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.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Kung Fu puppetry of Taiwan, but little did I know that I wasn’t the only one who’d taken an interest in Taiwan’s Wuxia puppetry- Japanese writing star Urobuchi Gen (the man behind Madoka Magica, Psycho Pass, and Fate/Zero) had also taken an interest in Pili Puppetry form. In a twist of fate, Pili was also looking to work with him, and as a result of that partnership- Thunderbolt Fantasy (Toriken Koki), a Japanese-Taiwanese hybrid TV series was born! (You can hear about this story in full in the Episode 0 special on Crunchyroll.)
I only heard about this show a week ago, and when I did I got pretty excited. I’ve never been able to watch a Pili series before, much less one as it aired, and this one was being simulcast with English subtitles on Crunchyroll. Thus, I eagerly waited for July 8th, when the first episode would air, and couldn’t wait to watch it last night when it popped up on the list.
So, how was it?
In short- as awesome as advertised!
I’ve seen clips of Pili shows, and even watched Legend of the Sacred Stone, but this was a whole other level. The puppet-work is amazing, the story and characters are engaging, and the craftsmanship in everything is a sight to behold. I couldn’t believe how into it I got, and by the end of the episode all I wanted to do was watch more!
In the Episode 0 (Making-of), the Japanese partners talk about how they were on set in Taiwan and the wonder of watching a piece of wood and cloth come to life the moment a human hand was put inside. I haven’t seen it done in person (although I’d like to, someday) but I can completely understand what they meant, as you literally forget you’re watching puppets at times because of the way they move and act. It really does take the magic of puppet theater and bring it into the 21st century.
The story at first blush is fairly standard. A great evil lord is trying to get his hands on mystical artifact, and killing everyone who gets in his way, which leads him into conflict with our heroes. Like I said, standard. But given Urobuchi’s reputation as a writer (it was written by him, but produced by the Taiwanese) I suspect there will be some nice twists coming that take it in a different direction. Not that it matters, because this story isn’t about the plot but the characters and action, both of which will keep you watching.
One thing I did like about this show is that each character has a different voice actor. In the original Taiwanese Pili shows, there is just one person doing the voices for all the characters, which is fine, but having a full cast allows each character to have a bit more life to them. It adds to the immersion, and I liked the voices they chose. One weird thing is that the English subtitles use the Chinese names, while the Japanese actors are using the Japanese names. It does make it more authentic, but it makes it a bit harder to remember everyone’s name since you’re hearing and reading different names.
In any case, Episode 1 has garnered 5/5 stars on Crunchyroll (with 123 votes) and I suspect it will be cult hit here and in Japan. (It’s only disadvantage is that it came out the same week Pokemon GO! launched) I hope so, because it really deserves the attention, and I’d like to see them do more in the future.
Want to check it out?
New episodes air on Crunchyroll each Friday evening starting July 8th (July 16th if you have a free account and are delayed a week), and I strongly recommend you do so. You might watch to watch Episode 0, which is available for everyone July 8th, and includes a preview of the show in the last five minutes.
As far as I know, Taiwan is one of the few places where puppetry is not only appreciated, but where puppet shows are shown on national television. In particular, the Pili programs of gloved puppetry shows have continued to capture the imaginations of young Taiwanese with their creative and colourful puppet storytelling.
The credit for upholding the long lasting popularity of Hand Puppet Shows in Taiwan, no doubt, belongs to the Huang family. Through their creative performances and their skillful management, they continue to find new ways to evolve the Hand Puppet Shows. Ultimately, the Huang family had developed the famous PiLi Dynasty with the PiLi Puppet Theatre. Following the current trends of modern society and the technological media- television became the new performing stage of the Puppet Shows and delivered this theatrical artistry to even a much broader audience. In its effort to attract the young viewers of the new generation, PiLi Puppet Theatre continued to create new and interesting concepts in their stories, including- illusionary time and space themes and action-packed Chinese kung-fu sequences. Now, the Puppet Show’s stage and presentation techniques can now expand to a different level of possibilities. From e-pili.com.tw
During my own time in Taiwan, I have seen first hand how popular these shows are, as there are specialty stores selling copies of the puppets and related merchandise and even a Pili-themed museums. The puppets themselves are so beautiful, I was tempted to buy one just for display.
How beautiful are they? Watch this amazing 2010 opening for one of the Pili TV series:
There have been several attempts to bring these shows over for English audiences as well, the first was an international release of Legend of the Sacred Stone, a somewhat rare film that has garnered a 7.3/10 rating on IMDB and a small cult following for it’s crazy-ness. You can see a sample here:
The other was in 2006, when Cartoon Network took one of the Pili series and dubbed it into a show called Wulin Warriors. Sadly, as is often done with foreign non-animated properties (and some animated ones as well!) the dubbers decided to have “some fun” with it, and “liven it up”. So while the visuals might still give you some of the spirit of the original, the dub itself and the creative changes seem targeted squarely at 8-10 year old boys. Someone has put all 13 episodes up on YouTube, if you can get through that many…
And that character that rambles on about pizza and makes bad jokes? In the original show, he’s a deaf mute. (I guess now we know why!) I haven’t seen the original, but I imagine it’s a heck of a lot more watchable. The only redeeming thing about this one is the beautiful puppetwork.
Anyhow, if you happen to come across one of these Pili productions or characters, now you know what they are. Unfortunately, there’s no fansubbed versions of the shows out there, and unless you speak Mandarin you won’t be able to follow the originals well. My own Mandarin isn’t up to the task, yet, but maybe someday.
More about Taiwan puppet culture in this short 5 minute documentary:
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.
There has been some discussion about why Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the movie that rocked the box office in North America and Europe, comparatively tanked in China. In case you hadn’t heard, it opened in China to poor reviews, made a mere $52 Million in its opening week (by comparison Furious 7 made $182 million in China it’s opening weekend) and then got crushed during its second weekend by this movie…
But the truth is, everyone should have seen this coming. When Disney purchased Star Wars for $4 Billion, they were getting a franchise that would work for them almost everywhere in the world- except China. (Which is currently the third biggest movie market on the planet, by the way. Ooops!)
Why? You may ask. Why would our beloved Star Wars not work for Chinese audiences?
Well, to help answer that question, watch the following short trailer for a 2015 TV show:
Does that look familiar to you at all? And the Chinese see this on their televisions literally on a daily basis- Star Wars is the basic Chinese fantasy genre with white people and spaceships. Everyone talks about Star Wars’ Japanese roots, but what they forget is that while Lucas took elements of style and iconography from Japan, he was also borrowing heavily from the Shaw Brothers Hong Kong cinema of the day as well. If anything, Star Wars is far more Wuxia than it is Samurai, especially in style and presentation.
Sending Star Wars to China is the equivalent of Chinese people making a Marvel-style superhero movie, adapting it to Chinese audiences, and then turning around and trying to market that film back in North America. How well do you think that would work? Well, you don’t need to think long, it already happened- it was called The Four, and it happened a few years ago. If that movie’s name didn’t immediately leap to your mind, there’s a reason for that, the same reason why the mainstream Star Wars films are ultimately doomed to mediocrity in Chinese cinema, despite the efforts to hype it up.
(It’s actually a pretty good movie, if you have the time, and was on YouTube with English subtitles last I checked.)
Rogue One, and some of the spin offs might do okay, because they’re not about Jedi and fantasy elements, but instead other genres set in the Star Wars setting.
On the plus side, however, this could be a good thing creatively. For example, ghosts are a huge no-no in Chinese cinema, so there would be no Force Ghosts in any new movies if they’re considering a Chinese audience. It could be very creatively freeing not to have to worry about Chinese censors, and Disney could spend their marketing money elsewhere to get better results.
Here in Canada, we have a saying- “like selling snow to Eskimos” (I know it should be Inuit, but that’s the saying) and when Disney tries to take Star Wars to China, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.
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.
For these three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!
Chapter 18- The Happy Ox Inn
It was late afternoon when it happened.
Baking under the mid-day sun, most of the crew had retreated under the shade offered by the sail and superstructure as the ship cut through the green waters of the canal. Meiyu had let herself doze in the heat, but the Lin clan members were still up and awake around her, watching for trouble. They were an extremely careful lot. With only a few exceptions she had noticed that they ate only their own dried rations to make sure no-one could poison them, and there were always two of them awake at any given time.
At the moment, Madam Lin was the one sleeping, while Dancing Blade watched Meiyu and Dancing Cloud ate. The dried meat and pickled vegetables had a strong, pungent odor to them that made most of the people around her move far away.
Then, without warning, one of the four horses tied in the center suddenly let out a cry and started thrashing around. Everyone who had been asleep was instantly awake, and the crew erupted into worried shouts as the animal began to kick and try to pull itself free. This also upset the other horses, who began to react by pulling away and trying to escape from their panicked brother.
Four large, upset animals anywhere is a problem, but on a boat only five arm-spans wide it could be a disaster. So, the Lin clan members leapt into immediate action, with Dancing Blade rushing for the horse which had started the problem, while Dancing Cloud and Madam Lin rushed into try and separate the other three horses from their disturbed brother.
As this happened, Meiyu was watching in fascination, but then felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw one of the boatmen, who laid a finger in front of his lips.
“You have a beautiful voice songbird, but moreso, you have a clever way with verses. Child of the great Crocodile of White Fox Town, is it? We have great respect for him, and would do anything to help his child stuck in a time of need.” He produced a small knife that he used to cut her bonds. “Fly, little songbird. While you have the chance.”
In an instant, she was free, and she did the first thing that came to mind- she jumped up, ran to the edge of the boat and jumped off.
Hitting the cool water, she took a moment to kick off her shoes, and then swam up to the surface. The boat had already sailed past her, but there was no sign any of the Lins had noticed she was gone- yet. Seizing the moment, she began to swim as fast as she could for a clump of bushes near the shore. Once there, she used the plants as cover while she crept out of the murky canal and headed into the forest beyond.
Being Northerners from the dry plains, she considered it likely that her former captors couldn’t swim, which meant they would have to get the boat to shore to follow her. That would buy her time, but even more importantly, they wouldn’t know which side of the canal she was on. With just three of them, it would be hard for them to pursue her on both sides, and that gave her odds she could work with.
They would have horses, but they were also strangers to the central plains, which meant that the locals wouldn’t be as inclined to help them as they would her. If she could just find a large enough town, she could get help from some of her family’s allies.
For now, Meiyu just focused on running as fast as her bare feet could carry her.
Last Brother Shou had seen everything.
Sitting atop a horse on a nearby hilltop that looked down on the canal, he and his two companions had watched as the girl jumped from the boat and fled into the forest beyond.
They had tracked the Lin clan members to the place where they’d gotten passage on the riverboat, and spent most of the day following the boat’s slow passage along the canal. It wasn’t hard for their horses to overtake the boat, and they’d been content with pacing it and waiting for it to make landfall so they could make their move.
Now that was in the past, and their quarry was again escaping them on the other side of the canal.
Shou frowned. “Is there a crossing near here?”
He looked at Xiao, and Xiao looked at Mah.
Mah said nothing.
“Then we find one.” Shou said, bringing his horse around and gesturing ahead of them along the road. “She’ll head for the nearest town, we’ll catch her there.”
“This’ll do. Thank you.”
Meiyu hopped from the cart and bowed a more formal thank you to the old farmer who’d been kind enough to give her a ride into town. Then she turned and looked about. It wasn’t a large town, perhaps fifty or sixty families, but Willow Garden was on the caravan routes, so there was a chance she might find some of her family’s allies here.
The market square was mostly empty, with the majority of the businesses having closed for the day. All that remained open were a few lantern-lit outdoor wine gardens and a couple street food sellers. A scattering of people wandered about- people strolling to enjoy the cooling early evening breeze as the sun set in the west.
Picking an older couple, Meiyu approached them cautiously and politely, brushing her hair back and arranging herself to try to make up for her disheveled, barefoot appearance. While the husband recoiled at her approach, the wife seemed more sympathetic, and after a brief conversation Meiyu learned what she needed to know. There were three large inns in the town, each of them just off the market square a short distance. The roughest was a place called the Happy Ox Inn, and it was also the largest of the three, which made it her best choice.
Making her way down the side street, she located the Happy Ox fairly easily by following the sounds of laughter and singing. It had an extensive wine garden patio, and as Meiyu passed she could see it was filled with tough looking drunken travelers and overly painted women enjoying themselves under newly lit lanterns.
To most, that sight alone would have been enough to turn them around and send them in another direction, lest the revelers took notice of them. But Mao Meiyu was a resident of White Fox Town, and the daughter of an armed escort agency headman. To her, this wasn’t dangerous, it was a small touch of home.
Meiyu wandered into the inn’s central hall and looked around. It was a typically laid-out country Inn, with a two level central hall and little in the way of decoration. A bit stuffy from the lanterns and back ovens, it was not as full as outside, and the smells of food that filled the place pulled hard at her empty stomach.
As the Lins had taken her money purse, there was little she could do about that. So, she steeled herself and hoped for the best as she headed straight for the bar along the wall to her right.
A soot and cobweb encrusted placard reading “The Happy Ox” hung above the bar along with a small mounted box containing the customary shrine to the Seven Lucky Gods. She tossed a silent prayer to them herself as she eased up to the bar and caught the innkeeper’s attention.
He gave a yellow-toothed smile, looking her up and down, and letting his gaze linger on her chest for just a bit too long.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
“I’m trying to find someone from the Mao Family Armed Escort Agency, or someone who knows them. Is there anyone like that around here?”
The innkeeper’s smile faded to almost a frown, then he indicated the stairs at the back with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Go the second floor, blue trimmed door on your right.” He said, and then wandered off to tend to another customer.
Meiyu blinked. She hadn’t hoped, but now she was so close! Her heart leapt as she turned around to head for the stairs.
And, that’s when she saw Dancing Cloud.
The unhappy looking Lin clan fighter was coming around the tables to her right, between her and the stairs. And a quick look showed Dancing Blade was there as well, coming at her from the main entrance to her left.
She was surrounded!
What could she do? She was so close! She just had to find a way to get across the room to the staircase and up to her father’s people on the second floor. If she got there, they could help her fend off these her pursuers- but how?
Then it occurred to her- the people upstairs weren’t her only source of help.
Her eyes darted around the room, and she spotted the person she was looking for. Across the hall was the biggest, toughest looking man in the room- a hairy mountain of muscle clad in animal furs and surrounded by other rough looking fighters. They looked like a bunch of bandits in to spend their ill-gotten gains.
Snatching a half-empty wine flask from the top of the bar, Meiyu wound up and threw it with all her might at the lead bandit’s bald head.
Out of the corner of her eye, Meiyu caught a flash of panic on Dancing Cloud’s face, and the Lin girl started to move to intercept the bottle, but it was much too late. There was a resounding “crack!” as the bottle hit, and then the crash of ceramic shattering as it hit the floor.
In an instant, the whole inn was filled with the sound of chairs flying as a whole table of bandits leapt to their feet, weapons at the ready. They scanned the room, looking about for whoever had just signed their grave marker, and their eyes all fell on Mao Meiyu.
At first, they seemed a bit confused, but then at a barked order from their still cursing, wine-soaked leader they rapidly began to advance at her, throwing tables and people out of the way as they charged across the room like an advancing horde.
Meiyu looked at Dancing Cloud.
Dancing Cloud looked at Meiyu.
“I hate you.” Said the Lin girl’s eyes.
Then she and her brother both leapt to put themselves between Meiyu and the bandits, their jian swords drawn as both took up a side-by-side battle stance.
The appearance of the green and black clad Twin Dancers of the Nine Trees Armed Escort Agency may have caused a hesitation in the bandits, but it was nothing significant. No-one here knew who they were, and all they saw was a pair of finely dressed young adults with swords. Nothing to be concerned about.
As a result, the charge continued, and in seconds the first of the bandits reached the Lin fighters, axe held high and wailing from the top of his lungs. At least, until Dancing Blade’s swordtip carved out most of his throat. He hit the ground in a gurgling mess.
But, even though he was down, the rest of them already had momentum, and so where he fell, five more took his place to surround the pair.
Meiyu watched as the twin combatants, clearly experienced at dealing with situations such as these, fell into a series of practiced moves. At first, one would defend while the other attacked, and then at an unknown signal, they would switch positions without losing a beat. This created an almost unbreachable wall of death that the bandits threw themselves against, and as a result, the second wave went down mere moments after the first bandit had hit the floor.
Meiyu had known the pair were good, but she hadn’t realized how good, and she now knew that this distraction wasn’t going to last much longer. So, leaving them to fight off the remaining bandits, Meiyu dashed around the fight and made an arc right for the back stairs- almost reaching them when something in the back of her head told her to duck.
Instinctively, she dropped and rolled, hearing the whoosh of the hand axe pass over her head and the deep “thunk!” of it burying itself into the wooden pillar beside her.
Spinning around, she saw the bandit leader coming at her, a second larger axe in his grip. Screaming obscenities, he brought the axe down at her head, forcing her to roll out of the way and dive beneath a nearby table in an effort to stay away from him.
On and on he came, flipping the tables as she scrambled this way and that, trying to avoid the axe that just kept coming. In the back of her head, it occurred to her that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all, and she cursed herself for underestimating the potential downside of her strategy.
Spotting a saber lying on the floor nearby, she seriously considered fighting back, but that idea died a quick death when she realized that it wouldn’t be much use against the power of the axe that she was facing. She was out-classed, out-powered, and- as she dove to avoid another attack- quickly running out of places to hide.
Then she saw her opening.
The axe had become stuck in the floor after that last strike, and the bandit leader was having trouble freeing it. In that fraction of a second, she dove past the bandit in a roll and came up on the other side running. With all her effort, she bolted to the stairs and bounded up them three steps at a time.
Behind her, Meiyu could hear the thunderous steps as the bandit leader followed, and as she hit the corner on the stairs she saw him charging up the steps right after her. There was blood on his face and murder in his eyes.
But she was faster, and she continued up the stairs and out into the hall balcony. It was filled with inn girls and their clients leaning over the railing to watch the fight. Seeing the bandit come up behind her, they began to scream and scatter, which suited her fine since she needed the way clear.
Sprinting forward, she searched frantically for the blue trimmed door- finally seeing it just ahead at the end of the corridor. With her chest heaving, she prayed that there would be some of her father’s fighters inside, or at least someone who could help her escape from the giant looming up at her rear.
However, just as she was about to reach the door there was a whistling sound and pain screamed from her back as something hard and heavy struck her. She was thrown forward, slamming into the floor and everything went black for a brief moment as the world became a spinning mess.
As soon as she could even try to think, she was moving again, forcing herself to try and get up. Twisting around, she saw the bandit leader’s oversized hand lift up the heavy axe from where it had struck her and stride forward. He had thrown the blunt end to bring her down, but now the gleaming blade was hanging above her as she scrambled backwards as fast as she could- her body screaming when she slammed against the door.
“You little witch.” He growled. “I’m going to skin you alive.”
“W-wait,” she said, raising hand in feeble defense and yelling as loudly as she could. “If you harm me, you’ll regret it, my father is Crocodile Mao!”
But the giant shook his bloody head, “Don’t know him, but if he wants your skin he can pay me for it.”
The axe went up, preparing for a killing blow.
But, just as it did, Meiyu felt the door behind her open, and she fell onto her back, looking up at the ceiling.
From the room with the blue trimmed door, a man Meiyu had never seen before ducked and stepped into the corridor. A handsome face with sad eyes looked down at her, framed by a flowing mass of long black hair that ran down over the shoulders of red armor. Almost as big as the bandit leader, he was clad in the dress of a military man and carried a halberd.
“Crocodile Mao’s daughter?” He said, looking down at her.
“Y-yes!” She gasped. “Help me!”
He nodded once, and shifted his gaze to the bandit leader. The barbarian had been so shocked by this soldier’s appearance that he’d not only stopped his attack, but stared at the new arrival in wonder.
“Leave her,” said the armored man.
Not quite willing to give up, the bandit leader brought his axe to the ready. “This one owes me. Are you going to pay her debt?”
But, just as he finished those words, his eyes went wide with shock, and he looked down to see the blade of the soldier’s halberd embedded deep in his chest. It had happened so fast he hadn’t even seen the man move, it was like it had just appeared there on its own.
Just as quickly, the halberd was gone, and the bandit leader collapsed to the floor- his huge body a twitching lifeless mass.
Meiyu stared at the dead bandit, shocked by the sudden violence. Even she, who had been right there, hadn’t seen the attack until it was finished.
Who was this soldier?
She had never seen anyone like him before, and certainly would have known if her father employed such an incredibly skilled fighter.
The soldier leaned down, offering his hand to help her up.
Hesitating, Meiyu began to reach out to take it, but then another voice called out.
Both Meiyu and the soldier turned to see the battered pair of Dancing Blade and Dancing Cloud rushing along the corridor at them. It was Dancing Blade who had shouted, and both had their bloodied weapons at the ready.
“She’s ours!” The Lin brother called out as the pair drew close. “Leave her be if you value your life!”
Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at email@example.com and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.
For these three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!
Chapter 17- The Lin Family
“…His daughter’s life for the box.”
Meiyu stared at the scene in shock- her maid, her closest friend, Little Jing was only a thin silver blade away from death. She couldn’t believe that the Lin family could be so ruthless or underhanded as to do something like this. Didn’t they know what this would do their family reputation?
And what was this box she was talking about? What could be so important?
But Meiyu pushed aside such questions as she heard her uncle finally begin to speak below.
“Madam Lin!” Gan gasped. “This is outrageous!”
The prune faced old woman merely looked at him curiously. “Clearly you are unaware of the stakes involved. Nothing is too outrageous in times such as these.”
At this, the assembled Mao family escorts wanted to lunge forward and attack, but Gan held them back with a gesture.
“Madam Lin…” He said, his voice showing the great effort it was taking to remain calm. “Whatever grievances you have with our master, the girl is no part of this. Don’t sully the names of your family or shame your ancestors by engaging in such low acts as kidnapping.”
“She is a member of your clan, that is enough.” Said the elder. “Now, lay down your blades.”
Meiyu watched as her Uncle Gan gave a deep sigh and shrugged. “Fine, if you wish there to be blood, then that’s how it will be.” Then at a whistle from their leader, the nine warriors of the Mao Armed Escort Agency who stood with Gan moved in a flash to surround the old woman and her grandson with their blades.
“Even with your skill, madam.” Gan said in an intimidating voice that Meiyu had never heard before, “You and your grandson will not escape us alive.” Then he looked up menacingly at Dancing Cloud. “The girl will not escape us either, when we are done with you. So I offer you a trade, your lives for those of your hostage.”
It was a standoff. And, Meiyu watched in rapt fascination as each side faced down the other, neither saying a word as a war of wills took place. She knew her uncle was the veteran of over a hundred caravans, and had no doubts had been in this situation many times before. However, she also knew that Madam Lin was long experienced in these manoeuvers of deceit and treachery that often took place within the martial underworld.
Against another opponent, each would likely win, but against such fearsome opposition, who would be victorious was anyone’s guess. Either way, the outcome was likely to be short, fast and brutal if one did not back away from the challenge…
And then it happened.
One of her uncle’s fighters gave a loud groan, and doubled over.
Everyone looked at the man in shock, but then, another man did the same!
Gan gave Madam Lin a sharp look, “We checked the food for poison.”
The crone smiled. “Do you know why my grandchildren are called the Twin Dancers? Because two things which are good when apart can be most deadly when they are brought together.”
“No!” Gan shouted, and lunged at her with his sword, but the poison was already starting to affect him as well, and she easily avoided his clumsy attack. Then she counterattacked with her small hands in a burst of moves that left Gan, and the two nearest Mao men lying crumpled on the floor. Her grandson finished the others with equal speed, not leaving a single member of the Mao escorts standing.
Meiyu then watched as Madam Lin stood over the barely conscious Gan.
“I apologize for the methods, but we cannot have you following us. The poison is not lethal, and you will recover…in a few weeks.”
Then she turned and stabbed a finger at the innkeeper.
The short, chubby man bowed nervously. “Yes, my lady?”
“Their servants, fetch them.”
While the innkeeper sent a boy to do so, Meiyu considered her options. There wasn’t much she was going to be able to do against this old witch, and it sounded like if she kept still these devils would be gone soon. On the other hand, if they left they would take Little Jing, and when they learned she wasn’t Meiyu they would likely kill her.
There had to be a way out of this, and Meiyu struggled to think what it was as she watched Dancing Cloud escort Jing down the stairs to join the others below. What would Little Gou do in a situation like this, she found herself thinking. If only she’d paid more attention to those ridiculous stories he always told while trying to impress her. Perhaps there would have been something there she could use.
But no, she wasn’t Little Gou, she was Mao Meiyu, her father’s daughter.
And she knew what had to be done.
Meiyu waited until the lead servants appeared, and then made her move.
While Madam Lin instructed the servants to take the poisoned men to their master and pass along the message of her hostage, Meiyu got from her seat and walked down the stairs.
Dancing Blade saw her coming, and perhaps concerned she might be fighter or escort he let his hand fall on his sword hilt as he fixed her with his sharp gaze.
“Begone,” he said, watching her approach.
His need to speak caused the others to turn and look at her, and Meiyu saw the shock in Little Jing’s eyes as her friend saw her approach. She could see the pleading look in Jing’s expression, not for help, but for Meiyu to leave her be! But, this attempt at sacrifice only made Meiyu’s determination to carry through even stronger.
“You have the wrong girl,” Meiyu said, pulling off her black cap to let her long hair flow free. “I’m the one you want.”
For the first time in the evening, even Madam Lin looked confused.
“What is this?”
“I’m Mao Meiyu,” she said, standing before them. “That girl is my servant who was taking my place while I ate out here.”
The elder Lin looked her over with care, then had Dancing Cloud bring Jing closer so she could be examined. Finally, the old fighter looked at the servants from the caravan she had summoned.
“Is that one,” she said, pointing at Meiyu. “Your master’s daughter?”
No, the three servants assured her, Jing was in fact their master’s daughter, not this stranger.
Satisfied, the old woman made her decision, and at a nod from her, Jing was released and Dancing Sword grabbed Meiyu’s arm.
“You resemble your mother,” Madam Lin commented. “But, I needed their lies to be sure.”
When Last Brother Shou raised his hand, his two companions brought their horses to a stop. It had been almost a full day and a half since they had stolen these mounts after setting the barge on fire and fleeing from Green Rapids Town. Now, they were searching from inn to inn, looking for any sign or trace of the Mao bridal caravan.
Having stopped for dinner, their questions had borne fruit- some merchants had seen the very caravan they were looking for to the west earlier in the day. They didn’t even stay to finish their meals before they were on their hard-worn mounts again and riding, following directions to the most likely place where such a caravan would spend the night.
Now, just before midnight, they had found the Inn in question.
The three dismounted, and Shou sent Xiao to look in the stable yard.
He came back a few minutes later to indicate that there was indeed a large caravan here, including a bridal palanquin.
They had found the right place, at last.
Forming up with Shou at the lead, the three headed straight for the front gate of the Inn. It was quiet inside, but that wasn’t unusual for this hour. Only a few lanterns were lit, which meant most of the people would probably be asleep.
All the better for them. [Author’s Note: Shou, Xiao and Mah are not the good guys. ]
Pushing open the gate, they walked inside. The main hall of the inn was quiet, as expected, and the only occupants of the many tables were a chubby, balding man and what looked to be two servants sitting and talking over wine. The chubby man, who Shou took to be the innkeeper, jumped up and scurried to greet them.
“Gracious guests,” he said, bowing slightly, “Welcome. Welcome. Do you need a room for the night?”
Shou kept his voice low, glancing about.
“I’m looking for a bridal caravan owned by the Mao family. Are they staying here?”
The innkeeper froze, his smile fading.
“Ahh…Yes…” He finally said, and something about his tone and odd expression made Shou pause.
“Have they not all come?”
The Innkeeper hesitated, and then explained…
The sun had just crested the horizon to the east and the air was still filled with the light mists of morning when the horse Meiyu was riding came to an abrupt stop and jolted her out of the half-sleep fatigue had pushed her into.
Looking up, she saw they were now on the bank of what looked to be a long but extremely straight river. Dancing Cloud was beside her, looking as tired as Meiyu felt, and the elder Lin had gone forward with the girl’s brother to a very small port along the waterway. There, she could see them bargaining with some dark-skinned merchant from the South who was using his hands a lot.
“Where are we?” Meiyu asked, hoping the sister was feeling talkative.
The girl gave her a sharp look for talking, but then her face softened. She was too tired to play the captor. “It’s a canal,” she said in her thick Northern accent. “We’re going to travel by boat to prevent them from finding us.”
Meiyu nodded, but didn’t say anything. Weary as she was, even she knew that wasn’t correct. Maybe to Northerners, who lived in a dryer climate, water and river travel represented a way to lose their pursuers, but here in central China travel on the canals was anything but private. Not only would everyone in this village know the way they had gone, but everyone along the canal who they passed (and there would be many) would also take note of them.
Her father, Crocodile Mao, had earned his nickname because of his fondness for escorting people and goods on the rivers and canals of the central plains. The Empire was built on its ancient canals, and there was always trade passing along these busy networks of waterways. While it was not the majority of his business anymore, many of the tales Meiyu had grown up on were of jobs done on the water.
She knew the tricks of the trade here, but wondered if the Lin family did.
After a time, Madam Lin returned to the horses and ordered the girls to dismount. They untied Meiyu’s hands from the saddle horn, but kept her hands tied together and Dancing Cloud led her along like a horse. The whole group and their horses were escorted to the dock, which at the moment was empty of boats, barges, or anything else resembling transportation.
Dancing Cloud put her on a stone bench and told her to sit quietly, trying the end of the rope to nearby post, and then left Meiyu alone while she walked a short distance away to see to the horses. Not that this gave Meiyu a chance to escape, for Dancing Sword was still near her, seeing to his grandmother’s needs.
It seemed they were going to have to wait for the next barge. This suited Meiyu fine, as it meant she wouldn’t be on a moving animal. After the night before, even the bruises on her backside had bruises, and she enjoyed sitting on something flat and stable. She leaned back against the wall behind her and closed her eyes to enjoy the moment.
She must have dozed, because the next thing she was aware of was Dancing Cloud talking to her and shoving a steamed bun into her hands. As she accepted it, the other girl sat down beside her and began to eat. Meiyu watched as the desperately hungry girl, who wasn’t much older than herself, tried to find a way to eat the still too hot bun by blowing on it and taking small bites. It was all very childlike, and she began to feel that Dancing Cloud was actually a bit immature for her age, despite her stern manner.
Maybe, she thought, under other circumstances she and this girl might have been friends. They really weren’t so different, not at all. Well, except for this girl having the manners of a wolf cub.
Then the Lin girl, perhaps realizing that she was being watched, looked at her crossly and gestured toward Meiyu’s own bun.
Meiyu nodded and began to nibble, then she said. “Can I ask you something?”
The Lin girl looked at her suspiciously, but didn’t say no, so Meiyu continued. “Your grandmother said she wanted to trade me to my father for a box. What kind of box?”
“It is important, that is all I know.” The girl said. “Grandmother says we need it to get justice for my grandfather.”
Meiyu leaned in. “Master Lin was murdered?”
Dancing Cloud gave a sad nod of her head.
“Who did it?”
“We do not know. We sent letters to the council, but they refused to help us. If we have the box, grandmother says they will listen.”
“Wuyun,” Meiyu pleased. “This is wrong. Kidnapping me isn’t going to help bring justice for your grandfather.”
“You are the one who is wrong, child.” Came a voice, and Meiyu turned to look up into the angry eyes of Madam Lin. “The only thing those ***** sons of the council care about is power, so we will take their precious box from them and use it to make them help us. My late husband’s spirit will not rest until the blood of his enemy is poured on his grave.”
A fire burned brightly in the old woman’s eyes, one that Meiyu had seen many times in her short life as a member of the Jianghu martial arts underworld. It was the flame of vengeance, and it made a person sacrifice anyone and anything in order to achieve their bloody dreams. Seeing it in Madam Lin, Meiyu realized at that moment that there would be no reasoning with this woman or her grandchildren.
Talking her way out of this situation would be useless.
She was going to have to find another way.
It was well into the morning when the boat they were waiting for finally came. Manned by thin, bronze skinned men wearing broad-rimmed straw hats, the flat bottomed riverboat coasted up to the dock. Almost as soon as it was tied up, the men were scampering to take down the single white sail and transfer the wide boat’s cargo to the merchant’s men. Busy as ants, the bags of grain and boxes of vegetables they carried were unloaded onto carts that were driven up, and then left once they were full.
Once that was done, the dark-skinned merchant she had seen Madam Lin talk to earlier motioned for them to approach, and Meiyu saw him take Madam Lin’s money. The horses were taken aboard first, carefully tied in the middle of the boat, and then Meiyu and the family boarded and were given seats near the front.
The boatmen eyed Meiyu curiously as she was led aboard, but were smart enough to keep their questions to themselves in light of her armed escorts. She was again placed on a bench with Dancing Cloud as her guard, and after the boatmen loaded some other smaller cargo the ship cast off, heading south along the busy canal.
Meiyu drifted back to sleep for a time, the rocking of the boat soothing her, and was only awakened when she became conscious of the singing. Craning her neck around, she saw it was the boatman at the rudder. He had a strong, hearty voice for so thin a man, and the song was a familiar tune in one of the Southern dialects that Meiyu had heard many times. It wasn’t long before the other boatmen joined in as well, and soon the whole ship was filled with harmony.
Dancing Cloud looked around at them in wonder.
“Do you want to know what they’re singing?” Meiyu asked.
The Northern girl nodded.
“It’s a homecoming song,” Meiyu said, and then began to translate. “A husband has traveled far to make money for his family and braved many storms and bandits. Now he’s coming home, and they’re listing off the things he’s bringing for his wife and children. The chorus is the list of things he’s bringing back for them. ‘A jade for my wife, pure as the sky. A dress for my daughter, to bring a tear to her eye. A peach for my mother, as round as can be. A pole for my son, to be strong like me.'”
Dancing Cloud listened for a time, then said. “The caravan men of the North sing something like that when we travel with them. But, the lyrics are different.”
“There are many different versions of this song too, it changes depending on the singer and what they can come up with. Each singer will take his turn singing the chorus and add his own words to suit his song.”
As they listened, one of the men at the prow sang his version of the chorus, changing it to say what he’d be bringing back for each of his three sons while the others listened and laughed at his bawdy humor.
The verse done, the rest of the crew joined in the Chorus again, and this time Meiyu joined them. Her high soprano rose up to counterpoint their baritones in a way that made everyone sit up and listen.
When it came around to her turn for a verse, her voice raised into a beautiful tremolo, the words woven with imagery steeped in an archaic dialect from her ancestors.
The boatmen hummed quietly to her melody, smiling languidly as if this were a daily occurrence, and carried on with poling the barge. They were happy to have new voice in their old song, and listened with great intent. Despite themselves, the Lin family had to admire this beautiful melody echoing like a flock of songbirds hidden the surrounding trees.
Finally, her verse done, her voice drifted off and the crew once again picked up the rhythmic bass tones of the chorus.
“You sing very well.” Said an appreciative Dancing Cloud and Meiyu nodded her thanks. The Mao girl felt more relaxed now, much of her stress having been drained away by the effort of singing. She couldn’t help but smile that she’d finally put her hated singing coach’s long efforts to use.
The cicadas ringing in the distance, the afternoon wore on.
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