone says
but spaghetti originated in china! =p
#24 - April 12, 2009, 02:31 PM
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Although I have had to hear from many an Asian man about what is the deal with Hollywood either emasculating Asian men or stereotyping them in some nerd, kung fu, fob, gangster role. Ok but that is a topic for another day!

I have nothing enlightening to say about the main topic here because I haven't read much fantasy, period. But this comment reminded me that one of my 2-year-old's favorite TV characters is the Chinese grandfather, Ye Ye, on Ni Hao, Kai-Lan (Nick Jr./Noggin show). I was surprised a toddler would be drawn to an old man character, but I do think the grandfather is a pretty good character with diverse interests and expertise, and it probably pleases my parents that my son is learning to have respect for older people instead of dismissing them as unnecessary or goofy as in so many cartoons. (He has also learned several words in Mandarin, some before he learned them in English!)
#25 - April 12, 2009, 03:40 PM
« Last Edit: April 12, 2009, 03:43 PM by Alison »

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I love that show.  :whitebunny
#26 - April 12, 2009, 05:44 PM
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