In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with translator and author Jeremy Bai to discuss the world of Chinese Webnovels. The trio discuss the history of Chinese adventure fiction being translated to English, how Chinese heroes differ from English heroes, and the best Webnovels for people new to the genre to check out. All this, and the real meaning of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
One interesting development which has gone somewhat unnoticed during the first half of 2017 was China’s streaming media companies entering the teen animation market. While Chinese companies have for a long time been providing animation services for the Japanese market on the production end of things, China is finally making an effort to turn some of their more popular Young Adult properties into animated series.
One of these is Full-Time Mage (Quanzhi Fashi), which is based on a popular webnovel series and would be best described as “In a world where magic exists alongside technology, a poor teen is given the chance to go an elite magic high school where he tries to improve himself despite barriers of class and status.”
Note: I’ve included two episodes because the first one was done by one subber (who only did the first episode) and the second one (and the rest of the series) by another subbing group. You need to turn on the Closed Captions option to see the English subtitles.
The animation is still a bit rough, as is the storytelling. You can tell this is a cut-down version of long serial story which is just hitting the high points, but that does make it move at a brisk pace. It is very simple, and lacks the storytelling refinement you often see in the better Japanese anime, but the main character is likable, and the Chinese cultural elements bring something new to the mix so I enjoyed it overall. It’s a little bit like Final Fantasy meets Harry Potter.
Another series which got more attention (deservedly, if for nothing except the gorgeous animation) was The King’s Avatar (Quanzhi Gaoshou) which is basically the story of a professional Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game player who loses everything and has to start again from the bottom. It’s not bad, story wise, but if you’re not into MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, I think you might some of it hard to follow. Then again, I’m not a gamer, but still enjoyed reading a manga version you can find kicking around online.
What both of these have in common is that they originate from the Chinese Webnovel world, which has basically turned into the Chinese counterpart of the Japanese manga industry. It produces massive amounts of stories across all genres in the form of serialized online novels that people can read (mostly) for free, and which are written by the users as well. The best of them get promoted, printed, and monetized by the webportals they’re hosted on, and prior to now they would also get turned into comics. Now they have a new goal to aim for- animation!
Of course, just like anime, webnovels have their own tropes and storytelling styles that will work for some and not for others. If you read enough of them on translation sites like Wuxia World and GravityTales you’ll pick up the patterns pretty fast. For example, boys webnovels (and some girls) have a very standard trope where the main character was switched from our world to the body of another person in the story setting. Even Full-Time Mage implies something along those lines in the first episode, but they just gloss over it. It’s a fast way to write a fish out of water story, but the Chinese webnovel writers tend to overuse it.
In any case, check out the above shows if you’re in the mood for something a little different in your animated entertainment. I think they’re the first in a wave of Chinese animation we’re going to be seeing more and more of in the future.
After posting a link to my recent post about Chinese Xianxia webnovels, I became engaged in a discussion on the Wuxiaworld Forums about the different webnovel genres in China and their proper names. As a result, I discovered that technically I was wrong in referring to the genre I described previously as Xianxia Fiction- it should actually have been called Xuanhuan Fiction.
Xuanhuan (rhymes with Duan Juan) fiction could literally be translated as “Unreal Fiction”, and as you might guess, is an umbrella genre which includes subgenres like Xianxia (Immortal Fiction) within it. However, unlike Qihuan (“Magical Fiction”) which uses Western (Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, D&D) type magical settings, Xuanhuan stories take place in high magic versions of Chinese/Asian environments. What I did was roughly the equivalent of referring to “Science Fiction” as “Space Opera”, which is a subgenre of Science Fiction, but not all Sci-Fi is Space Opera.
Fantasy (玄幻奇幻 – Xuánhuàn Qíhuàn)
Eastern Fantasy (东方玄幻 – Dōngfāng Xuánhuàn): Fictional stories centered primarily on Oriental myths, legends and fairy tails or ones that use such elements as their basis.
Foreign Continent (异界大陆 – Yì Jiè Dàlù): Fictional stories set in a different world, in a different land, with clear supernatural elements.
Foreign World Power Struggle (异世争霸 – Yì Shì Zhēngbà): Fictional stories set in a different world, in a different land, with clear supernatural elements, and that are centered around a military power struggle.
Remarkable Power (异术超能 – Yì Shù Chāonéng): Fictional stories surrounding ordinary people where the protagonist has an extraordinary supernatural ability that is used to drive the plot.
Western Fantasy (西方奇幻 – Xīfāng Qíhuàn): Traditional Western fantasy stories.
Feudal Lord (领主贵族 – Lǐngzhǔ Guìzú): Fictional stories where the protagonist is a lord in a feudal society and the plot is centered around the development of power and influence.
Magic Campus (魔法校园 – Mófǎ Xiàoyuán): Fictional stories with a campus as the main backdrop.
Epic Hero (仙侠武侠 – Xiānxiá Wǔxiá)
Classic Immortal Hero (古典仙侠 – Gǔdiǎn Xiānxiá): Traditional stories about immortal heroes.
Modern-day Sage Cultivation (现代修真 – Xiàndài Xiūzhēn): Stories about immortal heroes set in a modern-day city.
Ancient Investiture of Gods (洪荒封神 – Hónghuāng Fēngshén): Stories about immortal heroes set in the early days of the universe where the storyline is based off of “Investiture of the Gods” or myths and fairy tales like it.
Fantasy Sage Cultivation (奇幻修真 – Qíhuàn Xiūzhēn): Stories regarding sage cultivation that involve somewhat combined eastern and western soul refinement methods.
Traditional Martial Hero (传统武侠 – Chuántǒng Wǔxiá): Stories containing traditional martial hero elements, the works by Liang-Jin-Gu (Liang Yusheng, Jin Yong and Gu Long) being representative of the genre.
Modern-day Remarkable Hero (现代异侠 – Xiàndài Yì Xiá): Fictional stories set in modern times where the main protagonist has the characteristics of a martial hero, replete with martial techniques and/or other, similar abilities.
Historical Martial Hero (历史武侠 – Lìshǐ Wǔxiá): Stories mainly about martial heroes that also incorporate history to a greater extent, or stories about history that are written straightforwardly in the martial hero style.
Chinese & Ancient Martial Arts (国术古武 – Guóshù Gǔwǔ): Stories set in a modern or future city where the world of martial practitioners is hidden within it and the refinement of martial artistry (Wushu, aka. Kungfu) has been developed into the common soul refinement methods known as “Chinese Martial Arts” (Guoshu) and “Ancient Martial Arts” (Guwu) respectively.
This is just a small part of the list of the different genres being written and read on 17K, and I’d highly recommend you go to Epithetic’s site and read the full list. The list itself is fascinating because it really gives a rare look into a whole other literary world and the stories they are telling each other. There are genres and subgenres there which don’t exist in English, and it shows how cultural values really shape what people consume in their entertainment.
I should note that I’m told most of what 17K is publishing is what we in English might refer to as Young Adult Fiction, Light Novels or Pulp Fiction. These are stories which are meant to be fun, light reads and which don’t focus so much on the details or intense character development that more literary fiction might. In a lot of ways, they seem to hold a position culturally similar to the old Pulp Fiction Magazines or Comic Books. (I would observe they seem to very much have the same place in China that Manga do in Japan, which isn’t surprising since China doesn’t have much of a comics market.)
An amusing note to finish on- according to this Reddit thread, the Chinese refer to this type of fiction as YY Fiction, with YY being the shorter form of the pinyin Yiyin. What does YiYin mean? It would literally translate to “Mental Masterbation”. :-)))
Perhaps that’s all you need to know.
A little over a year ago, I noticed a Chinese name, Douluo Daolu, on the “top 20 manga” of the site Mangafox.com, which I thought was unusual to say the least on a site dedicated to Japanese manga. The site does have Korean and Chinese comics, but to see a translated Chinese one reach a serious English readership (which required tens of thousands of reads a month) made me quite curious. So naturally, I did what I always do when I’m curious- I checked it out! As it turned out, Doulu Daolu was my first step into the world of Chinese fantasy web fiction, but I didn’t know it at the time.
As anyone who knows me, or is familiar with my work, knows I’m a longtime fan of Chinese Wuxia stories and movies. Wuxia, familiar to most English readers through movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is essentially the Chinese pulp historical action genre that holds the same place in the Chinese culture as Westerns do in the United States and Samurai films do in Japan. It flourished during the first half of the twentieth century in newspaper serials, and then eventually moved to the big and small screens in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Even today, elements of it pervade Chinese culture, and even “normal” historical Dramas have a habit of making use of stylized Wuxia-eqsue swordfighting once the action kicks in.
Now, despite Wuxia’s tendency toward “flying swordsmen”, you might be surprised to learn it is often a fairly “grounded” genre. “Standard” Wuxia stories will contain a bit of a jumping around, and maybe a few funky martial arts qi-based abilities, but tend to be light on what Westerners would call “magic” because they were still mostly focussed on the characters and their relationships with their martial arts sects and clans. Yes, there are often lost secret martial arts techniques, but these mostly just make people stronger and faster fighters, and rarely (in the literature) are about tossing around fireballs and summoning monsters.
I always found this groundedness somewhat appealing, that underneath their hyper-stylzed combat techniques, we were still watching skilled humans deal with inherently human problems for the most part. Likely, it also worked for me because this was the power level George Lucas used when he “borrowed” Wuxia tropes and made a little film series called Star Wars. I grew up dreaming of Jedi, so when I was shown Wuxia fighters who could do basically the same things Jedi are shown doing in the movies it didn’t really bother me.
This is also why, when I came across examples of what Chinese would call “Immortal” stories, which are stories about “gods” like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, I didn’t care for them. “Immortal” stories are basically super high-powered Wuxia stories about people who have transcended the mortal realm (or were never human to begin with) and their conflicts with the other “gods”. They spring mostly from Chinese mythology and of course the classic Journey to the West (aka The Monkey King) which in itself is basically an Immortal story about a couple gods hanging around with a priest on Earth and battling other gods and evil spirits.
I like my Wuxia “basic” level, and that’s it. If you want a good example of a Wuxia type of story, I can only humbly recommend my own novel The Crocodile Princess. A swashbuckling story of intrigue set in the martial arts underworld of Old China…
Or so I thought!
Because it seems the Chinese actually came up with a new genre that sits between the two- Xianxia, which is sometimes referred to as “Cultivation” novels. This currently super-popular genre is one of the pillars of Chinese Webnovel fiction (online serialized fiction on Chinese web portals) and while largely unknown in the English speaking world , has taken the Chinese one by storm. I posted previously about the top webnovel writers in China in 2015, and without an exception, all of them are Xianxia writers.
So, what is this mysterious Xianxia Genre?
For most of my English speaking readers, I can explain it in one hyphenated word- “leveling-up”. Taking its roots from Taoism and Buddhism, the characters in Xianxia novels (often generically referred to as Cultivators) are trying to “evolve” their souls into higher and purer forms and work their ways up to becoming immortals. However, while that might sound boring and make you think of a bunch of monks sitting around chanting and hoping to spiritually transcend this mortal coil (which is the reality version), in a Xianxia novel this has turned into an excuse to give the main characters magical superpowers they use to fight other Cultivators.
I often describe Xianxia novels as Wuxia meets World of Warcraft, which is essentially what they are. They’re stories where a generic nobody hero levels up by fighting, finding magic items, going on quests, and making friends and allies. And while that might sound dull, in the right hands, it is anything but! Since they’re written as Light Novel serials targeted at a Young Adult market, they tend to be action-driven stories filled with adventure, romance, humor, and more twists than a barrel of eels! They harken back to the days of Horatio Alger Jr. stories of a youth becoming a man, but with a uniquely Chinese spin on them.
Having read a few of them, here are a few common “tropes” or standards that seem to pop up over and over in the majority of Xianxia stories I’ve checked out:
- It takes place in a pseudo-historical Fantasy world often based on old China.
- The main character (MC) is (almost) always a weak young man of low birth.
- Despite being of low birth, the MC has some weird advantage over others in becoming a Cultivator which kicks in around the time the story starts. (Common ones are they are reincarnated from another time and place, they have been transported to a fantasy world from our world, they have some unique skills from a strange background, or they have some magic item that activates around the time the story starts.)
- There is a system of rankings which all Cultivated beings in the setting will follow. (This usually involves a combination of Numbers and something else. So the character might be a “Bronze Rank 3 Fighter” or be working up from “Level One White Mage” to “Level 99 Black Mage”, with the colors designating approximate level of spiritual development.)
- All cultivated beings have some pool of Qi Points (Magic Points) which they use to enhance their physical abilities and cast magical spells. (Often this is called a “Soul Realm” or “Spiritual Energy”.)
- Magic and magic items are plentiful in the setting, but are pretty much only used for fighting, healing and levelling up. (Other uses of magic aren’t even on the radar- it’s all battle, all the time.)
- The setting will be filled with wandering monsters of varying rank (which corresponds to the Ranks of character development as well) and these monsters will produce gemstones when killed that can be used in various ways. (Commonly, to be absorbed by the MC to help further their Leveling.)
- Often the MC will get one of these monsters as a pet early in the story, which will be his companion and level up with him.
- The main character usually has a mentor, but the mentor will be pretty unreliable and tend to disappear for long periods of time. (Only showed up to help the MC get over critical challenges and occasionally as a Deux ex Machina.)
- There are clans/sects/guilds that the character will have to become involved with to get the things they need to level up, but by allying with one group, you gain the enmity of their enemies. (Thus perpetual conflict.)
- Each of the above groups has their own power levels in their society, and there are always top ones which dislike the main character for some reason. (Thus being the high-powered opposition that the MC will need to face toward the end of the story and often they hunt the MC at some point.)
- There are a handful of “Immortals” who have reached top rank in the setting, and the world tends to revolve around them. Some are friendly toward our hero, some will want him dead. The baddest of these will be the “final boss” the hero will need to face to finish his quest.
- There was once a great lost civilization in the setting who littered the setting with lost tombs and hidden places filled with cool magical items and books.
- There will be some variant of a Magic Satchel (usually a bag or ring) which is easy to carry but which allows the MC to store massive amounts of stuff they find with almost no weight.
- There will be “healing pills” which restore health, and “power-up pills” which help in the character’s levelling. (Sometimes the latter are the gems that monsters leave behind when killed.)
- The character will gain some bizarre magical superpowers during their journey that seem weak at first, but level up into something massive over time.
- There is a main female love interest character, but something always keeps them apart. (Usually she is the daughter of one of the clan/sect/guild heads, and will be described as “a fairy” or as the most beautiful woman in the world.)
- In the meantime, the MC will be pursued by a host of other young hotties who will tempt him and keep the drama flowing and try to seduce him at various points in the story.
- The female lead will have some ability that enhances or is complimentary to the male lead.
- Every young man wants to be a warrior/fighter- it’s their dream to fight for their clans.
- Many Xiaxia stories have a “survival of the fittest/strongest” theme to them.
There are other standards, but these tend to be the big ones and the most common ones. Reading that list, you can see what I mean about the similarities between Xianxia stories and MMO’s like WoW. The only thing that makes them different from typical Tolkien-esque settings are the Wuxia twists that tend to be injected into them, and elements of Chinese culture. Also, each author will put his own spin on a number of these elements, and sometimes do some interesting twists on them. (Which will then result in others copying that twist, and innovating it in other directions, keeping the genre evolving.)
Let’s look at a few examples that I’ve enjoyed or checked out:
(Note, many of the more popular ones started as serial Webnovels and have also had comic adaptations, and I will provide links to both when possible.)
Douluo Daolu (aka Battle Continent), which is the story of a martial arts genius from a Wuxia version of our Tang Dynasty named Tang San who commits suicide and finds himself reborn as a young boy in a high-fantasy Xianxia setting. He uses his Wuxia knowledge to give him an edge when he goes to a magic school (ala Hogwarts), where he forms a team of students and helps them all to level up. This one tends to be somewhat lighthearted and a bit silly at times (he goes to the “Shrek Academy”, which is run by “Principal Flanders”) but the core story is interesting. Most Xianxia stories are very individualistic, but this one is a little more team based. It was the first one I read (in comic form), and is actually one of the most popular Xianxia novels. (Comic adaptation here)
Doupo Cangqiong (aka Battle Through the Heavens) is the story of Xiao Yan the young martial arts genius of the Xiao clan. However, shortly after his mother’s death Xiao Yan’s spiritual energy all disappeared and he came the laughing stock of his clan. At the start of the story he discovers that it was because the ring his mother gave him on her deathbed contains the trapped spirit of an ancient immortal ranked alchemist with no name. The alchemist’s spirit was sucking away Xiao Yan’s energy to reform himself as a ghost, and once he has reformed, Xiao Yan regains the use of his spiritual energy. Xiao Yan and the alchemist make a deal- the alchemist will become Xiao Yan’s mentor and teach him, and in trade when Xie Ni gets strong enough he will help the alchemist reform a new body in the physical world. This is good, because Xiao Yan just made a pact with his ex-Fiancée that he will fight a duel to the death with her in three years for his clan’s honor. Again, I read this one in comic form, but I have to say it’s one of my favorites, and I still read each new chapter as soon as I can each week. The alchemy angle adds a surprising amount to the story, and the author never ceases to crank the tension or have interesting twists- so highly recommended! The comic also has nice art, and while more serious than Battle Continent, it still has a good blend of seriousness and humour. (Comic here. Note- the comic translation is way ahead of the novel translation, although both are ongoing.)
I Shall Seal the Heavens is one of the most popular Xianxia serials by the master Xianxia author Er Gen (aka I Eat Tomatoes), and is the story of Meng Hao. A failed young scholar, he gets kidnapped by an Immortal (7th Rank Chi Cultivator Sister Xu) and taken to a mountain retreat to become a servant in the Reliance Sect. Through hard work, he goes from servant to an actual member of the sect (Level 0 to Level 1) and becomes one of the hundreds of students who all strive to improve their rank and get martial arts superpowers. However, once he becomes a student he discovers that the sect functions in a dog-eat-dog sort of system, where the strong prey on the weak, and the weak all too often end up dead. As you might guess, this one is much darker than the previous two, and I’m still deciding if I actually like it. (My tastes are for more swashbuckling material.) Try to give it until Chapter 6 before you make a real decision about it, if for no other reason than to find out what the MC’s magic item can actually do. (It has, perhaps, one of the most unique powers in all of fantasy- which will have you laughing like crazy, or staring at the screen in horror, or perhaps both.)
Coiling Dragon (aka Panlong) was one of the first Xianxia stories translated into English by the webmaster of Wuxiaworld, Ren Wo Xing. It is also special in that it takes place in what is a basically western fantasy setting instead of a Chinese one. Linley Baruch, one of the last members of the once-mighty Baruch clan, discovers that he is the inheritor of a great legacy- he has “dragon blood” running through his veins, but it only gives him potential, he has a long journey to make it reality. If you’re looking for an intro to Xianxia novels, and aren’t sure if you can handle all those Chinese names, then this is probably the one for you. It starts a little slow, but is well written, and picks up as it goes. When people go on the Wuxiaworld.com forums and ask where to start among the many series, this is a name that pops up almost every time (along with I Shall Seal the Heavens) and it has the other advantage of being 100% finished in both English and Chinese.
Tales of Demons and Gods is a series that I both highly recommend reading, and suggest you do not read as your first Xianxia story. Go read something else, maybe two or three something else’s first, and then come to this one. The reason is say this is because this story turns many of the standard Xianxia tropes on their heads, and a lot of the humor of the story comes from the fact the author is both deconstructing the genre and yet writing a perfect example of it at the same time. That said, I love this story, despite all its weirdness and faults, because it never fails to thrill and entertain. The core story is also a bit of genius- Nie Li is a man who watched his city destroyed by a demon army and everyone he ever loved die, he then went on to become one of the greatest warriors of humanity and lived for hundreds of years until he lost a battle with the Dark Sage and was killed. However, after his death, he wakes up during class in the body of his 13 year old self three years before the demon army comes to destroy the city. He has his knowledge from his previous existence, but is stuck in the helpless body of his young self, and now he has three years to save his city. Of course, every change he makes to the timeline makes the new timeline different than the old one, and spawns even new dangers that he didn’t know existed the first time around. (Last time he was a typical teenage commoner from a minor family with no connection to the political or warrior side of the city.) Nie Li is the smartest and most manipulative older-self-in-kid-body bastard since Edogawa Conan, and I can’t wait to read each new chapter. Another plus is that the comic version and text version are in sync with each other on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so you can read the comic first if you want, and then flip over to the text version (which is about 150 chapters ahead) with no issues at all. (Comic here.)
Of course, these are just a few of the Xianxia webnovels being translated right now by sites like the ones listed below, and are just my own entry points. You should probably check those sites out for more information and find something that works best for you. Wuxiaworld also has very active forums, which can answer any questions you have.
[EDIT: Since this article was written, I’ve discovered that my terminology wasn’t quite right, and that I mixed more than one category of Chinese fantasy fiction together when I wrote this article. While some of these stories are Xianxia, and I did get a lot of the common elements correct, there is some debate over what is “real” Xianxia and what is really just high magic Wuxia, or another (sub) genre altogether. For more on this topic, refer to this other post about Chinese Webnovel Genres.]
It’s very easy to forget that about a third of the planet reads only in Chinese, and that doesn’t mean they’re reading translated works from English sources. (As might be egocentrically assumed by a Western audience!) In China, (and Asia in general) Web Novels (serialized web fiction) are extremely popular, and their authors can not only have tens of millions of readers, but also become extremely rich due to profit-sharing with the web-novel hosting sites. (Something that Wattpad has yet to do in English, but probably should.)
The rankings were chosen through 15 days, 200 top internet authors, 19 media and novel sites, and 33 editors with a long history of experience. The “King of Web Novels” is a ranking produced by China Mobile Reading, with the help of Zhejiang Writer Association, Youth Times, Dragon-sky and many other media websites.
It should be noted that this is a list of writers who are writing primarily in the Xianxia genres, which are high fantasy novels that combine pseudo-old-China Wuxia settings with high magic and MMORPG elements. (I plan to write a post about them sometime in the future, but if you’re curious you can find English translated examples of them on Wuxiaworld.com, including works mentioned in the article linked above.) I can’t imagine that Romance, Mystery and other standard genres aren’t also selling like hotcakes, so I’ll assume this list is only of the top “action/fantasy” writers, although I have no way to confirm this with my limited Chinese.
In any case, check the list out, as a number of the author’s works have free English (semi-official fan) translations online and while I’ve just stared to dip my toe into this new realm, it’s turned out to be a fascinating subject to explore.
I just finished watching Dragon Blade, and I have to say I have really mixed feelings about it. It’s a giant pile of awesome ideas and potential wrapped in a badly directed and mismanaged package. The core idea is great- a team of Silk Road mediators in Han Dynasty China lead by Huo An (Jackie Chan) have to keep peace among the 36 different tribes that control parts of the Silk Road which runs between China and Rome. One day, a Roman army shows up on the Chinese border city of Wild Geese led by Commander Lucius (John Cusack) on the run from Rome because they’re fleeing with their lord’s youngest son to keep his elder brother from killing him. The Romans and the Chinese are the two ends of the Silk Road, but this is them meeting for the first time and lots of cultural conflicts and misunderstandings ensue.
Great stuff, and the first half of the movie is actually pretty good with a nice mix of comedy, action, and some cool scenes where each side gets to show off what they can do. It was made for Chinese audiences, but the Romans are played as strong and heroic, and Cusack and Chan are fun to watch together, regardless of how awkward the English dialog is. (And it’s REALLY awkward- this movie needed an English re-write badly, the lines sounding like they used Google Translate on a Chinese script.) I especially enjoyed the portrayal of the Romans as builders and engineers as well as warriors.
However, then the second half of the movie hits and it turns into a nonsensical mess that pretty much squanders everything the first half built up. Things and characters appear and disappear, and stuff happens that makes sense but was never really explained or built up to. You can kind of piece most of it together, but you’re left scratching your head as to what the writer/director was thinking. For example, the version I saw has a bizarre flash-forward to modern day at the end that comes out of nowhere and seems to be part of a whole storyline that was left out except for this final scene. Stuff like that.
I blame a lot of this on the director, Daniel Lee, as you can see in this a movie that in the hands of a good director like Ridley Scott could have been fricken amazing, but was instead reduced to a dog’s breakfast of a film.
I give the first half a B-, but thanks to a D- second half, I can only give the film a C- in the end. Which is sad, because I liked so many things in this film, just not the film itself. See it on Netflix, it’s definitely not worth a theatrical price to see, unfortunately.
Following up my post on what writers can learn from Akira Kurosawa, I’m going to do another blog post on writing- this time based on the nine rules that Tony Zhou outlines in the video below about how Jackie Chan masters action comedy. Naturally, it will be easier to follow if you’ve watched the video, so check it out first.
Action is primarily a visual creature, and is a natural fit for film, but can you do it well in prose? I would say yes, but let’s see if Tony’s 9 Jackie Chan “rules” can be applied to prose writing.
Jackie Chan’s 9 Principles of Action Comedy (as noted by Tony Zhou)
1. Start with a DISADVANTAGE
This one is pretty obvious. If your goal is to build tension, then having your character at a disadvantage in a scene in a must, whether they’re supposed to fight or just trying to run away. The more of a disadvantage you can put them at, the better, although I should note that Jackie primarily makes action-comedies. There is a reason Batman doesn’t most start fights at a disadvantage- because he’s a kick-butt reader surrogate and is supposed to make the reader feel powerful. If you take that away from the reader, they’re not going to like it much. (Although even Batman does occasionally start fights at a disadvantage for variety and dramatic purposes.)
2. Use the ENVIRONMENT
Tony is actually combining two points here in the video under one.
The first point he brings up is that Jackie uses the environment in his fights, which makes them more real and unique in a sense. If you can offer your reader something they haven’t seen before in a fight, like a character fighting with a ladder, then that can show that you’ve actually taken the time to think through this fight scene and make it interesting for the reader. If you emphasize the environment properly, it gives the reader a sense of place and can be used to help set up shots.
Speaking of which, the second point is really to set up your shots! If you want to have an action scene, then give the reader a sense of the terrain before and during the action sequence. Don’t be afraid to foreshadow or even lead a little with your descriptions like Jackie does in his movies. In the example they give, Jackie does a shot of a stuntman being knocked down a spiral staircase before he himself uses it shortly for his own actions- and there’s no reason you can’t do this kind of thing too! Use people, objects and even descriptions to lead the reader through the action, and make it easier for them to follow.
3. Be CLEAR in your shots
This is a trickier one for writers than you might think.
Normally, writers increase the pace of action scenes by using short, clear sentences and paragraphs to increase the pace of the action and story. They also focus on the very key elements of the events happening to keep from letting description bog down the action as it’s happening. However, to be truly clear about what’s happening you need to describe the action, and you need to do it in a way that paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind so they can follow it without being confused.
So you have to find a balance:
- Too much description = slow reading and pacing.
- Too little description = reader confusion.
This is one of the things that makes writing action so difficult- finding that sweet spot that conveys a clear image of the events for the reader to experience and enjoy while at the same time not bogging them down with too much, or disorienting them with too little detail.
4. Action & Reaction in the SAME frame
Not sure if this one can apply to writing. The only think I can think of goes back to #3, about being clear in your shots and #2b about letting the reader know where the action is going before it does. If any of you have other thoughts on how this one could be applied, please leave it in the comments.
5. Do as many TAKES as necessary
For writers, this is really about how much time you want to spend on your action scenes and effort you want to put into detailing them out. Especially in the modern self-publishing world where getting books out fast is often linked with financial success, it can be hard to spending days, weeks (or months) planning an action scene or sequence, but there are times when quality really is linked with time spent.
Again, like most things with writing, it comes down to balance.
You need to know what you’re capable of, and how much time you’re willing to spend, and then use that time accordingly. If you think you’ll benefit from storyboarding out a whole action scene first and you have the time, then why not? (It might also make a great extra for loyal readers, or to get people to join your mailing list.) But, if you’ve got two weeks to finish this book or the rent doesn’t get paid next month, then you’ll probably want to just do what you can and move on.
6. Let the audience feel the RHYTHM
This goes back to #3- let the audience understand what’s happening and they’ll be able to appreciate it more. Also, too many quick cuts (jumping from different points of view, or jumping between simultaneous action at different places) can prevent the reader from really appreciating what’s happening. Both POV jumping and jumping between scenes are effective tools for dramatic pacing in a book, but if you overuse them the reader can get confused or tired by it- so as with garlic and salt in cooking, use them in controlled moderation to avoid leaving a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.
7. In editing, TWO good hits = ONE great hit
This is a film editing trick, and I don’t think it can be applied to prose action writing. However, if anyone has some thoughts feel free to note them in the comments section below, I’d be interested to hear them.
8. PAIN is humanizing
This one is pretty self explanatory- we empathize with suffering, especially suffering we’ve experienced ourselves, and it brings us closer to the characters and makes them more human. Don’t be afraid to let your characters be hurt, even if it’s just superficial hurts it still reminds us that they’re people and made of flesh and blood like the audience.
Obviously, it also adds to the drama when characters are hurt, because it puts them at a disadvantage in the action and forces them to try even harder to get out of the hole they’re in. If your characters are macho tough-guys, then maybe you don’t want to show them being hurt too much, but if you want the audience to really feel for the character, showing them suffer is a great way to do it. Writer Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) once advised that if you want to connect with the reader describe a character’s feet or their mouth, because both places are filled with nerve endings and give us intense sensations in real life.
9. Earn your FINISH
Story can be said to be about struggle. Nobody wants to watch a story about a guy who just walks through park and nothing happens, or someone doing something that isn’t hard or difficult for them to do in some way. While you don’t have to make it a series of ever-stronger bosses like a Jackie Chan movie, you should do your best to show that the character had to overcome something (mental, physical, emotional or social, or some combination thereof) to reach their goals and achieve victory.
Don’t be afraid to stack the odds against your characters, and let them have to do something outside of their comfort zone to win. Of course, if you overdo it, it can become ridiculous, so make sure your poor character does at least have a slim chance of winning in the reader’s minds.
I’ve always been fascinated by the art of writing action in prose form. I think it comes from growing up on comics and action films and then transitioning into literature, where unfortunately the ability to write action varies widely by writer. It’s not an easy skill, and it’s one I struggled with when I was writing my Little Gou short stories and novel, especially since that was literally an attempt to write kung-fu adventures! I don’t claim to have mastered it, and I think I learned a few new tricks watching this video and thinking through this article, but in any case it’s a skill any writer can benefit from developing- whether you’re writing kung fu in old China, car chases through Cairo, or gunfights under the Texas sun.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please comment below!
Little Gou’s first novel-length adventure is now available on Kindle for just 99 cents for the month of September. Grab it now while you can!
“Every last member of the Mao family will die by the Hour of the Rat a fortnight from now.”
With these words begins a race against time, as the roguish martial artist called Little Gou hunts across the back roads and waterways of Old China to find a young bride-to-be who has become a pawn of the mysterious Lady Moonlight. He must outwit friends and foes alike, all of whom are dancing to the Lady’s song, and unravel a scheme that could see thousands dead or enslaved and the Middle Kingdom aflame with rebellion if he fails. But, worst of all, he has to face the woman who abandoned him in the name of family duty- the love he can never be with, or forget.
Influenced by Legendary Wuxia novel writers Gu Long and Jin Yong; and in the spirit of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess is a martial arts action & adventure thriller set in the Jianghu martial underworld of Old China. Through a combination of wits, swordplay and kung fu, the martial artist Little Gou, and his companion the warrior nun Sister Cat, must uncover the truth behind a deadly plot to bring the martial underworld to its knees, or die trying.
Today, while searching for a collection of the poems of the Chinese master poet Li Bai (aka Li Po) I stumbled across a marvelous website called Wengu Zhixin, which is a site collecting translations of Chinese classic philosophy and thought into English and French. They have the usual documents like The Analects of Confucius, The Yi Ching, and Lao Tzu’s The Way and Its Power (the core book of Daoism), but they also have a great collection of Tang Dynasty Poems (with actual good quality translations), the Art of War, and the (largely unknown in the West) Thirty-Six Strategies. All of these have the original Chinese provided as well, with clickable Hanzi characters that show translations of their individual meanings.
However, for me, the gem of it is the Thirty-Six Strategies (of war and conflict) each have a story to go along with them to illustrate their point, pulled from Chinese and Japanese history. I have another book with the Strategies that has stories as well, but these are actually different stories from the ones in the book translation I have, since whoever translates these tends to pull their own favourite examples from history and fiction. For example, here is the entry for Strategy One:
Fool the Emperor to Cross the Sea
Moving about in the darkness and shadows, occupying isolated places, or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy’s guard you must act in the open hiding your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.
Japanese Folk Tale
There once lived a Samurai who was plagued by a large and clever rat who had the run of the house. This annoyed the Samurai to no end so he went to the village to buy a cat. A street vendor sold him a cat that he said would catch the rat and indeed the cat looked trim and fit. But the rat was even quicker than the cat and after a week with no success the Samurai returned the cat. This time the vendor pulled out a large and grizzled cat and guaranteed that no rat could escape this master mouser. The rat knew enough to stay clear of this tough alley cat, but when the cat slept, the rat ran about. Half the day the rat would hide, but the other half he again had the run of the place. The Samurai brought the cat back to the vendor who shook his head in despair saying he had given the Samurai his best cat and there was nothing more he could do. Returning home with his money, the Samurai happened upon a monk and sought his advice. After hearing the Samurai’s story the monk offered him the services of the cat that lived in the temple. The cat was old and fat and he scarcely seemed to notice when he was carried away by the doubtful Samurai. For two weeks the cat did little more than sleep all day and night. The Samurai wanted to give the cat back to the temple but the monk insisted he keep him a while longer assuring him the rat’s days were close to an end. The rat became accustomed to the presence of the lazy old cat and was soon up to his old tricks even, on occasion, brazenly dancing around the old cat as he slept. Then one day, as the rat went about his business without any concern, he passed close by the cat – who swiftly struck out his paw and pinned the rat to the floor. The rat died instantly.
And the amusing entry for Strategy Six::
Clamor in the East, Attack in the West
In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint.
Song Dynasty China
Once there was an official who was transferred to the capital. The front part of the inn where he stayed was a teahouse, and across the street was a shop that sold expensive dyed silks. Whenever he had nothing to do, he would sit at a table watching the people and activity on the street. One day he noticed with surprise that several suspicious looking characters were walking back and forth observing the silk shop with great interest. One of them came up to his table and whispered: “We’re in the robbery business and we’re here to steal those fine silks. Since you noticed us I came to ask you not to mention it.”
“That has nothing to do with me,” the official replied. “Why should I say anything about it?”
The fellow thanked him and left him. The official thought to himself: ‘the silk shop has its wares openly displayed on a busy street. In broad daylight, with a thousand eyes watching, if they have the skill to steal those silks, then they must be smart thieves indeed.’ So he watched carefully to see how they would manage it. But what he saw was only the same people walking back and forth in front of the silk shop. Sometimes they gathered on the left, sometimes on the right. The official sat watching until after sunset when everyone had gone and the shop had closed. “Those fools.” said the official to himself. “They were putting one over on me.” When he returned to his room to order some food, he discovered that all his belongings were gone.
Go and read them. Whenever I need to get a character out of a tricky situation, the 36 Strategies is my go-to book for answers!
P.S. I’ve had it pointed out that this translation and examples are excerpts from a published text about the 36 Strategies, which you can find here. The full text uses 118 stories to illustrate the points, and has other material, so if you enjoy these you might consider picking it up!
For better or worse, I think Gordon Chang is right. China is on course for what at best may be a military government, and at worst may be a full-on civil war- and it could happen literally overnight. This might not sound like a big deal to most of you reading this, but consider that China is perhaps one of the largest players in the Global Supply Chain, and is manufacturing products (or components of products) that you buy everyday. Almost all computer manufacturing, for example, is dependent on Chinese factories at some level.
If political turmoil happens, all that would literally be shut down overnight, and it could be weeks/months/years to get it back.
What will this do to the global economy?
All our eggs have been placed in one basket by greed and exploitive neo-liberal capitalism, and heaven help us if someone knocks over that basket! (A basket we have no control or influence over, I might add.)