“Researching #China” concludes #Chinese #Reading and #Writing Festival (@WilkinsonCarole @kyliecchan)

 

Kylie Chan (left) and Carole Wilkinson (right) discussing “Researching China” at the Chinese Reading and Writing Festival.

Back in March 2016, I attended the 55th Australian National Speculative Fiction Convention in Brisbane, Australia. Some of the authors I met there were so interesting that I stared reading their books, including Kylie Chan’s “Dark Heavens” trilogy (White Tiger, Red Phoenix, Blue Dragon) (2011), Maria Lewis’s Who’s Afraid? (2016) and Angela Slatter’s Vigil (2016).

The 2016 event further inspired me to volunteer as a judge for the Aurealis Awards for Excellence in Speculative Fiction in 2017 and 2018, an experience that is highly rewarding. For example, I got to meet (online) Eugen Bacon, whose literary speculative fiction Dying and Other Stories (2018) was one of the treasures I found while visiting Writers Victoria. I later discovered Bacon’s forthcoming Writing Speculative Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches (2019) and have recommended it to my local library.

But here I am returning to Kylie Chan, who, together with Carole Wilkinson, discussed their “cross-cultural creative journeys drawing on Chinese history, myths and culture” at the conclusion of the Chinese Reading and Writing Festival. Wilkinson is the author of the famous Dragonkeeper series, with book one Dragonkeeper (2014) being a required read in our local high school. Familiar with Chan’s main character, a Chinese deity that is a combination of snake and turtle, I am keen to hear Wilkinson talking about dragons in Chinese myths and folklores.

Both Chan and Wilkinson did a lot of research for their books. While personal experiences of living and/or traveling across China/Asia helps, it is diligent research combined with much innovation and hard work that contributed to their success. Chinese mythical creatures, like their Japanese counterparts, are known for their shapeshifting capabilities and tendency to live among ordinary human beings. One can certainly generate many story ideas out of this, but to make it “natural” that these creatures can interact with humans seamlessly and even impact on the human world in any significant way requires a fair bit of convincing.

For example, Wilkinson cited Dutch author Marinus Willem de Visser The Dragon in China and Japan (1913) as an important read. She also mentioned Zuo Zhuan (or the Commentary of Zuo), a Chinese narrative history that is traditionally considered as a commentary of the ancient Chinese chronicle Chunqiu (or the Spring and Autumn Annals). Zuo Zhuan recorded that Emperor Kong Jia of the semi-legendary Xia Dynasty (2070-1600BC) received two dragons from a celestial as gift. After one of the emperor’s dragon keepers accidentally killed the female dragon, he cooked it as a delicious meal for the emperor and ran away when this crime was found out. The other dragon keeper offended the emperor and was executed, but there was no mention of the male dragon that he was supposed to care for.

Meanwhile, Chan mentioned Keith Stevens, whose books Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons (1996) and Chinese Mythological Gods (Images of Asia) (2001) provide many clues to the structure and major leads of the complex supernatural universe that is Chinese mythology. In shaping their characters, both authors have re-imagined various images found in folk religious texts and drawings/paintings across China. It takes some effort because, in Chan’s words, to “modernise” ancient Chinese gods and demons requires a lot of respectful world-building. It is a fine line between belief and superstition, particularly when the Chinese themselves increasingly lose faith in the memories and values of generations of rituals that connect their contemporary lives to their past.

  

There is no doubt that Chan and Wilkinson have picked a tough genre to write in. Their research is very much based on secondary sources, i.e. study and translation of ancient Chinese texts by Western scholars. Their readers include both Chinese and Western individuals who may have considerably different idea(l)s about those ancient Chinese creatures, gods and demons in their books. As fantasy writers, they face an already crowded market that is often neglected by “serious” authors, readers and critics. It takes much passion as well as patience to expand their writing careers, and to make the fascinating mythical worlds they built as (self-)sustainable as possible.

I find it thought-provoking that, whether it is the elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, spirits, ghosts, demons, monsters or gods in either the West or the East, their behaviours and desires always reflect those of ordinary human beings. There are universal values that keep writers inspired and readers interested, and I believe it is the job of literary critics to discover the similarities between the natural and supernatural worlds in order to provide fair and balanced reviews of cross-cultural fantasy novels. How to breathe new life into traditional and even clichéd tales remains a challenge, as it risks judging the past with today’s values and stereotypes. On the other hand, re-visiting ancient stories not only helps us distinguish facts from some of the long-lasting assumptions and prejudices in our world, it also allows us to examine why such assumptions and prejudices are taken for granted in the first place.

 

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